Tuition fee hike leaves students struggling to stay in school

The exorbitant increase in tuition fees at public universities in Nigeria, which comes in the wake of the eight month-long strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) that ended early this year, has left many students facing the possibility of having to abandon their studies.

Universities have blamed the hike of between 100% and 200% on poor financial support by the government and rising inflation, University World News reported in January 2023. While efforts to implement scholarships for poor students continue, many students are uncertain about their future.

In 2019 in Oyo State, Agbaje Folohunsho, intent on getting a degree, embarked on an arduous journey, travelling 1,392km from the sun-drenched embrace of his humble home town in the south-west to the hallowed grounds of the University of Maiduguri in the north-east.

Folohunsho, a political science student, is in his third year at the university. Born into a humble lineage, he managed for two years to fit his studies around efforts to secure funds for tuition, transport and sustenance.

Unsettling news

While scraping together the NGN18,000 (about US$24) tuition fee to pay for his upcoming third year, plus a new mobile phone to replace the one that was stolen, he received an unsettling message from a friend: tuition fees had skyrocketed, increasing by a staggering 200%. He now needed NGN75,000 to continue his education.

“When I learned about the school fees increment, I felt a profound sense of disappointment. The news came as a shock,” he said.

However, despite lacking sufficient funds for daily necessities, Folohunsho decided to resume classes. It was a challenging situation. “I do not have enough money for food or transport, and the funds I managed to accumulate from my various endeavours are simply inadequate to cover the higher tuition fees.

“However, my father insisted that I continue my education, even though he has no means to provide the tuition fee for me. Now, with the first-semester examination just a week away, I am unable to pay the tuition fee. This means I will be forced to withdraw from the university.”

Dropping out in his third year, so close to graduation, would cast a lifelong shadow of sadness over his existence, he said.

Folohunsho and Samuel Ray, a third-year student at the prestigious University of Abuja, share a similar plight. Like the University of Maiduguri, Ray’s institution also increased tuition fees by 200%, leaving his financially burdened family unable to cope.

“The fee hike has affected most of my classmates. A staggering 80% of students haven’t returned,” said Ray, a history education student, his voice trembling with sadness.

Ray’s third-year tuition fee was initially set at NGN49,500 (about US$66) but has now soared to NGN108,500 (about US$144). “It took over a month to gather the NGN49,500 I paid in my second year. It is a frustrating ordeal and, with no hope in sight, dropping out of school seems inevitable,” Ray said.

Unresolved issues

Despite several months of negotiations between the ASUU and the federal government in previous years, an agreement has not been reached on various issues, including the inadequate funding of public universities. As a result, some institutions say they have no choice but to raise tuition fees in 2023.

In addition to inadequate government funding, universities have justified the fee hikes by pointing to the country’s increasing inflation rate. In November 2022, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reported that inflation had risen to 21.47%, the highest in 17 years.

Soaring inflation and high unemployment rates have combined to increase poverty levels. According to the NBS, in November 2022, more than half of Nigeria’s population of approximately 133 million people live in multidimensional poverty, and many of them are enrolled in the country’s 43 public universities.

Hassan Soweto, the national coordinator of the Education Rights Campaign, expressed concern regarding the recent tuition fee hike forcing many underprivileged students to abandon their education.

In a statement, he emphasised the urgent need for the government to allocate more resources to public education funding. However, he voiced his scepticism about the commitment of Nigeria’s new President, Bola Tinubu, toward this crucial issue.

Student loan scheme

Moreover, Soweto criticised the student loan scheme Tinubu recently signed into law, stating that it would fail to alleviate the challenges poor students face. Soweto argued that implementing such a loan scheme would subject the recipients to a life of indebtedness, misery, depression and even suicide.

He highlighted the shortcomings of similar programmes in more advanced capitalist economies and pointed out the specific difficulties graduates in Nigeria face where many are forced into low-paying casual labour.

“This is not the kind of future we should give to our children. Nigeria is too rich, too endowed. The country can afford to make public education free at all levels,” he said.

Soweto identified greed and capitalism as the primary obstacles preventing the realisation of free education and said a socialist alternative was needed.

Deborah Joseph, a third-year student at the University of Abuja, is also considering the possibility of having to abandon her studies due to the fee hike.

“Paying my school fees has always been a struggle for my parents, but the recent fee hike has hit us hard. If my dad, who is a politician, does not secure a political appointment, he is left without any job or source of income in our household.”

Determined to persevere, Joseph emphasised the importance of taking her classes more seriously than ever before. “I know how difficult it is to gather funds for my school fees, and I want to continue because I only have one more year to complete my education. Dropping out is not an option for me.”

Joseph said she attempted to start a business in her first year to generate income, but a lack of financial resources forced her to abandon the endeavour. Eventually, she had to rely on the generosity of others to cover half her school fees.

Another student, Muraji Abdulmujeeb from the department of general agriculture at the University of Maiduguri, said his father, a businessman, used to pay his tuition fees. However, upon learning about the increase, his father felt distressed, and Abdulmujeeb has been trying to help him to secure the funds.

“The school fee increment may force me to drop out, but my dad is still fighting to find a way, and he does not want me to give up.”

Abdulmujeeb said he has managed to pay 80% of the increased fee, which rose from NGN35,000 to NGN85,000 for the upcoming academic season. He hopes to settle the remaining balance by the second semester.

Fee reassessment

Dr Habib Yakoob, the acting director of information and university relations at the University of Abuja, said the conclusion of the eight month-long strike at Nigerian universities meant that “it became evident that many institutions would need to reassess their fees”.

The University of Abuja was not exempt from this situation. Yakoob said rising costs of maintaining facilities such as electricity, laboratory services, accommodation, health services, potable water, infrastructure, and other essential amenities, had become increasingly burdensome. Coupled with the soaring inflation rates and significantly reduced government subvention to the university, a review of fees became inevitable.

Regarding the concerns of students who may be forced to drop out due to financial constraints, Yakoob said that the university management was actively working on implementing a scholarship programme for indigent students. He expressed hope that once the scholarship initiative is fully operational, students would greatly benefit from it.