What academics want from Nigeria’s new education minister

When Professor Tahir Mamman, Nigeria’s minister of education, was sworn in alongside 44 other ministers by President Bola Tinubu recently, he swiftly sprang into action, stating how ready he was to deal with the enormous tasks before him.

Mamman proclaimed that his work ethic was like that of a “bricklayer”, whose vision of a building starts with mounting bricks upon bricks until a desired structure is achieved.

“The expectations are huge. It’s a lot for this government. Our president [Tinubu] is committed fully to turning the tide of this country,” Premium Times reported Mamman as saying.

Indeed, the expectations are huge for the 69-year-old minister, more importantly when it comes to Nigeria’s higher education sector, which has experienced misfortunes for years, yet has often been identified as one of the key sectors that can boost the country’s economic development.

Tinubu was declared the winner of the presidential election held on 25 February. He was sworn in on 29 May and appointed his cabinet on 21 August.

‘Three critical challenges’

“As the new minister of education settles down, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities expects him to drive ideas and solutions to address three critical challenges in the higher education or university sector and one in the general education space,” Professor Yakubu Ochefu, the spokesperson for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities (CVCNU), told University World News.

The first expectation, according to Ochefu, is a review of the laws establishing universities. “Sections of these laws need to be reviewed, especially as they relate to the nature, character and essence of ownership structures, the composition of the various governance organs, property rights, intellectual property rights and relationships with professional bodies on the accreditation of programmes,” he said.

Secondly, Ochefu said, the committee expects Mamman to “convoke a multi-stakeholder engagement session for us to rethink the philosophy of university education in 21st-century Nigeria.

“We have a plethora of challenges which cannot be adequately addressed under the current philosophical and operational setting. Beyond the usual ones, such as funding, access and curriculum, we need to address our reward, compensation and incentivisation system; our disciplinary and punishment system; the structure for ensuring that students have excellent campus experiences and that they are job-ready when they graduate, that our alumni associations [are] positioned to support their alma maters and that our campuses are safe and secure,” Ochefu said.

CVCNU’s third expectation from Mamman is to “aggressively drive the quadruple helix framework for engagement with the universities”.

Researchers Abel García-González and María Soledad Ramírez-Montoya – both from the School of Education and Humanities, Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico – explained the quadruple helix framework to be a model that makes it compulsory for higher institutions to align with the type of human capital that society requires. That is, higher institutions must produce people with innovation and entrepreneurial competencies that create social benefits for the community.

“Key to this is how university research can solve the myriad of challenges in contemporary Nigeria. We are not doing well in this regard at all. Also, we must improve the higher education participation rate [12%, as per UNESCO data], which is currently below the African average,” Ochefu stated.

Mamman – who was, until his appointment, the vice-chancellor of Baze University, a private university in the capital, Abuja – said he would leave no stone unturned in achieving the president’s plans for the higher education sector.

What did the president promise to do?

Tinubu’s higher education plans were rolled out in his 80-page campaign manifesto, in which the then-presidential candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress party spoke loftily about how he would reform Nigeria’s tertiary institutions and return the higher education sector to its glory days.

Specifically on page 41 of the manifesto, Tinubu said his government would “rationalise the governance structures, funding, and compensation structures of tertiary institutions”.

Tinubu also promised to inaugurate a student loan scheme to expand access to education while, at the same time, giving institutions the ability to charge higher cost-reflective tuition fees. The president has signed the loan bill into law and its implementation is expected to start in September, according to a report by local newspaper This Day. However, at the time of writing, the implementation has not yet started.

For the near and medium term, the Tinubu government also promised to provide the bulk of funding for tertiary institutions to reduce the tuition cost burden of students.

Since his appointment, Mamman has reiterated fulfilling the president’s higher education plans. At the 2023 Nigeria Annual Education Conference held recently, the education minister reiterated the Tinubu administration would grant full autonomy to universities, including the power to source funding through various means to enable them to meet their financial obligations.

“President Bola Tinubu has publicly declared his commitment to overhaul the education sector as a matter of priority. It is, therefore, important that the federal ministry of education and all stakeholders in the sector work together to see this vision come true. The days of long declarations are over. This time, we must walk the talk,” Punch reported Mamman as saying.

What lecturers want

Indeed, all eyes are on the minister to address persistent challenges confronting Nigeria’s higher education sector.

“One of the changes we would like to see is in terms of infrastructure to aid teaching, especially when it comes to the sciences,” Onuoha Oliver, a political science professor at the University of Lagos, told University World News.

“When our teachers leave Nigeria for other shores, they perform excellently. Some of us have been to other countries and, honestly, our universities can compete globally. But, when we deny lecturers good infrastructure and welfare, the country will get a different result,” Oliver said.

Speaking of welfare, Oliver emphasised that lecturers should be adequately compensated for their work. “When a university teacher does not get enough compensation that will meet their needs, they will spend more time looking at [also working in other areas] to make up [their income].

“And, once attention is divided, things will not work because a university teacher must be fully committed to teaching. For example, there is possibly no professor in Nigeria whose salary every month exceeds 350,000 naira (approximately US$449) – even after decades of teaching. This is not a person you should expect to give their best,” he said.

Oliver also stressed the need for university autonomy, saying the National Universities Commission, the regulatory body for universities, should allow individual universities to develop their programmes.

“Yes, the minister has talked about autonomy, but will this be implemented? Previous governments also talked about it, but we are still on it. One year on, you may discover that we are still talking about university autonomy. It is sad,” Oliver stated.

For his part, Professor Gbenga Adewale of the Institute of Education, University of Ibadan, tasked the new education minister to look at shifting learning in the higher education system to become more practice-oriented. Educators believe that, as opposed to theory-oriented learning, practice-oriented learning requires the student to learn and apply theory in an actual work environment, with the end goal of being a self-sufficient professional.

“The kind of change we want is practice-based learning. In Nigeria, there are many problems that education is supposed to solve. We have the problems of power supply, insecurity, poverty, and so on. Can we have a functioning education system that can solve all these problems?” he asked.

Buttressing his point, Adewale said that, for years, it has always been stressful having to mark students’ exam scripts, particularly if there are hundreds or thousands of them. Now, he has commissioned one of his PhD students to devise a solution to the problem.

He said: “I used to mark scripts for an external exam body and there was no year that I would not fall sick after marking thousands of students’ scripts.

“So, a while ago I thought to myself that technology could solve this issue. And now, one of my PhD students is working on this solution and we are almost close to its conclusion. This is what I mean when I say our educational system should be able to address social issues.”