The concept of commodification of education is a response to a market-infused approach to education. In such context, knowledge is treated as a commodity whose value is measured by comparing the cost of acquiring a degree with the financial earnings that the degree ultimately attracts. It is a process whereof education and its acquisition takes on the metaphor of buying and selling of goods and services for commercial interchange. One of the lead stories of the Sunday PUNCH newspaper of April 29, 2018 read, “Public varsities’ fee hike threatens dreams of indigent students.” It is common knowledge that academic activities have been disrupted at different times in many universities on account of increase in school fees to meet shortfall in government funding.
What then is the relevance of The PUNCH lead story to the issue of commodification of education? If the higher education system is to achieve its goals of contributing to national development, universities have to be adequately funded. Regrettably, as at today, the opposite is true. To put it bluntly, even if mildly, our universities are underperforming in their contribution to national development for reason of inadequate funding among others.
There is a crisis of underfunding that seriously threatens the provision of quality education in Nigeria. This is an issue that affects people’s lives with so much urgency. In order to mitigate the challenge, universities resorting to increasing students’ fees.Antagonists of increase in student fees have christened this as “Education for Sale” while the protagonists stridently argue that increases in tuition fees are a direct result of the fact that subsidy allocation to universities has been in decline with serious consequence on long term optimal operation. Not many will argue that higher education is currently at a cross-road in Nigeria.
If we recognize universities as the nerve centre of a country’s national development (especially in the areas of knowledge production and innovation, human capacity development and indirect generation of employment), then, the fundamental question is what should be the division of responsibilities for the funding of university education between society as a whole (as represented by tax payers) and the individual students who enroll and their sponsors as may be applicable? In this regard, it is important to recognize that tertiary education has over the years been progressively commodified. The three broad sources of funding for public universities have for long been government grant or subsidy, student/parent contribution (tuition fees or allied non-instructional fees) and income derived by the institution from commercial or quasi-commercial ventures or services, investments, donations and endowments.
Ideally, there should be four broad sources, the missing one here is internal and external research funds. This form of funding is hardly a factor in Nigerian universities for reasons that warrant another platform and another day .What the above immediately brings to the fore is that it begs the question to argue that increasing fees will curb carefree attitude of students if they are involved in purchasing a stake in their education. They are already involved. The percentage of cost-sharing therefore is what is at issue. How are we to resolve this if we are to guarantee access for all (rich and poor) to quality education? What chance does Nigeria have of being a critical participant in the emerging global knowledge economy via the instrumentality of its tertiary educational resources?
State of our universities: The balance sheet
At the 1992 Convocation Lecture of this great university titled “The Crisis in the Temple,” the erudite, and highly respected, rare breed scholar, Dr. Pius Okigbo lamented the desecration and destruction of university values. The university as a ‘temple or hallowed space’ as rightly noted by him is supposed to be a venerated institution akin to a monastery, seminary or madrassah; hallowed spaces commissioned to produce the beacons of hope, sound leadership and development but whose value and importance, have increasingly eroded due to years of both military and civilian misrule of the Nigerian state. It has been 26 years, since the Dr. Okigbo declaration, but, has the story changed? Not much in my view. Our educational sector, particularly the tertiary layer is now more prominent for the wrong reasons, rather than for its contribution to national development.
Rather than being the bastion of hope in a maddening state of chaos, it is rapidly shedding its ideals and with alarming readiness imbibing the obnoxious aspects of our rules of social engagement. I mean, rather than offer a model of decency, as a “learned commune” our universities are increasingly becoming mirrors, even transmitters of all that is socially and morally reprehensible in our society. Rather than be a buffer, our universities are serving as magnets for unwholesome social tendencies.
The nexus in the above paradox with the issue of commodification of education is not far-fetched. In a 2017 report of the National Universities Commission (NUC) titled, ‘The State of University Education in Nigeria,’ it was reported that the Nigerian university system had a relatively impressive outing in the core mandates of teaching, research and community service. Better performance would however have been recorded if a number of obstacles did not impede progress. The top three challenges reported by all universities when data were pooled are: funding (89%), infrastructural deficit (81%), staff shortage (71%) and poor reading culture (71%). The other challenges are as detailed in the bar chart below.
As things currently stand, our tertiary institutions are not likely to midwife, the socio-political, economic and technological transformation so badly required after over five decades of independence and self-governance, unless the sector is appropriately funded. Neither the knowledge-driven transformations of East and Southeast Asia, nor the historic development of states like Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong etc.; not excluding Latin American Newly Industrialised Countries (NICs) such as Brazil and Argentina are not imminent upon us. This is so despite the exponential growth in the number of tertiary institutions (161 universities) established by the Federal and State governments as well as by missionary and other private entities.
Despite the unfair nature of the global matrix for measuring innovation in relation to Africa, by any measure Nigerian universities are not associated with the generation of even marginal degree of intellectual property asserts such as patents and or high value copyright and other reckonable intellectual capitals. This dismal record speaks to the quality of our tertiary institutions and accounts for their permanent occupancy of the basement level of global high rise of ratings of universities. As a system and service provider, our tertiary education is often not aligned to meet our domestic challenges or imperatives, including the needs of industry, labour and the private sector.
Foreign experts are still imported to provide consultancies on subjects our institutions have several decades old departments and faculties. This is an indication of not just the problem of a misaligned curricula but it is symptomatic of more fundamental dislocations. I will argue that the rot in our tertiary education is largely a result of the failure to recognise education as a national priority, as a tool of socio-economic development and as a veritable weapon for social engineering. Education is a mega sector with cross-cutting and trans-sectoral utility. Tertiary education must not only be allowed to flourish unfettered and unhindered, it must also be provided with the resources, infrastructure and facilities it urgently requires to fulfil its mandate in the 21st century. It is a social investment that is measured by timeless, open-ended and incalculable externalities.
To be continued…
Prof. Fagbuhun, Vice Chancellor, Lagos State University, being a text of the sixth professor Adetokunbo Babatunde Sofoluwe memorial lecture delivered at the University of Lagos, Akoka, Yaba, Lagos