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 recognize 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.
In a 2000 – 2015 report of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) titled, ‘Dakar Framework of Action’, it was proposed that national governments should commit between 15 to 20 percent of their annual budget to the education sector in order to accelerate progress towards the Education for All (EFA) goals. However, successive administrations have consistently fallen far short of this benchmark. In a World Bank study of budgetary allocation to the education sector of 20 countries Nigeria had the lowest allocation for the year 2012. Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Uganda, Morocco, South Africa and Swaziland constituted the top 6 in respective terms; while Kenya placed 8th behind Mexico. None of the E9 (Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan) or D8 countries (Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey) other than Nigeria, allocates less than 20 percent of its annual budget to education.
The gross underfunding is the organic catalyst of the state of our education sector and it is what has given rise to the different coping strategies that universities are adopting, including the commodification with all its challenges.
Commodification of education: Challenges and prospects
The fundamental challenges of funding confronting institutions of higher education is a global problem. The two key drivers are the pressure for increased enrollments (particularly in countries like Nigeria where high birth rates are coupled with rapidly increasing proportions of youth finishing secondary or high school with legitimate aspirations for tertiary education), and the high and increasing per capita (single student), cost of higher education. At our current rate of growth, it is anticipated by the United Nations that Nigeria will become the third largest country in the world by 2050 with 399 million people.
Critical advantages come with commodification of education; where it is effectively focused. It will improve responsiveness to students, support improvement of infrastructure and services, support entrepreneurship and employment generation while, overall, entrench accountability in the allocation of resources. All of these are premised on the market principle of ‘efficiency’ which mandates that there must be a return on investment. The cultivation of the concept of commodification, however, comes with a number of unintended consequences. One major danger of commodification of education is its focus on pecuniary oriented disciplines which forces a shift from edification and learning in higher arts and humanities and indeed in higher ideals that catalyze society’s transformations and the optimizations of humanity’s limitless creativity. But of related albeit direct concern to me at present is that commodification overlooks the value of intellectual challenge and exploration by reducing knowledge to quantifiable, job-oriented results. Permit me to explain this a bit further: if students are consumers and their education is a product designed to maximize their comparative ranking in the global market, then, they may deliberately or desperately be ‘made up’ or ‘packaged’ as optimally ‘successful’ social and educational products. In this respect, it is of concern that some of the private institutions that are struggling to attract students by lowering the entry point cut-off and possessing the least number of Professors and other teaching staff end up having the highest percentage of first class graduates. As relevant to this issue, Tables 3, 4, 5 and 6 from the NUC’s report on the State of University Education in Nigeria Report provides an analysis of related demographics of Nigeria’s university system in 2017. In one of the private universities, 30 students out of a total of 250 graduating students had a first-class honours degree. While it may be the case that the low number of students enabled much higher student/teacher interaction and enhanced the performance of the students, it could also be that traditional institutional culture and standard pedagogical practices of assessment are being compromised for impression and performance. No matter how inchoate or ephemeral students’ desires are, studies have shown that a consumer-centred education is likely to pander to such desires in a manner equating to value-for-money phenomenon. This position becomes more compelling in the face of regular adverts that are now being placed by a number of institutions to meet the challenge of low enrollment. The argument here is not that every time business principles and academic principles clash, the latter is always subordinated to the former. Rather, it is the case that we must be wary of grand simplicities that are reflected in articulations which push for increase in school fees to fund delivery of quality educational services.
A third problem is that commodification of education can reinforce societal inequality by denying access to low income and other vulnerable groups. A focus on tuition fees tell a very incomplete story about affordability of university education. Other costs to students pursuing university education are housing and food, books and supplies, transportation and other basic living costs. To be clear, the real costs of living poses a significant hurdle to many students and their families. When this is considered alongside income levels for the majority of families and individuals, making sense of the options available becomes a lot more complex.
A fourth challenge for commodification is that in the face of the high-level of public corruption and profligacy that are common to our society and first nature to our political elites, it will be difficult If not impossible to convince the public, especially the poor majority that a low regime of student/parent contribution is neither affordable by the state nor sustainable. This further reinforces the views of those who are of Marxist persuasion, and the overall historic root of resistance to tuition which catalyzes student union activism on the ground that education is a public good and a tool for justice, equity and egalitarianism.
To be continued on Sunday.
Prof. Fagbohun, Vice Chancellor, Lagos State University. Being a text of the sixth Professor Adetokunbo Babatunde Sofoluwe memorial lecture delivered at University of Lagos, Akoka, Yaba.