Speech: We need adaptive leaders who can change the world, and the only way to produce them is through education – Oby Ezekwesili

Oby Ezekwesili’s Education speech at launch of educational microfinance bank

We need adaptive leaders who can change the world, and the only way to produce them is through education. Education not of the ordinary type, not of the “anyhow” type; education that focuses on two major pillars: Relevance and Quality. Relevance and Quality are so important for the transformation of nations.

Folashade said education “used to be” the way you bucked poverty but that’s not true Folashade. It still is. In societies that understand it, it still is. There is nowhere in the world that empirical evidence does not show us how education is correlated to climbing out of poverty. The truth is if you want to improve the economic and social mobility of your people, you do it through education.

Second is that we have known the things that work most in education and you heard the panelists say some of them. A major issue is teacher quality which we are still grappling with because as soon as education collapsed in our country what do you think happened? The lowliest of the barrel became the ones that self-selected to go into teaching. Why should that be so? And the ones who are still top teachers are being held down by failing systems. Should we allow that to continue? No. No society properly so called, races to the bottom.

We must constantly be a society on a race to the top. Now, what is it that EdFin coming into this space helps us to achieve? It helps us to achieve the transition that many countries have been grappling with, which is that there is a cost for education. No matter how you wish it away, there is a cost for education.

Now what normally happens in the economics of education is an understanding that the most important foundational level of education is early childcare, which we know is absolutely important. At the World Bank, we found from studies, that children who have early childcare education; what we call nursery, kindergarten, end up giving a twenty-year gap in income to those who did not get it. Do you see that? So it gives the children such a head start in life that is way out of the ordinary. And often, it is the middle class that is able to offer early childcare education to their children.

Now the ones who need such a head start, even more, are the children in the poorer segment of society. But unfortunately, we do not have publicly funded systems of early childcare. But interestingly, there have been innovations in that space with a shared approach where community and government partnerships have enabled some levels of early childcare solutions that address the needs of the poorer segment of the society. It is an indication that through social enterprise we can solve that particular problem of many children left out of early childcare education.

Now early childcare education, primary education, as in basic education, secondary education, these are so important and tied to the matter of inclusion in the society and every society must work towards inclusion and equality of opportunity for the people of that country.

If we are going to achieve equality of opportunity therefore, the cost for education as far as it concerns early childcare, basic education, secondary education; the primary funder remains government. And that’s the pitch that Folashade was making. We cannot, simply because we believe in the markets, say that education will be financed by the private sector.

Not even the United States wastes its time — it is the bastion of markets — but it doesn’t think in that way, so we need to understand that. However, in the provision of basic and secondary education, there is a place for the market. That place for the market needs to be better regulated and opportunity needs to be available for families that choose to pay for the services of that segment because there is a segment. And so what you are doing is going to be not just financing that segment of the market, it is also going to be about being the champion of the conversation around how to regulate that segment of the market and ensure that the quality in terms of the pricing and outcomes are really up to global standards. And there is no reason why we shouldn’t aim towards that.

My fourth point is that tertiary education is closest to the market than any other level of education. It is closest to the market simply because when you get a tertiary education, you’re already preparing yourself for the market. With a basic and secondary education, society gains more from the level of knowledge you have acquired. And so paying for it by society is not at all a bad idea. When it gets to tertiary education, the person who is acquiring that tertiary education is the one who is going to get extra benefit from that kind of education.

Therefore, there is a matter of how do you share the cost of getting a tertiary education? Unfortunately, our own society did not come to the understanding that even that kind of financing for education does not have to be a problem. It cannot be that because people are unable to find money, they can’t go to university, it doesn’t happen. We must have a solution in order that the pricing of education does not get taken down to the level where it cannot sustain quality because that’s what is going on now.

We are taking down tertiary education to a level where a person is comfortable to pay almost N500, 000 for their children in a top secondary school, but once the children go into the university, their parents are ready to join them to go to the roads and protest about the pricing of university education. In the process of doing that, you are compromising quality, you are compromising relevance.

So what is it that you do in order to realign the situation? What you do is to ensure that those who have the capacity to pay, pay the right price for tertiary education. Those without the capacity to pay, EdFin and a subsidy from the government that is well designed will come together to ensure that they are not left out of education. So that way you ensure that everyone gets the opportunity of quality, not just education, quality education.

My final point is that we are no longer just talking brick and mortar education in the world. I’m sorry guys, you know some of you that are establishing schools to teach children, it would be a shame if you’re teaching children who enter the warehouse and don’t come out of it because those that you train, children that go through your school system are like a product.

When a product is produced, what does it do? It goes to the market. If the product is produced and it stays in the warehouse for a long time, what would happen? It will expire. Pass-by-date will come, so that’s not what you want to do. Today’s world is a world where people will easily give you the assessment of your school, so your sustainability strategy has to be to get your school to catch up with the kind of skills and knowledge that the world is looking for today.

Do you know that no matter what age category your school caters for, the people that they are competing with are not their fellow children and youths in Nigeria? They are not even their fellow children and youths in West Africa. They are not in Africa, no, or in the developing world, no. They are competing with the rest of the world. So it’s a global level competition. So the content of what you teach, the quality of what you teach must reflect that because ultimately those products of your school hold the key to the sustainability of your school.

One of the key things that we’re seeing now is that the virtual economy is completely taken off. The virtual economy, the economy of the web, of the internet. Do you know there are many Nigerian children who are living in this country, their work is somewhere in the atmosphere, in the clouds? They are part of project teams, based on the kind of education they have acquired. They are part of global project teams earning the really big money, but sitting somewhere in Lagos or even in Akure or Nnewi. You’ve got to realign the content of education because these children are not going to be doing all these third-rate education. No, they’ve moved on and the thing is to align public policy to where it is going.

Now I remember the great support that DFID gave to my team when we were in government. DFID made it possible for me to have the best quality of people that sat with me in order to design the kind of education reforms that we did. And what I love is the staying power because it is easy for development partners to quickly find a new fad that they run after but the way you have persisted in supporting education is wonderful. What we have as our education management information system that really took off when I was Minister of Education in order to anchor everything that we do on Data came as a result of the partnership between our ministry and yourselves.

So I do want you to take that back with you that the support concerning education has to be in ways that we can achieve scale. We need to achieve scale especially by ensuring that those who demand education, the people who demand quality education and relevant education are not sleeping, hoping that some messiah will come. The parents, the teachers, the people interested in issues of education, you constitute the largest constituency of people in this country. Should you act and work together, education will change.

We need to build a massive constituency for education reforms. Our country is in trouble and it is because education is in crisis! I don’t feel glad that a decade plus ago, I told the nation that if we did not address the crisis in education, that in a matter of years, in fact, my prognosis at that time was by the year 2020, that we would produce the most hardened criminals. That’s what it said, it was a public presentation, so I’m not saying something that was done privately. It’s unfortunate there are people who call me up and say, “you said 2020, it happened earlier than that”.

We cannot sleep on education and those of you that are seated here, don’t swallow your voice. Your voices are important for demanding better performance of the education system. People think that it is only about throwing money to the problem. As Minister of Education, I told the nation that the problem in education is not about funding. If you fund a dysfunction well, you will get a well-funded dysfunction. We must correct the structural issues, then we get a system. When you get a good system and you put money into that system, what you get is spectacular learning outcomes.

I thank you, Bunmi and your colleagues for the opportunity of being here and discussing education with all of you. We must remember that we owe our children a better quality of life than we currently can give them and the way to ensure that is to ensure that no child is left behind in our country, no child. Every child must get the opportunity to be the best that they can be.

Our innovators are in the poorer regions of this country but we haven’t given them that kind of attention that they should get. It behooves you and me to be outside of ourselves. What does it profit a man or woman to get the whole world and then lose their souls? We’re losing our souls every day in this country when we watch children who simply because of their poor circumstances don’t get the benefit of an opportunity.

Let’s stop the nonsense and let’s get going as a people to make sure that the poorest segment of our society can quickly get the opportunity to be the best that they can be, thank you very much.

Ezekwesili delivered this speech at the launch of EdFin, Nigeria’s first educational microfinance bank.


  1. A country ruled by warlords masquerading as democrats, whose professor vp would rather feed people’s children with “white maggi” to return them to classes instead of paying the fees they lack, and the people so lack any sense of direction; education may need proper definition.
    Those who have walked the path are carelessly overlooked in job allocation for stack or functional illiterates as well as foreigners, who would want to walk it again for the fun of it?
    Education, indeed, may need a redefinition.


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