Reports that Nigerians are questioning the continual application of the quota system in the admission of candidates into universities are for good reasons.
A federal policy of nearly three decades intended to redress the imbalance of sorts in the higher education sub-sector has been abused as an interventionist measure, so much that it has assumed a way of life and, for the beneficiary states, even a means to extract undeserved advantage.
Former university administrator, Prof. Ayodeji Olukoju is right to say that ‘‘the affirmative action, which the quota policy really is has been abused by its beneficiaries who have worn it being educationally disadvantaged as a badge of honour.’’ But this should not be so.
Quota and other affirmative measures can indeed be implemented without nepotism and the glaring sacrifice of merit. There is enough evidence that, in an open and fair contest, there is no part of Nigeria that if called upon, cannot present brilliant and capable persons for admission, employment, or any other openings. Indeed, as Vice President Yemi Osinbajo remarked at an online discussion to mark Nigeria at 60, ‘‘Federal character is essentially affirmative to create a balance…it should be based on merit such that if we are to reserve an office for a particular zone, that zone should be able to produce the best candidate.’’
Affirmative action is, in a pluralistic society, desirable and reasonable to ensure fair access to opportunities such as education and employment. It is for the purpose of inclusiveness so that no one is left behind. The extant constitution speaks to this important matter in various provisions. Section 15 (4) promises that ‘‘The State shall foster a feeling and of involvement among the various peoples of the Federation, to the end that loyalty to the nation shall override sectional loyalties.’’ The Federal Character Commission is a constitutional creation to this end.
Specifically, on education, Section 18 (1) says that the ‘‘Government shall direct its policy towards ensuring that there are equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels.’’ Similarly, the National Policy on Education (2013) commits the government to equity in citizens’ access to education. Sections 1(6)(c) has the ‘goal’ of ‘‘provision of equal access to quality educational opportunities…’’ and 7(a) promises to ‘‘ensure and sustain unfettered access and equity to education for the total development of the individual.’’ Whereas all forms of affirmative action serve to achieve these lofty goals, the point cannot be made too strongly: it is an interventionist step to enable the disadvantaged catch-up, more or less; it is not a permanent measure forever.
Affirmative action, quota system, equal opportunity are useful policy measures that, if applied transparently and with a pure motive, serve many positive ends including a sense of belonging and national unity. If abused, especially in respect of sacrificing merit for mediocrity, it discourages, even punishes, hard work and rewards laziness. Furthermore, in youth, the abuse of an otherwise well-meaning policy engenders ill-feeling, erodes the patriotic instinct of its victims. These have a negative effect on national cohesion. The admission scores for the Unity Schools is an embarrassing example of a quota system most abused.
A state may be classified as educationally disadvantaged for such reasons as a deficit in education infrastructure (buildings, funding, competent teaching personnel and tools), cultural values at variance with the curriculum, citizens’ attitude to a particular type of education, non-affordability of the cost of education, low level of literacy and numeracy. These conditions engender poverty of the mind that drive poverty of creativity and resources and, in turn, create a self-perpetuating cycle of the not only educational but economically disadvantaged citizenry.
The so-called educationally disadvantaged states should be ashamed that nearly 30 years of affirmative action has failed to deliver them out of this unenviable classification. Something is obviously wrong. Indeed, to comfortably remain a perpetual beneficiary of discriminatory advantage demeans achievement. It is difficult to respect a degree that is awarded not for competence but for whatever other reasons. Certainly not at the demanding stage of global competitiveness.
In a federation of states, it even defies common sense to centralise admission into higher institutions. And it must be said that there was a better way that things were done in the not too distant past. Retired university don Felix Oragwu wrote recently that from 1960 to 1965 when Nigeria operated a genuine federation of regions and had five universities, ‘‘each of the institutions determined its own admission requirement which conformed to international standards.’’
The question must inevitably be asked: what value do the successive administrations place on education as an instrumentality of development? Professor Tanko Adamu of Bayero University is reported to lament that successive administrations in his northern part of the country have failed to accord education the priority it deserves. And he notes, most perspicaciously that to raise the level of education, ‘‘the fundamental work is actually at the basic education level.’’ He is right. But, most disappointingly, the governors focus on building universities.
The UNESCO recommends that governments allocate at least 15 per cent of their budgets to the education sector. It is pertinent to ask what percentage of the state budgets are allocated to education and how judicious is the application of the allocation? It is not enough to announce in any budget year, billions of naira to the critical education sector; how much of the allocation actually gets to the target recipients, and to what productive purpose is money expended? These states need to think deeply and design a strategy with a timeline, to exit in the shortest time possible, this not-so-respectable group of the ‘‘educationally disadvantaged.’’