Nigerian education needs a skills revolution to escape its colonial roots, says SouthBridge’s Alli

By David Whitehouse

Posted on Thursday, 7 October 2021 16:51
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari is awarded a doctorate at Kaduna State University in Kaduna, Nigeria December 12, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Nigeria’s schools and universities need to break with their colonial origins and focus on the skills that the country needs in the 21st century, Andrew Alli, CEO of African investment bank SouthBridge, tells The Africa Report.

Education in Nigeria needs to be “updated and made fit for purpose,” Alli says. The roots of Nigeria’s education system lie in 19th-century industrial Britain, where the aim was to produce workers for factories and provide a kindergarten for parents who were already working in them, he argues.

Greater emphasis needs to be put on technical skills, such as electrician training and computer literacy, as opposed to academic subjects, Alli says. Foreign engineers, he argues, can be used for infrastructure projects, but their effectiveness is reduced if there are not enough electricians.

Nigeria accounts for more than one in five out-of-school children anywhere in the world, according to UNICEF. President Muhammadu Buhari has said the government will increase budget spending on education by up to 100% by 2025.  A clear priority should be to extend education as well as changing its content and delivery, Alli says.

  • Between 13 million and 15 million Nigerian children remain outside the system, he says.
  • Expanding access has to be the overall priority. “Nineteenth-century education is better than no education,” he says.
  • More spending is needed on education across the board, but there are steps that can be taken that would not have a big impact on the budget.
  • Existing funding needs to be spent more productively, with digital platforms being one way that access can be increased.
  • The ratio between civil servants and teachers needs to be “rebalanced,” Alli argues.
  • Vocational education could be used to give people who did not do well at school the chance to realise their potential.
  • Alli points to the example of Nigeria’s newest unicorn Andela, which matches global companies with qualified software engineers, as the kind of venture that can close the gap between education and the world of work.

Colonial roots

Nigeria’s education system has its roots in the experience of British colonialism. The commission on higher education set up by the Nigerian government in 1959 was led by Eric Ashby, a British academic who argued that the history of Oxford and Cambridge universities proved that a sound foundation of secondary schools was not needed to produce successful higher education.

The superior universities, Ashby believed, were capable of succeeding all by themselves. In his book African Universities & Western Tradition published in 1964, Ashby regretted the tendency of British politicians in the 1950s to worry that secondary education was a more important priority than university expansion.

That view was outdated even in British terms, and in colonies such in Nigeria, it led to education being used to define elites rather than address the needs of the population. Education in Nigeria, Alli says, has not changed much since the 1970s and 1980s, when he was at school there. He studied in the UK as well as in Nigeria and remembers his surprise in a British classroom when a student told the teacher that they disagreed with a point the teacher had made.

“I nearly fell off my chair,” he says. A student who had done that in Nigeria, he adds, “wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale”. Alli was even more surprised when the teacher was not upset, accepted the disagreement and simply explained the point again. “Our education system is based on rote learning,” rather than critical thinking, which has become a “much more vital skill” in the decades since.

Alli says that Africa needs to create 15m new jobs per year simply to absorb new entrants into the labour market. It’s “not insurmountable”, but to have a chance of doing it, education has to be “relevant for the 21st century”.

Bottom line

A greater focus on technical skills would equip Nigerians better for the future without breaking the budget, argues SouthBridge CEO Alli.

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