Urgent call to Nigerian professors to save public school system – By Prof B. Chima Onuoha

To attain the zenith of any noble profession in our clime is a herculean task or journey. The National Universities Commission (NUC) has established criteria for the various academic ranks in the university system. At least, the qualification to be just a lecturer II is a doctorate. It is from the NUC’s guidelines, that the various universities in Nigeria set their own criteria for advancement, but not below the benchmark. It is on record that some universities have more stringent conditions. The maxim of “publish or perish’ is associated with the university system.I have spent all my working life in the university system, and also a veteran external assessor for lecturers seeking promotion to the professorial cadre in many universities.

From my experiences, spanning many years across federal, state and private universities as external assessor, after the PhD, it takes a lecturer between 12 to 20 years to attain that exalted rank, depending on one’s work ethic, productivity, and investments in the career.


On investment in one’s career, I can authoritatively state that in public universities, lecturers wholly sponsor their career advancements. They spend greater part of their resources (which are meagre, in any case) on attending conferences, and publishing their articles and books. They also sponsor their professional certifications and growth. This is largely because of the poor funding of education in Nigeria.

The corporate world in the country has done little or nothing in financing research efforts. The universities themselves have done very little to engage the private sector by identifying its peculiar needs or challenges and providing solutions to them. In fact, “the gown has refused to go to town”.

Again, the universities have also refused to engage other relevant stakeholders, to enable them have large endowments. Let me quickly add, the gown going to town and having sustainable endowment funds are not the thrust of this article. They had been addressed in my article, _“Nigerian University System and Endowments”._

To reach the peak of one’s career in the academia is very desirable and a life-goal. But on getting there, if one is not fully committed, patient and resilient, he or she gets frustrated by government, her policies, agencies and officials.

What does one get as a Professor, after all these years’ investments and sacrifices? A paltry N416,000 take home every month (at bar), though people out there do not believe it. Nobody can tell what Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) deducts every month from lecturer’s salaries. With all its identified short-comings, including corrupt practices and government losing billions of Naira in the process (see 2019/2020 audit report of the Auditor General of the Federation) IPPIS is imposed on the system because of the pecuniary interest of few individuals.

Why will government be making serious efforts and spending scare resources to discredit Universities Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS) an indigenous technological break-through that will effectively address the peculiarity of the university system? With such warped mindset, how can we address our technological backwardness? If a Professor is that pauperized and demotivated, then one could imagine what the younger colleagues are going through. The very bright ones are leaving the system in droves. Consequently, the system and the nation suffer.

It is no longer news that:

1. Governments at all levels have no interest in education. In fact, military incursion in governance destroyed the fabric of education in Nigeria. Unfortunately, successive governments followed suit.

2. Federal government has no intention of honouring agreements she willingly entered into, particularly with unions in the education sector.

3. Top government officials have been misinforming Nigerians on the state of education and agreements via cheap propaganda. And in the process telling lies brazenly.

4. Majority of top government officials send their children and wards to private schools, particularly abroad, hence their lip service to education.

5. Students, parents and other strategic stakeholders have refused to engage government decisively on the career and destiny of the youths.

6. The key presidential hopefuls for the 2023 elections (in the big political parties) have no blueprint on education.

7. Top government officials, visible politicians, including majority of the presidential hopefuls want public school system to collapse completely. In the 1970s and early 1980s, there were few private schools. They were mostly commercial schools, where children of poor parentage wishing to take London Royal Society of Arts (RSA) examinations (stages 1, 2, & 3), now replaced by The National Business and Technical Examinations Board (NABTEB), attended.

Presently, private schools – primary, secondary and tertiary – are about taking over the entire education landscape. For example, in the small community where I live in Port Harcourt, there are over twenty private primary schools and five private secondary schools. There is only one public primary school and no public secondary school. This scenario is almost the same or more intensified in many other places in the country.

Like the privatisation programme which took place some years ago in Nigeria, politicians and their cronies/lackeys want to buy huge assets in public schools – our patrimony, for peanuts. This will enable them to own private schools, and turn around to charge commercial rates as school fees. Illiteracy will continue to rise instead of going down and the development of the nation retarded.

As a former ASUU leader for many years, at Abia State University, fellow comrades, colleagues and I (across all universities in Nigeria) suffered many hardships at the hands of governments. We also got victimised by anti-ASUU or pro-government university administrations. Few examples will suffice. In the 1990s, our salaries were stopped for close to one year; severally for few months in between other years; and for 9 months in 2020.

Lecturers have been on strike for over 6 weeks now and public universities will remain closed for more weeks and months ahead. Other non-teaching unions namely: National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT); Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU); Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU); have also joined the strike. Public universities are currently ghost-towns. And nothing seems to worry Nigerians and the present government. Politicians are more interested in conventions, forth coming primaries and elections. Government officials negotiating with striking unions or workers are busy declaring to contest one position or the other.

Government is more or less at a standstill. Insecurity is pervasive. Poverty is glaring. We are now living in Hobbesian jungle where life is “nasty, brutish and short”. What wrong have Nigerians done to politicians and top government officials? This is satanic!

Last week, I told a colleague that I have suffered enough for the university system with nothing concrete to show for it. That after the two month roll-over strike, that if government did not do anything to address the challenges as enunciated by ASUU and other unions in the university system, that I will start making moves to go to countries where they will appreciate my academic and professional efforts and services. After all, I have brothers and relations abroad. Wait a minute… I did not sleep that night.

A thought kept telling me: “if you succeed in taking yourself and children out of the country, how about your colleagues who cannot; how about the millions of youths and parents who cannot? Who will stay back and address the rot?

It is against this backdrop that I am making this urgent call to Nigerian Professors to save the public school system. It currently appears that it is only the ASUU leaders and very few commentators that are highlighting the challenges in the system or its gross neglect by successive governments. We need many Professors to get actively involved in the struggle to save public schools and secure the future and destiny of our children and youths.

Being a professor comes with some other qualities: one is chronologically and mentally mature, has power of conviction, courage, ready to tell truth to power, selflessness, patriotism, honour, some elements of pride, ability and readiness to make sacrifices, trustworthiness, etc. Above all, a Professor should not be a “banana man”. At this critical moment, we must rise up to the occasion… We must show leadership. We have the intellectual capacity and network to do that. We should instill confidence in our younger colleagues, parents and students that we have not abandoned them and the system entirely. We must do something for the sake of posterity. After all, we are already down via peanuts as salaries, so why the lukewarm attitude or indifference. We have really nothing to lose by being vocal and assertive, in fact, being education heroes.

All retired Professor from 2009 whose “life salaries” had disappeared into thin air, who had to go to Abuja severally to sort out their pensions, who probably are living in penury or neglect, should also join this crusade. So how can they do this?

1. It is estimated that Nigeria has about 12,000 Professors in the system. Can you imagine the impact if just twenty percent of this number gets actively involved in the advocacy of getting the government to do the needful with regard to public schools? This can be done via writing articles, granting interviews, panel discussions, and public enlightenment using various platforms and media.

2. Those of them in government should start mentoring or educating other political leaders whose major interests are primitive acquisition, on the need to build prosperous and egalitarian low-crime societies. That this can only be done through qualitative education and the availability of employment opportunities.

3. Over ninety-five percent of policies and laws are made by politicians or top government officials in the public sector. Most of our laws lack rigour, and have low intellectual contents. They are also not visionary or strategic. These selfish, porous or weak laws affect our lives and national development adversely. For this reason, Professors should be interested in politics and participate actively in it to turn things around for the betterment of the citizenry and national development. Being highly educated, naturally, if not polluted by the murky political environment, education will be a priority to them (the Professors). This will be possible if we have a critical mass of Professors in governance. Let me sound a note of caution – governors and political godfathers treat intellectuals with disdain – a sort of inferiority complex. Venturing directly into elective positions without war chest (which is most likely) and ready to play dirty by a Professor will be a herculean task. Nigeria governors are emperors or self-centered dictators and have hijacked all political structures in their respective states. State Assemblies are completely docile and rubber stamps. The people are helpless, if not moving corpses due to excruciating poverty imposed by those the nation’s constitution gave the mandate to improve their welfare.

4. They should join ASUU leadership, at national and branch levels to sensitise the various stakeholders and the public on the dangers of having millions of illiterate, unemployed, unemployable, “destroyed”, frustrated, and poor youths. That, it is a time bomb waiting to explode to the peril of everyone. We are currently experiencing some bit of it in the North.

5. They should intensify their community services by:

i. Ensuring that teachers in public schools in their various communities do the work for which they are being paid.

ii. Supporting all educated persons coming out for various elective positions, engaging them to find out if they are interested in the education of the youths.

iii. Setting aside few hours every week or month on _pro bono_ to teach in public schools. And assuring students in public schools that the education they are getting are not inferior to those in private schools. The differences are in supervision and facilities. Effective supervision, maintenance and improving facilities and regular payment of teachers’ salaries are the sole responsibilities of government. That the syllabuses for primary and secondary schools are the same. That they take the same public examinations – JAMB, NABTEB, NECO AND WASSCE. They should remain focused and take their studies seriously, despite some challenges. That life is all about challenges which must be overcome.

iv. Those in good positions should donate or organize other progressive individuals and groups in their communities/states (even abroad), to donate books, laboratory equipment, reagents, etc. to public schools. They can source for funds and pay teachers in some critical subject areas where there are no or qualified teachers. Scholarship and grants should be readily available for indigent but brilliant students in public schools. My old boys association has been doing that for many years now in my alma mater, to maintain the excellent results for which the school (now neglected by government) is known for from inception, spanning over sixty-five years. Few years ago, the association fenced the entre massive compound. It is currently refurbishing some school blocks – main class rooms (upstairs), dormitories, refectory, library, staff room, etc. Many old boys and different sets are donating generously for these projects. That is exactly what dynamic and progressive alumni associations of public schools are doing in the country. For example the old boys in diaspora of the Sacred Heart College (SAHACO), Aba, Abia State, virtually rebuilt all the structures, including the Chapel in their alma mater.

v. A particular governor has been calling Professors “election riggers, worse than armed robbers” despite the fact that the number of lecturers that participate in elections is insignificant. Professors are encouraged not to take part in elections to put in politicians that have no regards for education. Their involvement should be to encourage electorates to vote out politicians that have no clear or committed programmes on education. This clarion call has become very necessary because I can confidently state that more than nine-five percent of Nigerian Professors, including this author, went through public schools – primary, secondary and university. We should continue to give hope and encourage students and parents who cannot afford high fees in private schools.

We should join the few vocal advocates calling on government to educate the youths. It does not matter whether politicians and top government officials read these documents or articles or not; listen to panel discussions or interviews. I guess that sooner or later, they will be compelled to take the welfare and advancement of the millions of hopeless youths seriously, before it is too late.I came across a very impactful and prophetic statement thus: _“Destroying any nation does not require the use of atomic bombs or the use of long range missiles. It only requires lowering the quality of education and allowing cheating in the examinations by the students”._

As teachers and formators, we have devoted our services and lives to societal advancement and humanity. Our dedication and conviction are far beyond mere social responsibility or call to duty. Therefore, Nigerian Professors should do their best to save public school system. This is my innocuous message to my revered colleagues.

Finally, I will continue to contribute my own little quota to ensure good governance, and economic development, including qualitative education via my numerous write ups.

Let me quickly put a little caveat – I may be pushed to consider other options, including brain drain, if our educational system continues to remain in shambles.

  • Professor Onouha wrote from University of Port Harcourt.*

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