2011 ELECTIONS: Can Any of the Political Parties and their Candidates Guarantee Free and Quality Pub
2011 ELECTIONS: Can Any of the Political Parties and their Candidates Guarantee Free and Quality Public Education?
By H.T Soweto
In the run up to the April 2011 general elections, the rot in public education became one of the burning issues which none of the bourgeois contestants could not ignore in their campaigns. Expectedly too, working class youth, students, activists, education workers, parents and the general public are sizing up contestants on the basis of their economic and political programs as well as their proposed solutions to the crisis of public education in Nigeria.
The background to these elections are the unrelenting neo-liberal attacks by succeeding governments on the right of Nigerians to the provision of free and functional education and the active role played by most of the key presidential aspirants in the collapse of public education and other social services through anti-poor policies of commercialization and privatization. A scientific examination of their educational policies therefore is imperative in assessing whether the 2011 elections itself or any of the presidential hopefuls can guarantee the much desired reversal of the rot in the public education and the provision of free and quality education accessible to all Nigerians.
Right from the outset, it must be stressed clearly that none of the presidential candidates has alternative, coherent, pro-working people policies and strategies to mobilize the needed resources to provide free and quality education. They all rely on plain platitudes and empty posturing to sell themselves to voters as the best “education-friendly” aspirants. At the same time, all the key candidates are flag-bearers of political parties whose economic and political manifesto and programs are clearly hostile to any serious government-driven effort to massively invest public resources into social services like education. The PDP, ACN, CPC, APGA, ANPP and most disappointingly, the Labour Party, all support the anti-poor neo-liberal policies of privatization, commercialization and Public Private Partnership (PPP), all which position the private sector to make super profits from education, health, infrastructure etc. at the expense of ordinary people.
The former chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and presidential flag bearer of the main opposition party the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), Mallam Nuhu Ribadu has outlined “seven broad areas” his administration would address for a revamping of the education sector. According to the Next newspaper of October 29, 2010, the seven areas according to Ribadu are funding, access to quality education, quality assurance/regulation, infrastructure, staff training and welfare, research, and student discipline and related matters.
Nuhu Ribadu identified corruption as one of the challenges facing the educational sector and stated that he would “implement to the full the 26 percent UNESCO recommendation on taking office.” According to him, “We shall not be handing out sacks of Naira to actors in the education sector like sailors out on a binge. We shall ensure that every Naira disbursed will be carefully monitored to eliminate waste, corruption, and inefficiency. We shall not only give education funding the highest priority, we shall also prioritize a new culture of accountability and transparency.” He also promised to implement free education in pre-secondary schools saying “we shall make education free in all primary and secondary schools in this country on assuming office. We have estimated the cost for this programme, and we know it is achievable.” Mr. Ribadu also stated that his government would “establish a National Research fund, that will be manned by experts and from which research grants would be accessed by researchers in our various institutes.”
Unfortunately, Ribadu has not yet told Nigerians how the resources needed to fund education up to 26% of annual budget would be gotten. At the same time, if Ribadu provides free education in primary schools alone, what would be the fate of millions of poor students and youths at secondary school and at the tertiary levels of education who are forced by huge fees to drop out annually and millions more of whom do not accept admissions into tertiary institutions because they just could not raise the huge fees required? According to statistics, only about 10% of the entire applicants are admitted annually by Universities.
Also, while the emphasis on accountability is quite right considering that millions of naira allocated to each schools and institutions get looted by the undemocratically constituted school authorities, Ribadu believes in a bureaucratic monitoring of the education sector as opposed to democratic running and management of schools by elected committees of students, education workers and parents. But to genuinely and effectively fight corruption in the educations sector and to ensure the judicious use of resources by the school authorities what is needed is the involvement of elected representatives of workers, students and parents in all decision making organs in the sector.
In his own case, former head of state and presidential flag bearer of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) Muhammadu Buhari outlined seven problems facing the Nigerian education system and proffered five solutions to them. The five solutions to the nation’s educational challenges according to Buhari are improved quality of education, expansion of higher education, sustainable mechanism of funding, utilizing the gains of research for rapid national development, and restoring an effective Inspectorate Service to cater for all levels of our educational system. He equally stated that he would “suggest a minimum of 26% of the national budget in consonance with UNESCO’s well grounded recommendation”. He will also establish a scholarship scheme for student of tertiary institutions. “The scholarship system which will cater in the main for indigent students will be resuscitated and funded adequately with the only proviso being accountability. We might even be willing to experiment with the setting up of a loans board to give loans to students.” Also “the private sector will be encouraged with specific incentives in order to finance research and development.”
Here it must be quickly pointed out that Buhari’s short-term solutions to the crisis of public education will not resolve the issues in any way. One, a scholarship scheme for indigent students is not a substitute for the scrapping of fees and provision of free and quality education especially in a country like Nigeria where over 70% live on an average of one dollar a day. This clearly shows that over 80% of students from poor working class background can be classified as indigent and deserving of scholarship. Much worse is the student loan scheme Buhari promised to experiment with if voted as president. In Britain where this loan scheme is being practiced, students and poor working class youths have become burdened with huge debt they will have to continue to pay 30 years after they have graduated. The loans itself come with a whole lot of restrictions which affects students’ course and career preference etc. For the past few years and especially towards the end of 2010, students in Britain have been fighting back against indiscriminate fee hikes and this huge loan burden and for their replacement by a genuine free and functional education. In Nigeria where employment is not assured after graduation, a student loan scheme will be disastrous. Equally, Buhari’s reliance on the private sector to finance research and development is nothing but the continuation of the false argument that the government alone cannot fund education and that the private sector too should play a role. Any solution to the crisis of education which does not put the government in the central leading role of funding the sector is neo-liberal and anti-poor.
President Jonathan, who is the presidential flag bearer of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), acknowledged in an online post on Monday 31st January 2011 that “As Nigeria’s population has grown over the years, allocation to education has remained stagnant and in some cases has actually reduced year over year and the result has been that our educational facilities has been stretched beyond its capacity.” And what are his solutions? Hear Jonathan: “It is said that society grows only when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never enjoy. This is precisely what this administration intends to do. As a government, we have a long term plan for Nigeria’s education sector which is to devote the lion’s share of our resources to education over the next four years. Now the results will not always be immediate and that is okay. We must not be wary of long term investments whose yields and results would come only after the initiating administration has left office.”
President Jonathan and members of the Nigerian capitalist ruling class are used to making generally correct revelations of the extent of the crisis in all aspects of the country be it on the economy, health or education, but very incorrect solutions. Quite ironically, the same Jonathan who preaches the value of long-term investment in education allocated a paltry N35 billion in the 2011 appropriation bill for capital projects in the education sector. This, when compared to huge sums of N39 billion proposed for the Presidency and over N350 billion for the National Assembly, is an absolute rip-off of Nigerians! Allocation for refreshment and meals alone for the office of the president is a scandalous N312 million! Similarly, about N12 million has been allocated for refreshment and meals for the Senate and N47 million for honorarium and sitting allowance. Their House of Representatives counterparts will get about N8.1 million and N55 million respectively for refreshment and meals and honorarium and sitting allowance! This is aside the jumbo salary packages for members of the executive and legislative arms of governance.
President Jonathan has done this in contravention of the 2009 FGN/ASUU agreement which contains proposals for long-term investment in education and a recent judgment of the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice sitting in Abuja which upheld the right of every Nigerian child to free and compulsory education. Students and working class people should not be deceived by Jonathan’s rhetoric, he was part of late President Yar’ Adua’s administration which refused to meet lecturers’ demands for improved funding of education until the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) struck for over 4 months in 2009. Up till now, the agreement of the struggle especially in the area of funding has not yet been fully implemented. Also, it took teachers several strikes and nationwide protests in 2009 before the government of Yar’ Adua and Jonathan agreed to pay the Teachers Salary Scale (TSS). Such element cannot be relied upon to reposition the education sector from the point of view and interest of workers, staff and students. Moreso, the same neo-liberal policy of Public Private Partnership (PPP) is being pushed by Jonathan as a solution to the crisis of funding education when the emphasis should be on massive investment of Nigeria’s resources to reposition the education sector.
FOR A SOCIALIST SOLUTION TO EDUCATION CRISIS
Yes, students, working class activists and socialists would support any step taken by the government to fund education up to 26% of annual budget and provide free and quality public education as promised by Ribadu, Buhari and Jonathan. However, none of this is possible within the framework of the neo-liberal capitalist system and the anti-poor economic policies or commercialization and privatization which all the major presidential candidates, including Ribadu, Buhari and Jonathan, defend.
For instance, Ribadu’s party, the ACN has been ruling in Lagos since 1999, yet education in Lagos remains deplorable. Meanwhile, the Lagos State ACN government of Raji Fashola claims it is implementing free education. The condition of education is so bad that no public office holder in the State can send his or her children to public schools despite the so-called “free education” program of the State government. Many secondary and primary schools in Lagos have so much overshot the UNESCO teachers: student ratio of 1:30 that two registers are kept by schools in order to deceive the public. In most schools in Lagos, there are more than 100 pupils in a classroom. Facilities like classroom are dilapidated and crumbling, while most schools lack toilets and sporting facilities.
According to a report by The Guardian newspaper of Monday, November 29, 2010, the premises of a typical decrepit school in Lagos, Olodi Apapa primary school, has been overtaken by floods created by water and dirt which trickles into the school compound from surrounding areas outside the school whenever it rains. As a result, a germ-infested pool has been permanently created right in the school premises which oozes out stench and foul smells to the detriment of pupils and teachers’ health. Also, pupils and teachers have to wade through this dirty pool daily to reach their classes while the pupils now lack a playing field by virtue of this flood. Just last week, a primary three pupil of the school by the name of Motunrayo Ademola took ill after returning from school. At the hospital where her life was saved, the doctors in charge revealed that two other children had been admitted days before with the same symptoms and they were pupils of the Olodi primary school. Similarly last month, a student nearly died after she fell into the pool. Equally, the entire state-owned tertiary institutions in Lagos had to be shut for over 4 months due to strike of staff unions to compel the Lagos State government to implement the 2009 FG/ASUU agreement. Fashola had refused to sign the agreement that guarantees improved funding of education because of “true federalism”!
The question is how will Nuhu Ribadu’s education policy be different from this if he becomes president? The example cited in Lagos is not just an isolated case but characteristic of the policy and politics of the ACN. For instance, all other ACN state governors are doing exactly the same fraudulent “free education” in their own state. Secondly, the National Chairman of the ACN sacked thousands of teachers and attempted to scrap some subjects while he was Osun State Governor, under the Alliance for Democracy (the ACN’s then name), from 1999 to 2003. It was the popular outcry against his anti-poor education policies that led to his party’s loss of the state at the 2003 polls.
In as much as the ACN, the CPC and other opposition parties defend the same neo-liberal and anti-poor capitalist policies advocated by the PDP, they cannot have a credible alternative solution to the problems of public education. On the basis of the anti-poor capitalist system, profit takes first place before peoples’ welfare, therefore it will be impossible for public services like education to be given adequate attention even up to the limited level of 26% budgetary allocation without the replacement of the capitalist system with a democratic socialist system of public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy and its placement under the democratic control and management of the working people. Only this can free up the resources which is needed to be massively invested by government in revamping public education, building new schools, renovating old ones, providing classrooms, standard lecture theaters, laboratories and comfortable students’ residence etc.
Ultimately, education can be free and quality on a lasting basis only with socialist plan of the economy under democratic management by elected bodies of workers and equitable distribution of wealth. None of the candidates who win in the 2011 general elections can bring the needed and much desired improvement into the standard and quality of education precisely because they all fundamentally share the same neo-liberal capitalist ideology of privatization and commercialization. The imperative of an alternative working class political party that defends public-funded, free, quality and democratically-managed education at all levels and has a workable program for its implementation is more important now than ever. This kind of party if formed now and built with a conscious socialist program and strategy can become a mass force come 2015 general elections through which the mass of working and toiling people can change society for the better. This is the task that workers and youth activists need to set for themselves instead of falling for the illusion that any of the current bourgeois candidates can turn around the fortunes of public education.