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President Muhammadu Buhari’s Free Education: How Free?

During the presentation of what he termed ‘budget of change’, President Muhammadu Buhari declared free tertiary education in the field of education, technology and science. This single act has shown readiness of Nigerian government to steer the battered country in to path of liberation and sustainable development.

During the presentation of what he termed ‘budget of change’, President Muhammadu Buhari declared free tertiary education in the field of education, technology and science. This single act has shown readiness of Nigerian government to steer the battered country in to path of liberation and sustainable development. From stone-age to renaissance, enlightenment to modern era, education (or philosophy or knowledge as generally referred), science and technology have served as barometer of personal and nation’s developments. Advanced countries reached where they are because of science (and technology) and in most, citizens are assured free education or motivated and provided with means to pay by themselves with ease.

Basic education in public schools has been free in Nigeria since independence and the issue has either been quality or access. Many rural areas have no schools while where there are schools, parents are not motivated enough to send their wards to schools due to poverty, lack of awareness or both. Lack of adequate qualified teachers and facilities will be rated as the major reasons behind poor quality education. The N369.6 billion budgeted to Education if not stolen, will address to a large extent the issue of facilities, school feeding will boost enrolment while the 500,000 graduates the President promised to engage will also help in reducing the shortage of qualified teachers in the coming financial year.

My main concern is the extent of the freeness of the ‘free tertiary education’ and its quality. Will it be completely free or partially free? During my undergraduate studies, the Kano State government inconsistently paid me 15,000 Naira annually as scholarship. The paltry amount could not cover my school fees and hardly could cover more than a month’s living expenses. It was even less for some states (my friends from Kogi state were receiving 5,000 Naira!) and most students I know received only that from government for the whole year. 

I was a little bit luckier, I also enjoyed, based on merit, Federal Scholarship Board’s Award with annual stipends of 150,000 Naira. It helped considerably but the truth is it could not pay my school fees and catered for my modest financial needs throughout the year. My parents still had to pay the bills. I can also remember that out of the more than 40,000 students of Ahmadu Bello University at that time, only less than 40 were offered the gesture that year! So insignificant!

Will Buhari’s free education cover only first degree, Master’s or PhD or all? If it is expected to cover only undergraduate studies, then it will have minimal contribution to scientific and technological advancement of Nigeria. But if is going to cover higher degrees, then we can loudly shout that Nigeria is a success in progress? It is a common knowledge that research funded by students cannot produce sustainable development. High world ranking universities have most of their PhD’s fully funded and one cannot even register for many courses without official sponsorship. Interestingly, large chunk of the funding comes from charities and other establishments.

In Nigeria, the problem is past reputation undermines credibility of our institutions and most charities are not encouraged to provide funding and profit-oriented establishments will also rather commit their funding where they are rest assured that the outcome will be truly profitable. As such it is only government that can help the situation at this point and thereafter, other organisations will be impressed and encouraged by our renewed seriousness.

For impactful research, a postgraduate student should be fully engaged and insulated from basic financial pressures. I know students who sleep or spend most of their time in laboratories and could not possibly combine their research with another job. In United Kingdom, Research council set regulations for funded postgraduate research to include the minimum of £14,057 as annual tax-free stipend in addition to tuition and research expenses. Most universities in USA engage students as research assistants and pay them what will allow for a decent living. Many countries like Germany extend their tuition-free PhD policy to non-citizens.

It is hoped that Nigerian government notes that serious free tertiary education has to include free tuition, research fees (which, in most cases is higher than the tuition) and living expenses. Students doing PhD that are not employed or sponsored by organisations should have a fixed decent salary that will make them concentrate on the research. It should also be ensured that only researches with positive impact and domestic touch are allowed and sponsored. 

The ‘pull-down-syndrome’ in our universities should be stopped and excesses of undisciplined lecturers and supervisors who make it their duty to delay and retard students be checkmated. Only then our universities will be genuine incubation centres for ideas and researches and papers coming from them will be worthier than akara wrapping sheets.

Dr Marzuq Ungogo studies in University of Glasgow, United Kingdom

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