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The First Class Degrees Galore ― By Reuben Abati

The Daily Trust newspaper has published an interesting feature story (May 15), on the sudden surge in the number of First Class degrees being churned out by Nigerian universities. 

Daily Trust reports that its investigation reveals that in the last five years, 16 Nigerian universities have produced a total of 3, 499 first class graduates. 

Between 2011 and 2016, 12 of these universities produced 2, 822 First Class graduates, and it seems this First Class galore is a growing fashion particularly among the private universities.

This trend should ordinarily be a good thing: if Nigeria can manage to produce more First Class intellects, this should reflect on the long run on the country’s business, social, economic and cultural life. 

We would have more Ph.Ds hopefully, and so produce more qualified, research academics, especially now that close to 60% of Nigerian university lecturers do not have a Ph.D. 

The more brilliant persons a country’s education system is able to produce, the better, such persons can indeed make a significant difference and drive the leadership process on all fronts.  

The only problem is that this growing trend needs to be interrogated. 

Previously, a First Class degree, the equivalent of a Distinction, was something quite rare, awarded by Departments after very careful consideration.

I am not too sure that the entire Faculty of Arts of the University of Ibadan would have awarded up to 3,000 First Class degrees in the entire history of that Faculty.  

University departments talked about a First Class as if it was a comet. When students got a 2:1, they were the real lords of the Department, and even then a 2:1 was never given out in bus-loads. 

I recall the story of a former colleague at the University of Calabar who was denied a First Class in those days, because he slapped a young lecturer, who had just been recruited and who did not know that this particular student was the star of the department and his Faculty.  

It was our final exam. 

He was summoned to appear before a disciplinary panel and told matter-of-factly that university degrees were awarded on the basis of character and learning.  Check: it was always character before learning.

He made the First Class grade, but they gave him a 2:1. He was later appointed a Graduate Assistant though. 

He was also recommended for a Commonwealth Scholarship and sent to Cambridge for graduate studies. He would later prove to be a true First Class Brain. 

It was also the practice in those days for lecturers to remind brilliant students of the achievements of those who had obtained First Class degrees. 

Because they were not too many, a First Class graduate served for many years as a role model for succeeding generations.

It was also the case that there were more First Class graduates in the Sciences, Engineering and the Applied Sciences. The Humanities produced fewer First Class graduates. 

Some of our lecturers used to ask: “What do you want to write that will earn you a First Class? You must be really exceptional to know all the answers in literature, history or philosophy?” 

Those were the days when a Professor would start a class and frighten you with the information that the last student who scored an A grade in the course was a certain Professor so and so who ‘sat in this same class 30 years ago!’ If you must get an A, you’d have to prove to me that you are smarter than him”.   

University authorities created such big myths around a First Class degree that many students just didn’t want to kill themselves trying to get one, only to be disappointed at the end of the day. 

The students who tried were not necessarily popular. They were labeled “Triangular Students”, “Bookworm”, “Effiko”, or “Akukwo”.  

Students in the 2:1 category felt more relaxed, many of them could even be as good as the First Class students, but just didn’t bother to apply themselves hard enough. 

The 2:2 students were easily the most popular. They would proudly tell you “they wanted to pass through the university and also allow the university to pass through them.” Maybe they were right.

In later life, many 2:2 graduates still ended up with Ph.Ds and even became Professors, or captains of industry. 

We also had those students in the Third Class and Pass categories: we referred to them jokingly as the “let my people go, no-future-ambition crowd”. 

If you ended up with a First Class, your colleagues congratulated and admired you, but they didn’t feel like they had failed in any way.  

The Nigerian education system in those days was so good every graduate left the campus confident that he or she had been well-equipped. 

First Class graduates by the way did not enjoy any special privileges. There were employment opportunities in the country.  

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