Without any fear of equivocation, I can confirm that Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabimila, has raised the bar in parliamentary leadership and Nigeria will surely miss his several interventions on key national issues when he leaves office.
Although, it is very unusual for me to sing praises of the speaker. Lately, I have tried very hard to look at his actions through another lens and assume, rightly or wrongly, that his cynicism is honest mistake.
The office of the speaker last week organised a national summit on tertiary education reform, apparently to improve the standard of tertiary education and working out a lasting solution to incessant strikes by labour unions in the tertiary institutions, particularly the ASUU.
But here is my observation. The speaker had sponsored a bill to establish Nigeria Educational Bank to guarantee student loans for higher education. And like most of the bills sponsored by the speaker, there was no public hearing held on the bill until it was passed by the House of Representatives. The bill was sent to the Senate for concurrence and Gbajabimila needed the public support of stakeholders, particularly in the education sector, hence the need for the summit.
The draft legislation has as its short title, the ‘Students Loan (Access to Higher Education) Bill, 2019,’ While its long title is ‘A Bill for an Act to provide for easy access to higher education for Nigerians through interest-free loans from the Nigerian Education Bank established in this Act to provide education for all Nigerians and other purposes connected thereto.’
The House had passed the bill earlier this year and forwarded it to the Senate for concurrence. The Red Chamber passed the Bill last Tuesday, while the national summit on tertiary education was ongoing.
With the Senate’s concurrence on the Bill, a clean copy will be produced and transmitted to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent. Once it is signed into law, Nigerian students could begin accessing the loans.
Gbajabiamila had argued in the Bill that the hardship being faced by the unemployed and low-income earners coupled with the very high cost of living in Nigeria over the years has made access to quality higher education difficult, stressful and in some cases impossible.
But in disagreeing with Gbajabimila’s position, it is my view that tertiary education is still very affordable in Nigeria. Many of the academics at the summit attested to this fact, as they sought better ways of funding the tertiary education sector. Key among the several suggestions was the imminent increment of fees charged by the institutions, either the tuition or accommodation in whatever nomenclature. Therefore, it is my understanding that Gbajabiamila’s bill was meant to prepare the grounds for an increment of fees for tertiary education.
Well, it is what it is, and I will not be quick to criticise the impending increment and the proposed idea of students loan. Rather, I would like to caution Nigerian leaders not to put the cart before the horse. Nigerians have one of the highest unemployment rates in Africa, if not across the world, what will then be the hope of a graduate who went through school with a student loan but has no guarantee of a well-paid job afterwards let alone paying off the loan?
As of March 2019, US student debt stood at $1.6 trillion (£1.22 trillion), according to statistics published by The Independent Newspaper of the UK. The report also suggested that one in 15 borrowers has considered suicide due to their school loans, according to a survey of 829 people conducted last month by Student Loan Planner, a debt advisory group.
Therefore, while the $1.6 trillion may not pose a direct threat to the economy, it has caused anguish that goes far beyond financial concerns for the people who are owing the debt.
Without taking sides with the position of ASUU, I also believe that with a reasonable level of sincerity in governance, the federal government can fund education at all levels to the standard, even if it is the only thing Nigeria will enjoy optimally as Nigerians.
Let me conclude my thoughts on this issue with the suggestions of former President Olusegun Obasanjo who spoke at the opening session of the summit. In his submissions as a discussant, Obasanjo said any attempt at reforming tertiary education in isolation of other levels of education, was tantamount to window-dressing a building with a faulty foundation.
According to Baba (Obasanjo), an attempt to straighten the bent load on the head of a knock-knee will amount to an exercise in futility, because the problem is not from the load on the head but from the knocked knee below.