The Funnel Effect in Nigeria’s Education System

First, it was Facebook. And now, it’s WhatsApp. You get added to a group, everyone welcomes you, you’re excited about hooking up with classmates… and then someone drops the bomb: we should go back to help the school, you know. Silence. In some cases, the silence is broken. In all cases, especially those groups set up for the tertiary institution you attended (in Nigeria), everyone agrees that things could have been better. Lecturers didn’t have to play so much God. Lectures could have used some more relevance. The story of how education is increasingly disconnected from the workplace says a lot about why unemployment and unemployability are both on the high side right now — and until we fix today’s student experience, the fate of tomorrow’s economy is pretty certain. At Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, we work to fix this student experience, using ICTs, so that under-served youth can improve their chances — but a foundation of miseducation makes this work a bit more difficult.

In addition to the miseducation that happens within the four walls of many institutions, there is also a funnel effect that condemns many young people to impossible futures, and this takes its toll on the economy too because some education — especially of the flawed variety — adds to the damage of available (wo)manpower. Let me start with the most scary of them all: 30% of pupils drop out of primary school and only 54% transit to Junior Secondary Schools. I wish I made that up. I didn’t. That was UNICEF data before terrorism joined child labour, economic hardship and early marriage for girls to chase more kids, especially girls, out of school. An even more recent Fact Sheet suggests that less than one-third of Nigerian primary school students will proceed to secondary schools — and “the top two factors influencing primary school drop-out in Nigeria are Monetary cost (32%) and Insufficient interest (26%)”.

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 17.59.51Working with the more optimistic number, I should not need to suggest what the 46% who don’t make it into Junior Secondary School go on to do but what happens to the 54% that make it into secondary schools? We know, for a fact, that not all of the 54% make it to Senior Secondary School but let the data speak for the results and experience of our children who complete those 12 years of education. Let me call the West African Examination Council (WAEC) to the stand. The  student pass rates for WAEC between 2004 and 2016 are shown below, and if you don’t see the funnel effect in action, then you scare me more than the data. A student is considered to have passed this Senior Secondary School examination if (s)he gets a minimum of credit passes in six (6) subjects, including compulsory Mathematics and English.

2004: 18%
2005: 19%
2006: 9%
2007: 8%
2008: 14%
2009: 26%
2010: 25%
2011: 31%
2012: 39%
2013: 37%
2014: 31%
2015: 39%
2016: 53%

Whichever way you look at these numbers, we should be worried. Even if you work with the best result in years — the 2016 result — we still have some 47% (one of every two students) who are not qualified to proceed to the next stage in their education. If there were vocational education or informal options, the pressure wouldn’t be much, but tertiary institutions tell the next story: only about a third of the students who pass their Secondary School exit examinations and write tertiary institution examinations are able to get a seat in the many schools that dot the Nigerian landscape. But that would be if they all pass, right?

waec-pass-rate-2004-2016According to the Nigerian Universities Commission, we have 40 federal, 42 state and 61 private Universities in Nigeria while the National Board for Technical Education says there are 25 federal, 40 state and 38 private Polytechnics; 17 federal and 19 state Colleges of Agriculture; 23 federal, 2 state and 2 private Monotechnics; 9 federal, 40 state and 3 private Colleges of Health Technology; 19 federal, 110 state and 3 private Technical Colleges; and 22 federal, 47 state and 14 private Colleges of Education. Between them, these 576 institutions have a carrying capacity of about 800,000 (up from 450,000 in 2011, 500,000 in 2012 and 520,000 in 2013), which means only 800,000 of the 1.47M students who wrote the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) in 2015 had a chance at tertiary education. When you consider the fact that most of them don’t bother applying outside universities and polytechnics, you can see the pressure on the funnel better.

By the way, there were 1,493,611 UTME applicants in 2011; 1,503,933 in 2012; and 1,735,729 in 2013. That means only 30% of students who wrote the UTME in 2011 could get a place in our tertiary institutions. That number was 33% for 2012 and 30% for 2013. It grew to 54% in 2015 but that’s still 1 of every 2 students locked out. In summary, only 1 in 2 kids move from primary to secondary school and only 1 of every 2 kids who make it into secondary school have a place in our tertiary institutions. Someone should ask: how about the Open University? Well, the unconventional National Open University, better known for unconventional students like Obasanjo, Awujale, Emir of Bauchi, etc, had 132,000 students as at 2013 even though it said it could potentially handle 1.5 million. Let’s add National Open University’s 77 study centres to the 800,000 spaces in tertiary institutions and we still have much less than 1 million in total capacity, for about 1.5 million students!

There’s the capacity problem. And the motivation problem (why bother with this trouble when you can become a militant or politician and earn way more than your brilliant friends, right?) And the quality problem. And the disconnect problem. Comparing apples and oranges has nothing on comparing curriculum with industry requirements. Beyond all these, there’s also the cram-pass-forget problem. And the dub-a-final-year-project problem. That’s how, among other economy-related reasons, why we ended up with 49.5% youth employment in Q2 2016. There we go again with 1 of every 2 employable youth getting a job. Look at the unemployment and underemployment numbers and fear God. the future.

unemp-q2-2016-info1 unemp-q2-2016-info4These problems can make you bury your head in the sand and thank your stars for an opportunity to send your child to a country where education matters but if they’ll return to — or you’ll live in — the country where 50% drop off at every stage, you’ll be building an island of sanity that will soon be flooded by the waters of insanity all around it. We must do education differently and tackle each stage with deliberate interventions that will change the current outcomes. I don’t know much about the elementary and secondary school stages but the work that Paradigm Initiative Nigeria is doing at the post-secondary level through our LIFE and TENT programs have demonstrated what’s possible. For the tertiary stage in particular, we work with a model that helps students start preparing for post-school life in Year 1 and graduate with more than just a resume. Through the TENT program, we help students build ICT skills and businesses — not just apps or what’s popular — so they can be workplace ready, as skilled employees or business(wo)men in their own right.

Of course, there are many other institutions out there creating dents — and they could all use more support — but nothing helps like a coordinated approach that combines policy, action and partnerships. We have a huge problem on our hands and must act now to slow down the disaster.

Of Zuck’s Visit to Nigeria, Euphoria and Important Lessons

Zuck’s visit to Nigeria is a big deal. With two trips within one week, he helped draw attention to Nigerian tech startups, offered some form of validation for Nigeria’s tech ecosystem, held high-level meetings with the Nigerian government, attended a major tech event hosted by the Presidency for start-ups, and left a strong impression about simplicity. I pity the next Nigerian big man that harasses citizens with security details. Not only will he become meme material, his entire worth will be converted to dollars just to make the point that he has nothing close to the man, worth $54.5B, who walked the streets of Lagos without visible security.

I doubt that anyone can argue with the importance of Mark Zuckerberg’s visit. He sits atop the largest pool of private data in the world, considering Facebook’s announcement that it had 1.71 billion monthly active users as of June 30, 2016 and 1.57 billion mobile monthly active users as of June 30, 2016. China has a population of 1,378,510,000. India has a population of 1,330,430,000. Facebook has a population of 1.71 billion people. Beyond the importance of his visit and the euphoria though, Zuck was simply here to promote his company’s interests, and there are important lessons that must not be lost even as we continue to discuss the importance of Nigeria’s August visitor in September — and maybe over the next few months.

Facebook pulled a major PR stunt to have Zuck visit Nigeria. I can imagine Ebele, Emeka and the rest of the team smiling as headlines — and pictures — continue to pop up all over the place. Of course, the PR stunt isn’t unconnected with Facebook’s interest and projects. Following the Indian experience and questions that keep coming for Facebook’s Free Basics project, it’s not surprising that Africa is important to the project. When you combine factors such as population, Facebook use, Internet growth rate (7,415.6% over 17 years is no joke) and the fact that Africa is easier to get into, the Nigerian trip and successful PR stunt make business sense. This is a brilliant business move by Facebook and while no PR can turn what is clearly a business strategy into an altruistic save-the-poor one, Facebook is not the issue. Our failure is.


Source: Internet World Stats

Source: Internet World Stats

Connecting the unconnected may benefit from short-term efforts but sustainable work must be done by governments of respective countries, who must put their money — that they’ve been collecting as special taxes, or Universal Access Funds, — where their mouth is! This has been done before, for mobile telephony, and can be done again, for access. Remember when someone in Nigeria said mobile phones were for the rich and poor people couldn’t afford them? Projects like the Rural Telephony Project suddenly became sexy but it was only when liberalisation and sustainable market practices happened that we saw progress.

Today, almost anyone who wants a mobile phone can get one. Competition is something that net neutrality supports and broadband can become Nigeria’s next GSM through just that, and not necessarily by relying on an half a loaf is better than none philosophy. The target date by which Nigeria seeks to achieve 30% broadband penetration is less than 3 years away and while we’re now at 13% according to the Nigerian Communications Commission, it’s mostly thanks to limited mobile broadband. For reliable broadband, terrestrial infrastructure is king, and the last mile — which is a major problem even though many undersea cables adorn the Lagos coastline — matters.

This is not just about what government must do. A lot has happened in spite of government and I’m glad to see a strong move from dependence on government patronage to real value creation. One generation wasted the opportunity for innovation when it settled for the lazy option of rent-seeking and that is one mistake today’s start-ups must not make. Beyond the validation that visits like Zuck’s bring (a lot more will follow), the ecosystem must focus on real work and collaboration. Don’t wait for validation. Work. It won’t be pretty. It probably won’t enjoy the spotlight all the time, if it ever does, but lay the foundation, and if you intend to — or are fortunate — benefit from it. Visits should move from validation to tech tourism and handshakes. There will be long moments with no external support or euphoria opportunities, and that’s when real work gets done.

Another important lesson is that we must create an environment that allows youth fulfill their potential. You can’t pull down buildings occupied by small businesses one day and talk about creating an environment for businesses the next. You can’t reward militants and politicians more than graduates and expect innovation to be commonplace. This is why I think Aso Villa Demo Day holds some potential to send the right signals. Hopefully, it doesn’t end as a tokenistic PR opportunity but goes on to inform government policy on the ease of doing business, and lays a foundation for thorough engagement.

One final important lesson for me: we want tech rock stars but often forget that innovation and hunger don’t mix well. Once you begin to pay bills, you’re likely to focus less on work and more on returns to pay ’em bills. This is why Paradigm Initiative Nigeria started TENT and why I’d choose spending time with young people who have fallen completely off our radar over also showing up for the pictures 🙂 We need more people investing in schools, and working to catch them young. If they start before 13, there’s a better chance they hit rockstar mode by 30. I’m excited that our first set of TENT students graduate this session, and many of the ideas they started working on in Year 1 are now Final Year Projects. As their colleagues defend 5,000-word dissertations (many of them copied and pasted), they’ll be pitching businesses. Or pitching their skills to potential employers.

Zuck was here. The euphoria is understandable. However, important lessons must be learnt so we move from just hosting rockstars to exporting same.