Nigeria’s government is intervening to address understaffing at public universities following concerns over funding levels, while the private sector is also being bolstered to meet the country’s educational needs.
In August, the federal government extended the mandatory retirement age for professors in public universities from 65 years to 70. The retirement age for non-academic university staff was also raised by five years to 65.
The extensions had been promised under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed with four university workers’ unions (the Academic Staff Union of Universities, the Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian University and the National Association of Academic Technologists) in November 2009. The MOU also included pay raises of 53% for lecturers and 25% for senior and junior staff.
Professors and university employees had been striking nearly continuously from 2006-09 in order to receive higher salaries and more training. Increasing the mandatory retirement age enables teachers and staff to continue earning money, while retaining experienced professionals in the public university system.
Nigeria has a growing shortage of qualified teaching staff in the public sector, with many professors opting for jobs at private universities or abroad. A 2010 World Bank report on higher education in Africa indicated that Nigeria had a student-teacher ratio of nearly 35 at the tertiary level, compared to an average of about 20 for low-income African countries. Non-African developing countries average roughly 16 students per teacher.
The majority of the nation’s approximately 100 universities are public, but since a 1999 law change a number of private schools have entered the market, easing the pressure on federal and state institutions. As of mid-2009, there were 34 licensed private higher education institutions. In the 2009/10 school year, 400,000 applications were received for a total of 150,000 public university vacancies and private university intake stood at 32,000 students.
The Ministry of Education is reportedly backing a 10-year plan to deregulate public universities, as teacher strikes have led large numbers of students to seek an education abroad, where prices are comparable. “In Ghana, our Nigerian students pay close to $5000 and $7000 to gain a university education,” Minister of State for Education Kenneth Gbagi said at an August meeting of journalists and university representatives. In contrast, a student at Nigeria’s Bowen University pays nearly $3000 per semester, or $24,000 over the course of four years.
The minister argued that a free market system was the best way to meet Nigeria’s educational needs, as the government lacks the resources to adequately fund universities. "We as a country must commence the deregulation of the education sector, the way we deregulated the petroleum sector,” Gbagi said.
However, as 70% of the population lives on less than $2 per day, the concern is that the majority will not be able to afford private education. Indeed the World Bank report listed the cost burden of tuition fees in Nigeria as “very significant”, at more than 30% of national per capita income.
All private companies in Nigeria are required to pay 2% tax on declared profits to the Education Trust Fund, established in 1993 to give extra-budgetary support to public higher education. In July, local press reported that $314m from the fund would be allocated to six state universities, three polytechnic institutes and three colleges. Several private universities applied for funding this year, but were denied on the grounds that the fund was intended to assist the public sector.
However, private universities still stand to play a key role increasing the capacity and quality of Nigeria’s education system, especially if a deregulation programme goes into effect. Improving education is vital to the nation’s development strategy, Vision 2020, which aims to put Nigeria among the world’s top 20 economies by 2020. A skilled labour pool is needed to leverage the country’s economic growth, but without increased investment Nigeria will not be able to achieve this.