Nigeria's young population necessitates improvements to the education system


Demographic booms come with both opportunities and challenges. Emerging countries with young populations can see a rise in economic growth; however, the so-called “demographic dividend” is contingent on the provision of ample jobs for a growing working population and the ability of workers to meet the demands of the labour market. With 43% of its 186m citizens under the age of 15, Nigeria is a young country on the cusp of a major demographic shift. Significant reforms are required to the education system if the nation’s youth are to find a place in the workforce.

As the population continues to grow, pressure on public services, including education, will increase. Without further reform, the public school system is likely to come under severe stress. A competent and skilled workforce in which the experience of graduates matches the demands of the market is key. If the government can adapt accordingly, it will be able to capitalise on the youth bulge, increase economic productivity and reduce the dependency ratio. The administration is aware of the challenges and has implemented policies to improve both primary education and university-level instruction. As such, there are significant opportunities for further investment and development from the primary to the tertiary segment.

Demand Driven

Following independence, Nigeria extended its education system for free to the general public. The sector is split into three segments. Basic education is compulsory and covers six years of elementary education, during which the curriculum includes classes in mathematics, English, Nigerian languages, science, religious and national values, and creative arts. This is followed by three years of junior secondary school. Senior secondary education is optional and lasts three years, after which students must sit exams in a minimum of 10 subjects and pass at least six subjects to qualify for a Basic Education Certificate.

However, the quality of primary and secondary education has lagged due to a lack of investment, poor teaching, large class sizes, rigid curriculum and a lack of basic infrastructure. According to the most recent UNESCO statistics, there were 9m out-of-school children in Nigeria in 2015, with one in three children dropping out at primary level. Around half the children in public education could read or write, while 63% of children in rural areas and 85% of those in the lowest economic quartile could not read at all.

Across the country there is also a wide split between genders, with the male primary school education enrolment rate (88%) and overall literacy levels (76%) outpacing female enrolment (81%) and literacy (58%), according to UNICEF. However, enrolment and performance may vary from state to state. In a 2014 report the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) found that 98% of school-age children were enrolled in the education system in Nigeria, with an almost equal number of boys and girls.

Nevertheless, the country is rated poorly relative to others on education indicators. In the World Economic Forum’s “Global Competitiveness Report 2016-17” Nigeria ranked 124th out of 138 countries for the quality of primary education. The quality of secondary education (118th) and maths and science instruction in higher education (124th) were also weak.

Private Alternatives

With nearly 80m Nigerians under the age of 15, state governments often lack the capacity to provide high-quality public education to all students. For this reason private schooling is growing rapidly in importance for a range of expanding socio-economic groups. “In most states in Nigeria the private sector has stepped in to fill the gap created by the overstretched public school system,” Modupe Mujota, Ogun State commissioner of education, told OBG. “In some regions class sizes can reach 80-100 students and the negative impact on quality is unavoidable. Nigerians place high importance on educating their children to the university level and invest in private schooling to whichever level they have the means for.”

The DFID report also cited a 2011 census by the Education Sector Support Programme in Nigeria (ESSPIN), which found that there were 12,908 private schools in Lagos State – of which over 10,000 were primary schools – and that 70% of students at all levels were enrolled in private schools. With the exception of Bridge International Academies, a UK-based organisation that set up its first school in Nigeria in 2015, most private schools in Nigeria are independent, single operations.

According to Juan Elegido, vice-chancellor of Pan-Atlantic University, a private institution with two campuses in Lagos, schools cater for pupils from the low-to-middle classes, charging around N40,000 ($141) a year, up to elite schools that can cost over N400,000 ($1410) per term. The wide range in prices offers Nigerians of differing economic means the opportunity to educate their children at private institutions, but this can undermine the public sector, according to Mujota. “There is a prevailing belief that if something is free, it can have no real value. When parents pay for their children’s education they see it as an investment and want a return. In the free public sector it is harder to count on parental support, especially when there is pressure on children to help in the family business or farm.”


Given the myriad of challenges of providing quality education for the country’s large school-age population, the continued lack of funding for the system compounds the situation. In the 2017 budget the government allocated N448bn ($1.6bn) for education, of which N398bn ($1.4bn) was for recurring expenditures and N50bn ($176.7m) for capital projects. This represented a 21% increase on the N369.6bn ($1.3bn) allocated to the sector in 2016, but, at just 6% of the overall budget, the amount falls short of UNESCO’s recommendation that governments spend a quarter of their fiscal outlay on education.

State governments are responsible for the provision of education, but under the universal basic education funding mechanism, the federal government matches state spending naira for naira. In 2016, 33 of the country’s 36 state governments spent N653.53bn ($2.3bn) on education, just under 11% of their combined budgets. With state governments’ coffers constrained due to reduced oil incomes, they have been unable to increase education spending. “It is understandable that the federal government wants to ensure that local governments have skin in the game with regard to education spending, but governors are under other pressures. Paying public sector salaries is an important and urgent priority at the moment, whereas education spending is important, but not as urgent,” Mujota told OBG.


In this challenging environment a new experiment is taking place in Ogun State, which borders Lagos State to the north and has become a centre of industry and education in recent years. Following the election of President Muhammadu Buhari, state authorities began a programme aimed at renovating public schools. However, it became clear that many of the schools were severely dilapidated and lacked basic infrastructure and amenities, especially power. “We realised that we were simply whitewashing the problem,” Mujota told OBG. “The project morphed into the Model College project, whereby the state plans to build 29 new free public secondary schools with good infrastructure, the right curriculum and materials, and smaller classes taught by well-trained teachers.”

By June 2017, 15 of the Model Colleges had got off the ground, with seven nearing completion and one accepting pupils in January of that year. In December 2016 the Ogun State government voted to invest nearly N6bn ($21.2m) of the state’s total N200bn ($706.8m) budget in the Model Colleges project. “The model schools are an important test case for education in Nigeria,” Mujota told OBG. “The schools are full board, so pressure from parents is diminished. If we are successful, we can prove the case for greater intervention in education and increased funding.”

Reform Plans

The government has accepted that major reforms to the system are needed, and it has promised a new legal framework that will allow more autonomy for schools and make the system more competitive. Speaking in April 2017 Bukola Saraki, the Senate president, announced government plans for root-and-branch reform, telling the Senate that the widening social inequality in Nigeria had to be tackled. According to Saraki, this means “reform in education can no longer be business as usual” and that “it must involve government, academia and the private sector”. In order for the revamped system to meet the demands of employers, he added that the government would have “to tackle this problem from the root, which is primary education, all the way to tertiary education”.

In August 2017 Chris Ngige, minister of labour and employment, made a similar call for wide-ranging reforms that give states more of a say in education policy and greater flexibility to develop curriculum focused on skills acquisition for non-white-collar jobs. However, by September 2017 no new education policy had yet been made public by the government.


In the years following Nigeria’s independence in 1960, tertiary education in the country remained a pursuit of the elite, with the country’s six universities being among the most pre-eminent on the continent. Already well-funded, these schools benefitted from the country’s first oil boom in the 1960s. However, following the economic crash that was brought on by the 1979 energy crisis, the tertiary education system suffered along with the economy in the last two decades of the 20th century.

“Between 1980 and 2000 money for tertiary education dried up in Nigeria,” Elegido told OBG. “The situation worsened each year until 2000, when things started to improve, but over the last four or five years funding for public universities has tightened again on the back of lower government oil revenue.”

The National Universities Commission (NUC), the regulatory body for tertiary education, listed 153 registered institutions in 2017. Of these, 40 were federal universities, 44 were state and 69 were private. Despite the rise of the private sector, over 90% of students were enrolled at public institutions at the tertiary level, according to Elegido. According to the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB), between 2012 and 2016 the most popular universities in terms of applications were the University of Ilorin, which had one in four applications over the period, ahead of the University of Benin, Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Awka, the University of Nigeria in Nsukka and the University of Lagos.

Getting A Degree

Students wishing to attend university must sit the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination. Administering the test itself is a major logistical feat. Local press reported in July 2017 that a total of 1.7m students sat the exam in one of 642 computer-based test centres in 140 towns and cities, with additional testing centres available in the UK, South Africa, Ghana, Cameroon, Benin and Saudi Arabia. According to JAMB, in 2016, 70% of applications were submitted to federal universities, 28% for state and around 2% for private institutions.

Bachelor programmes in Nigeria typically last four years and operate on a credit system, with 120-160 credits required for graduation depending on the school and programme. Single honours students study three subjects in the first year, two in the second, and one in the third and fourth years, whereas double honours students may take three subjects in the first year and two subjects in the second, third and fourth years. Since 2012 a new degree classification system has been rolled out across Nigeria’s universities, eliminating the previous “pass” classification and replacing it with a system similar to that used in the UK. Scores of over 70 are considered first class, with second class-upper division (60-69), second class-lower division (50-59) and third class degrees (45-49) awarded for lower scores.


JAMB figures released for the 2017 examination round showed that 70% of applicants applied for courses in the arts or social sciences, which was much lower than the government’s aim of having 70% of applications in hard sciences. A prevailing preference for professional degrees in law, medicine and engineering has also left the country with a workforce poorly fitted for the local job market needs, leading the government to announce a renewed push in the area of technical and vocational training alongside private sector support (see analysis).

In addition, recruiters often find that graduates lack the basic soft skills necessary for employment in a variety of sectors. “As part of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group local think tank, we surveyed local human resources managers and found that a common complaint was the lack of basic English and interpersonal skills among graduates,” Elegido told OBG. “There are many bright students in Nigeria, but the system is not preparing them for employment, and companies will typically have to spend three to six months training recruits to reach basic levels of employability.”


One of the main obstacles to improving tertiary education has been that of governance. There is a lack of accountability in the management of institutions. The rapid turnover of university chancellors also makes long-term policy formulation and development problematic. In April 2017 President Buhari approved reconstituting the governing boards at the country’s 21 federal colleges and 25 federal polytechnics.

The other main challenge to innovation in education is the rigidity of regulations set out by the NUC. This body outlines regulations for common syllabi and approved programmes of study, as well as detailed specifications for office sizes and other staffing requirements, among other things.

Accreditation is awarded for an initial three-year period, with five-year extensions thereafter. Private universities may also lose their accreditation if they do not comply to rigorous standards, that have been criticised for their lack of flexibility. For instance, in 2016 the NUC published a list of 150 programmes at 37 public and private schools that had failed to meet Benchmark Minimum Academic Standards. Meeting NUC regulations applies additional pressures to universities, which may be hindering universities in meeting their own education targets and goals.

Private Sector

Despite the stringent accreditation requirements imposed upon them, private universities continue to gather strength in Nigeria. For instance, in November 2016 the government awarded provisional licences for eight new private institutions, including Anchor University in Lagos State, Crown Hill University in Kwara State and Kola Daisi University in Ibadan, among others. Most of these projects are backed by churches, religious groups and non-governmental organisations, such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Good Idea Education Foundation.

In November 2016 Anthony Anwuka, minister of state for education, told local press that established universities could form partnerships with and provide guidance to new institutions. He added that under the Education Act of 2004, mentoring arrangements are a requirement, with more established schools in the same region or area mandated to oversee and assist newer institutions with the development of academic culture and administration for three years.

Annual tuition fees for private universities in Nigeria are anywhere from $1000 to $6000, according to Elegido, putting them within the price range of the estimated 2m households earning over $10,000 per year, according to figures from global consultancy McKinsey. The challenge for universities is to engender the professional development that public universities do not.

“Pan-Atlantic University works in close contact with industry, and we have focused on professional courses, including business administration, accountancy and digital media, with an aim of adding engineering soon” Elegido told OBG. “It is important for private universities to develop their own distinctive culture and training, and for them to develop their own lecturers rather than bringing them in from the public sector.”

Study Abroad

However, for the wealthiest Nigerian families, tertiary education abroad remains a popular option. During the 2015/16 academic year there were 71,351 Nigerian students registered at foreign universities, the highest number of any African country and up 164% from 26,997 in 2005/06, according to UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics. This has made the country a prime recruiting ground for universities in the UK, where nearly 18,000 Nigerians studied in 2015/16, as well as Ghana with 13,919 students and the US with 10,674. Malaysia, which offers lower tuition fees and hosts the campuses of several Western universities, has also emerged as a popular destination, accepting nearly 5000 Nigerian students in 2015/16.

However, opportunities to study abroad could be under threat for the estimated 40% of overseas students reliant on federal, state or private sector scholarships, many of which are linked to the hydrocarbons industry. The Petroleum Technology Development Fund offers scholarships for master’s and PhD programmes in careers related to the oil sector. The fund interviewed 1008 shortlisted doctoral students for 36-month grants in July 2017. International oil giants Shell, Total, Mobil and Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas also offer generous scholarship programmes. However, a combination of a weakening naira and falling oil prices could put pressure on future financing for such students. Nevertheless, the British Council expects Nigerian outbound postgraduate students to grow at an average annual rate of 8.3% through to 2024, the fastest rate in the world, reaching 40,000 students by that date.


As Nigeria experiences rapid population growth, the private sector has a critical role to play in providing the country with the skilled workforce it needs for the coming decades. The challenges are immense, from poor teacher training to limited budget allocations and overbearing regulations, but the government has acknowledged the scale of the task and has begun to make an effort to encourage innovation in the sector. A major reform of the education system is required, but Nigerians should be encouraged by the success of entrepreneurs in other sectors of the economy, and can reasonably hope to see similar advances in the country’s schools and universities in the future.


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The Report: Nigeria 2017

Health & Education chapter from The Report: Nigeria 2017

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The Report

This article is from the Health & Education chapter of The Report: Nigeria 2017. Explore other chapters from this report.

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