Home to the largest and one of the youngest and fastest-growing populations in Africa, Nigeria’s youthful demographic profile could prove to be either a future economic asset or a significant social burden. Given that 63% of the country’s 170m people are under the age of 24, much will ride on the progress that can be made to improve the quality and capacity of its education system.

If properly educated, these citizens are set to become productive members of the future workforce. If not, unemployment could rise even further, contributing to social tensions and exacerbating the state of economic inequality. The current public education system is insufficiently funded, and requires rapid expansion if it is to properly handle the important inflow of new demand at all levels.

Improvement Needed

Figures from UNICEF show that one in three primary-aged children and one in four junior-aged children in Nigeria are out of school. Indeed, Nigeria currently has an estimated 1.5m children out of school. At the tertiary level, it is estimated that 1.2m qualified university applicants are refused entry to the country’s public universities each year due to a lack of places.

These figures, in addition to poor performance on a number of other education-related metrics such as literacy rates, have Nigeria ranked 152nd out of 187 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index in 2014. Boosting private sector involvement, particularly at the primary and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) segments, has been a major priority for the government. As well as offering greater opportunities for private sector investment, the implementation of information technology at all streams will also help improve the education sector’s current performance (see analysis).

In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Rankings for 2014/15, Nigeria was rated near last (143rd out of 144) in terms of health and primary education, a measurement that contributed to its low overall rating (127th), as according to the study “a healthy and efficient workforce is vital to a country’s competitiveness and productivity”.

It appears that improvements in basic education have not kept pace with the country’s evolving demographic profile. The literacy rate for 15-24-year-olds stands at 66% (76% for males and 58% for females), as opposed to the literacy rate for all Nigerians over the age of 15 at 51%. While the ratio of children out of school has improved slightly from 61% to 58% between 2000 and 2010, the total number of primary-aged children not attending school has grown from 7.3m to 8.7m over the same period.

There are also significant disparities across the country between rural and urban educational attainment, and gender inequality remains a major challenge. For example, net attendance ratio for boys (72%) is higher than for girls (68%). The percentage of the population in the northern states that has completed a primary or secondary degree is just 20%, which is just one-third of the 60% national average.


In the years immediately following independence in 1960, responsibility for the provision of education was given to local and regional governments, as well as to individual communities. As a result, according to a government report released in 1970, the public education system saw declining enrolment rates during the country’s first decade of independence. In an effort to boost enrolment, the government introduced the Universal Primary Education (UPE) programme in 1976, which made primary education both free and compulsory for all school-aged citizens. Since 1979 the sector has been jointly administered at the federal, state and local levels. In 1999 the UPE was replaced by the Universal Basic Education Programme, based on the global educational development standards laid out in the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Making Plans

Addressing the issue of out-of-school-children is one of the central tenets within the MDGs, and has been incorporated into Vision 20:2020, the government’s long-term economic development strategy. In 2012 the Federal Ministry of Education (FME) launched the four-year Strategic Plan for Education (SPE), which takes a holistic approach to improving the sector and is aligned to the broader objectives set out in Vision 20:2020. It follows the 10-year Strategic Education Plan launched by the ministry in 2007. The SPE intends to improve the management of education; boost standards as well as quality assurance in the public system; improve teacher education; widen access to schools, particularly at the primary level; ramp up cooperation between the public and private education sectors; and expand the TVET segment.

System Structure

Although the FME sets policy directives and oversees quality control at all education levels, it remains predominantly focused on the tertiary sector, with each of Nigeria’s 36 states – as well as Abuja, the federal capital territory – responsible for developing and maintaining their own secondary institutions. Meanwhile, the country’s 774 local government areas have been put in charge of primary institutions. While providing for localised autonomy and permitting more fit-for-purpose curricula, this tiered and fragmented structure has also contributed to the inconsistency in standards and performance across different parts of the country.

Basic education covers the primary and junior secondary grades, including children from around the ages of 6 to 12, has been made compulsory and is provided for free. Post-basic education includes three years of senior secondary education in either an academic or technical stream. However, it is estimated that only one in three children proceeds from basic education through to the senior secondary level. The tertiary level is made up of 128 federal, state and private universities, in addition to 281 colleges, 78 polytechnics and 27 monotechnics.

Budget Allocation

The former government assigned 10.7% of the budget in 2014 towards education, up slightly from 10.2% in 2013, and significantly higher than the figure of 4.5% in 1999. While the percentage allotment has risen over the past few years, Nigeria is still lagging its regional peers such as South Africa (25%), Kenya (23%), Ghana (31%) and the Côte d’Ivoire (30%) in terms of proportional spend. As a result, there is still some way to go before Nigeria reaches UNESCO’s recommended spending level of 26% on education for developing countries.

Moreover, to make more substantive improvements, the composition of funding requires reform, as recurrent expenditures such as overheads and salaries currently make up close to 90% of all outlays. Indeed, designated funds do not always make it through the system due to inefficiencies in public financing and incidences of corruption.

Seeking Admission

Since 2005, the number of universities has nearly tripled from 51 to 128, and the capacity of existing institutions has been expanded to handle greater enrolment volumes. This has led to the ratio of applicants receiving a placement improving from one-in-10 to one-in-three. At the same time, some contend that it has also contributed to erosion in quality. For example, Nigeria has some of the lowest lecturer-to-student ratios in the world, and according to a 2012 report from the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy Committee, less than half (43%) of university lecturers possess PhDs. Finding sufficient faculty is also a challenge, and around 40% of university positions and 60% of polytechnic positions go unfilled. While this can be attributed to a lack of qualified practitioners, it is also related to an ongoing brain drain as lecturers and academics are lured abroad by the prospects of higher salaries, better working conditions, and more promising career paths.

Union and industrial action has further added to the strains on the system. The Academic Staff Union of Universities undertook a six-month professor strike that started in July 2013 and affected around 75 public colleges and universities. It was eventually called off in December 2013 following a pledge from the government to improve working conditions and commit additional expenditure to the sector.

In 2013 over 1.7m students registered for the centralised tertiary admissions examinations, competing for just 520,000 places in total. According to the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board, the country’s 40 federal universities received 68.5% of applications, its 38 state universities 30%, and the 51 private universities the remaining 1.5%.

The gap between supply and demand is particularly acute at the more renowned federal public institutions, which are widely regarded as offering the highest-quality programmes. The most popular universities in 2011 were the University of Lagos (99,195 applicants for 6106 places), followed by Ahmadu Bello University (89,760), the University of Nigeria Nsukka (88,177), Nnamdi Azikiwe University (84,719) and the University of Benin (80,976).

In an effort to create more spaces, the federal government has announced upgrades to six universities – one in each geo-political zone – into “megauniversities” that will absorb up to 150,000 to 200,000 students each. The largest public universities have enrolments of between 20,000 and 30,000 students each, and while observers have lauded the motivation behind additional surplus capacity, concerns remain over whether there are sufficient resources available so as not to jeopardise quality.

Private Options

With 51 private universities accounting for only 1.5% of all university admissions despite a glaring shortfall in federal and state university slots, the unaffordability of private study for many students is a continuing constraint.

For example, tuition fees for the country’s major private universities vary from N160,000-250,000 ($976-1525) at the low end to N500,000-700,000 ($3050-4270) at the high end, fees that the average Nigerian family, with a per capita income of around $2700, cannot afford. As only around 20% of the population makes use of the formal banking system, student loan facilities are hard to come by and it remains fairly common for tuition fees to be paid in cash using long-term savings. To ease the financial burden of higher education, lawmakers passed a bill in May 2013 to establish a new Nigeria Education Bank that would replace its predecessor. The institution is designed to grant interest-free, low-cost loans to qualifying prospective university students. Loan beneficiaries are expected to commence repayment two years after the completion of their National Youth Service Corps programme.

Bolstering private sector investment in primary and secondary education is a key mandate for the SPE. Indeed, with some of the top private schools able to charge tuition fees in the range of $25,000 per year, this is an area that offers a potentially lucrative return. For those who can afford the fees, part of the appeal of most private schools, in addition to the prospects of a higher quality education than the public system provides, is that they include internationally accredited curricula that facilitate acceptance into universities overseas.

Study Abroad

The UNESCO Institute of Statistics put the number of Nigerians studying abroad in 2012 at just over 49,500, the highest figure in Africa, beating out Morocco, which has around 44,000 students abroad. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of Nigerians seeking their education abroad rose by 71%, a dramatic increase that can be attributed to two factors. Firstly, there has been an increase in the number of Nigerian families with the sufficient spending power to send their children abroad, while secondly, there has been a perceived decline in the quality of education available domestically.

Owing in part to its strong diplomatic ties with Nigeria that date back to the period of colonial rule, the UK was the most popular destination in the 2013/14 academic year, with 18,020 Nigerian students, up from 17,395 the previous year. Next was the US, with close to 7000 students in 2012, and closer to home, Ghana, with just over 6000 students. Malaysia, which holds appeal as a relatively low-cost destination, is in fourth place, hosting around 4400 students.

Getting Technical

Technical and vocational institutes have been capturing an increasing share of the tertiary pie ever since 1997 when the National Board for Technical Education was formed to evaluate and accredit polytechnics and colleges. There are currently 78 registered polytechnics, of which 19 are privately owned. These are complemented by 36 agriculture colleges, 27 monotechnics, 50 health technology colleges, 99 vocational enterprise institutions and innovation enterprise institutions, and 132 technical colleges. Churning out mostly mid-level manpower as well as professional trades such as nursing and laboratory technicians, technical and vocational education plays an important role in resolving the mismatch of high unemployment – which hovers just under 25% – in the face of a shortage of technical skills. “There is a very poor transition from school to work force, and graduates to date are not yet an employable package,” Omomene Odike, managing director at U-Connect, told OBG. “There are good teachers, but the curriculum is mainly the problem, as it covers nothing about the practical aspects of carrying and holding a job.”

Accordingly, successive Nigerian governments have attempted to improve the state of non-formal and continuing education. In 1990 the National Commission For Mass Literacy was founded to manage a network of free literacy workshops and study centres spread throughout the country. It has also hosted regular vocational training events aimed at unschooled youth and adults. In 1971 the Industrial Training Fund was established with the intention of improving the skills of the indigenous workforce to meet the needs of a changing commerce and industrial base. In 2011 in recognition that the fund had not been making the intended impact, former President Goodluck Jonathan announced a new bill. Its provisions stipulated that all companies with a labour pool in excess of five employees must contribute 1% of their payroll to the fund, which would be used to offer training courses in areas such as administration, banking and finance, ICT, health and safety, and the environment, among others.

Fear of Education

Unfortunately, an ongoing insurgency concentrated in the north of the country has dealt a severe blow towards the progress being made in closing the historical gap between rural and urban parts of the country, as well as between boys and girls. According to a report released by Amnesty International in October 2014, the conflict had by then caused 209 schools to be destroyed in Yobo state, while over 800 classrooms had been burned in Borno state. Even prior to the insurgency, the northern region had one of the lowest female enrolment rates in the world, measured at 22% in 2008. This poor educational record goes some way towards contextualising the high proportion of girls (67.4%) in the north who get married before the age of 15, compared to 10.8% in the country’s south.

Attendance has fallen dramatically of late due to the surge of attacks by extremist militants targeting female students. The most notorious incident that captured global media attention was on April 15, 2014, when 234 girls were kidnapped in the town of Chibok in Borno state while taking an exam. The name of the terrorist organisation claiming responsibility for the kidnapping, Boko Haram, loosely translates to “Western education is forbidden”. As the group intensifies its activities, a fear of attending school has become a reality for many young people caught up in the region’s political conflict.


The need for Nigeria to make drastic improvements in its education sector will be essential if the country is to fulfil its economic potential in the medium and long term. At all levels and in all streams, the continued lack of capacity is a major challenge. Although efforts are under way to include more students in the system, if these are not matched by concurrent upgrades in quality, the country risks falling further behind on key education metrics.

The government has been lauded for raising education spending, but observers still see funding as insufficient. While the private sector’s resources can be harnessed in this regard, the degree to which it can ease the burden on the government is constrained by the factor of affordability, as private education remains out of reach for most Nigerians.

Nigeria’s quickly growing population points to rapidly expanding demand for education for years to come. The growth of technical and vocational institutes will go a long way to providing an alternative to universities short on spaces, and is helping to match the market with technical skills needed. With an increasing range of stakeholders and options available, the educational gap is slowly closing. Even so, there will be no quick-fix solution to the country’s educational woes. This makes it all the more crucial for all sector participants to coordinate their efforts, so as to have the maximum possible impact.