The size, youthfulness and rapid growth of Nigeria’s population present education stakeholders with an array of challenges and opportunities. Budget shortfalls have stretched the public system thin, while disparities in enrolment and outcomes across the K-12 spectrum continue to emerge along the lines of gender and geography. Moreover, primary and secondary enrolment has slipped in the midst of insecurity in the country’s north, even as the insurgency has ebbed. However, recent policy reforms should propel public investment in new facilities, classroom resources and teacher training, which should improve student outcomes and reduce the country’s large out-of-school population.

As the government has struggled to meet its spending targets on public education, funding gaps have invited long-term, private engagement across all scholastic levels. The growing and chronically underserved middle class stands to benefit greatly from such investment, particularly in secondary schooling, while the state’s renewed emphasis on providing skills development and local content will support private ventures in technical and vocational education and training (TVET). While there is a long-standing trend of thousands of post-secondary students emigrating to study, many such Nigerians have chosen to remain in-country in the face of recent economic difficulties, and there are gains to be made in drawing them to programmes that can match the calibre of those abroad.


The Federal Ministry of Education (FME) formulates and coordinates national education policy by developing curricula and syllabi, collecting data for strategic and financial planning, maintaining quality controls, harmonising state policies and cooperating with international stakeholders. It carries out this mandate via more than a dozen departments dedicated to specific facets of the school system’s maintenance and development, including basic and secondary education; tertiary schooling; science and technology; quality assurance; planning, research and development; ICT; and scholarships. In addition, the ministry supervises specialised parastatals, such as the National Universities Commission (NUC), the Teachers’ Registration Council of Nigeria, the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), the National Examinations Council, the National Board for Technical Education (NBTE), and the Institute for Educational Planners and Administration.


In 1999 the federal government rolled out the Universal Basic Education (UBE) programme, which was designed to provide every child with the means to progress through the primary and secondary education system. The programme put in place the current 9-3-4 system, so-named for the number of years spent in each attainment level, beginning at age five: nine free, compulsory years split between six primary grades and three in a junior-secondary venue; three senior-secondary years; and, for those who qualify, four years in a tertiary institution. In addition, the UBE programme provides free access to nursery schools for children aged 36-59 months, which, while not compulsory, are increasingly popular. A February 2018 survey from UNICEF measured the participation rate in such groups at 35.6%, and found that 39.2% of children who enrolled in first grade had attended preschool the year prior. Like many of Nigeria’s neighbours, schooling at all four levels usually runs from September to June.

Excepting pre-primary schooling, each period culminates with a certificate examination that, if passed, permits entry to the next level. Following nine years of mandatory schooling, progression becomes non-linear: students who obtain the basic education certificate may transition into vocational training, technical colleges, apprenticeships and occupation-specific enterprise institutions. Students who opt for senior-secondary programmes still acquire vocational experience in their coursework, as such subjects are now treated as core functions of secondary education.

Early Schooling

An FME report published in August 2017 – the first of its kind – indicates that nationwide enrolment has fluctuated in recent years. The primary school cohort peaked at 26.2m students in 2013, declined to 25.4m in 2015 and recovered slightly to 25.6m in 2016. In junior-secondary school, the student body rose to a high of 6.2m in 2014 before declining to 6.0m in 2016. Senior-secondary enrolment has risen and fallen more steeply, dipping from a high- water mark of 5.15m in 2013 to 4.29m in 2014, improving to 4.91m in 2015 and falling to 4.48m in 2016. The FME hypothesises that the declines may be attributed to the northern insurgency, as well as poor state-by-state collection of data from private schools. The former assertion is supported by the non-uniformity of change from region to region: some have seen attendance numbers grow, even as others have seen student populations shrink, suggestive of internal displacement.

This recent decline in attendance has exacerbated existing trends and underscored the importance of devising a solution. UNICEF reports that Nigeria is home to 10.5m out of school children, the largest such population of any country in the world. And while the FME maintains that this figure has improved to 8.6m, its own data indicates that student bodies at all pre-tertiary levels have shrunk, not grown, since 2014. As of its publication, the UNICEF survey estimated that 60.9% of children of primary school age were enrolled; the rate for kids of secondary school age was lower, at 46.9%.

Moreover, these rates are unevenly distributed along lines of gender and geography. While the gender parity index – girls’ attendance rate divided by boys’ attendance rate, or girls per boy – has improved, at 0.95 (or 19 girls per 20 boys) for primary school attendees and 0.97 among secondary students, UNICEF estimates that 60% of out-of-school children are girls. Among both genders, students in the southern regions – home to cities Port Harcourt, Lagos and Ibadan – are more than twice as likely to attend secondary schools as their peers in the north, which has suffered from greater militant violence and higher rates of poverty.


The administration’s has recently established and elaborated upon its targets for expanding access to and improving the quality of the education system via the Ministerial Strategic Plan (MSP) 2016-19 and the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) 2017-20.

The MSP is sector-specific and built on 10 development pillars, including out-of-school children, teacher education, adult literacy, primary and secondary curricula, tertiary education and TVET. Among its objectives are universal access to basic education for all school-aged children; 70% access to TVET and tertiary institutions for eligible students; and 75% access to informal schooling and lifelong learning opportunities for adults.

The ERGP seeks to diversify the economy through the development of priority sectors like education. The plan observes that global economic shifts, driven by the growth of ICT and the digital revolution, have created an impetus to help young graduates adapt to the new demands of the international labour market. Over its duration, the ERGP aims to achieve universal enrolment in primary and secondary schools, boost TVET enrolment by 500,000 students, revise recruitment prerequisites to improve teacher quality, train 295,000 new personnel, provide annual bursaries to 100,000 eligible science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) undergraduates, build 501 classroom blocks across the country, launch post-university skills development institutions, and prioritise women’s education by constructing special schools in 13 states and starting 125-day and boarding schools to serve girls.


According to a November 2017 report published in the daily newspaper Premium Times, the budget for education as a share of total spending grew steadily from 7.2% in 2010 to a nine-year high of 10.8% in 2015. However, the FME’s allocation dipped sharply in 2016 to 7.9% of spending, following a crash in global oil prices, the ensuing domestic recession and the rapid currency depreciation that stemmed from unpegging the naira from the US dollar. Despite increasing in raw terms in 2017, education’s share of total outlays declined to 7.4%, and FME’s capital spending remained flat. This trend, owing in part to a weaker naira, was extended by the N9.1trn ($29.4bn) appropriation bill signed into law in July 2018, in which FME’s N651bn ($210m) allocation was equivalent to 7.15% of total expenditure. That share is the lowest such figure that the FME has received in the past decade and well short of the 26% recommendation adopted by Nigeria and other UNESCO members in November 2017. Crucially, however, capital spending as a share of FME’s total allocation increased from 2017 to 2018, from 10.3% to 15.8%.

Concrete Challenges

An April 2018 report from the International Trade Administration (ITA), a sub-agency of the US Department of Commerce charged with promoting US non-agricultural exports, assessed Nigeria’s education budget as “grossly insufficient to address the needs of the sector, considering the rate of deterioration in public education across all levels”. The impact of that funding gap is best reflected by Nigeria’s 103rd-place ranking in UNESCO’s 2015 Education for All Development Index, which surveyed 118 countries on metrics of education quality, gender parity, universal primary education and adult literacy.

The shortcomings rooted in underfunding have taken other forms. Corruption has been a major source of resource loss, and teachers often strike to protest low salaries and late payments, which weighs on student outcomes and is believed to push thousands of secondary school graduates to study out of country. The UNESCO Institute of Statistics estimates that Nigeria sent 89,100 tertiary students abroad in 2017, up 238% from 37,400 in 2007, making Nigeria the largest African country of origin of international students. Many of them rely on scholarships underwritten by tax revenue earned from oil receipts, and the tighter budget and the naira’s depreciation have reduced their support. However, these conditions have also created an opportunity for private intervention.

“As the naira lost value, private Nigerian universities adapted to the recession by marketing the fact that it is cheaper to study here than it is to send students abroad,” Efe Anthony Erhabor, head of coverage and corporate banking services at FBN Quest Merchant Bank, told OBG. “The market focus has been on more aggressively encouraging students to study in country, and applications to certain universities have picked up since 2016, compared to when the naira was trading at 150 or 160 to the US dollar. There are a couple of schools that have seen enrolment rise.”

Universities & TVET

The pool of returning and prospective overseas students is one small portion of a market that presents considerable and growing potential for private investors. The tertiary segment as a whole consists of hundreds of institutions of higher education. As of 2017 the NUC accredited 40 federal universities, 44 state universities and 68 private universities as degree-granting institutions; the NBTE oversaw 107 polytechnics, 27 monotechnic schools and 220 colleges; and the NCCE supervised 84 non-university teacher training schools. While the market is large and diverse, its expansion has not kept pace with population and income growth, and taken together with the macroeconomic slowdown and budget cuts, public universities are unable to satisfy the rising demand for degree programmes. According to JAMB, of the 1.6m secondary school graduates who took the matriculation examination in 2016, only 416,000 candidates were admitted to public institutions, leaving the private sector to absorb the remaining three-quarters of students.

Upskilling Required

At the same time, the ITA reports that a lack of skilled labour, low technological uptake, inadequate investment in research, and outdated educational materials have created a mismatch between graduates’ skills and labour market demands. The ERGP backs up that finding in asserting that among the challenges that most urgently need to be addressed are limited STEM training, inadequate facilities at all levels of education, substandard tertiary infrastructure and a lack of high-quality TVET programmes.

“An estimated 90% of high school students do not go on to post-secondary. The challenge for employers is not having the right personnel to build their businesses and not having adequate time to train such personnel,” Noella Moshi, the programmes and expansion lead at the West African Institute for Vocational Education, told OBG. “And from the side of jobseekers working with employers, young people are systematically excluded from the hiring process.” Both against this backdrop, and as a result of local content regulations and privatisation in the energy sector, the ITA reports strong demand for investment across the TVET spectrum.

Dividends in Universal Enrolment

The federal government’s statutory commitment to the UBE programme could offer attractive opportunities, and stakeholders report that there is significant potential in public efforts to improve facilities, infrastructure and teaching materials. “I see the biggest opportunity at the secondary level. There’s a large population of around 200m, and 10% of those are considered middle class, with 35% of that below a certain age, so there is a lot of opportunity to invest. The public system is not at its best, and a lot of students’ families can afford a high-quality education in private secondary schools,” Erhabor told OBG. State governments are also increasingly interested in securing investment for new primary and secondary facilities, as well as vocational training centres, and officials are discussing a range of incentives to offer, including tax holidays, financial support, investment insurance, land and infrastructure.


Chronically inadequate government funding and a large out-of-school population continue to hamper the growth of the education sector and, by consequence, the development of the labour force. While the scale of this problem should not be downplayed, the sector’s mid- and long-term outlooks are more positive. Government policies aimed at expanding access, improving student outcomes and better responding to future labour market demands should help improve graduate employability, while shortfalls in the K-12 system offer new opportunities to private investors, particularly in vocational training, secondary education and educational supplies. Space also abounds for new investments in infrastructure and personnel training, which offers significant growth potential.