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Financing education in Ondo State, by Isaac Monehin

Man needs to be developed mentally and physically so as to make the best use of all other productive resources at his disposal. As the motivator, coordinator and manager of other factors of production, he needs to be trained and informed. Politically, he needs to be versed and enlightened enough to play the game in a manner that will guarantee dividends of democracy to his constituents. Socially and culturally, the need to document and preserve the norms, values and ethos of the society for in-coming generations becomes important. All these and many others can only be done effectively when people are educated, thus the vital role of education in societal development. In the words of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo: “The more educated the people in the state are, the more productive they become as economic agents and the more useful and effective they are as members of the society.”
Perhaps, because of the powerful role education plays in national development both time and changing circumstances have made it a crucial factor in the politics and struggle for power in most countries. In Nigeria, for instance, one cannot forget in a hurry the heat generated by the debate on “free education at all levels” of the then Unity Party of Nigeria and “qualitative education’ of the National Party of Nigeria in the Second Republic. Also, because of the cost-element to which resources pumped into it attracts, it is an important variable the economist has to take into consideration in planning resource allocation. These reasons summed into one, explain the interests and comments the issue has attracted and will continue to attract for a very long time to come.
Based on its importance, the provision of education to the people seems to be regarded as one of the fundamental functions of the State. And even to some ideologically-inclined socialist politicians, there is no justification for the continued existence of a State that cannot afford free education for her people. While it is not the intention of this writer to be involved in the arguments surrounding this assertion, it is however apposite to say that for proper and sustainable development, the economics, politics and sociology of education should be jointly considered and the modalities of financing properly worked out with a view to achieving a balance between these factors. The need for this becomes imperative in a dwindling and fragile economy like ours where government may find it difficult to finance all the needs of a standard and qualitative educational system.
That education is the major industry in Ondo State is an indisputable fact. Ondo State has a population of about 3.8 million. The State boasts of over 880 public primary schools,190 secondary schools, four technical schools, one school of health technology, one school of nursing and midwifery, one polytechnic and three universities, all state owned. This excludes scores of institutions owned by the private sector and the Federal Government. Despite the fact that literacy level in Nigeria generally is below 60 per cent, a far cry from the 100 per cent recommendation of UNESCO, the state still ranks among the leading educationally advanced states in the country.
Looking at the output in terms of not only increase in literacy level but also in terms of the quantitative number of distinguished scholars and professionals that have been produced overtime in the State, one will easily conclude that the investment has paid off. However, when one considers the huge cost outlay, year-in year-out, there is cause to worry as the growing cost trend has a lot of disturbing consequences. The educational sub-sector is just one out of the many sectors of the state economy that demands proper government attention. Any kobo spent on it has an opportunity cost (alternative forgone), the cost being the other sectors like health, agriculture, industry, transportation, etc. to which the money would have been expended. Politicians will however aptly argue that if you say education is expensive, try illiteracy.
While it is true that a correlation exists between education and development, this correlation may not necessarily imply causation. Brushing that aside, much depends on the contents of the educational system itself in the development process, the supply of education – in terms of the outcome – consistent with the level of economic development, amidst others. For instance, how many doctors, engineers, teachers, accountants, (professionals of various fields or disciplines) do we require at every stage of our development process, say every 10, 15 or 20 years? These have to be properly worked out by policy makers for the avoidance of redundancy and embarrassing unemployment rate. Much, these days, depend on the functionality and relevance of the education received rather than the mere certificates awarded.
For Ondo State that owes its survival to the monthly statutory allocation from the Federal Government and where industrial development is at its nadir, the truth is that the government cannot and should not be expected to single-handedly shoulder the burden of financing education. This is not to suggest that considerable and meaningful contribution should not come from the government. What this calls for is an arrangement of re-ordering of priorities and of course, with the interwoven issue of trade-offs. A lot of economic, social and political factors go into the determination of this but frankly speaking, I should think our first priority in Ondo State now should be the development of our economic base, industrial development and agricultural re-awakening that will provide the stimuli for the eventual “take off”.
The present economic predicament of the government, more than anything else, has made it impossible for the government to be the sole financier of education. The ugly truth however is that education can only be financed and developed to the extent to which the national or state economy is healthy. The prolonged utter reliance on oil wealth at the expense of the development of other sectors of the economy, itself a failure of quality leadership, is a major challenge the Nigerian economy is facing today. The current oil crisis has worsened the problem beyond contemplation and has brought with it sharp fall in expected revenue to our governments.
The implication on this on our State with no shock absorber in terms of robust internally generated revenue, (a direct consequence of our low industrial base), is what we are witnessing now with late or non- payment of worker’s salaries being the gravest. And this will continue until we move the national economy away from the path of mono-culturalism to that of a properly diversified one where agriculture takes the prime of place, discipline our consumption pattern by cutting our demand for anything foreign, reduce waste in government, reduce corruption, etc. No thanks to the rapidly increasing youthful population and the increasing quest for higher education. A total of 1,736,567 candidates sat for the 2017 Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination alone and this is increasing yearly. In short, we need to grow the economy. This cannot be by magic, miracle or through wishful thinking! It is largely by production.
Having said that much, the question now remains: What is the best model for now for financing education in the State? Is “free education” a policy that can still be sustained and to what extent or limit? Shouldn’t we begin to let the recipients of education be responsible for its costs, the degree of cost borne to vary proportionally to the level of education demanded? Shouldn’t we begin to align the supply of education (starting from admission) to the absorptive capacity of the economy, discriminate on contents to favour science and technologically-inclined courses for the purpose of subsidy, if the latter should come in at all in whatever form? Shouldn’t we re-examine and encourage the idea of missionaries owning and financing schools under guided template of government as once existed? Can’t there be public-private sectors collaboration in the area of funding of capital projects and provision of basic infrastructures that will guarantee qualitative education in our schools, colleges and universities on a sustainable basis? What strategies should universities cultivate in generating revenue internally to support the dwindling finance from government? The questions are endless.
It is my considered opinion that the myth of “free education” created by politicians that totally ignore the need for the beneficiaries to be responsible is some way for the financing of education can no longer be sustained these days. Yes, during the colonial and pre-independence era when skills of different types were in short supply and were needed for national development, it was an appropriate policy. Times have since changed and the dictates of the times are different and this is how the issue should be approached. The 100% subsidy on primary education is desirable and should be continued to drive illiteracy away from our land; this can even be extended to cover up to secondary school. It is my considered opinion that the Ondo State Government can still afford this if leakages are blocked and more transparency brought into governance.
Anything above this level, the beneficiaries should bear the cost majorly. The truth of the matter is that as one progresses on the ladder, education becomes more advantageous to the recipient directly than to the State. Treated as an investment, the recipient takes virtually all the benefit directly than the State; any benefit to the State becomes secondary. Exceptions to this can only be where there is identified shortfall in supply of special skills needed by government. Such can attract special incentives by way of subsidies, scholarships, etc. Acquiring tertiary education should be by choice, it is not compulsory neither is it a guarantee for success, success no matter how defined.
There are useful lessons to be learnt from the experience of Ghana that tried the free education policy up to the University at a time, but had to abandon it when it collapsed under the weight of scarce resource availability and allocation as the fortune of the country dwindles. As a matter of fact, in countries where government takes a chunk of the financing like the United States, United Kingdom, to mention a few, they are able to do so through taxation and active participation of the private sector. Ours is a different environment; not much comes in from taxation in Ondo State. Aside of PAYE paid by civil servants and few people lucky to be in the organized private sector, nobody wants to hear the word ‘tax’ here.
Funding of higher education requires great resources if quality education is expected. All over the world, grants are reducing thus making co-sharing of cost or outright full cost absorption by recipients inevitable. In most cases, in some of these advanced countries that we untiringly and comfortably cite, students take huge loans to pay for higher education. A degree in the UK can worth a jaw-dropping £25,000 per year! An indigent freshman admitted to study humanities at the University of Ghana for 2017/18 academic year, has to pay about 5,625 cedis, which is about $1,265 or N462,000 per year. That aside, there is even a growing discrimination between graduates of poorly funded public schools and products of very expensive schools all in the name of quality. I strongly suspect that whatever is being paid by an average student in any of our tertiary institution in the State today cannot guarantee quality. From reliable sources, a fresh undergraduate of Adekunle Ajasin University Akungba – Akoko pays N50,000 acceptance fee in addition to N27,000 tuition per year while returning students pay only the tuition fee of N27,000 per session. Emotions apart, not much can be done with this by the university authority.
I think a re-introduction of the Student Loans Scheme by the government is apt in our circumstance now. This will go a long way to ease the burden on students from poor homes who might be unable to afford the full cost of higher education if not supported. Interest rate to be charged on such a loan should not be more than Treasury Bill rate while collateral should be limited to guarantee of two or three public servants such that where default occurs from beneficiaries, such indebtedness can be recovered from the guarantors pension benefits.
The private sector should be courted to participate in financing capital projects in the universities on a PPP basis with participating organizations given some tax rebate as comfort. Wealthy individuals should be encouraged too to fund projects that can be named after them. University administrators should look inward and establish commercial ventures that can generate revenue to support funding from government and be more innovative in driving the unit cost of education per student downward. A combination of these may just provide the way out of the present situation we find ourselves. Above all, government should be more open and be more accountable to the people to engender trust. The growing disenchantment of the people with our governments at all levels and all over the country stem from the premise of bad governance. With daily revelations as to how funds are looted by the governing class with little or no meaningful reprimands and punishments, pleas for understanding and cooperation with government sounds hollow. This has to change before meaningful progress can be made.
. Monehin is an economist and a public affairs analyst.