Globalization and the Political Economy of Higher Education in Nigeria

Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké Okome, Ph.D.
Brooklyn College, CUNY
Department of Political Science

Presented at the Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, Washington, D.C. December 5-8, 2002.
Work in progress. Please do not quote.

Most analyses of higher education in Nigeria explain the history, causes of decline and strategies for revival by focusing upon the inadequacy of government funding, the abandonment of the Universities and even Nigeria by the intelligentsia and the students that are most financially able to do so, the obvious infrastructural decay, falling academic standards, and the politicization of education. The recent negotiation of a loan between the Federal Government of Nigeria and the World Bank to revitalize Nigerian higher education must be viewed in the context not only of lost autonomy today, but as another phase in the intrusion of the phenomenon of globalization in the political economy of higher education in Nigeria.
This paper will argue that neither the history, nor the causes, nor the strategies for reviving the Nigerian higher education system will succeed without a prior articulation of autonomous strategies that are directed toward proactive and comprehensive economic planning that understands that education is one of the major linchpins in both economic and political well-being. Education is central to national interest, and cannot be solely determined by market forces. Thus, the role of the state in making education policy, and funding education cannot be overemphasized.
The paper traces the origins of funding problems to the intensification of pressures from Nigeria's integration into the global political economy. The Structural Adjustment Program as well as ‘third wave' democratization were both pushed by the World Bank. Many of the problems being experienced in the higher institutions of learning today may not have started in the era of Structural Adjustment, but they did intensify. In particular, the World Bank in the 1980s recommended that countries that had high debt and serious balance of payments deficit as did Nigeria ought to direct their attention more to funding primary and technical education rather than tertiary education, which is elitist. The recommendations were made in an atmosphere of economic crisis, where the universities were the most visible sites of anti- Structural Adjustment critiques and protests. The embattled state responded in ways that generated many of today's problems.
The paper considers these problems as generating profound and seemingly intractable reverberations that have stymied both scholarship and learning in Nigerian universities. It takes the position that World Bank involvement will not only impede university autonomy, it will negatively impact Nigeria's political and economic development. While there are other alternative sources of funding Nigeria's higher education, as indicated by the blossoming of private universities in the country, it argues against the total privatization of higher education. In addition to the founding of private universities [with a rigorous certification system in place], the creation of endowment funds that support higher education by Nigerians must be encouraged. The paper concludes that matters of higher education, being defined as a critical aspect of national interest, must reflect the collective vision of advances that Nigeria wants to make in the 21st Century and how it aims to get there.
To underscore the importance of the subject of higher education in Nigeria, and to properly contextualize the problem of higher education, as not only a Nigerian issue but an African, and ultimately, a global problem, this paper begins with a lengthy quote from a speech made by United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan at the launching of an initiative to strengthen African Universities.
Universities provide the logical extension to basic education for all. The university is equally a development tool for Africa, . . . . It holds the key to something we all want and need: African answers to African problems; the capacity to address the most pressing issues both at the theoretical and practical levels.
We look to universities to develop African expertise; to enhance the analysis of African problems; to strengthen domestic institutions; to serve as a model environment for the practice of good governance, conflict resolution and respect for human rights; and to enable African academics to play an active role in the global community of scholars.
Key to this is bridging the digital divide. At present, less than half a per cent of all Africans have used the Internet. This lack of access to new technology leads to exclusion from the global economy as well. The digital revolution has created new opportunities for growth in every field and industry. Since the most valued resource in this revolution is intellectual capital, it is possible for developing world countries to overcome the constraint of lacking finance capital and to leapfrog long and painful stages of the road to development that others had to go through.
In the academic world, information technology must be more than a vehicle for long-distance learning and degrees. At its best, information technology will support, not supplant, Africa's own research and academic development. It should be a tool that: provides access to materials and enhances libraries; makes affordable periodicals and journals that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive; facilitates links within Africa and among African institutions as well as with the rest of the world; and finally, enables African scholars to contribute their research to the global bank of knowledge.
In other words, we should replace the digital divide with digital bridges.
But in the end, there is no substitute for good teachers, a good curriculum and good teaching materials, developed by, for and with the African communities they are intended to serve.
We must strive to renew the faculty of African universities. This is a real problem, as my friends from African universities will attest. The old generation is retiring, and many of the young generation are opting to go into business where they get the big bucks or remain abroad after their studies. We must devise strategies to attract young faculty, and build up exchange programmes with universities outside Africa, particularly those with Africans on their faculties.
As we assist Africa to develop its own bank of knowledge, we must also draw on it. African universities already play a direct role in poverty reduction programmes. Experts in economics, sociology and anthropology are training those who manage districts and projects on the ground. Others are assisting in the expansion of small- and medium-scale enterprises. The international community must make use of this valuable store of local expertise and experience.
. . . .
This is a moment in history that we should seize. By working together, we can succeed. (UN Secretary General Kofi Annan).[i]
Globalization as a phenomenon is hardly new, although more people are conscious of living in a global world today. Historically then, higher education is shaped by political, economic and social forces. It in turn, profoundly shapes the process of globalization since ideas have epistemic power, and the production of knowledge is inextricably linked with the manner in which humans understand and give meaning to their lived realities.
Globalization and Higher Education in Nigeria
We cannot date the emergence of tertiary institutions in the African continent to the relatively late emergence of the contemporary crop of higher institutions of learning in the African continent. Anyone who knows African history knows of the existence of fine higher institutions of learning in ancient Mali and Egypt. This paper restricts its comments to the tertiary institutions that were established first in the final days of colonialism, and more during the nationalist era of anti-colonial campaigns, the former to train personnel to man colonial posts, and the latter to prepare Africans to take charge of the production of knowledge, to equip them with the wherewithal to lead their various countries in different capacities, to enable them to become the vanguard in implementing the nationalist liberatory agenda.
Considered from the glorious and forward-thinking optimism of those times, it is clear that today’s tertiary institutions have come to a bad pass. All over the African continent, tertiary institutions suffer from what we see so graphically in Nigeria – massive under-funding, infrastructural decay, and the brain drain. Most analyses of higher education in Nigeria consequently explain the history, causes of decline, and strategies for revival by focusing upon the inadequacy of government funding, the abandonment of the country and universities by those scholars and students that are able to do so, the falling of academic standards, and the politicization of the universities. These analyses are both right and wrong. They are right because one would have to be blind and/or senseless not to see that today’s universities are but pale imitations, or even carcasses of yesterday’s phoenixes. They are wrong because these phenomena are themselves caused by globalization. The phenomena in turn shape our understanding and experience of globalization.
According to Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.[ii]
Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations also sheds some light on the connection between globalization and education in Africa, as well as on the centrality of education to human life when his representative, Nitin Desai said on his behalf, at a meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on the Development of Science and Technology in Africa, in New York on February 9, 1999

Today, globalization is affecting all aspects of our lives, from the political, to the social, to the cultural. Only knowledge, it would seem, is not being globalized. In an age where the acquisition and advancement of knowledge is a more powerful weapon in a nation's arsenal than any missile or mine, the knowledge gap between the north and the south is widening. This trend must be reversed.[iii]

It is clear that Nigerian universities have not only lost their autonomy today, but that we are observing another manifestation of the deep and profound engagement of the African continent with the global forces of production, of governance, and of social relations.
I argue that the crisis in Nigerian higher education is caused by the manner in which Nigeria like the rest of Africa is experiencing globalization. Nigeria and the overwhelming majority of African countries are in the throes of a deep-seated economic crisis. For most African countries, this crisis began in the 1970s. Nigeria was shielded from experiencing the worst of the crisis in the 1970s because of an oil boom that itself was the outcome of the operation of global political and economic forces. The Arab-Israeli war of the 1970s made it possible for Nigeria to exponentially increase the gains from the exploitation and purveyance of what increasingly became the most important earner of foreign exchange, crude petroleum.
The irrational exuberance of Nigeria’s oil boom years led to expanded capacity to fund many more universities in a system that practiced unabashed ivory-towerism. Students were clearly being groomed by this system to take up cushy jobs as leaders in their fields and in the nation at large. The number of institutions increased with each increase that the Nigerian government made of the number of states. I must hasten to say that despite these increases, Nigeria has not, by any stretch of the imagination, met the need and demand for higher education.
Let me reiterate and extend my argument: Without the prior articulation of autonomous and coordinated strategies that are directed toward pro-active and comprehensive economic planning that understands that education is one of the major linchpins to economic, political and social well-being, there cannot be a clear understanding of the history, causes, or strategies for reviving the Nigerian higher education system. Education is central to national interest, and is too important to be left to pure market forces. Thus, the role of the state in making education policy, and in funding education cannot be over-emphasized.
To say that globalization is important is also to trace the origins of funding problems in the universities to the intensification of the pressures from Nigeria’s integration into the global political economy. The Structural Adjustment Program as well as “third wave” democratization were both pushed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Many of the problems being experienced in the higher institutions of learning today may not have started in the era of Structural Adjustment, but they did intensify. In particular, the Bank in its Berg Plan (1979) did recommend that countries that fit the profile of Nigeria ought to direct their attention more to funding primary, rather than elitist tertiary education. The recommendations were made in an atmosphere of economic crisis, where the universities were the most visible sites of anti-Structural Adjustment critiques and protests. The embattled state escalated its classic tradition of repressive responses to those who opposed its policies, methods and style of administration by unleashing the military, police, and security forces on the universities. Demonstrators were shot at by security forces, as they were during the more ‘benevolent’ 1970s, critics were detained, interrogated, and forced into exile. The universities became increasingly infiltrated by undercover security agents who laid the groundwork for today’s cults. The Association of Senior Staff of the Universities was proscribed time and again under the Babangida administration and the more brutal Abacha dictatorship, as was the National Students’ Union. These punitive and repressive measures were accompanied by further centralization of the tertiary education system in a manner that followed the administrative norm during the various phases of military rule. The power of the purse was also used to humiliate, silence, and marginalize the intelligentsia.
Profound under-funding of the universities, neglect of their infrastructure, and the marginalization of the intellectuals as a crucial part of the process of state building fell right in line with the IMF’s advice that there was an imperative need for rationalization through retrenchment, removal of subsidies, attrition, imposing market values on all aspects of life by “getting the prices right,” and the World Bank’s advice that the focus on tertiary education breeds an elitism that could scarcely be afforded. Like most social services, education became a privilege rather than a right, but the conditions under which it was produced and acquired simultaneously became Darwinian. Books, journals, equipments and teaching aids became unattainable luxuries for the overwhelming majority of students and professors, many of whom were pushed by the state into the burgeoning class of the dispossessed.
Remarkably, the intellectuals did not withdraw with their tail between their legs. They produced alternatives to Structural Adjustment, maintained their critiques of irrational government policies, and argued for academic freedom, university autonomy, as well as for a rethinking of the inevitability of SAP and the un-viability of alternatives. Given the state’s intransigence, this was a dialogue of the deaf. Direct repression, the escalation of a reign of terror, the compulsion of necessity to utilize multiple survival strategies such as for the “lucky” few, doing intellectual piecework for more affluent Western colleagues, and for the majority, becoming a part of the hustling and trading culture that pervaded every aspect of Nigeria’s socioeconomic life, could not but create what today seems to be the seemingly intractable problems in higher education. Scholarship and learning were stymied. There was an exodus to greener pastures in Africa and the West, again, by those who were able.
African and Nigerian higher education was deeply assaulted by the forces of Structural Adjustment, as well as by the illiberal democratization that took place in many countries. In a dramatic turn-around, rather than advocate that higher education should be open only to the highest bidders, all of a sudden, everyone is now concerned with the dismal state of higher education in Africa. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Bank, Carnegie Corporation, the Social Science Research Council, the Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, the US State Department, and most of the major universities in the United States have jumped on the bandwagon of strengthening higher education in Africa. The World Bank in a shameless, a-historical manner, erases its role in creating the educational morass in which we find ourselves in Africa. The state has declared a commitment to the revamping of the educational system. International philanthropic organizations have declared that education is a priority, UNESCO and many multilateral organizations have made important interventions. One wonders though, where all this help was when African intellectuals were the proverbial voices in the wilderness. It is impossible to reverse the tide of history, but Karl Marx’s observation in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is relevant to this situation. I will quote an entire paragraph.
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.[iv]
All Nigerians participate in the making of history, albeit not under conditions of their making. The question they must all ask is the following: How can they stanch the flow of the lifeblood out of the tertiary institutions? How can the heady optimism of the past and the vibrant production of knowledge that it generated be revived? Given that Nigeria is in dire developmental straits, how do we make the educational system meaningful for the agenda of national development?
Here is my humble submission: I am as scared of all the help that is being offered in the various partnership proposals than of the wanton disregard of the plight of the African Academy. World Bank and other multilateral involvement will only impose a certain vision that is informed by an externally defined agenda for tertiary education, again, because African intellectuals may not be treated as the experts that can help us find our way out of the woods. This will negatively impact on Africa’s and by implication, Nigeria’s political and economic development. It will create irresoluble problems for the social system.
There are other alternative sources of funding for strengthening higher education today, and in a way, that is a good thing. The Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie and MacArthur Foundations are to be applauded for their higher education initiative. They should however, proceed cautiously so as not to succumb to the pitfalls of developmentalism – a disdain for the local experts and the elevation of the foreign variety to the status of demi-Gods. There are also private universities springing up very rapidly in Nigeria and other African countries. This too is a desirable development but there must be a rigorous system of certification and institutional review. These universities must also resist the allure of totally playing to the market and the tendency to exclusively train personnel for service sector jobs.
It is necessary that endowment funds that are completely indigenous be created to fund the universities and to create the agenda for the renaissance of scholarship and the serious pursuit of the production of knowledge. It is necessary that intellectuals, professionals, and businesspeople in Nigeria and its Diaspora participate actively in these efforts.
The use of virtual technologies can also facilitate solid academic and scholarly collaborations among Nigerians in the Diaspora and at home. We all should explore and develop these linkages in order to turn the brain drain to our advantage. If the emphasis today is on Strengthening African universities, and donors are hell-bent on using foreign experts, we ought to subvert the natural desire to locate such expertise outside Africa by building the requisite social capital that puts us in the pool of candidates that engender the strengthening of the universities. I say this because many of us are familiar with the terrain of tertiary education in Africa and Nigeria, particularly those whose careers in African and Nigerian Universities were cut short by the advent and intensification of Structural Adjustment. Many African and Nigerian professors in Europe, America, and even South Africa have headed departments, and some, entire universities. Their combined experience would stand any reform initiative in good stead. Their intervention, I submit may be more desirable than those from the outside who want to remake African and Nigerian higher education in the image of western ideals that are ill-suited to the demands and challenges faced by the African continent today. In my view, African intellectuals in the Diaspora have much to learn from our colleagues at home. I submit that they ought to be allowed to take the lead in designing an agenda for strengthening the universities and in the implementation of such an agenda.
Finally, matters of higher education are a critical aspect of national interest, and of necessity, we cannot divorce higher education from primary and secondary education, which feed into the higher institutions, because “garbage in, garbage out.” If education is a crucial aspect of national interest, it must reflect the collective vision of the advances that Nigeria wants to make in the 21st century and beyond. The agenda must also incorporate a well-thought up strategy for how we aim to accomplish these goals.
No doubt, the Nigerian higher educational system has been thoroughly politicized. This is inevitable. We cannot address politicization by withdrawing from politics, but we can practice a different kind of politics. The politics must of necessity be focused not just on the domestic matters that constantly create dissension and factionalization among students and intellectuals. In Nigeria, there are problems with university autonomy from the government. Most universities are unable to sustain themselves financially, and depend overwhelmingly on the funds that are doled out by the federal and state governments. Without financial independence, any plans for autonomy would be baseless and useless. How do these universities cut themselves from the state’s apron strings? Some fees would have to be charged. These fees cannot be totally determined by market forces because the state still has an interest in ensuring that higher education is given priority ranking. In charging fees, provisions must be made for indigent students to be able to access higher education through grants, scholarships, and possibly loans. Before autonomy, the universities have to be made whole again. Infrastructural repairs and augmentation of inadequate facilities must be undertaken. Libraries must be stocked with books and journals, attempts must be made to modernize instructional technologies. Again, the role of the state is crucial. External assistance may be sought and taken, but not at the expense of the independence that is required to build a meaningful educational system that engenders the realization of Nigeria’s development goals.
The universities are also a crucial part of building expertise in various areas of need. If they are mandated to do so, and they are given the wherewithal to accomplish this goal, the dearth of expertise in the African continent would not be a perpetual matter. Also, the universities are needed to teach those who would take up the mantle of scholarship and leadership in the future. An investment in their ability to do so is an investment in the future viability of Africa. The ability to do the jobs that the universities must undertake in today’s world means that they must use contemporary tools and methods. Information technology has revolutionized teaching and learning. African and Nigerian universities must be given the tools and the requisite training to make use of these technologies. In sum, I agree with Kofi Annan. Education is a more important weapon in a nation’s arsenal than any missile or mine. It ought not to be left to pure market forces, and should not be handed over to even good friends who want to strengthen it. If African and Nigerian tertiary institutions and educational systems are to be strengthened to meet the demands of the present and future, the efforts to re-focus them must be spearheaded by indigenes at home and in the Diaspora. Among these indigenes, intellectuals are particularly able to understand the terrain and propose solutions.
[i] “Secretary-General, At Launch Of Initiative To Strengthen African Universities, Says Education Surest Investment In Current ‘Globalizing’ Age” Press Release SG/SM/7365 AFR/220.

[ii] Universal Declaration of Human Rights
[iii] “Promotion Of Science, Technology Cornerstone For African Economic Progress Says Secretary-General In Address At Headquarters” Press Release SG/SM/6891 SAG/21 9 February 1999
[iv] Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon


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