The following is an excerpt from a newspaper advertorial recently run by an insurance company: “A colleague recently told the story of a friend who, despite earning a significant salary, complained of not being able to afford much else after paying the school fees of her children. She had kids schooling in international schools (it doesn’t say whether foreign schools or those Nigerian schools that add ‘international’ to their moniker, as a marketing gimmick), and their fees exerted a huge financial burden on her. A few months later, she lost her job. She was devastated as her husband had lost his job a few years back.” If this woman, or her family, didn’t invest in the insurance company that ran this advertorial, her kids would have been compelled to transfer from the expensive private school to a public school.
The Lagos State University , though a public university run with Lagos taxpayers’ money, won’t be available for her kids. LASU went the way of private universities in October 2011, when it hiked its fees, from a modest N25,000 to a new floor and ceiling of N93,750 and N348,750 respectively – depending on the course of study. LASU won’t offer those kids an alternative opportunity for a higher education. And they’d lose the chance to compete fairly in what the newspaper advertorial describes as a “borderless world, (where) competition for jobs is intensifying.” If a certain old boy of a public school, Eko Boys High School, and another public school, University of Benin, had been turned out of these schools because the fees were beyond the reach of his parents, who obviously were not moneybags, Lagos State may not have today’s high-octane Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN. The new LASU school fees regime is more like high-end than the middle of the road the governor suggests. The N400,000 paid in private universities is not such a long shot from the N350,000 that LASU is asking for. Fashola may note the announcement by his alma mater, University of Benin, that its “Management did not… contemplate any plans to increase school fees,” and students should therefore “shun those rumour mongers and concentrate on their studies.”
A pressure group, SaveLASU, argues that the new LASU school fees regime is driving down student enrolment from the usual annual 15,000 to 20,000 freshman enrolment to a paltry 1,100. That sounds incredulous. SaveLASU suggests that this may cause the rationalisation of some departments, and the possibility that some lecturers may be asked to go home. This is grave. Contrary to Fashola’s claim that students who cannot pay the new LASU school fees regime normally receive help via government bursaries and scholarships, SaveLASU insists that the Lagos State Government has neither awarded a scholarship nor given a bursary in the last three years. The group should invoke the Freedom of Information Act to compel the Lagos State Government to publish the names of students who received bursaries and scholarships during the period in contention. The government could also volunteer to publish this information.
Fashola alleges that LASU students once complained to the Lagos State House of Assembly that “our school has become a glorified secondary school.” And after promptings by the House, and recommendations by a visitation panel set up by his government, LASU Vice Chancellor was relieved of his job, school fees was reviewed upwards, and a plan to upgrade the school infrastructure was put in place: Construction started in earnest on a new Senate Building, School Auditorium, Central Library, law lecture theatre, blocks of classrooms and Faculty of Management building. You may have seen the media reports of those facilities in various stages of construction. Lagos State is evidently proud of these developments. You can’t argue with success. But if all these photo-ops are contrived to justify the hike in LASU school fees, the government missed the bull’s eye. Government must invest in human capital for citizens to meaningfully contribute to society’s growth.
The Lagos State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Ade Ipaye, may soon join his principal to argue that there is no commitment to free education up to university level in Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution, nor in the manifesto of the All Progressives Congress, for that matter. But consider the following: Section 18 (1) says: “Government shall direct its policy towards ensuring that there are equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels (of education); Section 18 (3) says: “Government shall strive to eradicate illiteracy; and to this end Government shall, as and when practicable, provide (a) free, compulsory and universal primary education; (b) free university education; and (c) free adult literacy programme; “ and Section 13 says: “It shall be the duty and responsibility of all organs of Government (including State Governments), and of all authorities and persons (including State Governors, State Commissioners for Education and Members of the State Houses of Assembly), exercising legislative, executive or judicial powers, to conform to, observe and apply the provisions of Chapter (II) of this Constitution.” Enough said.
Of course, Fashola can argue that it is not practicable to provide free education at the university level right now. And he may well have a point. It is also not justiciable. But he should consider working to achieve these ideals. His theory that a student who pays N25,000 is necessarily inferior to the one who paid 6,000 pounds doesn’t wash when you consider that a degree from University of Rhode Island, a public school in America, enjoys the same prestige as that of a private school, Brown University, the Ivy League school attended by the late John F. Kennedy, Jr. Yet, their school fees are far apart.
Government should not turn education into a commodity to be traded on a cash-and-carry basis. Education, like health care, is a social service; it shouldn’t ride on commercial capitalism or mercantilism, to use a fancy word. Education should be subsidised. The Minister of State for Defence, Musiliu Obanikoro, complains that non-Lagos indigenes occupy most of the top (civil service, judiciary and legislative) positions in Lagos State. Well, Lagos State indigenes have one of the lowest literacy rates in Nigeria.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo says that man is the agent, and the beneficiary, of economic activities. Education makes you a better citizen: You know your rights and responsibilities, so you can obey laws and carry out your civic duties, and Government spends less to enforce certain laws. Citizen Fashola, who took a bet, and chose to study locally, has abstracted immense self-confidence from his Nigerian education. He should use LASU to increase Nigeria’s inventory of human capital, not deplete it. He should rethink his LASU school fees policy. His plan to compel poachers of LASU’s 600 hectares of land to make lease payments is a brilliant financial strategy that works like an endowment fund. It should help LASU remain a public school that charges affordable school fees, and delivers good education to rich and indigent students alike. Lagos kids shouldn’t have to go on the streets again, chanting: “Free Education, Awo nikan lo le se.” (Only Awolowo can implement Free Education.) If it is indeed true, as Fashola claims, that no qualified indigent kid will be turned away from LASU, maybe the governor needs to buff up his PR personnel and strategy. Someone is not doing his job right, and it’s making the governor look like an insensitive toughie. (Punch)
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