Change, Politics

​The Murder of My Alma Mater

“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. This admonition by Virgil was inspired by one of humanity’s most famous acts of treachery—the Trojan horse left at the gates of Troy. What was thought to be a gift was in fact the beginning of the end for Troy. The Trojan horse tactic has been reproduced severally throughout history, although not exactly with a wooden horse. Sometimes, the famous horse may be in the form of government policy, one of such potential policies being the new fee structure for Nigeria’s unity colleges. 

A little background would be helpful here. The unity schools are secondary schools run by the federal government. Although secondary education is “technically” out of federal jurisdiction, the unity schools serve as the exception. The first unity schools were established in the early 1970s after the Nigerian civil war, and there are now over a hundred of them. As their name implies, the schools are supposed to promote unity among Nigerians. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Nigerian pupils sit for the National Common Entrance Examination. Thereafter, successful pupils sit for a second test. Admission is offered to pupils based on their performance in the second test, subject to criteria such as merit, state quota and environment. As is usual in Nigeria, the cut-off marks vary across states, with southern states having the highest benchmarks. That is however an issue for another day. 

The unity schools have a reputation for quality. In a country where schooling in government schools is synonymous with poor education, unity schools have to a large extent defied the odds, providing copious examples of proper education. This has been achieved by admitting some of Nigeria’s brightest pupils, mixing them with pupils from other states and tribes, and then providing teachers of high standard. For example, in the course of my secondary education, I had a PhD holder as my English teacher. 

Overtime, this arrangement has benefitted parents, students and the federal government. The parent can access quality education for their kids without the hassle of high costs. The kids gain from leaving primary schools where they were likely local champions to an environment having a good number of students whose academic capacity matched theirs, in addition to having good teachers, better than those in most private and state government-run schools. For the federal government, the benefit is first the teaching of unity to a group of young Nigerians. For many of the students, this is their first classroom encounter with students from other tribes. In addition to teaching unity, these schools offer the federal government a platform to groom bright pupils who would grow up to hold important positions in the country and contribute to national development. Presently, a considerable number of the “controllers” of Nigeria are alumni of one unity school or the other. 

Despite all the good that comes with unity schools, someone in Abuja wants to “kill” them. As a student of Federal Government College Port Harcourt, my school fees as a boarder averaged ₦5,500 each term, with about ₦1,700 for PTA levy. For day students, the school fee averaged ₦1,200 per term. My younger brother went through the same school, and his fee was just a bit higher. The low fees were because students were on a virtual scholarship bankrolled by the federal government. The government had seen enough good in the unity schools to warrant subsidizing quality education. Today, the “spell” on the government’s eyes has cleared. Old boarding students resuming this September are expected to pay fees ranging between ₦55,000 to ₦80,000 per term depending on their classes. This compares to about ₦20,000 last session. PTA fees have also increased as parents in several unity schools already pick the government’s slack by paying for things routinely ignored by the government’s budgeted pittance for education. 

The government points to the state of the economy as a reason, stating that low fees are not practicable. Hence, to maintain existing quality levels, a fee hike is inarguable from the government’s perspective. This is the Trojan horse I wrote about in the opening paragraph. The fee hike is being packaged as a necessity to save the schools. Some have even stated that it is necessary to keep unity schools “competitive” with elite private schools. Some others have tried to draw parallels between unity schools and the erstwhile fuel subsidy, saying the fee hike is a necessity for the hailing economy. Whatever the reasons disguised as good for Nigeria, the fee hike spells doom for unity schools as we know them. 

Reports indicate that most boarding students of FGC Port Harcourt did not resume on Sunday. I can safely assume that similar occurrences graced the other unity colleges. While I understand that government revenues are down, I also understand that Nigerian parents struggling under the yoke of this oppressive recession cannot afford a hike in school fees. Some commentators have already predicted that several private schools would witness a reduction in their enrolment figures as parents are unable to afford their usual fees. 

Looking at economic resources across the country, if the new school fees regime for unity schools is deemed expensive in the south, what would be said of the north? Ten thousand naira is a bigger sum to an average northerner than a southern counterpart, all other things being equal. Already, cut-off marks are trashed to encourage more northern kids in unity schools. In the midst of a recession, how would you convince a certain farmer, Mr Suleiman, to pay ₦75,000 per term for his daughter Aisha to attend a unity school? Clearly, more students would drop out of school, further adding to the ten million-plus out-of-school kids in Nigeria. 

It is in time of low revenue that a government’s priorities become more glaring. If in the midst of a recession, the government retains leakages, retains a presidential fleet that even the UK doesn’t have, and allows a padded budget with bloated figures, then we know where its heart lies. The education of the next generation should be paramount to a society that thinks about the future. In 2006, the Obasanjo administration tried to privatize unity schools. This time, the Buhari administration wants to price these schools out of the reach of common Nigerians. It is hoped that thousands of parents and influential alumni would not sit idly and watch the murder of their alma maters. However, if the government is hell-bent on killing unity schools, we all should just pledge allegiance to Boko Haram.
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