For nearly one year in my Lekki, Lagos home, I have enjoyed the culinary delights of a great chef and extraordinary professional. A man whose pride, passion and confidence in his work is both high art and manifest competence. Mr Joseph, the man I speak of, is from the Republic of Benin, which probably explains both the vocational competence and the parity of esteem he shares with any other professional, be it a lawyer, doctor or engineer. In Nigeria, our obsession with paper qualification is legendary. Our resources to accommodate this are at best insignificant. The fact that most of the highly educated citizens that we produce suffer from practical incompetence and are notoriously , inefficient and ineffective in real world situations does not seem to encourage us to pause for thought.
We were at the threshold of a revolution the handmaidens of which were the recently replaced leadership of the Federal Ministry of Education in Abuja. For many years, I have wondered about the consequences of academic obsession and rejection of real world competences has been for Nigeria. The Federal Ministry of Education finally put some context and content to my concerns; for example, there are about 51.6 million Nigerians under 30 not accounted for in the school system post SS3. Only 1.5 million in tertiary education, which is about 1% of Nigerian population. From that 1.5 million, 60% come out unskilled and untrained in commercial or management competencies. Our universities can only accommodate less than 500,000 students at any given time.
We are in the time when, our economy will need double the nearly 3% population growth rate to create real expansion needed to reduce poverty. This will mean an average of 6% GDP growth in real terms for the near future. We will need to double individuals productivity and generate millions of jobs to be truly competitive not only in Africa but across the world.
The engine for our economic prosperity is not in Government, neither is it in the diminishing returns from extractive industries like oil. The truth be said, it is the creation of many Mr Josephs or Ms Josephines. It is our ability to arm the multitudes of our young people with the grease for their talent and empower them with a rainbow of possibilities. This will not come from elitist academic pretentions but giving esteem to productive activity. We need to certify what it takes to run a Bukka or mechanic shop so it becomes an engine room for expansion. We need to have skilled carpenters, bricklayers and farmers who are celebrated and certified with the same aplomb as any lawyer or PhD. We need vocational education regime that prepares capable Nigerians to apply their capacities through apprentice programmes and practical competence development. Where does one learn to be a plumber, electrician or mechanic and be able to guarantee that they meet world-class standards in their work? Many of the death traps that pass as public transport have been handled by dubious mechanics. I often wonder who services or maintains the aircrafts we fly on in that country and what level of certifiable competence do they have. Think of the many accidents caused by incompetent HGV drivers.
We need to be able to give the same level of esteem for practical capacity as well as intellectual competence. We need to set standards for all of the areas and educate to those standards. It will give competence and productivity for many who now live by their wits and occasionally by violence.
For me, high quality vocational education will lead us to a society that celebrates merit and hard work. A society in which the sweat of your brows is the seedlings for your status. A society in which there is equality of opportunity, where you will be respected for what you produce and not who you know. Vocational education is not a choice; it is an imperative if Nigeria will truly become the heart of Africa. We need the wisdom of the multitudes, not just the intelligence of the few.
Sunday, November 18, 2007