There are three basic facts about technical higher education in Nigeria: first, it is in disarray; secondly, this disarray is not unique to technical education but is a reflection of the general confusion in Nigeria’s educational policies; thirdly, this national confusion is not likely to end until educational planning and the planning for industrial and agricultural development go hand in hand.
Policymakers of both the military and civilian eras have been quite clear about what they wanted most for Nigeria, that is, rapid industrialization, self-sufficiency in manufacture and in food production, and the social amenities that flow from these. They have also been in agreement that these goals cannot be attained without a large indigenous manpower equipped with the appropriate skills.
To provide this manpower our policymakers embarked upon a vast expansion of the educational system, from universal free primary education (UPE) to secondary technical schools to polytechnics to, more recently, universities of technology.
The aim was laudable, but the programme was flawed in that while they concentrated on training up a skilled manpower, they neglected to establish and encourage the rise of manufacturing and agricultural industries to absorb the manpower and make it produce.
At the heart of the government’s idea of a polytechnic was a social distinction destined to negate its purpose and defeat its aims. Guided by inherited British colonial traditions and British advisers, our policymakers saw the polytechnic as being a notch or two below the university, whereas they should have seen it as a co-equal and parallel institution producing equivalent personnel with a different set of specialised skills. But in their conception, polytechnics were supposed to produce “middle level” manpower; and accordingly, they found it necessary to call the polytechnic certificate a “diploma” and to rank it below a university “degree” certificate.
Thus, our policymakers from the outset undervalued the technical skills and practical experience acquired through polytechnic education, that is, the very skills needed for industrialisation, and reduced polytechnic graduates to academically second-class citizens, thereby inventing a new and quite unnecessary social problem for the nation.
If we had been serious about industrialisation, we would have rejected from the outset that regressive tradition of British higher education in favour of the positive examples of those modern industrial states which like Germany and the United States, rank polytechnic education as equal with or higher than conventional university education in the equivalent discipline, call their certificates by the same name, or at any rate hold their products in high esteem.
The official devaluation of polytechnic education in Nigeria might have been countered or reversed if there had existed a sufficient number of advanced industrial and agricultural establishments to absorb the “middle level” manpower which was produced; for then, employers would quickly have found out who was more necessary to their operations, the degree holder or the diplomate—if such a distinction must be made.
But in the absence of such testing grounds the colonial outlook continued to hold sway.
Graduates of polytechnics had to go on strike to force government to equalize their pay with university graduates; but even so, a ceiling was placed on the salary they could ever hope to earn. The Council of Registered Engineers of Nigeria (COREN) refused to register graduates of Nigerian polytechnics. And Nigerian universities compelled them to do an additional two years to earn a bachelors degree, whereas many overseas universities, especially in America, admitted them straight into masters degree programmes.
These official discriminations, aggravated by the absence of industries to absorb polytechnic graduates, have served to negate the purpose for which the polytechnics were established, and to render useless both the two-tier system for producing lower and higher diplomates and the built-in industrial work experience into which government poured so much money.
As things stand, no student who has any choice would stop with a lower (OND or ND) diploma when even holders of the higher (HND) diploma have trouble finding jobs and are victims of differential pay and discriminatory treatment on the job. No student would go to a polytechnic in the first place if he could go to a university. And graduates of polytechnics invariably would, if they could, go to a Nigerian university for an additional two years to get a bachelors degree, or go overseas to get a masters degree (since Nigerian universities would not admit them directly to post-graduate studies). Few would settle down to the “middle level” jobs decreed for them if they could help it.
The polytechnic student’s efforts to circumvent official discrimination and achieve parity with his university counterpart has led to enormous wastes in time, in resources, and in psychological energy.
Government can bring such waste to an end simply by equalizing universities and polytechnics.
More importantly, government needs to pay more than lip service to industrial and agricultural development by actually implementing programmes that would generate jobs in the public and private sectors to absorb our skilled manpower.
For, after all, what will it matter if university and polytechnic graduates are equal or unequal if they are equally unemployed? If our education continues to outstrip our industrial development, we shall soon find that we have succeeded in producing not skilled workers but redundant manpower.
Discrimination against polytechnics
(Reprinted from The Guardian, Sunday 16 September 1984)
To be continued