Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I want to specially recognize my brother and friend, Prof Chidi Odinkalu, someone from whom I learn every day. When he sounded me out about this session,
I accepted without any hesitation because I considered it a honour. But let me begin with a story that I overheard from someone who also overheard it from someone who himself overheard it from someone.
While sitting in the waiting room for her first appointment with a new dentist, a lady who still considered herself very young (as almost all ladies do) noticed the DDS diploma on the wall of the hospital office which bore a familiar name. Suddenly, she remembered that a tall and handsome boy with the same name had been in her class some 35 odd years before. Could the dentist be the same guy that she had a secret crush on, way back then? Upon seeing the dentist, however, the lady quickly discarded any such thought. This balding, gray-haired man was way too old to have been the said classmate. But after the dentist had finished examining her teeth, she asked him if he had attended Federal Government College, Okigwe. "Yes. Yes, I did," the man beamed with pride.
"When did you graduate?" the woman asked.
He answered, "In 1985. Why do you ask?"
"You were in my class!" the woman exclaimed.
Looking more closely at her, the bald dentist asked, "Really? What subject were you teaching?"
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I feel highly honoured to be among you this evening to celebrate friendship that has endured over almost three decades because, let’s be honest, alumni associations are about ties that bind and in the words of Elisabeth Foley,” the most beautiful discovery true friends make is that they can grow separately without growing apart”.
We are all gathered here today for the appreciation, promotion and development of the school you all once attended several years ago which is Federal Government College, Okigwe. An association like this represents a bridge between the past and the future and in most societies, many educational institutions owe their survival and development to the vibrancy and enthusiasm of their alumni associations. That is one critical area we are yet to tap into in Nigeria.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I am well aware that a gathering like this is a come-and-eat affair so I should not spoil the dinner but I have been invited to share a few thoughts on how Nigerian public schools can maintain positive relationships with both current and former students and by that invest in building loyal alumni associations as a vital partner in capacity building for our country.
Alumni associations are important as they can serve as entities in marketing educational institutions and promoting the best interests of their alma mater and the education sector at large. They also engender a spirit of belonging and unity which is a necessary element in surmounting the difficult challenges facing our education sector in Nigeria today.
Indeed, the immense benefits of alumni networks has led to the establishment of global charity organisations such as “Future First Global”, which is aimed at transforming the school to work transition for millions of young people worldwide over the next decade. The charity was launched based on the findings of a research study that covered countries in Asia, East and West Africa, Latin America, North America, Europe and the Middle East, sponsored by the Open Society Foundations of which my “oga on top”, Prof Odinkalu is one of the supremos.
The study reveals how former students can engage with their alma mater as role models, mentors, work experience providers and trusted advisers. Not surprisingly, while only two percent of the adults polled had engaged with or gone back to their former high schools, 52 percent of those asked said they would be willing to do so. That means that we have a pool of resources that is not being harnessed for the development of our education sector, especially in Nigeria.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, you are exemplary ambassadors of FGC Okigwe for your demonstration of enthusiasm in appreciating and giving back to an institution that contributed significantly to making you what you are today. With such dedication there is no doubt that the FGC Okigwe is destined to attain greater heights in academic excellence. However, the journey to excellence is paved with daunting challenges because Nigeria’s education sector is in very bad shape. Unfortunately, government, at all levels, has ignored this emergency.
I was part of the team that helped the Nigeria Breweries PLC in the quest for the Maltina Teacher of the Year Awards and in the course of the process I saw the nakedness of the public school system in Nigeria. In a situation where many teachers are no more than certificated illiterates, what can such a system breed?
The challenge is that in our country today, our public schools have been neglected and that explains the recent surge in private schools from primary to university level. Even though many Nigerians opt to send their children to these private schools (and I also plead guilty here), we must never forget the fact that most of us are products of public schools.
The point that needs to be underscored is that public schools have significant social missions they are to fulfill in every society. They provide universal access to affordable education; they guarantee equal opportunities for all children and they unify a diverse population. In the peculiar case of our country, the hope of a functional and effective society is largely dependent on public schools that can reach a large section of Nigerians. Even in advanced societies, the private schools function more in complementary way to serve the elite class of students.
All levels of education are important, from the primary school which lays the foundation, to the university which gives the student an advantage in a competitive labour market. However, one could argue that secondary school is the most vital of the three. In an ideal scenario, it covers a broader scope of subjects with just enough depth to prepare and equip an individual with foundational knowledge for gainful occupation and economic self-sufficiency.
The secondary school, which provides the foundation for building productive and conscientious members of society, is even more vital in a society like ours where majority of our young people either have no access to universities or are not able to afford the cost. But it is a sector that is critically challenged.
Although the decline of public education sector cuts across all levels of education, my primary focus based in the context of this event is secondary school education and alumni activities. The West African Examination Council recently released May/June 2015 results. Out of 1,593,442 candidates who sat for the examinations, only 616,370 candidates, representing about 39 percent obtained credits in five subjects and above including English Language and Mathematics. This was only a negligible improvement on previous years.
Today, many of our university students are ill prepared for rigorous intellectual engagement which is why majority are unemployable after graduation. I believe this is a reflection of the quality of the foundation they have received in secondary school. On the other hand, the products of our public secondary schools are performing so poorly because all the factors necessary to equip and motivate them are evidently lacking.
I have isolated four important factors involved in creating a qualitative educational experience in our public secondary schools. They are four areas in which our public secondary schools are evidently deficient and alumni associations can make critical interventions to redress the situation.
Environment: This involves provision of adequate infrastructure and ensuring a safe and conducive learning environment for the students’ motivation and well-being. This is the most obvious aspect of neglect in our public schools. The sight of our public institutions on the surface is symbolic of the depth of its decay. I believe this is an area where alumni associations can help.
Tools: The essential tools include well equipped laboratories with required technical equipment, well stocked Libraries with books, and access to computers. As is the case in Nigerian public schools the way students have access to these tools is mostly through their imagination which makes it difficult to practice most of the theory they are being fed. This is another area in which old boys and girls can help their alma mater.
Teachers: Even with the right tools the teachers are unarguably the most important element in formal education. They serve to impart knowledge, guide the learning process and help to bring out the best in students. This is the most unfortunate part of our public schools and the core of the decline in Nigeria’s education system. Many of the teachers allowed into the system lack sufficient qualifications and the ones that possess these qualifications have not been cherished by their employers in government. Teacher welfare and capacity building has been relegated by corruption and mismanagement. Aspiring to be a teacher used to be a prestigious calling and still is in many societies but ours.
Administrators: Individuals charged with management of public institutions at all levels from the school staff to government officials at the local, state and federal levels have to be alive to their responsibilities in directing and controlling the affairs of our public schools. The government needs to be more conscious of its oversight functions in this regard by ensuring that administrators are not negligent or delinquent as they discharge their duties. However, it becomes morally difficult for regulators to enforce standards and behaviours they are not able to understand themselves.
However, there is also the issue of funding. Nigeria’s yearly budgetary allocations to education constitute an average 10 percent of our national budget over the years. This pales in comparison to many other African countries and falls short of UNESCO’s recommended standard of at least 26 percent. South Africa allocates an average of about 25 percent, Cote d’Ivoire 30 percent, Kenya 23 percent and neighbouring Ghana 30 percent.
What’s worse is that the meagre allocations from our budget is mostly spent on recurrent expenditures leaving very little capital required for infrastructural upgrades and capacity building in public schools. Yet the current economic situation of slowing growth and dwindling government revenues due to falling oil prices does not encourage the prospects in this area. Hence in the interim we can only prescribe palliative instead curative and reformative measures to address the issues.
The solution starts from a shift in attitude towards education. It needs a leadership that recognizes the seriousness of the situation and significance of the public education system to qualitative economic and social growth.
There can be no effective solutions without the sincere political will by the government in power to decisively deal with the problem. The political will and show of understanding by the government should manifest in three ways:
• Appointment of a reform-minded Education Minister by President Buhari
• Increased budgetary allocation and funding directed to public education
• And more importantly the development of capacity building initiatives for public schools and regulatory/supervisory institutions.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, although alumni activities are more vibrant in universities, it just means that there are many lessons for secondary school alumni associations to learn from. Alumni associations help their Alma mater by alleviating its financial burdens through donations. In Nigeria were the government will continue to find it increasingly difficult to meet up with its responsibilities, alumni associations should play a vital role in providing assistance to these institutions.
An Alumni perspective is important on the board of school management because an alumni manager has a good understanding of and a sense of belonging to the school. Alumni members are in a good position to offer advice on the relevance of the curriculum to the demand of the professional workplace.
Alumni associations can contribute their knowledge in their specialized areas of expertise and experience necessary for the improvement of management processes and outcomes. In the UK, efforts to raise pupils' aspirations have encouraged the recruitment of old boys and girls as volunteer role models to whom current pupils can relate. For instance, at London Academy, Edgeware (a British Secondary school), the “Future First” charity is helping the school formalise its efforts to develop an alumni network designed, in its first phase, to use former students as career role models.
The lesson is that students gain from talking to and exchanging ideas with alumni and form that also help them to develop valuable networking skills. The point here is that successful alumni can be very influential role models to current students of their Alma mater because of the bond they share as former students, and having gone through similar challenges that current students may be facing. Years of knowledge and life experiences that alumni have gained professionally and personally shared with students could make a pivotal difference in their lives. Alumni could therefore be a source a vital source of career and character guidance and also help to transmit the essence of school spirit, culture and beliefs from one of generation of students to the next.
In addressing the decay in our education system, we should draw resources from alumni associations. In doing so, the critical areas in our education system will be impacted positively. The way things stand in our country today, the support of alumni associations is critical to the conceptualization as well as effective implementation of education reforms.
We must be aware that alumni associations represent a significant and vocal constituency in the education sector. Alumni associations are well-known sources of strength to the younger generations, they are strong and powerful voice which could exercise a considerable amount of influence on the policy direction of education reforms in Nigeria. And they can help to provide the funding.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, we must begin to look at those critical areas where our role can play huge impacts. Some areas are schools infrastructures and quality of teachers, which have suffered the most.
If we must secure the future, we must stand our ground to defend the integrity of the learning spaces. We must collectively facilitate and intervene to ensure development and progress in the reformation of the education sector. Our interventions can come collectively or separately. What we should never forget is that there is great reward in giving back to the system that in a way impacted our lives. Basic learning tools such as Library, computers, and books can be provided by alumni associations.
As members of alumni associations, your wealth of experience should be an addition to the system you once learned under. We cannot afford to fail in our role and responsibilities. We have so much we can give back to our institutions. Our progress in Nigeria is tied to the gains we can get from our education system. If we do nothing, the rot will continue and may haunt us all in future.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, as I conclude my intervention, I must reiterate that alumni associations in Nigeria are critical stakeholders in this whole process of reforming the education sector. All of us must see this as a call to initiate a developmental process that will bring about sustainable change in the education system. We must provide all the necessary support to drive change in this most critical sector. As members of alumni associations, you can volunteer your professional services for seminars and workshops on key issues that will change the sector.
Above all, it is recommended that the government partner with relevant alumni associations to assist them in implementation their education policies and reforms. Even in the areas of evaluating and monitoring these reforms with a view to measuring impacts and performances.
Distinguished Alumni, I need to remind you that education is the bedrock of national growth and development. We all have a part of play. In playing this part, we must ensure that we preserve the values and doctrine of our institutions.
As I go to take my seat, let me say that days like this are usually for cherished memories and it brings me to the story of a man who took his wife to the 30th high school reunion of his alma mater and kept staring at a drunken lady swigging her drink as she sat alone at a nearby table. At a point the wife asked, "Do you know her?"
"Yes," said the man who sighed. "She's my old girlfriend. I understand she took to drinking right after we split up those many years ago and I hear she hasn't been sober since."
"Oh my goodness!" said the wife. "Who'd think a person could go on celebrating for that long?"
Thank you very much for listening and enjoy the rest of the night.
Paper delivered at the National Convention/Annual Re-union of the Federal Government College Okigwe Old Students Association in Abuja on 17th October, 2015