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Merit, quota system and all that

By Josef Omorotionmwan
OUR sense of democracy may be warped. There is still a large group of Nigerian youths who are deprived of freedom to learn because of poverty or prejudice or the absence of adequate educational facilities.

And as citizens of a democratic society whose moral premise is that each individual has a right to that education that will permit him to achieve his maximum growth as a person, our duty is to work for, and support, whatever measures of reconstruction we deem necessary to remove the social obstacles to freedom of learning.

It is morally binding on us all to study these problems and proffer solutions to them. The world over, all universities worthy of the name are already doing so.

It admits of open failure that more than 53 years of our nominal independence, we are still engaged at the level of the elemental politics of cut-off marks to our secondary and tertiary institutions of learning.

Never has one had a better cause to doubt if the government is still making efforts to “direct its policy towards ensuring that there are equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels”, as enshrined in Section 18 of the country’s Constitution. In our search here, no approach is entirely wrong.

Sometimes, we talk of merit as if that is the panacea to all the problems besetting our educational system – just as our first generation universities are currently doing, when they refuse to bend backwards a little to accept candidates who have scored lower than the cut-off mark of 200 points.

Invariably, what this does is to open itself to the opportunity for a university to accept say 1000 students from Abia State while allowing only three students from say Zamfara State.

It does violence to the principle of Federal Character, which originally realised that the country should be treated as a unit of development in which the strongest shall uplift the weakest and they shall both move on together.

At the base line, we have this year’s table of scores at the National Common Entrance Examination for all the states of the Federation, which has fully accepted the principle of federal character and the inherent concepts of quota and compensatory treatment.

This table shows that while candidates from Zamfara and Yobe states could be admitted with as low as two points, their counterparts from Anambra State can only be admitted with 139 points and higher.

Because of the accident of geography, that candidate from Anambra State who scores 138 points has to watch helplessly as he is unaccepted in the Unity Schools while his friend from Zamfara State with two points proudly walks into the same Unity Schools.

The quota system such as we are faced with here has been attacked at various fronts, including the fact that the presence of less able and ill-prepared students in a class cannot but retard and depress the level of classroom teaching and participation. An instructor who wishes to reach all his students would have no choice but to seek the lowest common denominator, thus further sinking the standard of our already deteriorating educational system.

It is time to invite Albert Einstein (1879-1955): “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its entire life believing that it is stupid”. Our Northern youths are not stupid. Neither can we accept the sweeping generalisation that they are of lower Intelligence Quotient, IQ, but what must be done immediately is for the Northern leaders to sit down and rearrange their priorities and pay greater attention to education.

For instance, salvation remains a personal issue. The sponsor of many people to the holy land on pilgrimage may itself not be offensive, but it becomes rather lamentable alongside the continued poor performance of their children in schools because of poor funding.

A society without problems is a non-existent society. There must be problems and there must be people to solve them. We have demonstrated that whichever mode of admission is accepted, there are associated problems. Individual institutions must be left with the task of working out internal mechanisms for dealing with the problems associated with their choices!

The cure for democracy is more democracy. We cannot wish away the problems associated with the candidates eliminated by the two extremes of merit and the quota system. We must realise that no matter what we do, everyone cannot get placement in the Ivy League Schools.

All the same, government has a duty to ensure that there is a classroom for every student to sit and a teacher to teach him. Here, we think that there is no alternative to the provision of community colleges where there will be open enrolment for all.

Yes, what we are discussing here is capital intensive, and highly so. In any event, this lofty goal is attainable, if only we can plan more and steal less.

In this journey, we shall not be deterred by the not-so-easily attainable goal of full employment, which would include the provision of jobs to graduates from the system.

The goal of full employment is laudable and it is an integral part of the responsibilities of a good government. But where this is not immediately attainable, as we now have, we must also contend with the obvious fact that education, too, has its intrinsic value.

Besides the employment value of education, an educated citizenry is easier to govern and in the final analysis, for society at large, an educated prostitute is better than her illiterate counterpart because among other things, the former would be more likely to observe the rules of hygiene and less likely to be a liberal donor of sexually-transmitted diseases. An educated taxi driver is also better than the uneducated one for obvious reasons.

Need we remind the Federal Government of the familiar cliché: If you think education is expensive, try ignorance? Time is of the essence!



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