By Dele Sobowale
“There is no such thing as a free lunch.” Anonymous.
Back in September of 1964, I found myself in the United States of America, as one of the fortunate fifty Nigerian boys and girls who bagged a scholarship from the African American Institute. The programme was titled African Scholarship Program for American Universities, ASPAU. It was originated by the President Kennedy, 19-1963, administration.
It was also a part of the Peace Corps Program under which Americans were sent to developing countries like Nigeria, to provide additional manpower for their development. Incidentally, our own National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, was based on the US Peace Corps paradigm. Most Peace Coppers went into teaching, hospitals and other social services where Nigeria, at the time, lacked the manpower to manage the programmes and projects.
The ASPAU scholarship was strictly based on merit. The written examination was sent to the United States for marking and only the best were later invited for interview. Neither the Prime Minister of Nigeria, nor the Premiers of the four regions of Nigeria (East, Midwest, North and West) could get their kids on the list of recipients; not to talk of Ministers. Eventually fifty Nigerian boys and girls left for the US in 1964, on ASPAU.
I was one of the fortunate fifty. Apart from the ten from Igbobi College, there were others from Kings College, Lagos, Government Colleges (Ibadan, Ughelli, Umuahia), Christ School, Ado-Ekiti, Christ the King College (Eastern Region), Stella Maris, St Patrick College, Calabar and Barewa College, Zaria among others. But, not a single one of us was the son or daughter of a “dignitary” in 1964. We were all children of relatively unknowns who just happened to have brains; nothing else.
Like most Nigerians, in those days when very few homes had television and only a handful read newspapers, we were full of rumours about America which had emerged from World War II as the most powerful nation in the world. Despite the desperate efforts of our British colonial masters to dissuade us from embracing American education, as well as its way of life, there was sufficient information about America provided by their movies from Hollywood, to convince us that a new intellectual champion had arrived on the global scene and the British represented the past.
Today, that decision made in the 1960s by hundreds of Nigerians who aspired to obtain the ASPAU scholarship had proved accurate. Even the British no longer contest global leadership with America, and they have even gone lower. Today, once Great, Britain must queue behind the US, China, Japan, Germany and Russia.
One of the rumours about America which was busted, at least for me, was the prevalent one that university education was free. I arrived at my university campus, was shown to my room (courtesy of the US Government, then under Lyndon Johnson, 1908-1973) and found that my room mate was absent. He arrived four days later because his parents were trying to raise the funds to pay the university.
When I asked John Babin why? His answer was the first lesson in economics delivered to me. He said “In America, there is no such thing as a free lunch.” For someone who had never taken a course in economics, he made no sense. How could it? There I was enjoying free tuition, board, food, books, clothing allowance and pocket money from Uncle Sam, as the US government is called and this, at the time, obviously funny fellow, was telling me that nothing is free in America.
Soon enough, I discovered on my own that good/excellent education costs money, loads of it, and anybody, in or out of government, promising cheap sound education is either a politician or an incurable liar – or both. My “free education” in the American university was provided by the American taxpayers.
The more funds they made available the better the universities got. By my Sophomore (200 level) year, I was taking my third course in economics and finding out how the funds for education are provided after brutal and sometimes acrimonious debates in their legislative houses nationwide.
So John was right. There is no such thing as “free education”. It is only free to the extent that tax payers, acting through their leaders in government, are prepared to sacrifice for it. And when governments’ provisions are inadequate, as they have been in Nigeria since the 1970s, the only options left are clear – parents either pay enough to maintain high standards of education or a steady decline in quality sets in.
Nigeria’s first generation universities, Ibadan, Ife, Nsukka and Ahmadu Bello achieved global standard because funds provided by governments were adequate. Nigerian students graduating with Bachelor’s degree were accepted everywhere in the world for post-graduate study without reservations; and most went on to justify the faith of the world in them. Today, few can enjoy that privilege.
And, it is not because today’s university undergraduates are less intelligent, it is because the universities have become more degenerate. In the 1950s professors and lecturers in our universities published regularly in global academic journals; today almost none does. Funds have dried up; research has largely been abandoned. The time has come to honestly ask ourselves two questions: how much will be paid for quality university education and who will pay it? Enough of self-deceit.
To be continued..