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In Defence of Elite Educational Institutions by Ladipo Adamolekun

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By Ladipo Adamolekun

Emmanuel Macron who was elected president of France in mid-2017 is the fourth product of France’s elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) among the eight to hold the highest public office in the country’s Fifth Republic (from 1958 to date). (His predecessors are Giscard d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac and Francois Hollande). Georges Pompidou, one of the remaining four, also attended another elite institution, the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS).

 Ladipo Adamolekun
Ladipo Adamolekun

Across the channel, in the United Kingdom, nine of the thirteen prime ministers who have served under Queen Elizabeth II from 1952 to date are alumni of the University of Oxford, one of the country’s two top elite educational institutions. (The other is the University of Cambridge). And across the Atlantic, in the United States, eight of the thirteen presidents since the end of World War II are products of four of the country’s eight Ivy League (elite) educational institutions (Harvard University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania and Yale University).

Whilst conceding that rule by products of elite education and training institutions might not be all blessings, I belong to the school of thought that accentuates the positives associated with the nurturing of such elite institutions whose products, on the whole, contribute hugely to the prosperity of their respective societies. To cite a widely-acknowledged and highly praised example, the products of France’s ENA that was established in 1945 are recognized as having championed the country’s rapid socio-economic recovery after the destruction of the Second World War.

Against this backdrop, my defence of elite educational institutions is focused sharply on excellence and meritocracy, the two hallmarks of the education and training institutions cited above.  And I highlight the positive linkage of educational excellence and meritocracy to quality public services. Next, I make the point that the “Federal Character” clause in Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution needs urgent drastic amendment to prevent it from further undermining excellence and meritocracy in the country. Finally, I review briefly the on-going efforts aimed at reinventing the elite status of Christ’s School and suggest the introduction of a Degree Foundation Year Programme in the envisaged new Christ’s School.

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  1. Elite educational institutions: Excellence and meritocracy

Although the examples of elite educational institutions cited above are at the higher education level, there are also examples of elite educational institutions at the secondary education level in both France and the United Kingdom. The idea of elite secondary educational institutions was transplanted into Nigeria by the British during colonial rule and maintained at independence but with varying fortunes during the post-independence decades. At both levels, the emphasis across countries is on excellence and meritocracy.

My favourite illustration of an elite educational institution with excellence and meritocracy as its hallmarks is the French ENA.  Entry is through open competitive examinations that the majority of interested candidates take after attending ten specialized Institutes of Political Studies that are spread across the country. At the end of about three years of rigorous education and training at ENA, the best overall performers among each 100-strong cohort automatically have the first choice of the areas of the public service where they would begin a career. Normally, the top two dozen or so would opt for the prestigious administrative grands corpsConseil d’Etat (Council of State), Inspection générale des Finances (General Inspectorate of Finance) and Cours des comptes (Court of Auditors) whilst the others would choose to serve as préfets (district officers), diplomats and generalist administrators.

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While the elite institutions in UK and US that are mentioned in the Introduction are characterised by excellence in their own different ways – Oxford and Cambridge and the majority of the Ivy League universities are regularly ranked among the top 20 world-class universities – only the UK had a variation of ENA-style meritocratic linkage to the civil and colonial services up to the 1950s and 1960s with Oxford and Cambridge graduates dominating both services. It is the broader adherence to the primacy of the merit principle that prevails in public service recruitment in both US and UK (since the 1970s) and graduates from the elite universities tend to succeed in open competitions for public service appointments more than graduates from the other universities.  Strikingly, the Civil Service Commission in the US was re-constituted as a Merit Systems Protection Board in 1979.

Emphasis on excellence in all the institutions

In Nigeria, the University of Ibadan was widely acknowledged as an elite institution during its first three decades (up to the 1970s) and the five other “first generation” universities (Nsukka, Ife, Lagos, Zaria and Benin) were reputed for quality university education for a decade or two.  There was emphasis on excellence in all the institutions.  Today, of all the country’s public universities, only Ibadan has managed to retain some measure of elite status, cited among the bottom ten percentile – out of about 1000 total – in the 2017 ranking of world class universities.  (Nsukka was also ranked among the top 1258 in 2018). I have suggested elsewhere that Nigeria needs six elite universities: Ibadan and five others, to be selected through open competition among the remaining 39 federal universities.

It was also during the1950s through the 1960s to the 1970s that the primacy of the merit principle was largely respected in recruitment into public services across the country.  It is incontestable that the widely acknowledged efficiency standards of the country’s civil services during those decades was due, in large part, to merit-based recruitment.  And the competent and efficient civil services were critical to the achievement of good development performance in the country from the second half of the 1950s through the 1960s and early 1970s.  The good development performance was reflected in quality public services and low poverty level, estimated at about 25% in the mid-1960s. Then, the introduction of the “federal character” clause in the 1979 Constitution marked the beginning of a de-emphasis on the merit principle as the primary criterion in recruitment into public services. Indeed, the merit principle progressively became subordinated to the federal character principle, interpreted as a crude quota system. More on federal character below.  At the secondary education level, the small number of colleges established by the colonial government for male and female students across the country were all generally recognised as elite institutions and some of the colleges/secondary schools established by missionaries were also acknowledged as elite institutions. Notable among the Government colleges for boys were King’s College, Lagos and the Government Colleges in Keffi (North), Ibadan (West) and Umuahia (East). And there were Queen’s colleges for girls in each of the old regions.  Igbobi College, Lagos and Christ’s School, Ado-Ekiti were among the few elite missionary secondary schools in the Western Region.  The open competitive entrance examinations into all these schools attracted students from different parts of the country (across Western Region in the case of Christ’s School) and their products succeeded in the open and competitive processes for admission into the universities in significantly larger numbers than those of other secondary schools.

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Hardly any of these schools would today qualify as an elite institution and the Unity Secondary Schools established in the 1970s that could have been the successor elite government-owned secondary schools were dumbed down within a decade or two. According to the Report of the Presidential Task Force on Education (2010), the unity schools “do not appear to be sources of excellence in secondary education and cannot be model for the States and other School Proprietors – one of the reasons for establishing them in the first instance.  The few elite secondary schools in the country today are all private-owned. Obviously, only students from affluent families can afford the astronomical costs charged in the private schools, unlike the open access to their predecessors that were owned by governments and missionaries.

The newly established Federal Government Academy, Suleja (Centre for the Gifted and Talented) appears to be the first public challenge to the existing private-owned elite secondary schools.  The first cohort of students was admitted to the Academy for 2017/2018 academic year. The students were promised a “Gifted Education programme” that will allow “precocious students with outstanding intelligence capable of high academic performance to fast-track the secondary education curriculum and complete the programme in less than the prescribed years with excellent result” (sic). It is important to mention the nurturing that successful candidates will enjoy: “Federal Government scholarship which covers their tuition, boarding, feeding, uniforms and basic text/exercise books”.

Although I wholeheartedly welcome the re-emergence of a government-owned elite secondary school, as a federalist committed to the shrinking of the scope of the central government’s functions and resources, I would strongly argue that the Suleja Academy should be transferred to the Federal Capital Territory.  To enhance the quality of secondary education nation-wide, it is desirable for each of the thirty-six states to establish its own secondary education-level Academy for the Gifted and the Talented. The emerging network of elite government-owned secondary schools would nicely complement the proposed six elite federal universities mentioned above.

  1. Federal Character Constitutional Clause needs urgent drastic  amendment

The federal character clause that was first introduced in the 1979 Constitution was maintained in the 1999 Constitution with significant modifications that include the establishment of a Federal Character Commission (FCC) to enforce the expanded interpretations of the clause. Although reflecting the federal character of the country with respect to political appointments (including the most senior administrative/bureaucratic positions) throughout the public service for the reasons stated in the 1979 Constitution makes eminent sense, its interpretation as a crude quota system, beginning from the 1980s, and with cruder and cruder interpretation during the succeeding decades, is patently antithetical to the merit principle.

In these circumstances, the alignment of excellence and meritocracy in educational institutions with the primacy of the merit principle in recruitment into public services in the 1950s, through the 1960s to the 1970s was abandoned. Thus, the prevailing decline of excellence and meritocracy in educational institutions coexists with the subordination of the merit principle to a crude quota system characterised by nepotism, partisanship, ethnicity and quasi-total opacity.  A very good illustration of the prevailing application of federal character as a crude quota system today is the dilution of merit through ad hoc annual “cut off” marks with respect to admissions to federal secondary schools.

An essential quick fix (pending the longer route of constitutional amendment) is the issuance of Guidelines on the Application of the Federal Character Constitutional Clause with respect to the public services in the form of an Executive Order. The Guidelines should include (a) affirmation of the primacy of the merit principle in recruitment into the federal public service (outside positions that are categorised as political appointments) and obligation of all recruiting and appointing bodies to be open and transparent in the application of federal character, including explicating whether states or geopolitical zones are used for determining quotas and (b) formal and unequivocal exemption of specific rare skills from the application of the principle (as is the case in India) – senior technical posts in research and development, specialties in medicine and engineering, areas of nuclear and space applications in aviation, and aspects of electronics.

Finally, it is important to add that the strong case made here for the primacy of the merit principle in recruitment of staff to public services is also dependent, to a considerable extent, on the restoration of excellence and meritocracy in the education sector. This will be a desirable re-creation of the alignment that helped ensure good development performance in the country up to the 1970s.

  1. Reinventing and sustaining the elite status  of Christ’s School

I am aware of the steadfast efforts of Christ’s School Alumni Association to reinvent the elite status of the School since the early 2000s.  Chapter 12 of In Deed and In Truth (2013) “Reformation Agenda: Master Plan, Academic and Physical” provides an overview of the Report of “Project Christ’s School Renewal” Committee constituted in 2003. The update provided in the book is that the existing Report needed to be reviewed, including attention to how best to ensure sustainability.

The incumbent National Executive of the Alumni Association has produced a new Report (with a detailed 25-year master plan) on the transfer of proprietorship of the School back to Anglican Communion, Ekiti (the original owners) to run it jointly with the Alumni Association, as a private boarding school. The Report was submitted to Ekiti State Government jointly by the Alumni Association and the Anglican Communion, Ekiti on June 17th 2017.  Predictably, the emphasis in the Report is on excellence and meritocracy and admission into the School will be through competitive examinations open to candidates from across the country. This contrasts markedly with the School’s virtual localisation in recent decades with the derisive alternative name, “Agidimo High School”.

I would like to suggest for consideration the introduction of a Degree Foundation Year Programme (DFYP) in the new Christ’s School.  Concretely, the DFYP will be a one-year version of the Higher School Certificate (HSC) programme run successfully in the School for about two decades between 1960 and 1981.  Students will be prepared for the General Certificate of Education (“A” Level) and qualified to seek direct entry admission into universities (public and private), that is, at the 200-level of degree programmes. It is very likely that a well-run Degree Foundation Year Programme will both enhance the visibility of the new Christ’s School and contribute significantly towards assuring its sustainability.


I would like to conclude by highlighting three key messages.

1.Elite educational institutions that are characterised by excellence and meritocracy at the higher education level contribute hugely to the prosperity of their respective societies. This explains why emphasis on excellence and meritocracy at the higher education level is world-wide. Today, the original elite higher education institution in the country barely merits that categorization when the country’s goal should be to have at least six universities that rank among the top 500 in the world by 2030.

2.For elite educational institutions to impact positively on national development, recruitment into public services must be based on the primacy of the merit principle as is the case in well-performing economies across continents.  I have argued that the subordination of the merit principle to a constitutional “federal character” principle interpreted as a crude quota system needs urgent radical amendment.  And I suggest that a couple of interim corrective measures should be introduced through a presidential Executive Order.

3.Although an emphasis on elite educational institutions at the secondary education level is not a world-wide phenomenon, Nigeria inherited the practice under colonial rule and maintained it for a few decades after independence. I wholeheartedly support the on-going efforts to re-invent Christ’s School as a private-owned elite boarding secondary school run co-jointly by the Anglican Communion, Ekiti and Christ’s School Alumni Association.


Prof. Ladipo Adamolekun writes from Iju, Akure North, Ondo State.

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