I remember while growing up back in the 1980’s, one of the scariest admonitions my father had for me was simple. He would say: ’before you disgrace me, I will disown you’. Disgracing him was a code for engaging in any number of activities including but not limited to stealing; fighting; being disrespectful to my elders; getting a girl pregnant; associating with bad boys etc. A more serious way of disgracing him however was failing in school. You see, my dad was a lecturer in a university and one of his main fears was after all the money he had invested in educating his children, to have one of them besmirch his name amongst his colleagues by failing an exam. This fear of disappointing him has followed me through every exam since from the primary school ending ‘Common Entrance Examination’ to the West Africa School Certificate Examination (WASCE) and the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) test. I remember my preparations for JAMB, which I took in SS2 instead of SS3: It was intense and draining, and many times I had thought of seeking alternative lifestyles which did not require getting a university education.
The drama of waiting for the result was equally as draining because the JAMB result slip was mailed to my dad’s post office box, which involved weeks of nervously watching his face for any clue of this. When the result came out, I scored above 200 and received admission into the Obafemi Awolowo University. The whole process was a rite of passage that lent some weight to how much I forever appreciate my university education. Till date, I still have the weathered slip from JAMB and when I come across it every few years, it holds strong memories for me. This presently brings me to the crux of the issue now, of how JAMB, formerly a gatekeeper against mediocrity in the Nigerian educational sector, is now the bellwether for the complete collapse of the education system in the country.
JAMB was set up as an independent body to conduct admission exams into universities in Nigeria in 1978. The primary rationale for its creation was the fact that the various universities in existence at the time, had each conducted their own admission exams which was considered a waste of resources. It has performed that function since. The way this is done is that JAMB conducts a yearly exam and sets a cut off mark as well. Historically, the exam has had a total achievable score of 400 marks, with the average pass mark usually being 200. That has meant that if you got about 50 percent of the total score, you would have passed, which to be honest is not great.
JAMB has also suffered from the Nigerian disease of sectionalism or what we casually call federal character (a quota system), which basically ensures that federal appointments are shared equally amongst the various regions with little consideration for excellence. The doctrine, as expressed in the JAMB context, is that since students from the north of Nigeria are less inclined towards education, we can encourage them by setting a cut off mark for them for entry into universities that is lower than what exists for students from the south. Conceptually this is similar to the Affirmative Action Policy in the United States, where historically educationally disadvantaged communities are given a quota for their students to get into universities. This applied to African Americans who, because of slavery, historically had entire generations who didn’t learn to read or write for a long time or even have the opportunity to attend good quality educational institutions. Something similar exists in South Africa called Black Economic Empowerment.
Now JAMB has gone in a new bizarre direction.
The main issue is its decision to stop deciding the pass mark for all the universities and to set an arbitral minimum pass mark of 120. Just imagine that! Conceptually, a student could score 120 out of 400 and get into a university. You can get 30 percent of the questions right in an examination and you would pass. Consider the knock on effect of this rather unfortunate decision. A group of not-too-good students somehow manages to get 120 out of 400 and are admitted to a university. Their knowledge of most subjects are distressingly lamentable. So, the lecturer has one of two choices. Either he lowers his standards (speaks in pidgin, deal with subjects on the rudimentary level, reduces the difficulty of his course etc.), or he maintains his standards and all the students fail. If he takes the second option, his superiors might blame him for failing to teach effectively, and thus usually he takes the first alternative. The students graduate and get to their first job interviews and the employers are stunned by how substandard they are and either do not employ them or employ them and then spend significant expenditure retraining them, which affects the company’s ability to employ more people, thus directly contributing to the low employment and employability rate of the Nigerian youth.
One other thing JAMB did a few years ago that beggars description, was its decision to lower the admission mark for entry into the colleges of education and teacher training institutes from the normal tertiary institution threshold of 200 to 120. One of the unintended consequences of the above was that the very teachers who teach our primary and secondary students have had a much lower threshold to enter colleges of education than students have to get into universities. This has served as a very critical level of dumbing down on our educational possibilities as a country, as the teachers have a lower expectation than students they are to teach. One thing I remember from growing up was the fact that our teachers were gods in our eyes – they were intellectual superiors, and giants, who had mastery over all subjects, spoke Queens’ English and terrorised our lives with their sagacity and ability to inflict pain with their canes & sharp tongues. Now the very worst of the worst are becoming teachers. How can they impact what they do not know to our children?
Bottom line: Every year, now, Nigeria is harvesting a crop of below standard young men and women. Youth who are not globally competitive. Soon we will have a generation of inferior graduates. In this dire times when the rest of the world is moving away from the dependence on a older mode of social organisation and economy to the knowledge driven one – the world of the Elon Musks – our youth are lagging far behind, failing math and sciences and barely able to read. Who will write the next big novel or invent the next Uber in Nigeria? Who will develop the new governance structure that will take us into the 22nd century? Who will build the next hedge fund and develop local applications for bitcoins? Who will develop a system to keep agricultural produce fresh on the way to market and therefore save Nigerians from starvation in the future? Not this JAMB tested youth certainly!
The devastation of our educational system is accelerating and the future of the Nigerian state is becoming bleaker because each time JAMB removes one more rung of the academic ladder, they pound one more nail into the system that cripples our youth. It is time to either restructure JAMB or change its lazy bureaucratic leadership to save Nigeria.
About the Author: Femi Akinfolarin is a lawyer, writes from Lagos.