Ahead of the November 26 Annual General Meeting of the Unity Schools Old Students Association (USOSA), the president, Chidi Odinkalu, a professor of law, spoke to PREMIUM TIMES on the body’s achievements, relationship with the government, and Nigeria’s public education.
PT: You were elected USOSA president in April. So far, how has the association contributed towards solving Nigeria’s educational crisis?
Odinkalu: This question goes to the heart of USOSA’s existence. It is part of what we’ll be examining at the AGM in Lagos on Saturday, 26 November. USOSA is a federation of the Old Students Associations (OSAs) of all 104 Unity Schools. Much of what we have been involved in so far is done at the level of OSA involvement with the respective schools. In all, OSAs have spent billions on various infrastructure projects in our schools. I have just come from the fundraiser of FGGC Onitsha, for instance, to help with perimeter fencing of the school. FGC Port Harcourt Old Students just completed that and more. In FGC Okigwe & FGGC Bida, we have invested in ICTs and new hostel blocks and in FGC Maiduguri, old students facilitated erosion control at the cost of multiple hundreds of millions. In FGC Ogbomoso, the OSA has done lots, including lighting; in Ugwolawo and others, water. In Kings College and Queens College, old students have spent even more.
The investment in mentoring is a growing area of interest. OSAs have also been involved in providing additional teaching cover in many schools. Our view, however, is old students are partners, not substitute for government. We need to create a more accountable education policy environment, address physical and moral safety of our students and learners, and also teaching and curriculum standards. This is the only way our investments in physical infrastructure will yield result.
PT: The Unity Schools are said to be tuition free. Yet recently, it emerged that the federal government had increased school fees from N20,000 to about N75,000, although the Education Minister claimed to be unaware of it. What do you think this portends for Nigerian education in general?
Odinkalu: Education is a public good and has to be paid for. The issue really is who pays for it and how: does the public pay or does the parent pay? Invariably, it is a mix of both. We need clearer policy and better administration. At the level of policy, we need to be clear that no child should be kept away from schooling because their parents are poor. How we administer this is a different matter. Our scholarship schemes serviced the children of the wealthy and connected rather than poor, needy, bright children. The situation with tuition policy in our Unity Schools has been messily managed.
I also think the government could engage partners better. It’s no use seeking to alienate PTAs and OSAs when you can work with them in clarifying boundaries and sharing burdens fairly. There are places admittedly, where PTAs and OSAs may over-reach. For instance, in some schools, PTA dues were going through the roof. In some places, thugs were getting involved in PTA elections because of the impression that PTAs have a lot of money to control. Now, government could slap down such abuse without creating the impression that all PTAs are rogue.
PT: Is there any ongoing dialogue between USOSA and the federal government for a review of the fees? Is there a strategy to ensure that indigent students continue to have the same opportunity as every other person?
Odinkalu: We are currently in dialogue with government on several areas. We are discussing scheduling and a meeting with the Federal Ministry of Education is due shortly. It’s in the interest of everyone for us to talk and meet regularly.
PT: Only 61 alumni out of the 104 in the Unity Schools/Federal Unity Colleges have registered for the (AGM?) Is there a reason the rest haven’t come on board?
Odinkalu: You have to understand where we are coming from. This is the biggest AGM yet in USOSA’s 10 year history. Many people are still analogue or last-minute.com and will only show up at the venue. But it is important that we continue to grow the footprint because in the end, USOSA must become the most articulate voice for escalating the place of education in our priorities as a country.
PT: Why have you chosen ‘education, national unity, and security’ as this year’s theme?
Odinkalu: The theme reflects our assessment of where we are as a country and of what our most serious challenges are. Public education is an endangered good. We can no longer guarantee good education to our kids whose parents don’t have millions. Insecurity in many parts of the country is replaced with violence as the driver of mobility, authority and relevance. We need to reassess these and also reassess our priorities as a society.
PT: Is the association playing any role in ensuring the safety of children in federal government colleges in the North East?
Odinkalu: We have at USOSA now Initiative on rebuilding education in the northeast. It involves all our 15 schools in the NE. They will be reporting to the AGM. At this AGM, we will have a panel dedicated to the NE. We are looking forward to an articulate set of initiatives rising out of the AGM concerning the NE.
PT: What’s your assessment of this government’s approach to education in the past one year?
Odinkalu: We’ll give you a sense of what we think as an institution after the AGM. For now, I think all of us can agree, we have a mountain to climb on education and we need all the help we can get or give.