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Buhari’s free S&T education pledge puzzles academics

Nigerian president Mohammadu Buhari’s announcement that his government will offer free tertiary education for science and technology students has caused confusion among the country’s academics.

Buhari made the announcement to the National Assembly on 22 December while presenting the 2016 budget.

Several media sources reported him as saying, “In the coming weeks, we will present the full programme, which will include our home-grown public primary school feeding and free education for science, technology and education students in our tertiary institutions. Indeed, this will mark a historic milestone for us as a nation.”

But although most Nigerians welcome the news, a number of academics told Research Africa that they were confounded by the president’s promise.

Buraimoh Gbenga, a sociology lecturer at the Federal University Oye-Ekiti, said the president’s statement was ambiguous.

“At the moment, the federal universities are practically tuition-free already, so saying that there will be free education for science and technology students raises an eyebrow,” he said.

He described the removal of tuition fees in private or state universities as “highly unlikely”. He added that Buhari might have referred to postgraduate students, who do pay significant university fees.

Either way the statement rings hollow to Gbenga. “I think the president should offer something more tangible like making science and technology research a priority by increasing funding,” he said.

Buhari’s allocation to the federal ministry of science and technology was just over N25.8 billion (US$129 million)—a slight reduction from last year’s allocation of N26.6bn.

The national assembly will now debate the budget before it is passed, with or without amendments. 

Claudius Okeleke, a physics lecturer at Imo State University, agreed that the president’s announcement obscured the bigger issue of underfunding in universities.

“The statement still shows that the government doesn’t have a concrete plan to improve science and research in the country,” he said.

“I really don’t get why he made an announcement when already the federal universities are tuition free. If what they plan is additional support maybe in terms of scholarships, they should make that clear. But saying free education for science and technology students sounds like a scam to me,” Okeleke said.

Bola Ayoola, an agricultural scientist at Lagos State University, said the manner of Buhari’s announcement indicated that there was no clear structure for delivery.

“I believe that the government should make clear what they are offering as what they are offering now is more like giving a gift that students already have,” he said.

“If you look at the 2016 budget that was presented by the president you will realise that there are no concrete plans for the development of science and technology,” he added.

“Nigeria’s government has still not risen to the reality that a major development factor is making science and technology a priority. Unfortunately, they are still playing lip-service,” he said.

Ayoola suggested the government should make money available to equip laboratories, increase funding for research and create the environment for research to thrive in order to develop the country.