Abia State Commissioner for Education, Professor Ikechi Mgboji, in this interview talks about the state of most schools in Abia, the issue of workers’ salaries and what government would do concerning teachers who shun working in rural schools.
What efforts are you making to address problems facing public schools?
I have visited 50 schools since I assumed office and in both the schools I have visited and those I have not visited, there is simply no need to debate the point that they are in dire need of repairs. One of the worst things that previous governments did was to allow the collapse of school system under their watch. I also blame the society as a whole for allowing this to happen. I tell my fellow commissioners that all of us attended public schools, but none of us today have our children in public schools. It’s a shame.
First, I will say that the free education introduced, further worsened the problems in the sense that there is nowhere in the world where you have completely free education; education is expensive. I would have expected the previous governments to have a critical look at the funding of schools, and if they feel the school fees paid in those days was high, they can reduce them to what can be affordable by all. If you are going to offer free education and yet you do not have the funds to pay the school teachers, you do not have the fund to maintain the infrastructure that you inherited, you are looking for trouble.
The military ruled the country for a long period during which education was neglected; schools were underfunded and managed by people who had no business with education.
The third factor in my opinion is that people were allowed to play football in school pitches. If you go to most schools, you will see that virtually all the roofs, walls and furniture have been damaged by various teams that play football there.
Most of the schools have enough spaces; we even have some schools today that are big enough to house a university. If government decides to fence such schools it will cost us millions of naira. We can’t fence them because people come to play football there. Some persons have taken portions of school lands and erected buildings on them. The ministry had looked at all these problems from holistic point of view and agreed to re-think on free education, not that we want to introduce tuition fees. We want to find a way in which parents can contribute something, by way of development levy, something that is affordable, may be N3000 to N4000.
We will focus on re-roofing of schools and part of the strategy is not to adopt top-down management style but rather go to each of the schools because their needs are not the same. We are also trying to improve on the school sanitation system by putting in place boreholes; you cannot have hygienic schools without water.
There are allegations of delay of teachers’ salaries…
Government is doing its very best in taking care of welfare of the workers. It’s not easy because of declining revenues; few months ago, Nigeria was earning three times what it earns today from the sales of crude oil. The state is actually earning about a quarter of what we used to earn, but if you look at the fact that the schools have been collapsing and the students enrolment has fallen, you juxtapose that with the high number of teachers in the school system caused by inconsistency in government policies. This helped to increase the wage bill of the state.
Literally, the state does not charge anything when it comes to school fees, it’s not an easy thing, government borrow money to pay workers, and sometimes I’m worried over how long government can sustain that. I think at some point the state needs to have a discussion as to how we can cope with this. We can’t have a system where you have a large number of teachers and few students, it doesn’t make sense. There are numerous reports about teachers who were posted to rural areas but refused to appear at their duty posts, we are working with relevant organizations within the teaching profession to see what we can do about the issue. The same people are saying they have not been paid, some of the practical measures we are contemplating include biometric attendance machine so that people who actually come to work, get paid for an honest job, because at the end of the day it’s not about government losing money but about the future of the children. Let me say this again, on the issue of ghost teachers, we have done some biometric audit to know how many teachers we have.
Students in the state-owned higher institutions are complaining of high fees…
I think the proper question will be what are the administrators of the state owned higher institutions doing to improve their institutions? I have visited Abia State Polytechnic at least three times, we are looking into ways of improving their management style, and we are trying to know how many students they have. How much do you charge as tuition fees and how many staff do you have? There are reports that some institutions were over-staffed and in some cases not properly managed. This ministry is taking a long hard look at state-owned higher institutions. We will make them realize that things can’t continue the way they have been. Secondly, they need to embrace modern days technology that are not too expensive, virtually all the students have cell phones, they can upload all their course contents online, they will have minimal use of chalk, students can simply go through their phone to know when their lectures are due, what courses are to be taught? What particular reading materials are there? I don’t know why in 2016 some schools are still using chalk and selling handouts to students, I can’t understand why management of schools can’t hire teachers based on needs. I am totally against the sales of handout, it’s criminal. I don’t expect to hear that in any state government owned institution, teachers violate the copyrights. Why should someone write a book and another make photocopies and make money out of it? Regarding the high school fees in the state university, I understand there is a new vice chancellor there and I am convinced he will work out modalities to resolve the problem, I trust his judgment, but changes will not occur overnight.
Why hasn’t the government commenced free feeding programme for pupils as promised?
These things take time to plan and implement, as for the time government made the pronouncement, we were almost getting to the end of 2015. It’s not a political statement, I fully support it, this is not the first time we are experiencing it. Micheal Okpara, former governor of the defunct Eastern Region did it. It pains me when opposition used good initiatives by the government as a political statement; some query the cost and wonder why the government should spend 20 or 10 million naira on feeding instead of using it to pay salaries. This government saved over 200 million naira from ghost workers alone, it’s bad to hear people saying children should not be fed.
The state government has instructed that from this new term, parents must tender their tax clearance card before their kids would be allowed into any public school, what do you intend to achieve?
What actually shocked us is that people are not happy with this initiative; are they saying people should not pay taxes? We have free education in this state, and someone says pay your own tax, the governor did not prescribe any amount of money to be paid as tax, you pay on self-assessment. If parents decide to go to tax office and say I can only pay N5, 000 a year nobody will harass you. When you look at it critically, a lot of rich people don’t pay tax in this country, there is no property tax in this state, no vehicle tax in Abia. It’s unfortunate that people in Abia think payment of tax is a crime, the governor did not say each parent should pay N50, 000. The tax in this context is for the artisans who do not do the kind of job we are doing to earn a particular amount of money per month, it’s just on self-assessment, and do you know that Abia State has lower IGR than Ebonyi State? All these rich men you have in Abia, if you go and check them they are not paying taxes at all. Government says show that you are responsible citizens and people are complaining.
-Cull from Dailytrust Newspaper