Education will be key to Nigeria's continued development, but the underfunded sector has struggled to meet the needs of its massive youth population.
Nigeria’s population explosion in recent years has made the country a popular pick as a future leader on the African continent, though this has also placed tremendous stress on the nation’s education system. The fastest growing of the world’s 10th most-populous countries, the United Nations projects that Nigeria’s population will exceed 300 million people by 2050. With a median age of 17.9 years, Nigeria has more than 70 million citizens under the age of 14, making education critical to the nation’s future development. With all this in mind, nurturing and developing the nation’s human capital will continue to be, perhaps, the singlemost important task going forward. Reform efforts underway have focused on increasing basic access and quality of instruction offered in an attempt to raise baseline levels of education across the board.
Primary school enrollment has gradually increased in recent years but significant gaps still remain. UNICEF estimates primary school net attendance at 72% for boys and 68% for girls in 2012, and this fell to 54% for both sexes when it came to secondary school attendance. Consequently, there are more than 10 million non-enrolled Nigerian youths, the largest such number of any country in the world. Nigeria’s adult literacy rate was estimated at just 51% of the adult population as of 2012, below average for the Sub-Saharan region. Youth literacy rates as reported by UNICEF are slightly higher but still below international standards due to the large number of children not enrolled in school; the rate for males aged 15-24 in 2012 was 75.6%, compared to 58% for females. This reflects another one of the Nigerian education system’s most lasting problems: disparities in access between genders. An estimated 60% of children not enrolled in school are girls, and this ratio is even higher in the more rural, northern parts of the country, where teenage pregnancy and the need to support their families lead to high dropout rates. Multiple international organizations have identified expanding education access to girls as one of the single best investments a country can make for its development, so solving this disparity is one of Nigeria’s stated priorities. The education system is headed by the Ministry of Education, which oversees a tiered system in which state governments run secondary school systems and local governments run primary schools. Education is compulsory for six years of primary and three years of junior secondary education, and an additional three years of senior secondary education is offered before the university system. Nigeria’s university system contained four accredited federal and 44 state universities as of 2017, many of which are relatively new and opened to meet supply as a result of the dramatically rising population; between 2005 and 2017, the number of universities as registered with the National Universities Commission grew from 51 to 152. Private schools have been responsible for much of this growth. However, private institutions are still much smaller than their public counterparts. One of the most significant problems facing all levels of the education system is a lack of funding. UNICEF reported that many primary schools lacked water, electricity, and bathroom facilities; on average, the Nigerian primary school system has only one toilet per 600 pupils. With such inadequate facilities, the efficiency and effectiveness of teaching is well below required levels. These shortfalls extend to post-secondary schools as well; entry to all post-secondary universities was standardized in 1978 to accept a single Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) for admission, but the government body in charge of administering the test announced in November 2016 that inadequate funding threatened its ability to continue administering the exam. Funding for the education system comes from every level of federal and state governments, but spending has averaged only about USD2 billion in recent years, roughly 0.5% of GDP. Bilateral aid initiatives have played a larger role in increasing funding in the sector in recent years, with the UK, US, and Germany making annual contributions of over USD30 million combined. Nigeria has also worked in conjunction with the World Bank and IMF to launch new investment programs; a USD150-million Nigeria State Education Program Investment Project (SEPIP) launched in 2013 with the goal of improving teacher quality and school management in three Nigerian states. While a positive step forward, larger problems with management and access, especially in the northern states, have limited the effectiveness of these cash injections. Steady continued reform work will be needed to eliminate waste and continue building the education system from the ground up.