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Education should be insulated from politics -Prof. Oladapo
Oladipo Afolabi rose to the level of a professor in the university before switching to the federal civil service, where he first became a permanent secretary and later head of service. After his retirement, he went into consultancy combining it with the chairmanship of the governing council of The Polytechnic, Ibadan. He recently spoke with Sulaimon Olanrewaju and Kate Ani on policies, education and the civil service, among other issues. Excerpts.
WHAT is your vision for The Polytechnic, Ibadan which is in the process of transiting to a university?
The polytechnic is not going to transit to a technical university. The polytechnic will remain a producer of middle level manpower and we want to retain it like that, but we need to improve on it, so that we will be able to provide the necessary skills as originally designed. But that is not to foreclose that the polytechnic itself and indeed, all the other campuses can be degree-awarding in future. But what we intend to have now is how the polytechnic and the technical university co-exist, with the two of them, having a future that will produce for us the necessary skills that are required to really grow an economy, that is fairly robust, in this part of Nigeria in particular, and perhaps for the rest of the world.
What are the gaps you have noticed in skills in that level of manpower?
My surprise is that, we have in general technology or technical-based institutions in Nigeria and yet we are importing these skills; we are importing skills like welding, carpentry and masonry. So, there is a big skill gap and we intend to bridge some within the shortest possible time. The polytechnic will be in a position to fill this gap, not only, as I said, for this part of the world, but also in Nigeria in general.
Taking a cue from the fact that at a point in time the 6-3-3-4 system of education was introduced to take care of those skills, how do you intend to encourage aspiring students of the institution to show interest in acquiring these skills?
6-3-3-4 is a good design, but I tell you, the implementation has issues. The first thing that I see is perhaps, we shouldn't have disarticulated the secondary school; we should have had the secondary school together in one location. Let's face it; most of the friends we made were in secondary school; three years is too short a period to make a friend and develop a culture for life. If we want friendship for life, it must be six years or five years minimum.
I can also suggest that in re-articulating the secondary schools, we should emphasise boarding houses because here, the culture they exhibit will help them in life. Right now, there is a loss of etiquette. Some people don't know how to sit down as ladies, how to hold fork in the dining, and when you open and close your fork, what it means. So really, boarding house puts all these things in place, we need to go back and have majority of our students in the boarding school.
The second is the fact that the 3-3 does not mean that you cannot co-locate the technical component, which is the junior secondary to the SSS, with the senior secondary.
We must go back and rethink. I am for merger, so we must merge those things back, and then, still have the technical content, allow those who don't have the skill to move beyond technical skill and give them the skill and then those who could go beyond and provide a clear leadership that is required for building a nation, to proceed.
So, these things must really merge into one another and continue, I will tell you what we can also do here in Oyo State; those technical schools must be linked strongly to the polytechnic, not any loose arrangement as we have now. Very strong link, I hope we can get that.
Can you please expatiate on this close relationship between the polytechnic and the technical colleges?
Well, clearly what we can do is to have the technical schools there as they are now. Fortunately, you can easily make your way to a technical school from the junior secondary or even from the primary school and when you are there, we try to leverage on superior equipment at the polytechnic.
So, from the beginning, they already have an aspiration and then we will also engage those who will be teaching them to also have clear exposure and skills that they pass on. Also we should have a number of technical schools that we can cope with so that we do not stretch ourselves too thin and fail to equip them properly. So, if it is one that we have, let it be properly equipped and become a feeder to the polytechnic.
Are you thinking of developing a special curriculum for the technical schools in Oyo State, because your expectations of the technical schools seem not to be in tandem with what obtains nationally?
I am not a custodian of the policy on education, I can only give ideas, but I think the Oyo State Commissioner for Education and the Ministry of Education are looking at that kind of policy. But what I am sure is that the technical schools should be so reinforced that they will serve as a feeder for higher technical education and such that even at the technical level, they can provide skills that are required to stop our importation of skills from Benin Republic, Togo and Ghana.
When we look at the educational system in Nigeria as a whole, and Oyo State in particular, what do you think is the problem?
Do I say problem or challenges? We have challenges and it is a general malaise that has to do with our politicising education. I wish that education was not touched when they were politicising everything. By politicising education, by promising things that could really not be delivered, we compromise the standard of education. The way to go is to be truthful and sincere with ourselves when it comes to matters of education because that is the fundamental of development in any society. If we do not develop the necessary skills, it will only consume our economy, but we cannot survive as a consumer economy, you must also be producing; you must be creative for you to be globally competitive. We can see that today at the global arena, everybody negotiates for his or her country, but when you produce people who cannot even merge any other skill; of course, you have sold your country cheap. We need to really address education more deeply in such a way that whatever will be thrown up as a product of educational system should be second to none anywhere in the world.
We got it in the past, so it is not like a dream, I can tell you clearly, if you look at Africa for example, how did we become the first country to have a television station? First country to have a skyscraper, first country to produce engineers, lawyers, and doctors in Africa, so, we once had it, we should go back, the magic we used to get those feats must be reclaimed, but like I said, we need sincerity of purpose.
Don't you think the civil servants have a role to play here, are they not the ones that allow the politicians to bastardise the educational sector?
Civil servants can only advise, they can advise on policy, or assist in implementing, but it is the directives of the politician that they follow. I am not going to apportion blames, generally we are all involved, and we must do things together and be sure to reclaim, I hate to use the word reclaim, our lost glory. We must move on so that we can become competitive.
Shouldn't civil servants have a role to play in safeguarding the common interest of the people when politicians come with their disruptive policies?
Let me put it this way, the way it works in public service is that ideas can come from anywhere; from the public, from the civil servants or from the politicians but the final determinant is the politician. The civil servant can only advise and implement, but the final decision maker is the politician and there is no civil service that is designed to work against the politician. You must play along with the politicians even if you tell him the truth and he rejects it, you still need to implement the instruction of the politician. That is the design. So, civil servants are subjected to the politicians. That is how it works. But let's not apportion blame, we are all liable.
What can we do to make the civil service respond to the needs of the society?
Of course we can always improve on whatever we have. One thing I noticed as a former head of service was that the society has gone far beyond what the civil service of today is designed for. The civil service of today is designed to follow process and procedures, but there is an additional requirement that the new trend requires which is knowledge and skills. So you must have a knowledge-based civil service that will have the capacity to respond accurately and what I see in short supply is capacity; the capacity is not enough. We have pockets of skills and expertise, that is what is sustaining it, but we need to get the majority to access skills and capacity.
In trying to address that when I was head of service, I did a few things. The first one was to really do a calculation of what it would require to give every civil servant at the federal level, adequate training for capacity. I found out that even the most basic would have cost us N40 billion per annum and I don't know where such money would come from looking at all the competitive social expenses and responsibility of the government.
So, instead of going the conventional way, we leveraged on the internet to provide this mass kind of capacity building, that is still ongoing. We started it, people are getting training but it is not still at the optimum level.
The second thing that we tried to do was that, knowing that the private sector still has some skills which the public service can benefit from and I also know that the private sector can benefit from the training of the civil service. So, we started an exchange programme, where senior civil servants can go to the private sector and the private sector will exchange with the civil service. We started before I left, and what we are hearing is that it is very laudable and a cheap way of building capacity.
The third thing that we also initiated at the time was to have a performance management system that will enable a civil servant really know what he has to do and what the expectations are to get the reward and what is the type of the reward that is in the system. We started it before I left the government; I hope that is still going on. If we can combine these three things; training, exchange and performance management, I think we can get a system that is sufficiently amenable to whatever the dynamics of management comprises.
Is the civil service not supposed to respond to developments in the society because it seems the society has left the service behind?
I don't think the society has left the civil service behind but for the civil service, this society would have collapsed. The civil service has held on the framework upholding the society, and that is the design. We are not supposed to be easily perturbed by the forces of destabilisation.
For example, somebody may come up with the theory that the only thing that can bring wealth is the stock exchange, but a civil servant will look at it three times and say, 'look, if the stock exchange fails, what will be the outcome? Can we put all our eggs in one basket?' They will advise, caution, so this is the way the civil service is designed, it is supposed to be robust, not easily perturbed, but then, it also needs to have the skills to be able to respond to those positive developments.
So, we are fine, as far as I am concerned. The society has not left the civil service behind; we have become the custodian of the culture and tradition on which the society survives.
It has been claimed that civil servants have a way of showing politicians the way in manipulating the system, that it is actually the civil servants who corrupt politicians?
Again, don't let us apportion blame, it is a team work and I tell you, the society has compromised so many things and we only get the type of society that we yearn for. The present society as it is, is clearly compromised when it comes to standard ethics and values, let's not say one taught the other, or one corrupted the other. I think the whole system is a product of the kind of society that we have.
How is the polytechnic reacting to the coming university?
I will say that the polytechnic was not left behind in the thinking, so it really is a kind of collective thinking and so far, the polytechnic has been positive because it can only help the polytechnic to take further advantage of the kind of resources both in human and resources that are available. We pray that this dream will come to pass. I can assure you, this polytechnic, in another 10 years, will be one of the best in the world.
Do you have all the resources you need to actualise your vision for the polytechnic?
When you have a challenge, you work towards achieving it, I don't know about resources or not, but I think idea is important, if we have idea, tenacity, and the support of God to actualise it, I am a dreamer, and I am an optimist, I think we will get there.
How was it easy for you to move from academics to civil service to consultancy?
I won't say I don't know how, I just know I am functioning. I functioned as a professor in the university, I enjoyed it. I was in the civil service, I enjoyed it. Now, I am into consultancy and I am beginning to enjoy it. Really, I don't think there is any boundary whether it is civil service or academics, the thread that really binds all of them is knowledge. Once you have knowledge, you can operate anywhere.
For those who look up to you as a model, what will you say is your success secret, apart from knowledge?
I don't know if I have any success secret, but I will tell you, I have faith. I believe in God. I believe that with him, nothing is impossible. Whatever the youth do, they must invite God into their lives and allow God to determine their pathway. But then, it is work and pray; work very hard and God will do the rest.