When my older brother gained admission to university in 2016, my parents had to pool all their resources to foot the bill. His school fees were barely N30,000 (USD 38.90).
A few years later, when it was my turn, it was the same story. In 2017, I gained admission to the Polytechnic Ibadan to study Mass Communication; after paying for tuition and housing—at a cost of something less than N70,000 (USD 90.76)—my parents had barely anything left for my basic needs. This story I share with my brother is not unique; in fact, there are millions of Nigerian students from homes where the meager fee required to attend tertiary institutions is competing with food.
Last year, as an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan, I paid less than N35,000 (USD 45.38) for school fees. In comparison with places like the United States, where the cost of tuition and fees to attend public institutions averages USD 9,678 per year, or even with private universities in Nigeria, where students pay as much as N5 million (USD 6,500), this amount may seem ridiculously low.
But there is a context here.
133 million Nigerians, representing 63 percent of the country’s population, are multidimensionally poor, according to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics. For many families, affording even the lowest school fees means a struggle, sometimes requiring contributions from friends, families, and taking on extra jobs to overcome. And things are about to change, significantly, in ways we’re all scared to come to terms with.
Currently, tertiary education in Nigeria is tuition-free, subsidized by federal money. But this arrangement has been fraught with an endless tussle between the gown and the government. Since the country’s return to democracy in 1999, lecturers have struck on seventeen different occasions in protest against the many serious issues plaguing the sector, from poor infrastructure and underfunded laboratories to unpaid salaries and inadequate money for research.
Despite these agitations, allocations from the federal government to universities have scarcely budged from a decade-low figure of 5.6 per cent in 2021. In the aftermath of the eight-month-long lecturers’ strike last year, it became obvious that universities are going to need to find other avenues to fund themselves. They have consequently set their eyes on students’ pockets.
At the University of Lagos, school fees have increased from an average of N50,000 (USD 64.83) to between N120,000 (USD 155.58) and N240,000 (USD 311.16). Vice-Chancellor Prof. Folasade Ogunsola explained that the old fee range was no longer sustainable, noting that aside from paying salaries, federal funds currently allocated to the University annually are insufficient to run it successfully for even a month, leading to an endemic annual deficit of about N1 billion (USD 1.3 million). As a result of this, the management had to choose between watching the school die or increasing fees. It chose the latter.
Other Nigerian federal universities, including the University of Benin, University of Abuja, and University of Maiduguri have all also increased their fees in similar proportions, and others are expected to follow suit in the coming months.
A Slippery Slope
Earlier this month, as a participant at a model United Nations Conference in a private university in Nigeria, a student there told me he pays over N3 million (USD 3,890) annually in school fees. When I told him the amount I paid in the last academic session at my school, he thought I was joking—and why not? My fees are around two percent of his.
Despite this difference, we students of federal universities demand the same quality of education, if not more; the tens of millions of kids from Nigeria’s poorest families deserve some help. The federal government has approved the introduction of a student loan program for indigent students who can’t afford the rising fees across government-owned institutions. But this plan is problematic by design, and history has shown that it’s unlikely to work.
In 1972, Nigeria’s former military head of state, Yakubu Gowon, introduced a federal student loan policy to enable students to meet rising costs of university education. The failure of this policy ultimately laid the foundation for the Ali Must Go protest of 1978. It’s also noteworthy that more than N40 million of the loans awarded by the government at that time remain unpaid.
Another problem with the new student loan scheme is that it can only be accessed by students in government institutions that charge students for tuition. But despite the rising rate of fees in federal universities like mine, tuition remains free.
With an unemployment rate of 33 percent, one out of every three students is unlikely to find a full-time job upon graduation. How are they to repay student loans? This question becomes even more pressing, in view of the fact that the terms of the new loans require students to commence loan repayments two years after completing the one-year mandatory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) program. For those who default, the legislation prescribes a two-year jail term, without taking into consideration the rate of unemployment in the country.
Where do government priorities lie? Do the math. In the supplementary budget presented by the federal government in the first week of November, the sum of N5.5bn was allocated for the student loan scheme for hundreds of thousands of university students across the country, and N13.5bn earmarked for the renovation of the Presidential lodges. The government’s argument that the introduction of tuition is due to paucity of funds is specious at best.
For people from humble backgrounds, tertiary education remains the most effective bridge across the poverty line. But as fees begin to rise, putting that education out of the reach of hundreds of thousands, there will be a price to pay, for poor people, for society.