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Copenhagen Consensus Center

Nigeria Perspective: Education


Nigeria has a lower than expected level of educational achievement given its moderately high per capita income. Illiteracy rates are high and there are big gaps in achievement between rich and poor, boys and girls and different regions.  Overall, Nigeria ranks 152 out of 187 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index, below Kenya, Ghana, Botswana and Rwanda.

Investing in early years education gives the greatest benefit for each Naira spent. One of the most pressing problems is the low rate of attendance of pre-primary schools, which is only 13% in Nigeria compared to an average of 20% in sub-Saharan Africa.  Attending preschool has a lot of benefits, including better performance during later schooling, a lower dropout rate, less likelihood of involvement in crime and higher adult earnings. For each year of preschool, there is a 7-12% increase in lifetime earnings, with the greatest gains for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Primary school is also important, but enrolment rates are relatively low. There are many over-age students and many who are repeating years: it takes nine years on average to complete the six primary school years. High levels of grade repetition have been linked to high dropout rates and only 77% of students complete basic education. This is a much poorer performance than a number of other countries in the region, and Nigeria has 7 million primary school-age children out of school.

Half of the population over 15 are classified as illiterate. Of the 41 million adult illiterates, 10 million are aged 15-24 which does not bode well for generations to come.

Education quality is a big problem, with Nigeria performing worst out of 22 sub-Saharan and North African countries rated by the World Bank in 2008. The main contributing factors are poor physical facilities, inadequate sanitation, lack of textbooks and the number of unqualified teachers. To make matters worse, the high percentage of male teachers in the North means that many families there opt to withdraw girls from school.

There are wide disparities between different social groups. In the Northern States, only one in three primary school children are girls. People in the North are four times more likely to have no education than those in the South. Half of all women in rural areas are illiterate, compared to 14% of men in towns and cities. The poorest 20% of women have a literacy rate of only 13%, compared to 92% in the wealthiest 20%. Three quarters of women in the poorest households have no formal education at all.

By way of comparison, Nigeria and South Korea both had a per capita income of about $800 in 1950 (at 1990 values). By 2008, this had about doubled in Nigeria, but was over $19,000 in South Korea: thirteen times higher than Nigeria. The difference has been attributed to education policy. South Korea chose to achieve universal primary education, while Nigeria invested mainly in universities while literacy rates remained low.

The answer to Nigeria’s major educational problems is not to adopt vague, aspirational targets which have been missed in the past and are unlikely to be met in the future, but to focus on three vital areas where real progress can be made: improving school quality, getting more children into primary school and increasing preschool coverage.

Improving school quality and so raising test scores is associated with higher economic growth (2.6% higher for a one standard deviation improvement in test scores). In the case of Nigeria, this would increase annual earnings by $37 a year for a lifetime. Investing one Naira would be worth on average 17 Naira over a working life.

Given the current low rates of literacy, expanding primary education would also be very beneficial, giving 13 Naira in benefits for each one invested. The most cost-effective target, though, would be to reduce by half the number of children not attending preschool. A Naira invested here would give social benefits valued at 65 Naira. In particular, this promises a better future for students from poorer families. Since the most vulnerable groups are in the Northern States, this is where educational investment should be a priority.

Finally, there is a pressing need to collect and report basic educational statistics since “if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it”.