Jonathan’s ‘PRESSID’

President Jonathan’s ‘Presidential Special Scholarship for Innovation and Development’ (PRESSID), a laudable programme with  potential to transform our educational sector by raising standards in our universities has unfortunately received little attention from columnists saddled with the responsibility of interpreting government actions to deepen the knowledge of the people about their government. The whole endeavor has also, in the season of election, been overshadowed by the noise of  over 17 million Nigerians TAN  claims earnestly want Jonathan to continue in office to build on the gains of his transformation agenda including the energy sector where we now generate about 2900MW, down from 4500MW despite President Jonathan and Dr. Doyin Okupe‘s assurances that Nigerians with generating set would  no more have need for them as the nation would have joined the leagues of nations with uninterrupted power supply by December 2014.

‘PRESSID’ is a scheme designed to provide opportunity  for “graduates who obtained first class degrees from recognised and approved universities in the areas of sciences, medicine, basic medical sciences, engineering, economics, special aspects of biology, nuclear physics, quantitative genetics, medical biochemistry, aeronautical engineering, among others” to pursue graduate studies in the Top 25 universities around the world. We do not exactly know the criteria employed to pick those selected from a long list of first class graduates to participate in the computer based aptitude test. But we know however that of the 1,300 qualified candidates who applied for the scholarship in its first edition, 449 were invited for aptitude test out of which 101 were accommodated. For its second edition, there were also 100 lucky recipients. For its third edition, Professor Olurotimi Tayo, a member of implementation committee told reporters few days ago that of the 2,000 applicants, 943 participated in last Monday exercise. We also learnt from Dr. Joshua Attah, the coordinator of the examination that it took place concurrently in London and some hours later in Washington DC, United States of America (USA).

The policy thrust as unfolded on the occasion of presentation of the awards to the first set of beneficiaries by Prof. Ruqayyatu Rufaa, the then minister of education was “to develop a critical mass of professionals who would serve as catalysts of change and agents of scientific and technological advancement, as well as sustainable economic development”. This is a noble endeavor except that it is doubtful if there is anyone in or outside government who does not know that our challenge is not about how to develop a critical mass of professionals. We already have thousands of Nigerian youths, trained both at home and abroad in all the identified departments currently roaming the streets without jobs even as the President’s chorus boys celebrate creation of millions of imaginary jobs on television and on the pages of newspapers.

This perhaps explains why those who have closely observed the body language of the President in the last six years have tried to dismiss this laudable scheme as another strategy to find ‘jobs for the boys’. Matters are not helped by the appointment of Professor Julius Okojie, until recently JAMB boss as chairman. And instead of allaying peoples’ fears, he has been projecting himself as a salesman for Jonathan transformation agenda. As against the explicitly stated policy thrust by government, Okojie now says the programme is “part of the efforts to achieve the goals of President Goodluck Jonathan’s Transformation Agenda”

PRESSID has also come under serious threat from politicians and political jobbers. For instance, to pick about 100 first class degree holders, a function that can be easily performed by a department in the ministry of education, we have now created another heading for annual appropriation of billions in the budget. We currently have a chairman, an implementation committee made up some professors, and a coordinator of exams among many other positions already created. We have also inadvertently created credibility problem for the programme by involving JAMB, a body whose inability to conduct credible examinations led to the current arrangement whereby admission seekers incur additional expenses for post-JAMB exams handled by each university. JAMB’s involvement in last week’s aptitude test which many participants alleged leaked and where accounting firstclass degree holders aspiring to go to one of the best 25 universities in the world were asked such questions as “who won the last African magic comedy award”?; Or which is the largest ocean in the world?” clearly demonstrated JAMB has outlived its usefulness.

In a nation where government officials are never held accountable even after the tragedy of immigration recruitment exercise where desperate job seekers were robbed and lured to their death by government officials who turned around to accuse their victims of being accessories to their own deaths, it cannot be any more shocking that some unfeeling government officials  directed 943 first class degree holders out of which only 100 stood a chance to move to Abuja from all corners of the country ignoring the vagaries on our roads for  a one hour computer based aptitude test . The decision becomes even more questionable when it is realized that Chams, a computer firm that provided the Abuja facilities have similar ones in Lagos, Port Harcourt and many other state capitals in the federation. Many of the applicants who have never been to Abuja before got there in the night either as a result of flight delays in our ‘transformed airports and roads’, including the uncompleted Abuja-Lokoja, Enugu-Onitsha, Enugu Port Harcourt and Uyo-Calabar highways, launched under Obasanjo but which remain as deathtraps. Besides, many had to borrow as much as N70, 000 to cover costs of transportation, hotel bills and other incidental expenses.

But whatever the motives of those who sold the idea to the President and the misgivings associated with its implementation, focusing on first class graduates from our universities is a laudable idea. All that is required to make the initiative work is to steer it away from those who want to turn it into one huge expenditure centre with annual budgetary appropriations. With government existing policy which makes PhD the minimum entry for those who wish to pursue academic career, paying attention to first class graduates may be an answer to the crisis of manpower development in our universities. Currently only a few of the first generation universities can meet NUC requirements. And where they do, unlike what obtains in some of the best universities abroad where the ratio of lecturer to student is about 1-5, ours is about 1-200. And even with such scandalous disparity in lecturers–student ratio, thousands of qualified candidates can still not secure admission. For instance an institution like the University of Lagos admits less than 6,000 out of over 100,000 qualified candidates that sit for its post-JAMB examinations.

With proper husbandry of our resources, there is no reason why government should not be able to give scholarships to 943 screened first class degree holders. This can easily be achieved just by closing leakages in only NNPC where government admitted USD10 billion was yet to be accounted for months after setting up a forensic investigation and whose supervising minister was recently shielded by government over allegation that she frittered away about N10 billion on aircraft charter to junket around the world.

Government can also play less politics and become more creative since no government anywhere in the world funds education alone.  NUC for instance should be able to direct universities that produce first class products to offer automatic scholarships to their products as was the case before federal government took over all institutions. And since, government whose officials stole pensioners funds cannot be trusted with funds from education tax levied on organizations, a more viable option will be to revert to the practice that was in place before and after independence whereby companies were encouraged to participate in staff development efforts. The Daily Times, Nigeria Flour Mills, Lever Brothers, UAC and many others were active in this regard up to the seventies. Of course churches (orthodox and Pentecostals), today’s most thriving commercial enterprises must be encouraged to invest part of the huge resources they control in preparing our gifted youths for the challenges of tomorrow.

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