Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Between stakeholders, ‘plug & play’ graduates

Recently, stakeholders in the nation’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector, decried the quality of graduates being produced by Nigerian universities and called for plug & play graduates. REMMY NWEKE writes that except for those who chose to be left out in the advancement, plug & play ‘graduates’ is possible, despite the challenges.

THE annual Student Union Government (SUG) week was around the corner and Jerome Oyedele, a fourth year student was the president, engineering and computer science students association, in one of the notable universities in the Western Nigeria. The executive members agreed to write to some alumni in their department for support to make a difference, before they finally leave the school for the compulsory one-year National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) programme.

One of those that got their letters was Mazi Uwasi Kalu, who has become a chief executive officer of his own company, having graduated from the university over a decade ago. After going through the letter, Kalu was impressed with structure of grammar contained therein that he simply felt in love with Jerome who signed it.

Without much ado, Kalu assented to their request and dialogue continued, leading to him offering Jerome job appointment on conclusion of his youth service.

Then, the Camel back broke soon after when Jerome had gone through the theoretical description of his job and was mandated to detail an internal memo as to his observations and recommendations, which turned out was embellished with unforeseen grammatical errors.

At first, Mr. Kalu thought it was just mere typographical and asked him if he went through the memo, which he affirmed and was asked to go over the memo once again and effect the necessary corrections. Eventually, Jerome came up with the same kind of disappointing memo again, thereby forcing Kalu to summon him to a crucial meeting, where he confessed that those letters getting to him while he (Jerome) was in the university were written by the group’s secretary in the department.

The above scenario must have led to the recent clamour by stakeholders in the Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) sector for ‘plug & play’ graduates from the nation’s universities. They made this request through the national president, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, at the just concluded first ICT Education Summit in Lagos.

Plug-and-play is a computer feature associated with Microsoft’s Windows 95 that allows the addition of a new device [staff], normally a peripheral, without requiring reconfiguration or manual, according to the free encyclopedia, Wikipedia online. The term has since gone global.

Dr. Ekuwem said that the summit was a logical outcome of the yearnings, complaints, outcries, albeit lamentations on the part of the industry leaders, companies and employers of labour on the steadily eroding quality of Nigeria’s technical education based on ICT evolution.

“We may wish to wish for a plug and play graduate, that is one that leaves a university or polytechnic, gets employed and excellently discharges his or her schedule with very little or no on-the-job training,” he stated, stressing that the wish may not be utopian, after all, if the tertiary education in the country were founded on a sound ICT education, the dwindling fortunes of Nigerian graduates will not visible.

The ICT industry, he said, remains a bastion of progress in the nation’s economy, hence, as one of the fastest growing ICT markets globally it is worthy and wise enough to structure the education system closely in line with this evolution.

“The policy, legal, institutional and regulatory frameworks that underpin the Nigerian ICT development are the collective envy of the world,” he said, noting that the current leaders of this revolution are no longer growing younger, and wondered how the progress will be sustained with the kind of graduates coming out of the nation’s tertiary institutions presently.

“If the succeeding leaders of this digital revolution are not men and women of knowledge, digital depth and quality that mental agonies await us all,” he warned, especially if they have to handover to mediocre successors.

Ekuwem, who is the chief executive of Teledom International Group, said that an industry without a sufficiently available critical mass skilled manpower and expertise is unsustainable. He recalled there was a time in this country when Nigerian graduates and engineering discipline specifically excelled wherever they found themselves; from the public to private sectors and even in the academia.

“What went right then and what have gone wrong now,” he quizzed? And quickly noted that it may be argued that the nation’s post-primary education system has failed by sending the kind of pupils to the tertiary institutions, thus, he asked “What is the pedagogic state of the health of secondary institutions? Are there good laboratories, workshops, libraries and bookshops? How conducive is the learning environment? Are the teachers motivated and are they even well-trained and regularly updated. What are the indices for assessing the fitness of secondary schools to produce ‘raw materials’ for the tertiary institutions?”

Ekuwem further said that aforementioned indices, applies to the tertiary institutions and members of the academia too. “How up to date are the professors and the lecturers. In what state are the laboratories, updated curricula?” he said, wondering if there is any atom of truth in the money-for-marks allegations.

He also wanted to know if the tertiary institutions in the country have broadband internet connection, lamenting that officially, Nigeria is an English speaking country, therefore, English is taught, read and write in schools nationwide. “Yet, how good is our students’ English, to read, grasp the salient points in each ICT subject which are taught in English,” he reasoned.

Therefore, ATCON, called for revisiting of one year NYSC programme; to enhance technical competences of ICT graduates, stressing that expertise is exportable commodity and therefore a major foreign exchange earner for the country, putting forward that, “A competent Nigerian ICT professional makes the Nigerian brand much more glittering anywhere in the world.”

Endorsing ATCON’s lamentation was the World Bank recent study on Nigeria conducted during June - August 2000, which indicated that the unemployment rate for university graduates in the country is about 25 per cent, and that their prospects for employment have worsened over time.

According to the study, the share of graduates going into the public sector has fallen drastically, whereas the messages conveyed by respondents centred on three key points, namely that university graduates are poorly trained and unproductive on the job; graduate skills have steadily deteriorated over the past decade and shortcomings are particularly severe in oral and written communication, and in applied technical skills.

Equally, several instances showed that employers make up for this ‘insufficient academic preparation’ by engaging new employees on remedial courses, which raises the firms’ operating costs, and reduces their profitability and competitiveness.

Commenting on the unemployable Nigerian graduates and usefulness of the ‘graduates,’ some Nigerians, however, differed in opinions, citing various reasons including lack of educational infrastructure like standard libraries, laboratories, books and even retraining of lecturers, while accusing the political office holders of neglecting the education sector and particularly the technical aspect, which was the onus for the introduction of the 6-3-3-4 system.

A Nigerian first-class Computer Engineering graduate from Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) Ile-Ife, Osun State, currently studying in the United States on scholarship for his Masters degree, who gave his name as Loma, confessed that he had since discovered that he wasted years in the university learning the wrong things.

“All what I learnt is not up to what 2nd-year undergraduates here (US) know. Our lecturers back home are so under-baked that they could hardly impart anything to us, and the whole system needs to be revamped,” he declared.

Though he claimed to be doing extremely well because he employ endurance, and not wanting to take chances of a failure, noting “Ife has made me tough, so now I make use of all the facilities I never had in Ife, good books, computers, the internet, and so I do very well, and my foreign classmates get the impression our schools are very good back home. I can assure you this is the situation with a lot of other people, whatever they know, they learnt themselves, not in the universities back home. By the way, I also worked for some years in Nigeria in top companies, yet I got here to discover I really was not a computer engineer!”

Public commentator, Collins Ojiogwu, also agreed the educational system in Nigeria has declined over the years to a sorry state, and has gotten really bad; “Sciences no longer have practicals but alternative to practicals, probably the humanities and the arts may have fared a bit better, but the whole thing has gone to hell.”

Recalling that when he was growing up in the 80’s, it was usually the ‘Olodos’ – unintelligent - who were taken abroad because they could not cope with the prevailing standards, now the reverse is the case.

He lamented that the lecturers have all fled in search of greener pastures and what is now left are a calibre of teachers, with a few exceptions; who ordinarily could be allowed to teach in secondary schools let alone the universities. While students are preoccupied with things that should not primarily concern them, even as there are lots of misfit students who should not be in the universities in the first instance.

According to him, the unpredictable strikes by the Academic Staff Union (ASUU) and its Non-Academic counterparts NASU, the destructive policies of the respective governments of the day, poverty and corruption have not helped matters.

“Nevertheless, I also believe that when it comes to self development, the Nigerian graduate is second to none. He or she is simply cut of a brilliant cloth,” he asserted.

Obviously worried by the quality of graduates from the nation’s universities, the Nigerian office of Ericsson, introduced the Ericsson Skills Acquisition Programme (ESAP) for graduates, which passed out the first batch recently.

Speaking on ESAP, Manager, Marketing & Communications, Ericsson Nigeria, Mr. Olabode Sowunmi, told ITRealms Online that the graduation of the first batch was the climax of activities that begun over a year ago. Pointing out that in the third quarter of 2008, Ericsson had made spirited efforts to search for suitably qualified graduates across the country.

“The concept is a calculated attempt to develop skills of local Nigerians and ultimately enable them to become experts in the technical and technologically evolving telecommunications sector of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry,” he said, emphasizing that they expect the graduates if not absorbed by the Ericsson to be well above their average counterparts, thereby making them attractive ‘brides’ of the telecoms industry, as engineers, operators, analysts, regulators and even consultants of varying skill sets to other companies.

On admission, he said, they were given an intensive suite of foundation including technical and soft skills courses with the focus on current technological realities.
As such, “a mentorship programme of sorts is built into the scheme where the students go through the various departments for ‘on-the-job-training.’ This is an additional Ericsson innovation, which includes a process where they are attached to more experienced colleagues thereby adding more substance to their training and creating the well rounded foundation from which successful applicants can build a successful career.”

In conclusion, Nigerians, especially those in government must learn to shun the paper certify craze that is on-going now, and focus on technical education has become inevitable, whereas graduates could be summed up as being what individual students want to become when they leave schools at all stages of education. So, the ball is in the court of the students to make something out of the situation they find themselves, by trying as early and possible as they can to discover their roots and stick to it while it grows.

And like another interested party, Ms. Lily Onumadu, would argue, a lecturer cannot break a student’s head and put stuff; the students have got to learn what they choose to in schools. “So, you see, it’s only you that can decide what to make of yourself.”

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