Nigeria: Improving free quality basic education on a tight budget

With the national economy under pressure amidst a global health crisis, efforts to deliver quality learning are hampered by several factors in Nigeria including low public investment and high population growth according to the IIEP-UNESCO Nigeria Education Sector Analysis 2021.

© UNICEF/UN0270198/Knowles-Coursin

Despite the federal government’s commitment to provide compulsory basic education to the children of Nigeria, economic and social factors combined with security issues in parts of the country, have reduced its ability to offer all young people the same quality of learning denting the impacts of the commitment.

Since the 2016 recession, recovery has been slow in Nigeria after domestic income plummeted by a cumulative 23% between 2011 and 2017. This, coupled with the country’s low tax pressure and the economic impact of the recent Covid-19 pandemic, has resulted in fewer resources available to fund public services.

Over the past three years, the federal government has spent just 1.4% of its gross domestic product on Education – well below the 4-6% recommended in UNESCO’s Education 2030 Framework for Action for the achievement of inclusive, equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all.

Resources stretched as population soars

Low public investment and Nigeria’s high population growth rate of 2.7% a year – faster than average for the continent – limits the country’s ability to deliver quality learning to all eligible children and youth. Currently, half of the country’s 200+ million population are of school-going age, all scrambling for the limited resources availed to the sector.

Over the past decade the school age population has increased by 23 million increasing pressure on the government to meet education resource needs, especially running costs for institutions, supply of teachers/instructors among other needs.

Households’ contribution to school fees is a barrier for some

Low public investment on education means that parents are often required to contribute to the cost of their children’s education, with the amount increasing the higher the level of education.  Household expenditure on education goes towards school fees, uniforms, textbooks, teaching materials and necessities such as transport to school and meals. On average, family contributions account for more than half of household spending.

According to 2018 Nigeria Living Standards Survey, 46.4% of Nigerians are poor and 53% of families are living on less than US$1.90 a day. Education is low on the list of priorities for some households due to limited income to support even their basic needs.

As a result, even though primary education is meant to be free and compulsory approximately 10.5 million children aged between 5 and 14 years old are out of school. For at least 22% of this segment of the population, it is due to cost.  

Even with household contributions included, total spending on education in Nigeria is comparatively lower than average regionally, or across the continent. This illustrates the dire need for increased public investment in education to provide quality learning.

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Bleaker picture in the North worsened by security crisis

Poor households make up 80% of the population in the north of the country. Families struggle to pay for schooling, with only about half of the children living in the region attending primary school. In addition to economic barriers and socio-cultural norms that discourage attending formal schools, parents have a further threat to their children’s education: insecurity.

Nigeria is among the countries where conflict affects children the most in the world with the highest number of children recruited by armed groups.

Repeated attacks on schools and universities as well as on teachers and students by the Boko Haram have undermined the entire education system. It is estimated that more than 1,400 schools have been destroyed, damaged or looted primarily in the northeast and more than 600,000 children have lost access to education.

As a result of the ongoing insecurity in the region, nearly 300 school girls from a boarding school in Zamfara state were kidnapped in February 2021. They were later released unharmed but the event throws into sharp focus the need to guarantee the security of school children and their teachers and prevent the destruction of infrastructure, so that parents will feel it is safe to send their children to class.

Getting children to school during a global health crisis

The problem of out-of-school children is not limited to the northern parts of the country.  UNESCO estimates show that Nigeria accounts for over 12% of out-of-school children in sub-Saharan Africa.  This percentage could rise following school closures because of the Covid-19 pandemic with children dropping out to work and help generate income for their families.

Having learnt from previous crises, the Federal Ministry of Education has pledged to guarantee support and equality for the most vulnerable learners and to ensure that all children can continue their schooling. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is just the latest challenge faced by the Nigerian education system in recent years.  While much remains to be done in terms of increasing public investment in education and achieving universal basic education, significant progress has been made.  This includes the implementation of structural and policy changes geared towards enhancing free and compulsory basic education, the implementation of strategies that advocate for mass enrolment, gender equity, proactive teacher training practices, and improvements in funding.

“The Education Sector Analysis in Nigeria, and especially the focus on the OAK states has revealed some important disparities that are often masked in focusing on national level analysis. Nigeria can be used as a case study to strengthen sub national analysis in other countries where IIEP-UNESCO is intervening.”



Polycarp Omondi Otieno
Education Policy Analyst and Planner