Students in Nigeria - The New Elite

Given More Respect, Privileges Than American Undergraduates, They Find Competition Rougher

Revolution is the stuff of which headlines are made. Yet the most significant one in today's world--what Chester Bowles has aptly termed "the revolution of rising expectations"--is taking place virtually unnoticed by the American public.

A summer spent in Nigeria convinces me that it is time for a change in this American attitude, or lack of it. Nigeria is a good case of an underdeveloped country with rising expectations; with a population of 35 million, fairly plentiful natural resources, a rich cultural heritage, and prospects for independence two years hence, it is certain to become a leader in an increasingly influential Africa.

Nigeria's students, in turn, can expect to be highly influential in their country's affairs. The much-needed skills they acquire will enable them to occupy positions of power much more rapidly than can the average collegian in this country. They will soon be making decisions of no small consequence to America.

In fact, it may not be unrealistic to claim that the remainder of this century belongs to them and their fellow students in the underdeveloped nations of Asia and Africa. A description of Nigerian student life, therefore, offers a rough indication of what the U.S. may expect in a rapidly changing world.

Our party's first contact with Nigerian students came when we were shown around the campus of Nigeria's only full-scale university, the University College at Ibadan. UCI was opened in 1948 and has been expanding ever since; present enrollment is about 680 and will eventually rise to 2,000. Affiliated with the University of London, UCI requires its students to satisfy full minimum entrance requirements of the former. Academic standards, in other words, exceed those of most American universities.

The sheer beauty of the campus quickly strikes the visitor. Its buildings, placed in a spacious setting of grass-covered hills, are constructed in an impressive modernistic style. The comfortable living quarters, which have been patterned on the English model, have much in common with the Harvard houses. Each of five "halls"--one for women, four for men--has its own dining room, sports facilities, social activities, and student government, and inter-hall competition is keen on many fronts. As at Lowell House, the hall dining rooms feature high tables--small but significant reminders of a larger debt owed by both Harvard and UCI to the British university tradition.

David Abernethy '59 of Eliot House, spent last summer with thirteen other American students on a study project in Nigeria, British West Africa. The privately-sponsored project, entitled "Crossroads Africa," included work camps involving American and Africa students in four other West African countries: Liberia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and the French Cameroons.

University College is experiencing an upsurge of interest in the dramatic arts, and its newly-built campus theatre has facilities far superior to those provided at Harvard. Recent productions include HMS Pinafore, Shaw's Gentle People, and Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute. The director, a young and, not unexpectedly, bearded Englishman, felt satisfied with the calibre of the performers, but voiced the eternal plaint of the director in every land: his major problem was simply to remain solvent.

Though academic pursuits occupy most of the students' waking hours, their life has its less serious moments. The student body recently protested against the administration's decision to erect fences around the campus so as to prevent the boys from sneaking off to nearby Ibadan at night. No sooner were the fences installed than indignant vigilantes tore them down; they were promptly expelled. They were later readmitted, however and at present the outcome of this great clash of wills is in doubt. At any rate the ouburst reaffirmed what to the male college student is surely a fundamental human right.

All in all, life at UCI is fairly similar to that at an American college, yet the campus still has a distinctively African orientation. It shows up in little ways: the beautiful mahogany and ebony furniture, the stylized Yoruba art work in the Protestant and Catholic chapels. And, more important, it is evident in students' concerns. The Beacon, a UCI journal, features a book review of J.C. Amamoo's The New Ghana and an editorial on the recent conference of the eight independent African states, concluding with a stern protest to the French government should it carry out its proposal to test atomic weapons in the Sahara.

The visit to the UCI campus was but our first contact with Nigerian students. Several boys from the college travelled with us for the first half of the summer; moreover, we had the opportunity to speak in over 20 secondary schools, answering questions from audiences numbering 300 students.

These encounters gave evidence of a great reservoir of good feeling towards America and Americans existing among the younger generation. What direct contacts they had made in missions, schools, and hospitals convinced them that Americans were more informal and easier to converse with than the British, possessing none of the latter's attitude of condescension towards African culture. What they had heard through rumor, newspaper, radio, and the movies convinced them that the U.S. was a place of fabulous wealth, great opportunity, leisure, and few conflicts.

Of the questions asked about the U. S., the most persistent dealt with American education: "What qualifications do you need for university?" "Is American education as good as British?" "How do you obtain a scholarship?" "What universities are best for engineering, medicine, economics, music?" Implicit in these questions was the more important personal query, "Will I be able to study in America?" For to study in the States is a young Nigerian's highest ambition. Whether it can ever be realized is another matter.

A second group of questions dealt with racial discrimination in the U. S., the one feature of life here which came in for continual criticism. "We have heard about this Little Rock city; could you please tell us why the Negroes are being treated badly?"

The students knew little about the facts of the racial situation; many thought, for example, that school segregation existed throughout the country. But there was an obvious emotional involvement in the Negroes' struggle for civil rights, illustrated by the repeated habit of terming them "our brothers." The Nigerians were pleased to note that, of our party of fourteen, five were colored.

"Sore Spots" Questioned

The students we met often touched on "sore spots" in American political and social life. They asked us to explain the difference between a Republican and a Democrat, why our constitution permits the legislative and executive to be of different parties, what constitutional powers the states possess, whether our dependence upon machines was making us into unthinking robots, and what contributions America could make to the world besides financial aid.

The older students voiced concern over American foreign policy. We were often asked what the U.S. was doing to preserve world peace, why it had invaded Lebanon, why Hbomb tests had not been halted, and chided for our failure to launch a space satellite ahead of Russia. One very troubling question: "Why is America so opposed to Asia?"

Issues Differ

We for our part tried to explore the vital issues facing students in Nigeria--and, in a broader sense, the younger generation in a rapidly growing but still underdeveloped country. These issues are different from those in a highly developed area. For in Nigeria the harsh fact of life is the lack of trained African personnel in almost every field--agriculture, commerce, administration, and health. Education must meet this need, but funds to finance it can seldom come from the students or their parents, in a land where per capita income hovers around $60 a year. They must come instead from the government. Over 90 percent of UCI's annual budget, for example, is paid for by the Federal government, and hundreds of Nigerians are studying at UCI or abroad on the strength of scholarships from the federal or one of the three Regional governments. At the University College of Ghana, which we also visited, 98 percent of the student body is financially assisted by the government.

This state activity effects certain changes in the educational system. First, it alters its whole purpose. Schools and universities are expected to turn out men motivated and trained to further the development of their country, rather than well-rounded individuals trained in the liberal arts. The ideal, as set forth in The Beacon, is not so much "knowledge for its sake" as "education inspired with a social purpose."

Second, education as an instrument of state policy influences student attitudes and work habits. Students are generally made aware at an early age of the need to choose a vocation; many secondary students seemed quite sure of where they were going, their major problem being not what to do but how to obtain the funds to do it.

Their attitude toward politics is also affected. American students do not engage in political activities because these seem divorced from campus life; in Nigeria there is a similar lack of activity but it is because politics is so integrally related to campus and career. Several university students state that they did not want to endanger their scholarship standing by being vocal supporters of any one political party. Moreover, federal and regional scholarship terms commit them to five years' employment in a government department after graduation, and incipient civil servants are wise to avoid entangling alliances with parties. They are expected to be apart from such things.

Work Habits Affected

Work habits are further affected. Students in Nigeria work a good deal harder than do young Americans, largely out of fear that their government scholarships will be withdrawn if they do not. In many a secondary school, for example, we heard that the boys would study Saturday night rather than spend the evening socializing. UCI students told of night-long cram sessions extending for several days, before they took their equivalent of the College Boards. And these sessions are standard procedure prior to any UCI exam. Failing a course may mean expulsion if a re-exam is not quickly passed.

Hard work, indeed, is perhaps the most notable feature of Nigeria's educational system. Fear of losing a government scholarship is, however, only one explanation for this phenomenon. Another is the simple fact that there are not enough schools for everyone; hence, only those most qualified may attend. This involves a merciless elimination of the intellectually unfit. The process begins early. The principal of a secondary school in Onitsha told me that 900 boys applied this year to his school; the number was reduced to 180 after competitive examinations, and of these 60 were finally selected. The principal of Government College in Umuahia, one of the best secondary schools in the country, reported over 5,000 applicants for 60 openings! The weeding out process is repeated after high school, as the country's 20,000--some seniors compete for less than 200 places at UCI and a few at universities in Great Britain and America. Such conditions are hardly conducive to relaxed Saturday evenings.

Still a third, more basic, factor underlies the struggle for academic excellence. The above explanations are based primarily upon fear, but coincident with this fear is ambition. Nigeria's students are aware, though not precisely in the following terms, that the level of their education will determine their income, status, and social class. With a university degree come the assurance of a salary starting at the unusually high figure of 600 pounds ($1700), opportunities for rapid advancement in any field, and the highly-coveted privilege of associating with the country's Westernized intelligentsia. A degree, in short, confers upon its owner provisional membership in a New Elite.

What is unique about this elite is that is does not develop haphazardly