A friend of mine, a writer based in Abuja, surprised me recently when he asked if I knew what the acronym STD stood for. To underscore how ludicrous I found his question, I quickly retorted, “Of course, sexually transmitted diseases.” He guffawed – I should have noted a tinge of mischief in his tone – and then disabused me. “It stands for sexually transmitted degrees!”
This writer then went ahead to explain that the term was coined by another friend of his to account for the fact that many (too many, in fact) of Nigeria’s university and polytechnic students – mostly females, but some males as well – barter their bodies in exchange for grades. In effect, this inventive adaptation of a well known, frightening shorthand for venereal infestation seeks to sum up a disturbing social trend: students sleeping (or otherwise bribing) their way to a degree.
There are, one conjectures, multitudes of Nigerian bankers, engineers, lawyers, accountants, physicians, mass communicators, economists – to name a few – who flaunt sexually transmitted degrees, diplomas or certificates. Or degrees that were priced and bought, not earned through diligent study.
One must stress that there are many academics and students who don’t – and won’t – participate in this monumental self-debasement and degradation of education. Even so, there’s no question that those who take part, as lecturers or students, in this scandalous cheapening of education constitute a significant percentage.
I was always aware of the existence of rogue academics who sexually exploit their students, or induce them into parting with cash, for good grades. But I came to grasp the dimensions of the crisis when I spent part of the 2001-2002 academic year as a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Lagos.
As I prepared to give my first class, a colleague observed that I seemed “excited.” When I confirmed that I was, he said, in a discouraging tone, “But these students don’t want to learn anything. They prefer to pay cash or offer sex for their grades.”
“Is it possible,” I queried, “that some lecturers are not keen on teaching – and so prefer to collect cash or to bed the students?”
“No, believe me,” this lecturer insisted. “They are not interested in learning.”
Of course, the terrible transaction of buying and selling grades involves two parties, but the seller of grades – the lecturer – strikes me as having far more power than the buyer. At any rate, with all the determination in the world on the part of students to buy good grades, the sordid deal cannot be sealed unless and until a lecturer consents.
With that in view, I told my students the first day of class that I had heard that some of them purchased their grades with cash or their bodies. Then I warned: “The only way you can do well in this class is by working hard. I don’t accept financial or sexual gratification.”
To their credit, most of the students rose to the challenge. They read the texts and came to class ready to ask questions and to participate. Still, a few were too dyed in corrupt colors to take me at my word. One young woman was particularly persistent in asking me to change my rules. “Is it a crime to love?” she asked me over the phone. “Who do you love?” I asked. “You,” she answered. When I told her that I was her teacher, married and unavailable to be loved, she was far from fazed. “I’m not asking you to leave your wife,” she informed me. “I won’t let you borrow me from my wife for even a minute,” I said. Her response: “Why do you hate me so much?”
When I gave exams, another student – male this time – approached me. After giving me the information – which he seemed to think remarkable – that he and I were from Anambra State, he said, “Bros, what can we do about this exam?” Feigning ignorance of where the conversation was headed, I asked, “Did you take the exam?” When he nodded yes, I added: “That’s all I need from you. I will grade you and everybody else.” “No, bros,” he pursued, his tone more earnest. “As a bros, tell me how much I can give you,” he implored. Enraged, I told him how ashamed I was of his conduct – and then waved him away.
An old acquaintance – at the time a final year law student I had known since the mid-1980s – had observed the encounter. He approached and asked why I seemed so irritated. His response to my account of events was even more shocking. He advised me to call back the student and take the money he was willing to offer. “If he fails the exam, he can go and give the money to somebody in the records office – and they will change the grade. Since you’re the one who suffered to teach him, you should be the one to enjoy the money.”
I was astonished to hear a lawyer-to-be pass off such inanity as logic. He was asking me to anticipate wrongdoing by another person, and to move fast to, a, do the wrong thing first and, b, claim the prize – being the one who “suffered.”
This whole business of buying and selling grades is a touchy subject. A few years ago, Ernest Emenyonu, one of Nigeria’s most esteemed literary scholars, ignited a storm when he detailed how some Nigerian lecturers demand cash from their students as a condition for handing out good grades, supervising projects, or awarding degrees. Titled “Sorting: New Vocabulary in Nigerian Higher Institutions,” his piece offered several examples of such unscrupulous behavior.
Emenyonu, who had a distinguished career as a professor at the University of Calabar and whose current teaching address is at the University of Michigan (in Flint), wrote that the terminology “sorting” has become part of the tragic economy of trading in grades and degrees. According to him, sorting means, “to check out lecturers and determine how much a student could pay in return for a grade not worked for or earned through the academic process.” Professor Emenyonu then revealed that some lecturers “bargain in tens of thousands of Naira while some high profile lecturers and professors quote in hundreds of thousands.”
My sadness grows each time I reread Emenyonu’s essay or recall my personal experiences with students who wanted grades that cast them as excellent, but who were loath to do the requisite work. As Emenyonu stated, many students of tertiary institutions “are receiving no? worthwhile education at all,” their sponsors “paying for their? children to be duped by lecturers and if they learn anything at all, it is? experiencing first hand how to camouflage appearance for reality.” Emenyonu continued: “The? sharp ones among them are receiving their first orientation into obtaining? goods, laurels, and wealth by false pretences, alias, 419. However, the? most irreparable harm done by ‘Sorting,’ is that Education is being? mirrored as inconsequential in the development of a nation; the degrees we? award have no value and the years spent in institutions of higher learning? are irrelevant, and rigor as a crucial virtue to be acquired in the course of one’s education is an avoidable and unnecessary self imposed? hardship.”
I had a drink in Lagos with a Nigerian entrepreneur who’s in the middle of hiring staff for his start-up company. He told of graduates of accountancy who are ignorant of the most basic terms and procedures in the field. He noted the large pool of candidates he must interview before he finds somebody who appears barely qualified. “It’s embarrassing and frustrating,” he said.
The malaise in Nige
ria’s education is a microcosm of a larger cultural crisis. By and large, the ethic of the unearned, illicitly acquired preferment has been enshrined in Nigeria. Too many of us aspire to stupendous wealth, but disdain the patience, inventive enterprise and focus that facilitate material success in many other societies. As Emenyonu pointed out, Nigeria runs the risk of arriving at a point where earned and honorary degrees would become indistinguishable. After all, the recipient of a sexually transmitted degree is unlikely to be more versed in her/his field than a man who just gave a big donation to some university in exchange for a degree.
Much as Nigeria’s educational sector mirrors the broader problems of the society, we can stipulate that the country can’t move forward until it gets its educational house in order. No society has ever achieved its developmental goals by degrading the quality and standards of education.
The condition of Nigerian education demands the declaration of a state of emergency. As a corollary, a special commission to save education ought to be established. Nothing less would do. I’d give Emenyonu the last word: “It is about time parents and guardians took more interest in what goes on at the? campuses of our tertiary institutions in the name of educating the young? minds. What we sow today in our citadels of learning, we will reap? tomorrow in the behavioral and mental disorientations of our children and? children’s children!”