Attaining a Degree in Nigeria is not as bad as people think –Hammed Kayode Alabi

Hammed Kayode Alabi is a Nigerian social impact prodigy. He is a Social Entrepreneur, Author, SDGs Youth Champion, as well as Education and Youth Activist. He recently concluded his Master’s Degree programme in Africa and International Development at the University of Edinburgh on a fully paid Mastercard Foundation Scholarship. Talking about his experience as a student, he reflected that tertiary education in Nigeria is not as bad as it is claimed. Here are the excerpts…

AC: Congratulations on your completion of your MSc programme. Could you please tell us about yourself?

HKA: About myself! I can be many different things at times, but I am mostly known for education and youth development with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. My circumstance triggered my interest in education and youth development. I was born and raised in a slum Makoko and lived most of my teenage years in rural and slum communities. I lost my mum when I was seven years old, and my dad became unemployed at the same moment. As a result, I stayed out of school for a whole academic term and my brother for an entire academic session. This inspired me to start teaching at age 15 in a basic education school in a rural community in Igbogbo. This also marked my journey into education and youth activism. I ended up founding Kayode Alabi Leadership and Career Initiative (KLCI) to help children in under-served communities develop life and 21st-century skills to solve the challenges they face in their communities and change the circumstances they have inherited.

AC: Could you please tell us how easy or difficult it was to secure a fully paid scholarship in the UK?

HKA: I would not say it is easy or difficult. I would say it is a process and a journey on its own. In 2018, I wanted to consolidate my field experience with a master’s degree, and I applied to about 12 scholarships that year, and I got rejected for 11. I turned down the only one I got, the IDS scholarship to study Power, Participation and Social Change at the University of Sussex. This was in 2019. The scholarship involves £11,000 living expenses, and my tuition fee has been covered. At that time, I also got a job with Peace First as a Fellow-in-Residence and Regional Manager to support youth-led movement in Sub-Saharan Africa. I took the role and positioned myself for the scholarships I applied to in 2019/2020. I applied to both Chevening and Mastercard in 2019, applied to them before in 2018 and got rejected. This time, I got both scholarships. I had more experience, and I had to turn down one. I went for the Mastercard Foundation Scholarship at the prestigious University of Edinburgh to study Africa and International Development. It has been a fantastic journey and a great experience developing regional expertise in education and development.

AC: What was your experience studying in the UK- the good, the bad and the ugly?

HKA: Many people would say studying in the UK is easy, but I think it is not as easy as we believe. In fact, the rigour and style of education are different. This may differ amongst courses, but in my course, you have to write essays to a particular question in your area of study or probably conduct a policy analysis or write a policy brief. For every academic piece you write, you have to be critical of your assumption. You have to back your assumption with evidence, and you can’t just describe what you read. You have to write with an analytical lens. Why did this author say this? What examples can I give to confirm what the authors have said? Are there case studies relevant to the argument I am making? Why is my argument valid? You need to keep questioning and critiquing theories and empirical evidence. So, the bad thing about this is in your first assessment if you are not used to the style of marking and what is required from you. You may score 50 and be depressed. In fact, the 60s is considered a good score in the UK, while the 70s and above is a distinction. So, the good thing is you improve as time goes. You learn to question things and do not just take something from face value. I mean, I would say my reflective and critical thinking skills have improved significantly. You may also have to read many academic pieces to come up with a good and solid paper. So, you may find yourself doing a lot of readings, and there are many readings in the reading list. There is no room for mediocrity. You have to get the job done. More importantly, you become grounded in your subject as you deepen your knowledge in your area of work. Other things involve other students from diverse backgrounds. For example, I had classmates who studied in top universities across the world and highflyers in their various schools before coming here. So, the good thing is you learn a lot from them, which pushes you to be better. The bad is you may want to feel they are better than you do, but you are as well qualified because you also bring a unique perspective to the table.  The weather can also be challenging, and having to adjust to it. During the winter period, it gets dark at around 3:00 pm, and you may want to feel sleepy during this period. In addition, you may have assessments due or reading to do. So, it sometimes takes a lot of discipline to overcome this challenge and stay at the top of your game. There are other challenges, but be open to them and enjoy every experience.

AC: Considering your performance on the programme, what could you say about the quality of education in Nigeria. Is it as bad as people claim?

HKA: I understand there is still much work that needs to be done to deliver education in Nigeria and recruit qualified lecturers who know the subject matter. However, I would say that attaining higher education degree in Nigeria is not as bad as we think. I believe it offers you the basics that you need to function in any field. I had the privilege of having a good supervisor during my undergraduate days, and I published an academic paper from my undergraduate thesis. Conducting the dissertation independently played a more significant role in my MSc programme coupled with the field experience I have had in my field and constantly developing my writing skills. I believe there can be an improvement in our educational system because not everyone would be like my supervisor. There is a need to nurture growth amongst students and not being hostile to them. Students should be seen as co-creators in the classroom, and they should be encouraged to conduct independent study question knowledge and findings. I would not also compare because the knowledge divide is evident between Western universities and Nigerian universities. I can access reading resources, top research, books from the digital and physical library. I can access high-level journals, but many students in Nigeria can’t, so how do we want them to produce high-quality research. It is expensive to download some of these journals. Some cost up to £30. How do you expect average Nigerian students and lecturers to access these resources when their universities have not subscribed to them. While I would argue for Nigeria higher education institutions to invest in these journals and enable students to access these top journals, I would suggest that we invest in research and development and promote local research. Lecturers should not also focus on publishing any academic work but high-quality academic work. I am honestly looking forward to the transformation of higher education in Nigeria. 

AC: Could you tell what motivated you to choose your dissertation topic and what are the major insights for the study?

HKA: First and foremost, in early January 2o21, I got an internship with the Mastercard Foundation to co-create a mentorship programme for refugees in Uganda to access higher education as part of the Foundation for All project. I started to read about the challenges refugees face in accessing higher education and found out that only 3% of refugees have access to higher education compared to 36% globally. So, this begs how refugees will be able to reconstruct their home country and contribute to the economy? Higher education provides the pathway. So, I decided to focus on the experiences of refugees in accessing higher education through the lens of bridging education programmes in Uganda. Specifically, my topic was “Opening the Black Box: Unveiling and Contextualising the experiences of refugees in accessing Higher Education through Bridging Education Programmes in Uganda. When accounting for refugees’ experiences in accessing higher education, I argue that there is a need to focus on the process rather than the outcome. Therefore, my research contributes to Sen (1999) Capabilities approach, which argues that the process of attaining capabilities is not the same for everyone, for example, the process of refugees in accessing higher education. I discovered that these experiences are multiple and unique, and most times, we tend to homogenise them with non-refugees. Refugees are challenged with language barriers, mental and traumatic experiences, lack of broader family support and lack of access to educational advice.

AC: What should an average person who wants to have a fully sponsored Post Graduate education do?

HKA: First and foremost, I mean searching for scholarships online and finding those that align with their experience and career trajectory. There is a need to understand the eligibility criteria of any scholarship. Applying for anything might lead to rejections. This is why it is essential to understand what scholarships programmes are looking for. And prepare yourself for them. Some scholarships are big on academic achievements, while some are big on community development service. So, it is vital to understand how your why, strength fits into the bigger scholarship picture. I cannot say this is what you should do and not do. All I can tell is that if you see any scholarship opportunities and meet the criteria, by all means, apply. If you do not meet the requirements, build yourself to meet the requirements (e.g., engaging in community service to build essential knowledge and experiences in your field; Writing articles about your field; attending conferences and contributing to policy debates).

AC: What is the next on your career journey moving forward?

HKA: Honestly, I do not know what my next journey would be, and I am not sure what I will be doing in a couple of months from now. All I know is I would be present in whatever I choose to do and looking forward to what I will contribute to improving the educational system in Nigeria, the African continent and across the globe. Therefore, I am excited about the unknown next journey.

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