2021 UTME mass failure: Who is to blame?

BENJAMIN SAMSON in this report takes a look at the views of stakeholders on the mass failure in this year’s Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) and how to avoid re-occurrence.

The controversy over the results of this year’s Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) conducted by Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) still rages. Many students who sat for the examination scored below average. According to the board, 6,944,368 applicants sat for the examination, but only 973,384 passed with scores to get into Nigerian universities. This shows that only 14% passed while 86%, representing 5,970,984 students, failed woefully.

Speaking with our reporter on the massive failure, an educationist, Mrs. Nkem Maduka said, “This is not the first time Nigeria recorded this massive failure, but this year’s result was devastating and worrying. Out of every 100 students, hardly do you find one getting the usual university cut-off marks. University cut-off points usually start from 180 points and above, except some of the newly established universities that accept 160 points.”

Wrong syllabus

Some candidates who sat for Literature-in-English lamented the change of syllabus of work by JAMB. One of the candidates, Doris Ochefije, who wrote at the Digital Bridge Centre in Abuja, said the examination was hitch-free, but the literature questions were based on the past scheme.

She said, “They gave us questions from Otello and others which are not part of this year’s scheme. We are meant to take Midnight Summer but it was Otello that was there and the prose was supposed to be Land and Job, Invisible Man, but they were not there because we studied a new scheme that was given to us.

Chidinma Alozie corroborated Ochefije’s complaints saying, “The novels they told us to read this year did not come out at all and the prose that had expired that they asked us not to read is what eventually came out. I was just guessing in the examination hall because I did not read them.”

Another candidate, Joy Amos, who was almost in tears, said she observed the change of scheme during the mock examination and called the attention of the invigilator and he told her that it was just for the mock examination.

“And today it is the same thing again. What we were asked to read did not come out,” she said.

JAMB kicks

However, JAMB said the poor results recorded in the 2021 examination were not due to “wrong syllabus” given to candidates for the exam. It, in a statement by its head, public affairs and protocol, Dr. Fabian Benjamin, said the questions set for the 2021 UTME were based on the texts prescribed in its syllabus issued to candidates.

The Board stated that the complaints that the UTME questions were based on a wrong syllabus came from candidates who were ill-prepared and didn’t perform well. Addressing the rumour of the mass failure, JAMB described it as “a fluke and a campaign by those whose source of illicit income has been blocked.”

The statement read in part, “The Board ordinarily would not have reacted to the half-truth being peddled by some disgruntled candidates, who were ill-prepared for the examination and who, true to all expectations, performed below the expectations of their guardians, that the Board had based its questions on the wrong syllabus.

“The truth of the matter is that all Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) questions are based on texts prescribed for the UTME in its syllabus.

“To ensure that its syllabus is accessible to all candidates sitting its examination, the Board has made the material available on three platforms. The syllabus was issued to candidates through the Board’s Integrated Brochure and Syllabus System (IBASS), the CD which is given to candidates after completion of registration, the link https://www.ibass.jamb.govng as provided with the candidates’ profile code.”

It read further, “It is not automatic that the NECO/WAEC syllabus should transform into JAMB’s otherwise there would not have been a need for a separate syllabus for the UTME. The UTME is not school-based and not an achievement test but a selection or ranking test which ordinarily does not require a syllabus and does not have room for fail or pass as in achievement tests.

“The rumour of mass failure is a fluke and a campaign by those whose source of illicit income has been further blocked. It is our belief that based on facts on ground, every right-thinking Nigerian would question the 6,944,368 figure on which the 14% ‘pass’ is based. For instance, in the 2021 UTME, 1, 415,501 registered for both UTME/DE. Out of this figure, 1,340,003 candidates registered for UTME and 75, 498 registered for DE.

“The total number of candidates who took the UTME is 1, 300,722 with 78 389 candidates absent. You can then imagine the spuriousness of the figure of 6, 944,368 on which 14% is based. The truth is that this year’s performance is not significantly different from those of previous years.”


However, speaking with this reporter, the principal of Government Secondary School Mpape in Abuja, Mr. Steven Iyorha, blamed the influence of social media on the poor outing by most students.

He said, “The availability of mobile phones coupled with the growing presence of social media handles like Instagram, Tiktok, Facebook and games are bringing huge distractions to students’ reading behaviour. Nowadays many young people spend more time making short videos on Tiktok than reading books. They will not read until the examination period is very close, thinking they will perform miracles to pass.

“Parents are the ones to blame in this respect because they are the ones that buy mobile phones and load internet data for them in the name of love and care. It’s high time we regularised the social media usage among the minors, if not we will continue to have mass failures.

“Parents should stop buying smart phones for their children. Emphasis should also be paid to extra moral lessons and computer training which most of our students’ lack. By putting these measures, the massive failure experienced in the last Jamb will be averted.”

Likewise, Mrs. Maduka added that the strict measures put in place by JAMB which minimises examination malpractice could be responsible for the poor results.

She said, “Desperation of some parents to get their children into universities is also playing a significant role. Many can spend a huge amount of money to see their children pass the exam either by bribing the teachers or hiring some people to give them the answers. The strict measures put in place by JAMB became their major challenge in realising their dream.

“The greediness of some teachers in some schools is also a contributing factor. Teachers are now collecting bribes from the students to pass them. My conversation with one private school teacher confirmed that teachers no longer fail students because they pay expensively to graduate with flying colours. No wonder my cousin had 7As and 2Bs in WAEC, but ended up with 86 scores from JAMB.”


Meanwhile, the JAMB registrar, Prof. Is-haq Oloyede, has said that the coronavirus pandemic should be blamed for the poor performance of candidates

Speaking during an interview on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Oloyede said the pandemic affected the smooth running of the academic calendar.

He also affirmed that this year’s UTME results were poorer than those of three years ago. According to him, 99.65 per cent scored 120 marks and above out of the possible 400 in 2021; this is against the 99.80 per cent in 2020.

“All informed education experts understand why we recorded a lot of failures this time around. They knew the point at which we were in the academic calendar before the examination was taken in 2020 and in 2021. The students had gone far in their syllabus last year before they took the examination. But this year, they suffered incomplete academic sessions.

“These candidates had to cope with emergency online lessons with many other disturbing factors like insecurity, so we shouldn’t have expected that the results would come out unaffected by these,” he said.

Education quality

Similarly, an educationist, Sammy Ndubuisi, told Blueprint Weekend that quality of education is the main cause of the poor results.

“The massive failure recorded in the just concluded Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination is the worst ever in the history of the exam, based on people’s analyses so far. The situation is worrisome to the extent that parents have started blaming the examination conduct and not the candidates’ performances.

“Imagine, candidates got 16, 24, 54, 104, 156, with few others getting the average mark of 180 and above. This has generated a lot of controversy in many communities.

“The failure was attributed to the Computer Based Test system by many people, saying most of the candidates who sat for the examination aren’t computer literate and lacked proper orientation on how to operate the computers. Also, others are of the opinion that the long Covid-19 break had a great impact on the failure.

“But to me, this isn’t just the case rather; the nature of the nation’s education system is responsible. We are aware of the fact that Nigeria’s education sector is suffering from all angles, ranging from infrastructure and poor teachers. In fact, quality education is not there in Nigeria’s institutions. This has contributed to students’ failure in many ways during exams, because they are not taught what they are supposed to be taught properly,” he said.

Any solution?

Meanwhile, an Information Technology (IT) expert, Steve Nwankwo, has called on the examination body to undertake a holistic review of the exercise to unravel the cause of the mass failure, whether human, programming or some other scientific error.

He said, “It is unfortunate that this year’s UTME is plagued with complaints by many candidates, parents and education experts over the performance of many candidates. While not holding a brief for either the affected candidates or the examination body, it will not be out of place for JAMB to review the marking of the 2021 UTME to find out if there is machine error in the exercise.

“It is possible that a machine error can lead to mass failure in computer-based examination. And since the computer-based examination is still in its experimental stages, there is a need to ensure that any problem emanating from the exercise is promptly addressed. Therefore, the complaints by candidates, parents and other stakeholders on the 2021 UTME results should not be dismissed or waved aside in the usual Nigerian pattern of doing things.”

“The examination agency should not be quick in defending itself on matters of this nature. As a public institution, it should listen and address the complaints raised against its conduct of the 2021 UTME. That is the only way to assure the candidates, parents and others of its thoroughness and transparency in the conduct of its examination.”

He added: “Besides, the agency should address the noticeable lapses in this year’s UTME, which included malfunctioning servers, computers, not keeping to time and abrupt change of examination venues. Registration for UTME should be simplified. The complication of the process in each examination year does not necessarily prevent cheating or manipulation of examination results.

“We urge the examination body to put its house in order and ensure that all the centres for the examination are well equipped for the exercise to avoid unnecessary hitches that may adversely affect the performance of candidates.”

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