ASUU strike dashes hope of 30-year-old final year students in public varsities eyeing youth service

SULAIMAN

FATTEH HAMID dwells on the worries of some aspiring graduates in the nation’s public universities likely to miss the mandatory one-year NYSC scheme on account of age due to the incessant ASUU strikes

A thirty-year-old finalist and student of Surveying and Geoinformatics at the University of Lagos, Sulaiman Biliameen, gained admission to the institution through Direct Entry programme in 2017 immediately after the Academic Staff Union of Universities called off its strike at the time.

Five years later, Sulaiman is still a student in UNILAG for no fault of his own but the nonstop strike by ASUU. He was meant to end the programme within three years.

The ASUU/ NYSC matter

ASUU, which is the professional body of the nation’s lecturers, had been at loggerheads with the Federal government over the latter’s refusal to honour the 2009 agreement it entered with it. The demands in the agreements included condition of service of varsity lecturers to be reviewed every five years, issue of salaries and allowances, revitalisation of public universities among other issues.

Recently, the union had been up in arms with the Federal Government on matters bordering on earned academic allowances, University Transparency Accountability Solution; promotion arrears, renegotiation of 2009 ASUU-FGN Agreement, and the inconsistencies in Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System Payment.

ASUU is currently on a strike started on February 14, 2022. The action continues to elongate the academic calendar of public universities and by extension the duration of students’ courses. On its part, the NYSC exempts graduates who have served in the military or paramilitary for more than a year and those older than 30 upon graduation.

Speaking with our correspondent, Sulaiman stated that he had witnessed three ASUU strikes which combined to lengthen his years of study and made him attain 30 which would exclude him from NYSC service.

He said On November 4, 2018, ASUU embarked on a three-month nationwide strike which was suspended on February 7 2019 after a lot of back and forth between the Federal Government and the union. He added that the second one was in March 2020, when the union embarked on another strike which lasted for nine months due to the Federal Government’s unresponsiveness and its inability to fulfil the agreement it had with the union.

He stated, “The third one is the current strike which is almost five months old, having commenced on February 14, 2022. We don’t know when a settlement would be reached despite several interventions by pressure groups, protests by the students and ASUU.’’

Sulaiman noted that he didn’t feel bad knowing he wouldn’t be able to serve his fatherland, adding that he hoped for a better opportunity because he already lost several offers to the strike.

On the effect of the strike on his career growth and development, he added that he noted that he lost many offers which he would have maximised if his programme was completed in record time.

He said, “I lost several offers which require my Bachelor of Science and NYSC certificates. I always feel bad whenever they bring me offers that require the two certificates.”

He disclosed that recently he lost an opportunity to work with a real estate company.

He said, “I already lost several other opportunities of working in construction companies that require the two certificates. Above all, the situation is not allowing me to plan well for my life because there’s the need to always consider my education first before embarking on other things. I’m running a full-time programme and age isn’t on my side. I’m still running a programme that’s meant to be completed in 2021 and it’s certain that I can’t complete it by 2022. The only hope currently is 2023 and that is by God’s grace.’’

On ways NYSC can help students in his category, he noted, “I don’t think there’s any. It’s a law and has to go through a process. If the age limit can be extended or totally expunged from the Act. But won’t it be good for someone that is already above 30 to just get exemption certificate rather than wasting another one year for service?’’

Sulaiman also urged the Federal Government to increase the annual budget for the education sector to curb the incessant strike. He said, “The government should always give a listening ear to the union and other educational bodies whenever a strike is looming. The collapse of education is the collapse of a nation. This is wisdom and doesn’t require rocket science.’’

He further stated that the Academic Staff Union of Universities should find another way to ventilate its grievances to insulate the academic calendar in public universities from disruptions.

The nagging strikes

The ASUU has reportedly spent 1,500 days or 4.09 years on strike since the return to democracy in1999. This indicates that about 19.5 per cent of every academic year is spent on strike. The most recent strike is followed by the government’s inability to implement the 2020 Memorandum of Understanding, deployment of the University Transparency and Accountability Solution for the payment of salaries and allowances, the non-release of Earned Academic Allowances for lecturers, and improved welfare and academic autonomy, among others. The requests are relevant to the development of higher institutions yet the Federal Government continues to show insensitivity to the plight of the universities, the staff, and especially students. Since the Ninth National Assembly was inaugurated in 2019, about 186 bills have been initiated for the establishment of new universities yet existing ones are poorly underfunded and new ones propelled with derisory take-off grants.

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More lamentations

An engineer and graduate of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State, Ibrahima Balkis, told Sunday PUNCH that anytime she remembers she wouldn’t be able to serve, it saddens her heart.

She said, “I’m from a poor home and to feed daily is a tough one. I already planned in my mind how I would use the NYSC allowance to take care of some important bills I incurred in 2020 because I was in my final year then and left with only project defence.   Yes, there was COVID and then, ASUU also went on strike which lasted for about eight months.’’

Balkis added that by the time the strike was suspended, she was already 30; an age she would not have attained if ASUU hadn’t embarked on strike.

She stated that it took a while for her uneducated mother to get convinced that she really did go to school and graduate because she was not seen wearing the NYSC uniform. She noted, “Yes, I feel bad that I didn’t get to wear the Khaki because it was a dream for every graduate to don the NYSC uniform in style as most parents do not believe that their children graduated without wearing the uniform.

“What worsened my situation again was not being able to secure a job immediately because I have three other siblings who are dependents and the allowance would have really covered for some of the bills like I stated earlier. This worried my mother the most because she was unsure if I truly went to a university.”

She further said that the Federal Government needed to find a lasting solution to the incessant ASUU strike.

She stated, “I strongly believe that if the government regularly carries ASUU along with the budgeting in the education sector, it will be almost impossible for the union to embark on any strike frequently because it would know what is on the ground and collaborate with the government.”

She also advised the Federal Government not to continually renege on its pledge to ASUU.

A law student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Enugu State, identified only as Jacob noted that having witnessed three strike actions by the union, it was disheartening that he would not go for service.

He stated, “I’m 29 years old now and in my final year in the university. In about two months I would be 30. We don’t even know when the strike will be suspended. However, if the strike was suspended today, I wouldn’t still be able to go for youth service. I’ll have to get an exemption letter.”

Jacob was of the view that both ASUU and the Federal Government were responsible for the situation, adding that there should be a law to protect students from academic strikes including a safe passage for those above 30 denied the compulsory one-year youth service by the strikes.

He said, “If it were our fault for seeking an admission late, it’s a different thing. But here we are, we are being denied one of the most interesting lives outside school that any student would long for because of greed and inconsistencies. If we are made to get an exemption, then we should also be qualified for other benefits, especially the allowance.

“The government should enact a law that for every graduating student who is above 30, about 50 per cent of the total NYSC allowance will be paid into their bank accounts. This will also serve as a sort of revenue for many of us to start something meaningful with our lives while searching for jobs. It’s possible and can be achieved if the government wants to do it.”

Jacob further stated that the strike also affected his personal life, saying “In the structure of my life, the way I originally planned it, I should be married at 30. But look at the situation I found myself in. I can’t even do that because I’m two years short due to the ASUU strike and still reading law books when I’m meant to be done already. Apparently, I will still have to use some years for law school and hustling here and there in preparation to have a family. Their decision hurts us a lot and if one examines it critically, most of their children don’t go through what we experience.’’

But a final year pharmacy student at the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, Efe Chukwu, stated that she was indifferent about observing the NYSC or donning the NYSC attire.

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She noted, “I clocked 30 last December and I don’t feel pressured about not partaking in the NYSC. First, I understand that there’s a purpose for everything and this might be an opportunity to do something differently while others are still struggling with youth service.”

Chukwu explained that she planned to learn some digital skills, stating that software engineering was uppermost in her mind. She said, “Understandably, it is not a fair thing that we have to bear the consequence of what was not our own making to start with. However, I could do a master’s or learn some digital skills within the space of one year. I have a friend who is now a software engineer despite being a pharmacist. I can venture into it and in the next one year, I’m sure it wouldn’t be about my knowledge alone. It will be about the huge amount of money I might have made.’’

Though she knew that those above 30 would not be allowed for youth service, Chukwu nonetheless would not mind being considered to service her fatherland if the opportunity came. She added, “It’s likely impossible for that to happen. But if there is a possibility for the government to make it happen, it will be a good thing because many of us on a second thought would really want to go for the youth service.”

She however urged the Federal Government to ensure that the current strike was critically looked into for the striking lecturers to return to the classroom.

Another 30-year-old final year student of Mass Communication at the Federal University Oye Ekiti, Ekiti State, Olamide Atewologun, said that he felt bad that he wouldn’t be able to partake in service.

He said, “The fact that I will not be able to get the N33,000 meant for each corps member wouldn’t affect me only. It’s the same for other people who will not be able to serve.’’

Atewologun further said that he wouldn’t devise illegal means to serve, adding “the entire system in Nigeria is corrupt.’’

Saying he witnessed three major strikes throughout his university days, he noted that he should have graduated a year ago or early this year if not for the incessant strikes by ASUU.

He explained that on his part he would use the one-year NYSC service to address some developmental issues about his life, stating, “I will move on with my career despite the strike. I now own a registered entertainment company and used the period to learn a lot of skills.”

He also said that the strike affected some of his life’s decisions, stating that notwithstanding he wouldn’t lose focus.

The finalist said, “The fact that I have not graduated officially from the university is not allowing me to fully concentrate on my work.’’

In another vein, a 31-year-old student of FUOYE, Grace Ann, who said she had witnessed three major ASUU strikes, said that though she didn’t feel bad about not going for youth service, she wouldn’t be unable to catch the fun of the service like other young graduates.

She stated that there should be help the NYSC could render those within her category. She said, “I believe the government can do something about it. Moreover, if there are protests about it from concerned students, maybe something will be done because they didn’t cause the persistent strikes.

“I plan to work hard to get retained wherever I am posted to for service. However, since that does not look feasible, I have to join other graduates in search of jobs and hopefully, I will be able to secure one to stay employed immediately after graduation.’’

Stakeholders react

Expressing his view on the issue, the Vice-Chancellor, University of Ilorin, Kwara State,  Prof. Sulyman Abdulkareem, noted that as a VC and parent, his prayer was that no Nigeria university should be closed for a day due to lecturers’ strike.

Abdulkareem, who is also the Chairman, Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities, stated that insanity cannot be used to correct another insanity.

He added, “The NYSC edict since 1973 notes that if graduate is over 30 years, he or she will get an exemption letter.’’

The VC stated that it was not possible to say that because lecturers were going on strike then pause to discuss the issue of those who would be affected by the strike and ultimately miss the NYSC on account of age.

Abdulkareem stated that his prayer was for students admitted at a young age to also graduate as quickly as well. He said, “The belief is that when you are 30 and over, you’re already beyond graduation and looking for a way to settle down and we should not in any way mess with that. It is a system that has worked this long and we should keep it that way.”

On how the government can tackle the persistent strike, the don said, “The ASUU strike is no reason to raise the exemption qualification age beyond 30, no. It’s quite unfortunate, truly. I am both a parent and lecturer. It saddened me that any of us will collect salaries for work not done. But then, that is Nigeria for us.’’

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In his comment, President, ASUU, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke, noted that there was an established law setting age limit and might not change.

He said, “Until that law is reviewed, you cannot possibly break it, unless the Federal Government or the President decides to issue another law that’ll negate the existing law.”

Noting that the only thing he feels might be missed by the 30-year-olds students, Osodeke stated that the exemption certificates NYSC issues carry the same weight with those given to those who partook in the service.

He said, “The three certificates issued by the NYSC are the same. There is no difference; the one given to those who served normally; certificate of exclusion for those who did part-time programmes and the exemption letter for those aged 30 and above.”

He further noted that there’s nothing that can be done on their end as much as the government has refused to meet up their end of the bargain.

Osodeke stated, “There’s nothing we can do, except the government would change the law. We, however, honestly sympathise with them. However, the government has to be responsible for this. Look at the current strike, with the government well aware of the situation, we started a warning strike for three weeks hoping that the government would intercede and solve the problem within the three weeks. But they didn’t do anything. Again, extended by another eight weeks, still, they did nothing. You would know who to hold accountable for this. We have been on this for 13 years and they’ve not solved the problem.”

The ASUU president further noted that in every disadvantage, there are advantages, urging those within the age 30 bracket to look into more greener things to invest in during the NYSC compulsory one-year service.

He said, “I used to have a student who clocked 30 years at the time of graduation. She cried and wept. I queried her and she said that she wasn’t going to serve. I advised her to take advantage of that and pick up a form for her master’s and she did. By the time others would be done with their youth service, she was waiting to defend her M.Sc project. Today, she’s a lecturer doing well in her career. Everything has both advantages and disadvantages. Students who fall in this category should start a master’s programme.

“By the time their colleagues will be done, they’ll be almost done with fieldwork and left to defend their projects. Yes, every young person wants to go for youth service. But these are things to be looked into as well. The Federal Government needs to do something about it.”

On when the ongoing strike would be called off, Osodeke said, “We don’t know. It is now left to the government. We are through on our own end, we have negotiated again, we have finished everything, only for them to come back to sign. We don’t delay. It’s left to them.’’

In his comment on the issue, the NYSC spokesperson, Eddy Megwa, said the NYSC law stipulates that a student who is above 30 at the time of graduation is not supposed to undergo youth service.

He said, “I’m sure you know the law too. However, if there are extant rules that will address this issue because of the ASUU strike, that has not been done. When it is done, the government will take a position on it. But what the law says is what we currently have. If you’re more than 30 years old at the time of graduation, you cannot be mobilised for service.”

On if there are plans by the government to address the issue, Megwa added, “I won’t be able to give you a concrete answer on that. We are already thinking in that line. However, we’re still keeping to the rules for now. But if anything comes out much later, it will also be made public.

“Well, some people raised the issue, and of course, NYSC is a human scheme and we are also listening to them. But no decision has been taken on that. We’re still holding fast to the rules of engagement for prospective corps members of the NYSC. We’re still where we are. But if anything comes up tomorrow, it’ll also be made public.”

Meanwhile, the Minister of Labor and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, on Wednesday said the ongoing strike by ASUU would soon be called off. He spoke with correspondents at the State House after the weekly Federal Executive Council meeting.

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