THE ongoing frantic efforts to dissuade the Academic Staff Union of Universities from embarking on yet another strike have put parents and students on edge across the country. The union had issued a 21-day ultimatum to the to pay up the promised earned allowances to its members and a “revitalisation fund” for universities in line with a mutual agreement. The prospect of another prolonged closure of public universities after last year’s nine-month-long shutdown is frightening and should be averted.
Having lost so much time due to the two-year-old COVID-19 crisis and strikes, ASUU should spare a thought for the students and the economy and consider alternative conflict resolution mechanisms.
Really, the country’s higher education system is in deep crisis and the is primarily to blame. It under-funds its universities, polytechnics and colleges of education, abandons research (a key activity of tertiary education), almost entirely, interferes with their running and rewards mediocrity. It compounds all this by two irrational actions: it continues to establish additional higher institutions even when the funds to run them are not available; it enters into agreements with ASUU and other associations to increase funding and emoluments that it invariably fails to honour. This is a template for the disorder.
The morass is playing out once more. The ASUU president, Emmanuel Osodeke, recalled that the had last December agreed to replace the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System software with which it pays federal employees with the University Transparency and Accountability Solution developed by ASUU. The agreement was sealed to end the prolonged strike by the lecturers who opposed the IPPIS being used for dons on the ground that it failed to capture peculiarities such as Earned Academic Allowances, consultancy and multiple teaching assignments associated with the university system. Consequently, the agreed to adopt UTAS, release N22.17 billion for earned allowances by October this year, and another N30 billion to revitalise the dilapidated federal universities, another long-running demand of ASUU.
Though the Federal Government has promised to pay the two sums of money, it claimed that the union had not provided details of those entitled to the allowances, and that it is the Ministry of Finance that handles payments, not the education ministry. This is untenable, exposing the lack of cohesion in the federal administration.
Lack of synergy was visible in the truce brokered by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, where the Finance Minister, Zainab Ahmed, was surprised to learn that some lecturers had not been paid for 17 months. Her notice that the was awaiting advice from the National Information Technology Development Agency on the adoption of UTAS confirms official perennial bad faith. Why agree to adopt UTAS only to turn round a year later to claim to be awaiting advice?
Nevertheless, ASUU should shelve its strike plan. Losses from strikes in the past two decades have been colossal. Demanding better funding of the ivory tower and better pay, lecturers in public universities have since 1999 embarked on strikes at the national level at least 15 times. Cumulatively, the system has lost about 50 months. For every five years since 1999, asserts an online platform, Nigerian universities lost one year. From a five-month-long strike at the outset of the Fourth Republic, three months in 2001, two weeks in 2002 and six months in 2003, there have been similar closures each year from 2005 to 2012. Others in 2013, 2017 and 2018 cemented gains such as separate salary structure, increase in retirement age and a promise (since unfulfilled) to increase university funding. Under the President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), ASUU had shut down universities cumulatively for 13 months by December 2020, compared with a cumulative 18 months under Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-2007) and by 13 months under Jonathan (2010-2015).
A new era of the crisis was engendered by the 2009 agreement between ASUU and the Umaru Yar’Adua/Goodluck Jonathan administration anchored on EAA, revitalisation of the university system, setting up Visitation Panels to the universities, and a new payroll system. Most importantly, the agreed to release N1.4 trillion in phased disbursements to equip and regenerate university infrastructure and for enhanced welfare packages for academic staff. Every strike by ASUU since then has included a demand for its full implementation.
In their policies on higher education, successive Nigerian miss the point completely. “Higher education,” declares the World Bank, “is instrumental in fostering growth, reducing poverty and boosting shared prosperity.” It benefits not just the individual, but also the entire educational system, a country and humanity in general. Being the “totality of general and specialised knowledge and skills,” university education, says Pathways International, is critical to human development, providing high-level skills that drive local economies.
A university exists to meet national aspirations, to provide teachers, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and social scientists. In an emerging economy, they should be well funded, staffed and equipped. Federal and state should establish and maintain only universities they can fund. In the First Republic, universities established by the defunct Western, Eastern and Northern regions met this criterion, running institutions of global standards and attracting students and faculty from around the world.
But grotesquely, the Federal Government today has 49 universities and still counting, over 20 of them established after 2009 when it was obvious that it could neither adequately fund the existing ones, nor meet the pay demand of their staff. Such absurdity underpins the official attitude. Motivated solely by politics, sectionalism and entitlement, institutions are set up with no thought whatsoever as to how they will be funded.
ASUU on its part has not devised an alternative strategy to counter the s dishevelment beyond endless strikes. The union is lacking in courage to scrutinise and expose monumental corruption afflicting the university system. The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability project alleged in 2018 unwholesome practices of unfair allocation of grades; contract inflation; truncation of staff’s salary on the payroll; employment of unqualified staff; certificate scandal; examination malpractice; sexual harassment and issuance of results for expelled students in public universities across the country. The money-for-admission process, writes Adenike Kolawole in the European Journal of Scientific Research, has become an obvious perversion of the ‘admisioneering’ process in Nigerian universities. The Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board has just issued a damning statement of illegitimate admissions by some tertiary institutions. It specifically alleged that some tertiary institutions “circumvent the process and admit candidates (qualified and unqualified) without the knowledge of the Board.” Certainly, ASUU cannot exonerate its members from these unethical, immoral, unprofessional, and illegal practices that have brought the university system to its knees.
Such recklessness should stop. It is not the number of sub-standard higher institutions you create that drive greatness but the quality of the few. The capacity to create the enabling environment for private universities by individuals, corporates, charities, and faith-based organisations to compete for dons, students and funding is more crucial. Federal and state should emulate successful economies like the Asian Tigers by sponsoring bright students abroad to the world’s best universities to acquire knowledge. Singapore has only six public universities; well-funded universities also propelled South Korea’s transition to its industrialised, export-led economy status.
Having inked agreements, the must meet its obligations. It should stop signing further agreements it cannot fulfil. There should be a rationalisation of universities featuring mergers, and closure, and consolidation of the mushrooming special universities for transport, maritime and the military, police, and paramilitary institutions with older universities. The treasury simply cannot afford them.
Any labour union can easily advance a raft of reasons to go on strike in Nigeria given the high level of poor governance in the country. But ASUU should change tactics and be more responsible. Shutting down universities because of the irresponsible behaviour of an uncaring only victimises innocent students and their parents. As scholars, they should consider more effective and creative ways of protest to lessen the anguish of the innocent.
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