ASUU’s Intransigence, FG’s Belligerence and Nigeria’s Education Sector

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While ASUU has become a problem in itself, the federal government has also become irresponsible in its penchant for not honouring agreements.”

By Kazeem Akintunde

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The Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of University, ASUU, seem to have boxed themselves into a cul-de-sac. A strike embarked upon, ostensibly to save the sector from collapse, has now left tertiary education in complete ruin. Though both parties are tired of the needless fight, they are bereft of ideas on how to end it without either side losing face. Both parties approached the Court for judicial intervention and the Court of Appeal last week directed that they should go back home and resolve their differences amicably.

Twenty-four hours later, they both went back to the same Court pleading for Court resolution as they could not reach any agreement on their own. Now, the Court has directed the lecturers to go back to work while their grievances with the federal government would be heard. It is yet to be seen whether ASUU will obey the court order. They have till Friday this week.

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The battle between both parties has been on since February 14, when the egg-heads embarked on strike on the premise that they are not being paid wages and salaries commiserate with what they put in at work. Their work environment, we were told, is also not conducive for learning as students stay in hostels not fit for human beings. These, amongst other grievances, are what pushed the lecturers to turn their backs on their students.

They had earlier in 2009, signed an agreement with the government for the revitalization of universities across the country. But those in government were not bothered about the agreement. Successive governments were also not concerned despite the fact that ASUU had always pleaded with those in government to implement the terms of those agreements. When the ongoing strike started on February 14, both parties never anticipated that the strike would last this long. Now eight months after, and with their little salaries no longer forthcoming, both ‘pugilists’ are tired and looking forward to the referee ending the contest. Last week Friday’s Court of Appeal ruling, and news that N470 billion has been budgeted in the 2023 budget for the revitalization of Universities may do the magic.

Even if the strike is called off today, the damage to the system is already monumental. Already, it is certain that a quarter of the students and even the lecturers won’t return to the classrooms. Some of the students have embraced other forms of vocations and deem themselves to be doing fine and do not intend to return to class. Some have left the country to continue with their education at a very high cost to their parents, Nigeria and our economy, while others are into several businesses including the legal and the not-too-legal. Indeed, the number of Nigerians granted sponsored study visas, also known as student visas, by the United Kingdom (UK), has increased by 222.8 percent to 65,929 as of June, 2022 from 20,427 in the same period of 2021.

That was the highest number of student visas issued to Nigerians in four years when compared with 7,132, 9,066 and 20, 427 in 2019, 2020, and 2021 respectively. It is not as if the UK suddenly fell in love with Nigerian students but due to the fact that their economy is in crisis and they have identified a solution: open up the education sector for more international students. The fees paid by these students are enough to shore up Britain’s wobbling economy. The 65,929 new students from Nigeria will spend over N500 billion in a year while in Britain. An average international student pays between 13,000 pounds and 20,000 pounds per annum. You can do the math.

Aside from the students, many of their lecturers have also bid goodbye to Nigeria. Most of them left with their families as well. In one of the primary schools in a university campus in the southwest, when the new academic year began a few weeks back, a friend informed me that they lost 256 pupils out of about 1000 on the school’s enrolment. He said that the pupils are sons and daughters of university lecturers that have relocated to other countries alongside their wards, adding that he is not even sure of his fate as the school administrators are now considering sacking some teachers in a bid to cut costs.

Take a retrospective look at what is going on in Britain and compare with what is happening in Nigeria. Both countries are facing similar issues but different approaches are being used in tackling those issues. The World economy is in turmoil due to the War in Ukraine. Inflation has eaten deep into the salaries of workers. Lecturers and professors are no longer finding it funny. The take-home salary of our egg-heads can no longer take them home. In actual fact, as it was in Nigeria, there was a strike by University teachers in the United Kingdom last month for 10 days in a bid to demand a pay rise.

It is essentially the same thing that our lecturers are asking for. But what did they do differently in the UK? They opened up their borders for international students to come with the much-needed funding. Here in Nigeria, the federal government and even the professors could not come up with a work plan on how to resolve similar crisis. The lecturers believe and rightly so, that there is a lot of money in the system and they must be taken care of. For them to sit down with the government and think outside the box on how to generate revenue for the system is not their concern.

On several occasions, there has been calls for the federal government to give full autonomy to Universities and other higher institutions of learning in the country but the move was always resisted by the unions as they felt that it would rob them of free cash from the federal purse. Autonomy would have allowed each university to employ the number of staff it can cater for and also generate the much-needed funding by increasing tuition fees paid by students. ASUU and other unions in the universities are also against the move.

It is no surprise therefore, that President Buhari directly poked fingers at the faces of the lecturers when he accused them of being part of the corrupt clique in the education sector. Buhari, who spoke during the fourth National Summit on Reducing Corruption in the Public Sector held at the State House in Abuja with the theme: ‘Corruption and the Education Sector,’ organised by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, noted that the usual complaint of underfunding of the education system often presented as the reason for strikes by union workers in the education sector was untenable. “Incessant strikes, especially by unions in the tertiary educations, often imply that the government is grossly underfunding education, but I must say that corruption in the education system from basic level to tertiary level has been undermining our investment in the sector and those who go on prolonged strikes on flimsy reasons are no less complicit”.

Speaking further, Buhari, who referenced the 1999 constitution, which includes the education sector under the Concurrent List, which makes funding of the sector the responsibility of both the federal and state governments, also recommended that the federal budget’s provision for education should include funding for Universal Basic Education, and transfers to the TETFUND, instead of just funding the Federal Ministry of Education and academic institutions.

”The total education budget for each year is, therefore, a reflection of both federal and state budgets and should be viewed with other financial commitments in their totality (sic). I am aware that the aggregate education budget in all the 36 states of the federation and that of the federal government, combined with the internally generated revenues of the educational institutions themselves are also a subject that requires the attention of critics of government’s funding of education,” he added.

Mr President hit the bull’s eye in his analysis of the sector, fingering corruption, which has become the bane of the Nigerian society, and has also been deeply embedded in our educational sector. Sit back and ponder what could be responsible for the crisis and bad blood that always characterize the selection of Vice Chancellors of universities anytime there is to be a change of guard. The VC controls humongous amounts of resources with little or no account rendered to anybody. It was not until a single-term tenure of five years was instituted that the rat race to become VC whittled down a bit but it has not completely disappeared. The mantra now is ‘chop-I-chop’, which literally means to pocket whatever you can in five years and allow others their turn. In instances where any federal or state establishment is called to examine the books of those institutions, it is ASUU that is deployed to fend off such examination.

Junior lecturers who may not be close to those at the top to partake in the sleaze are allowed to take up part-time lecturing jobs in two or three private universities while still in the employ of the federal government. This is where their problem with IPPIS arose. Believing that they are so powerful and can force their opinions down the throats of others, they have the effrontery of dictating to their employers how they wish to be paid. It is only in Nigeria that employees will be dictating how those that employed them should pay them. So if the federal government accede to their request, it should not surprise anyone when Doctors, Nurses, and even the Armed forces decide tomorrow that their mode of operations demand a separate mode of payment aside the IPPIS.

While ASUU has become a problem in itself, the federal government has also become irresponsible in its penchant for not honouring agreements. It is a known fact that the federal government signed an agreement with ASUU in 2009, which has not been implemented till date. Instead of covering their faces in shame, those in government have now embarked on a grand design to break the ranks of the lecturers by recognizing two new unions in the university.

 Dr Chris Ngige, Minister of Labour and Employment said during the week that the federal government has formally registered two new university unions, the Congress of Nigerian University Academics (CONUA) and National Association of Medical and Dental Academics (NAMDA). Ngige said that the move will help liberalize the academic sub-sector and allow for freedom for university workers. How this move will resolve the crisis is yet to be seen but ASUU has vowed to challenge the registration of the two unions in court. We may be on these dilly-dallying for the rest of the year with nobody showing any concern for the mental and psychological well-being of students.

What I know is that history will not forgive both parties that are currently toying with the education of our youths and the future of the country. Already, JAMB has conducted entrance examinations for two sets of Secondary School graduates with all federal universities under lock and key. Again, it is preparing to conduct the third examination early next year, I am still waiting to see the magic Oloyede and his colleagues in JAMB will perform in placing the backlog from three sets of students in universities at the same time.

See you next week

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