The FG-ASUU peculiar mess

[FILE PHOTO] Left- ASUU National President, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi

For the umpteenth time in our short history, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has embarked on yet another strike to press home its recurring demands on the Federal Government. Since November 5, last year, most federal and state-owned universities have been shut to academic activities, the primary reason for which they were set up. Like a recurring decimal in a quadratic equation, the issues have essentially remained the same – failure to honour agreements between the government and ASUU, and inadequate funding. The import of this is that we have not effectively dealt with the fundamental challenges in tertiary education. The perennial strikes therefore are a symptom of an anomaly, a cankerworm that requires a surgical intervention by all stakeholders.

It is on record that in the years 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2017 and 2018 ASUU embarked on strikes which dragged on for months. For example, the strikes in 1999, 2001, 2010 and 2013 all lasted five months each. While some strikes went on for three months, others lasted for one to three weeks, periods in which the laboratories and lecture rooms were locked. The statistics here do not include the strikes from 1981/82 to 1992 and the period between. The 1982 and 1992 strikes lasted about six months each. We need no rocket science to determine the amount of man-hours that have been lost to incessant strikes. The strikes have impacted negatively on the quality of education in the country.

At issue is the revitalisation fund of one trillion naira, which the Federal Government had promised to inject into the university system for infrastructure development and equipment and accumulated funds to meet the earned allowances of academics. The said sum was arrived at by the government after it did a NEEDS assessment of the universities. Negotiations between the parties are on-going with occasional starts, hiccups and fitful jerks. ASUU has insisted that the government must make a down payment of N50 billion before the strike can be suspended. Its leaders have argued that government usually reneges on gentleman agreements each time there is a dispute and therefore have no faith in the promises of the Federal Government. On its part, the Federal Government says it cannot commit funds to that level having parted with humungous sums to the universities through TETFUND. These are strange developments to the organic covenants signed and sealed with the ASUU. This dingdong affair is unbecoming of a nation, which prides itself as the giant of Africa.

The huge sums of money being mentioned by the government and ASUU are scary to the ordinary Nigerian. Why has the government allowed an accumulation of debts to such a humungous level? Why does the government always wait for a strike before inviting ASUU for negotiations? Are earned allowances not built into the monthly wage bill? If the Federal Government could bail out banks that were run down by unscrupulous businessmen with the sum of N500 billion, why is it difficult to stabilise the entire university system with the requested sum of one trillion?

The time has come for a complete and radical review of our approach to funding, ideals and practice of education in the country.We need a holistic overhaul of education, starting from the primary and graduating to the tertiary level. It is now clear that the government alone cannot fund education at all levels. The idea of free education as we understand it is an anachronism as we have repeatedly stated here.

Somebody must pay for education. On this point, ASUU has to put on a new pair of glasses to examine an old problem – the time has come for real autonomy for the universities. It is reported that ASUU once rejected government’s offer of autonomy to the universities. This is regrettable. We may attribute this to the predominant thinking at the time – that the government as father of all could fund education from the oil windfall. That era is gone for good.

Let’s not get it twisted, the universities should be allowed to manage their academic and financial policies independently. For instance, all universities cannot pay the same salaries to lecturers. Indeed, the remunerations are usually negotiable depending on variables, which can be worked out. For example, it does not make sense to pay the same rent allowance to academics who live in Lagos and Ado Ekiti or Zaria. When universities are autonomous a lot of things will fall into place. They would then determine the fees that students can pay to meet their obligations to society. An Education bank, which was once mooted by the government, needs to be created to provide loans to undergraduates. No decent education can be attained with the level of funding, which the universities get currently.

Education is dynamic, with new trends and approaches developing almost by the day. The global village, which the world has become makes it imperative on us to get things right.No doubt, the universities need to be innovative, creative and dynamic. We need Vice Chancellors who can think outside the box at this time when managers have to learn, unlearn and relearn.The current practice of Vice Chancellors going cap-in-hand to government should end. Through properly determined fees and services rendered to the community, through endowments, through consultancy services and the help of alumni, the financial position of the universities should remarkably improve.

Meanwhile, there should be a reality check: The Federal Government should stop creating more universities when it is clear that it has not been able to fund existing ones. It should also hands-off running or managing secondary education, a cul-de-sac, which the nation was sucked into in the days of military rule. Payment of salaries or meeting monthly overhead costs is not all it takes to manage a university. Education should provide an avenue for individuals to realise their full potentials. As part of needed reforms, the unhealthy ratio between academic and non-academic staff, which tilts in favour of the latter, should be revisited. Owing to the peculiar nature of the university system, universities should be excluded from the TSA, a procedure, which has slowed down funds’ releases. If the Federal Government chooses to probe how ASUU managed funds that were released in the past they should do so without much ado. Accountability must be the watchword but that can be done seamlessly through the organic audit system.

Finally, no nation, which gives education a priority, allows its universities to be in lockdown for months.There is no question about this: our governments have been insensitive, irresponsible and poorly committed to improving education. There should be a massive investment in education at all levels in order to prepare the youths of the nation for the future. A five-month long strike under the nose of a democratic government is an insufferable aberration. Perhaps this anomaly has become the new normal because most Nigerian elite, particularly government officials, send their children and wards to foreign universities.

They therefore do not feel the pangs of hapless parents who cannot afford the luxury of foreign education.The Federal Government should bring its negotiating skills to bear and ensure that the universities are open within the shortest possible time. End the strike now and let our kids resume their education! These needless strikes have serious consequences on the future of the country, after all.

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