The National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, Dr. Nasir Fagge in this interview with Peace Obi, said the education sector, especially the university system has the capacity of being a major financier of the country’s economy if only government can pay adequate attention to its revitalisation
The persistent downturn in the crude oil market in recent times, which seems to have sent many oil-dependent countries to the drawing boards, has seen the call for the diversification of the economy more intensified than ever before.
For the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the current economic dilemma in Nigeria as a result of the market’s competitiveness and fall in the price of crude oil has long been envisaged. The National President, Dr. Nasir Isa Fagge revealed that the union, which had earlier called for the diversification of the nation’s economy, has continued to carry its message from one administration to another.
Fagge said ASUU’s intention was to arouse the government’s consciousness to such reality as “Nigeria without crude oil”, adding, “virtually every new government that takes up the mantle of leadership and mounts up the position of leadership in Nigeria, ASUU makes a presentation on what needed to be done to address our undue over-dependence on crude oil as our major source of income as a country.”
The union, which effort is yet to yield the desired result, however seems undaunted and more resolute in ‘selling’ its ‘product’. Relentlessly carrying its gospel of diversification of the economy through revitalisation of the education system, the president noted that the union has maintained its commitment by presenting the ‘dummy’ governments from one administration to another.
“We had audience with late President Yar’Adua and we gave him a blue print of turning around the economy. We also engaged President Jonathan on the same issue when we had a 13-hour meeting with him. We have also requested for audience with President Buhari. We are going to make a presentation also to him on how best to address this problem of crude oil price clash.”
Speaking on ASUU’s competence to advise government on the need for the diversification of the economy, he noted that ASUU is a union of intellectuals that has professionals in every field. Directing the government’s attention to the huge potential and benefits accruable to it from a sound education system, Fagge said, “we are convinced that one way of diversifying our economy is sound investment in our education system.
“If we make our universities work, they will be in a position to attract foreign students. The huge sums of money, that is, the capital flight from Nigeria to other countries that is running into billions of naira can be retained in the country.
Describing sound university education as key to making education viable enough to serve as a financial base for the nation’s economy, he said, “if well-funded and managed, it will go long a way in attracting foreign students. Nigeria stands to enjoy a huge economic gain if it can encourage a good number of its citizens who go to foreign countries for education to stay back in the country with a university system that is of international standard.
“This can be achieved once we have very good universities with state-of-the-art research facilities, conducting cutting-edge research that will compete effectively at the international arena.”
The president said the rationale behind the union’s agreement with the federal government in 2009 was the need to revitalise the country’s universities as a way to strengthen the education sector and subsequently attract foreign students.
He said the expectation of what a sound investment in education would afford the country and its citizenry prompted the initial proposal of N1.5 trillion to be pumped into the then 24 federal universities by the Nigerian government in 2009 to kick off the revitalisation process.
The amount, which according to the union, was planned to be a three-year fund injection programme into the federal universities was not only slashed to N1.3 trillion, but extended to a six-year period, and from 24 federal universities to about 82 public universities, and was marred by poor implementation.
“This was the rationale behind our agreeing with government in 2009 that we would revitalise our universities by pumping N1.5 trillion into the then 24 public universities only. But government said it could not do that and that was supposed to be for just three years. Rather, government said it would give N1.3 trillion not for three years, but for six years, and not to 24 federal universities, but to about 82 public universities – federal and state.”
Fagge, who said despite the reduction, the union hoped that if implemented completely, it would serve as a take-off point in addressing the rot and decay in the Nigerian universities.
While highlighting the benefits of diversifying the economy and considering education as a better alternative to oil, he said, “it will reduce the loss of good brains, address the problem of capital flight because the huge sum of money, I mean the billions of naira that goes to a nearby country like Ghana, annually.
We will be able to stop the capital flight and retain the money within the country and use it to boost our economy. It will also help us to retain the best brains for development of this country in such a way that we would also very soon become one of the giants as far as education is concerned.”
Speaking with a tone of certainty, Fagge, said: “That will serve as diversification of our economy because given the analysis we presented to late President Yar’adua, the revenue that universities in Nigeria can generate is much more than the revenue that we are generating from the sale of crude oil as at that time.”
Reinforcing his belief in education as a tool for confronting poverty and other socio-economic challenges that often stir nations in the face, he described countries like China, India, Brazil, among others as examples of countries that have effectively used education to improve the lot of their citizenry.
He cited the example of the former Brazilian President, Liuz Inacio Lula da Silva, who by offering Brazilians quality and accessible education, lifted many of the citizens that were living below the poverty line above that line.
“I have been telling people that although Brazil is having a problem now, but the fact of the matter is that its former President, Liuz Inacio Lula da Silva was able to move up to 60 per cent of Brazilians living below the poverty line above the poverty line. That is an achievement.
Contrasting the Brazilian developmental state to that of Nigeria where it is said that about 70 per cent of the population are living below the poverty line, Fagge said, “I can assure you that the secret behind addressing Brazil’s problem is education – quality education.
“If you can give as many Nigerians as possible quality education, it will ensure that they will not be job seekers, but job providers. They will create jobs and engage other people that are not able to do that. So if we do that, what is going to happen is that in the next five or maximum of 10 years, we will be at par with countries like Brazil, India and even China.”
The ASUU President added: “Because the secret behind the progress of China is sound empirical education. For those who do not know, they need to read books on how China turned its economy around and began to compete with the economies of the world.
While calling on all well-meaning Nigerians to rise to the challenge of having a viable education system, he said, “I am optimistic that we can change this country, but then the challenge is not just for ASUU, it is for every well-meaning Nigerian to join hands and help us in addressing this problem so that we can begin to move our country conscientiously towards development.”