Government and other stakeholders must think fresh ways of funding public universities

The gates of Ladoke Akintola University of Technology were opened to students recently after some eight months of closure. The university was shut down last June due to the failure of the joint owners–Oyo and Osun States–to fulfil their shared funding responsibility. The states were reportedly struggling to pay a debt load to the tune of N7 billion which made it poignantly impossible for the university to perform its primary functions, including the payment of workers’ salaries.

Despite the fact that the students have been recalled, there are still contentious issues to be resolved. “The truth is that there have been no efforts to ensure we resume,” said Biodun Olaniran, chairman of the local branch of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). “Students who have resumed are only here to play. One of the demands of ASUU is a letter of commitment from the owner states stating how the university would be funded and how salaries would be paid,” a demand the owner states considered impudent.

Insufficient cash flow has become a crushing burden in public universities in Nigeria. The weak financial conditions in the universities are exacerbated by the current crippling economic crisis afflicting the nation. Besides personnel costs, funds are required to rehabilitate dilapidated facilities, purchase consumables and research capability. And frequent bursts of strikes have become a routine weapon used by university staffers to force the authorities to listen to their plight.

It is noteworthy that the federal government and ASUU had for several years been locked in a running battle over the implementation of agreements on the funding of the country’s public universities. Indeed, the most recent nationwide strike was triggered by complaint that the Buhari administration had consistently refused to implement the ASUU-FG agreement reached in 2009. The union identified the poor funding of universities, non-payment of earned academic allowances, part-payment of salaries, and the inclusion of universities on the Treasury Single Account (TSA) as their main concerns.

The state of many Nigerian university campuses today is rather pathetic. In many of the public universities there no serious academic work due to internal problems. Academic activities have been paralysed at the Federal University of Technology, Akure, over issues of fraud and corruption. At the University of Calabar where lecturers went on strike, Chairman of the local ASUU chapter, Dr Tony Eyang was particularly concerned about the application of the TSA to universities.

But strikes contribute significantly to the decline in the quality of graduates of our public universities. The hurried academic calendars, following the end of industrial actions allow for very little attention to serious studies or research. These have debilitating effects on educational development. That may account for why our public universities have continued to slide down the ladder of academic rankings, even among their peers in Africa.

However, we cannot shy away from the fact that the under-funding of the education sector has had collateral damaging effects on the country. But dealing with the challenge of thin liquidity requires more than seasonal strikes by the lecturers while governments also need to understand the primacy of constant dialogue, especially given the current realities.

Therefore, going forward requires other critical stakeholders in the education sector joining in the efforts to find a lasting solution to what has become a perplexing national challenge. In doing this, the federal government should take the initiative so that we can collectively come up with ways to reposition tertiary education in our country. It is unfortunate that disputes are always occasioned by broken promises and unfulfilled agreements. Yet there is no way we can develop our country until efforts are made to revitalise key sectors like education.