As the Academic Staff Union of Universities prepares to meet the federal government again this week owing to the strike it embarked on last week, experts who have been monitoring the development say the government should show more commitment towards ensuring a knowledge-driven economy that accords priority and adequate funding to quality and functional education. Funmi Ogundare reports
Last week, academic activities were paralysed in Nigerian universities by members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) who embarked on an indefinite strike to protest the non-implementation of the 2009 agreement by the federal government, while disrupting examinations in some institutions.
The striking lecturers had accused the federal government of failure to fulfil the terms of the agreement it reached with the union since 2009.
The ASUU President, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, who addressed a news conference in Abuja, said the strike was total as â€œthere shall be no teaching, no examination and no attendance of statutory meetings till government meets the unionâ€™s demands.â€
Among the issues in current dispute involved in the 2009 agreement and 2013 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) are funding for the revitalisation of public universities and earned academic allowances.
Others are registration of Nigerian Universities Pension Management Company (NUPEMCO), university staff school, fractionalisation and non-payment of salaries, as the president said the government had not kept faith with ASUU even with the intervention of the National Assembly following a one week warning strike in November 2016.
â€œWe have written to government reminders, we have made contacts, we have held consultations meetings, but it has been promises upon promises,â€ he said.
â€œThe foundation of the development of any nation lies on its attention to education. No nation can grow beyond the level of its educational development.
â€œAny genuine move to transform Nigeria into an economically viable and politically stable country must begin with a firm commitment to an all-round transformation of the countryâ€™s education.
â€œASUU has been vociferous on the primacy of the university education system because it is the repository of ideas for invention, innovation and national transformation.
â€œIt is however disappointing that despite the prime importance of university education, the political class in Nigeria has continued to pay mere lip-service to addressing to lose the little gains achieved from the struggles of ASUU,” Ogunyemi stressed.
Meanwhile, some stakeholders have expressed shock at the unionâ€™s action, saying that it was not in the best interest of the nation, while some lamented that the strike would come with hardship for university students and their parents.
In its reaction, the federal government admitted that its failure to fulfil its side of the bargain with ASUU resulted in the strike.
Briefing journalists in the State House after the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting, the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu said, â€œit is saddening that ASUU went on strike owing to the failure of the federal government to fulfil its side of the bargain with the union last year.â€
He expressed the federal governmentâ€™s despair over the way ASUU proceeded on strike, observing that it failed to follow due process by giving the government reasonable notice as the case should be. He said the government would strike a deal with the lecturers that could end the strike, just as he gave an update on each of the demands of the union.
â€œIt is very sad that I am here and ASUU is on strike. Late last year, we had a meeting because ASUU gave a one-week notice of strike and we were able to work out some agreements.
â€œI must confess that government has not fulfilled its side of the bargain, even though we are unhappy that ASUU went on this strike without following due process and giving us good notice, we realised that we promised something and we did not fulfil it.
â€œI hope I will be meeting them later today or tomorrow and Iâ€™m sure we will be able to reach some agreement so that the strike will be called off as soon as possible. I am sure you are aware of the issues we agreed on.
â€œThere is the issue of re-negotiation which is the only one that they agreed government has done what it promised because we set up the re-negotiation team and negotiations are already ongoing.
â€œThere is the issue of unpaid earned allowances and I think because of some miscommunication, what we promised could not be done, but I am assuring ASUU and the whole nation that this is going to be done.
â€œThere is the issue of registration of the Nigerian Universities Pension Commission. I think that one; there are few issues that need to be sorted out with the National Pension Commission. I believe there will be no problem with that.
â€œThere is the issue of their staff schools, which I think the court has given them a verdict to go ahead with it. They have also requested that they should be allowed not to remit their funds to the TSA (Treasury Single Account) and I think government will not do this, but there are some peculiar funds in the university like the endowment funds which are monies kept and all the interest they generate, prices and so on are given.
Consequently, on August 17, a meeting between the executive members of the union and the federal government was held, but ended in a stalemate.
Both parties agreed that there is progress following offers made by government and position of the union on the new offers, while promising to reconvene within a week to continue the negotiations.
Experts who have been monitoring the development said rather than handle the sector with kid gloves, the government should show commitment towards ensuring a knowledge-driven economy that accords proper priority, focus and adequate funding to quality and functional education.
The Secretary-General of the Association of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities (AVCNU), Professor Michael Faborode said the strike was a result of mishandling and non-demonstration of sincerity by the government. He argued that there should have been no strike with forthright engagement with the education sector.
â€œWe have been playing to the gallery, while serious apprehension persists about the state of our education from primary to tertiary level. The needs assessment conducted in 2012 did not tell a lie about how bad things were. Yet government after government play around with the future and destiny of the country, while more and more government officials and the rich send their children abroad including to the West African countries with the implied capital flight.â€
He expressed concern that â€œwe allow our facilities and institutions to decay, while we scamper to overseas draining the already dwindling resources to sustain other economies while our own continue to rot. We are too eager to complain about the quality of education and that no Nigerian university is rated globally.â€
Faborode stressed the need for a visible pragmatic commitment to taking the issue of knowledge-driven economy that accords proper priority and focus to quality and functional education seriously.
â€œIt is very obvious that the nation is handling education with levity and disturbing insincerity and we have to face the reality. Pretending or hoping that we can continue to patch-patch without serious soul searching and redefinition of purpose will be wishful thinking.â€
The Education Rights Campaign (ERC) regretted that the government finds money to buy exotic cars for lawmakers, finance the expensive treatment of President Buhari in London and guarantees luxurious lifestyle for political office holders but it is unable to fund public education and meet the needs of academic staff.
The Secretary General of the association, Mr. Taiwo Soweto said the country has enough wealth which if judiciously managed, can fund education adequately and even ensure the provision of free and democratically-managed public education at all levels.
â€œWhat is responsible for this absurdity whereby a country with stupendous resources finds it hard to fund public education and ensure a stable academic calendar not punctuated by incessant strikes is the anti-poor neo-liberal agenda which feeds the greed of the capitalist ruling elite and corners over 80 per cent of the countryâ€™s wealth thus leaving little or nothing to fund social services.
He argued that the Buhari/Osinbajo government despite its campaign rhetoric of change has left an unjust arrangement unaltered which is why nothing has changed for the better since it came into power over two years ago.
â€œRather than deal with the crises afflicting the education sector, the Buhari/Osinbajo government has plunged it into more. For the over two years since the government came to power, funding of public education has remained abysmally low, fees and cost of education have been on the ascendance, poor welfare conditions and inadequate teaching facilities are still the order of the day while the government is unable to implement agreement not just with ASUU but also other staff unions.â€
A former Vice-Chancellor of University of Lagos, Professor Tolu Odugbemi described universities as centres of excellence and innovation committed to knowledge generation (research), knowledge dissemination (teaching) and knowledge application (community service), saying that they have been hindered to a large extent by underfunding.
He said universities over ages are created to solve societyâ€™s problems, adding that for any meaningful development to take place in any African country, attention must be directed at funding universities adequately to enable them set sustainable development goals for their nations.
â€œOur political leaders must realise that we need to set our priorities right. We need to go back to the drawing board and refocus and place appropriate attention to funding education at all levels, and in particular, accord tertiary education the attention it deserves.â€
He expressed concern about the disturbing trend of the penchant of political office holders, establishing new universities in the wake of dwindling resources saying, â€œunfortunately, the motive for establishing new universities these days is most of the time to satisfy political â€˜needs and interestsâ€™ of some individuals and or groups without consideration for relevance and importance of building such new universities.
â€œWhat are often labelled as universities these days, are at best local community institutions which serve as gathering or centres for providing jobs for local inhabitants and cronies of community leaders and politicians.â€
Odugbemi said the establishment of new universities requires right and qualified personnel, good and solid infrastructure; appropriate and contemporary tools useful for teaching, learning, and researching.
â€œUniversities must attract students, scholars and staff from all over the world based on merit. The essence of universities is to generate ideas that can be marketed and applying research products to make the society better. It is unthinkable that the so called universities are underfunded therefore lack tools for research which is the bedrock of modern universities.
â€œThe underfunding has reached an unacceptable level where employees are not paid their salaries as at when due. It makes one to grieve that university staff that complement such institutions are either employed without merit, grossly inadequate and unimaginably incompetent. There is need for a national policy that will be enforced to stop the indiscriminate setting up of universities,â€ he stressed.