Commitment to Resolve Incessant ASUU Strike Actions

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Wale Babalakin

As the recent strike action embarked by the Academic Staff Union of Universities lingers, the negotiating team, set up by the federal government to resolve the thorny issue, has reaffirmed its committment to finding a lasting solution to incessant strike actions by the union. Chiemelie Ezeobi reports

As the strike action embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) stretches into its second week with an impasse between the union and the federal government, students, who are the ultimate victims, continue to sit at home at the detriment of their academic pursuits. The National President of ASUU, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, had said the strike is total and indefinite following the non-implementation of the 2009 agreement and memorandum of understanding (MoU) of 2017.

Negotiating Team’s Stance
However, the negotiating team inaugurated by the federal government, while positing a way forward from the incessant strike actions, also prevailed on the union to return to the negotiating table for a permanent resolution of the underlying issues based on verifiable data and not postulations.

According to the chairman of the team, Dr. Wale Babalakin, SAN, the negotiation team remains committed to finding permanent resolution of the recurrent industrial disputes that have militated against the progress of the Nigerian University System since decades.

At a recent briefing in Lagos, he tackled some of the burning issues raised by ASUU, as well as gave insight into the solutions proferred by the negotiating team which consists Babalakin as chairman; former Vice Chancellor, University of Ibadan, now Pro Chancellor, Tai Solarin University of Education, Prof. Olufemi Bamiro; former Vice Chancellor, University of Port Harcourt, now Pro Chancellor, Federal University of Lokoja, Prof. Nimi Briggs; former Executive Secretary, National Universities Commission, now Pro Chancellor, Federal University Lafia, Prof. Munzali Jubril; Pro Chancellor, Federal University of Birnin Kebbi, Lawrence Ngbale, an architect.

The briefing also dovetailed into addressing the misinformation by ASUU Zonal Coordinator for Bauchi, Prof. Lawan Abubakar, who alleged that the committee has proposed N500, 000 tuition fee, as well as that of ASUU Zonal Coordinator in Ibadan, Dr. Ade Adejumo, who pegged it at N350, 000.

Babalakin, who also doubles as the Chairman, Implementation Committee of Federal Govemment/ ASUU, SSANU and NASU Implementation Committee and the
Pro-Chancellor, University of Lagos, said aside from the fact that their committee has no power to impose fees on students, they are at a loss regarding the source of the said figures.

In a statement signed by the six-member committee, they said: “Our attention has been drawn to the several statements made by Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, President of the ASUU and echoed by various zonal heads and other members of the same union. As we had stated in our previous communication on this matter, we believe that negotiations are best done on the table rather than on the pages of the newspapers, hence we have been very reluctant to respond to the campaign of our co-negotiators. Our position is that dialogue on the same table is the most effective way of resolving issues.

“Unfortunately, we are compelled to respond to the allegations by ASUU which have been made severally in the print and electronic media because some Nigerians may begin to believe the inaccurate narratives that have been consistently provided by ASUU. Our position as a team is that, Nigerians deserve and should have quality education. This must not be compromised as a result of inadequate funding which has been the situation in the last 30 years.

“We also believe that no Nigerian should be deprived of university education because of his/her financial circumstance. This position is consistent with that of the government of President Muhammadu Buhari. Going by the figures provided by ASUU, Nigeria requires over two trillion per annum to fund university education.

“This figure exceeds in value the total amount of money available for all capital projects in Nigeria including health, infrastructure, security and others. No doubt that if the money were available for university education as ASUU has insisted it is, the government will have no difficulty in spending it on university education. However as it is, government cannot ignore all other areas of expenditure that require funding.

“The National Council of Education appreciates this position and has directed that student loan schemes be set up by the various state governments. It has also supported the idea of an Education Bank which would provide soft loans for students seeking to obtain university education.

“We do not know from where ASUU got the figures that it has been peddling around the whole country. However, the inconsistency in the figures glaring. Aside from the fact that our committee has no power to impose fees on students, we are at a loss regarding the source of the said figures. However, the contradiction demonstrates clearly that the figures are incorrect and should not be countenanced by anyone.”

Pertinent Questions

Some of the pertinent questions asked by Babalakin, were- “do we want a university m system that can compete with other university systems in the world or do we want a peculiar Nigerian University system?
Do we want to create an environment where scholarship can thrive or are we seeking to create certificate issuing institutions?

“Do we believe that at least five Nigerian Universities should be among the top 100 universities in the world or are we content with being listed at over number 800 in global ranking? Do we want to have academic staff who earn enough money that allows them to concentrate solely on their academic pursuits with a guaranteed career and a contented retirement or do we want to continue the present system where owning the basic things of life is considered a major achievement for the average academic?

“Do we want to recreate the environment where the average outstanding student will consider an academic career as an attractive option when he graduates or do we want an academic environment made up of those who apply because they were not absorbed at their first choices? Do we want the spark to return to the Nigerian university system that was once considered a place of choice for international students and scholars around the world?”

In his response, if the answers to these posers are positive, then there is the utmost need to reinvigorate the system.

Previous Negotiations
An enduring solution has eluded the Nigerian University System. The University System still remains largely underfunded thus incapable of providing the nation with the level of support expected from it. Various reasons have been given for this situation including, according to ASUU, lack of political will by the various governments.

FG’s Objectives
According to the committee, the federal government seeks to provide a well-funded and outstandingly motivated university system that will amongst other things- be able to compete internationally, promote genuine scholarship, be among the top 100 universities in the world, create genuine academics with prosperous careers, provide an environment that will attract young men and women into academia, capable of supporting the commercial, industrial and other developmental needs of the nation, where Where its products can add genuine value in a modern international labor market and be
self-regulating like its peers in developed world.

Institutional Self-regulations
One of the solutions touted by the implementation committee was the creation of institutions that will be self-regulated. According to them, these institutions would be driven by Key Performance Indicators (KIP’s) to be supervised by the NUC, adding that these indicators will harness the potential within the various universities and make them compete with each other in the academic sphere.

In furtherance of this goal, they posted that universities must be largely autonomous of government given that since 1975, it has shown clearly that the promotion or creation of exceptional universities is no longer priority. Thus, they noted that if this goal is going to be achieved, it must be driven from within the university system itself.

Funding
On the issue of funding Babalakin said: “Based on ASUU’s own studies, the NUC has estimated that the cost of training Nigerian undergraduates to full accreditation status is the sum of $3,364 dollars. This was as at 2010. Thus, applying a very conservative rate of N300 to $1, this comes to approximately N1million, per annum, per student.

“As at 2013, there were 761,000 students in Nigerian Universities. The figures for 2018 are not yet available to my committee from appropriate authorities. We have however assumed a 10 per cent growth per annum in Nigerian student’s population. We reckon that the Nigerian student population today is approximately one million. Based on this calculation, the Nigerian university system requires N1 trillion a year to fund undergraduate education alone at N1million x 1million students = N1 trillion.

“Postgraduate education is however a different matter. Unfortunately, the cost of providing this critical part of education is yet to be determined. However it is noteworthy that TETFund supports each postgraduate student in Nigeria with approximately N1.5million per annum. Nigeria cannot continue to claim to produce postgraduate students without providing the facilities for this very important level of education.”

Present Allocation to Various Universities

On present allocation to various universities he said: “Information available is that government manages to pay the salaries and sometimes the basic overheads of Federal Universities. For example, the University of Lagos budget allocation for personnel cost for 2017 was N12.9billion. The actual amount received till date is N10billion. The university also received less than N150million for its capital projects and overheads. With a student population of 50,000 students and applying the cost provided by NUC, University of Lagos requires at least N50billion to achieve full accreditation of its courses. In effect, University of Lagos received 20 per cent of the funds required to run the university properly.

“Information available to us is that every federal university receives on the average the sum of N1billion per annum from TETFund. In effect University of Lagos received two per cent of 50billon per annum from TETFund.”

It was further gathered that asides what was released by TETFund, there are other forms of federal government interventions and they include the Petroleum Trust Development Fund (PTDF) and Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), etc, who make very generous contributions. According to Babalakin, thesd institutions contribute less than N500million to each federal university.

Also, some Minsitries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) also intervene directly in the funding of federal universities. Citing the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Science and Technology, Babalakin said they contribute to the Federal Universities of Agriculture and Federal Universities of Science and Technology directly.

He added, “let us generously allocate N1billiob a year as the contribution from these various sources to the relevant universities. Thus, where we are today is that the federal government through all its funding sources contributes approximately 22.5 per cent of the total requirement of running a proper federal university system.”

This he said raised the question of where the shortfall will come from. He noted that ASUU and other stakeholders actually believe that the funds are available in the system but are simply not properly harnessed, accounted for or expended.

Admitting that one is not in a position to provide answers to this, he however revealed that the current budget of the federal government stands at N8trillion for total budget, 41 per cent for recurrent expenditure, 28 per cent for capital expenditure. 23 per cent for debt servicing, five percent for statutory transfer and three per cent for sinking fund.

Accordingly, he said the total revenue available to government is 41 per cent recurrent plus 28 per cent capital, and when total in amount of money available to government comes out at 69 per cent of N8 Trillion equals to N5.5 trillion. Of this amount of money, he said 41 per cent is for paying salaries, which stands at N3.28 trillion.

He futher stated, “this regime has made it clear that staff welfare is paramount to it. This item is not available for any other thing than the payment of salaries. Please note that this 41 per cent will be higher in light of the likely increase in minimum wage. The 28 per cent available for capital projects amounts to N2.24 trillion. Assuming full funding of the budget, N2.24 trillion is not a lot of money for a country with poor infrastructure, serious health issues, security challenges including an unending internal insurrection.”

For Babalakin, the challenge is how to convince government to make the N1 trillion identified above available from these resources for the university education system.

Proposed Way Forward

The committee went on to state that their proposed way forward encapsulates the fact that the federal government should provide enough fund for the education system, but in a sustainable manner.

However, they noted that the provision should be balanced given the other gaping needs from other sectors. According to the committee, their position remains that should the federal government make available the sum of N1trillion every year to fund university education which is equal to 70 per cent of the total capital releases for 2017, which was N1.3b?

In their opinion, this is not realistic in a country that has other competing needs such as infrastructure, defence, security, health and other needs that require government’s urgent attention, adding that we
cannot continue to subject the funding of the university system to the vagaries of the availability of government resources and swinging political dispositions of political office holders.

Other Challenges

According to the committee, funding is not the only problem of the university system. They stayed that most of the previous negotiations have proceeded on the basis that the critical problem of university education is funding.

Babalakin said: “While we admit that funding is a very serious problem, we are unable to concede to the proposition that increase in funding will necessarily increase the productivity of the universities. In our view if we increase funding without adjusting the structural defects in the system, we will not have an enduring solution to the problems of university education in Nigeria. The list of issues to be addressed are quite extensive, however we will seek to identify the most salient ones.

“Another problem is that universities cannot function properly as large bureaucracies, rather they must be run as institutions designed to promote scholarship in an intellectually competitive environment and not a bureaucracy. Outstanding performance must be rewarded appropriately by various University Councils.

“University Councils must be constituted in a manner that councils can provide the leadership it requires. In present day Nigeria, universities must be led by persons who have a serious commitment to the university system and not those who are mainly representatives of the ruling party.

“In addition, the leadership of the federal universities should reflect the geographical diversity of Nigeria. Our position is that out of the five principal officers of the university who occupy the positions of vice chancellor, deputy vice chancellor, registrar, bursar and librarian, not more than three of these positions should be held by persons from the same geographic zone.

“There must also be cohesive supervision of federal universities.
The university educational system must be supervised in a harmonious manner without compromising its self regulation. The idea of certain universities being supervised by other ministries such as the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Science and Technology and Ministry of Health is not appropriate. Whatever contributions those ministries want to make should be routed through the Ministry of Education in order to achieve a centrally coordinated supervision of the university education system.”