Following the ongoing strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, stakeholders believe that there is need for the country to get its education sector right once for the collective benefit of all. Uchechukwu Nnaike and Funmi Ogundare report
It is more than two weeks since the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) embarked on strike to protest government’s insensitivity to the education sector. The union has met severally with the federal government but it is as if each time both parties meet with a view to getting the university lecturers to suspend the ongoing strike, it always ended in a deadlock.
Their meeting was to focus on reviewing the 2017 Memorandum of Action and renegotiating the unimplemented areas. The MoA highlights the funding and revitalisation of universities, earned academic allowances, staff schools, pension matters, salary shortfalls, Treasure Single Account (TSA) exemption, as well as state universities.
At the last meeting which had in attendance the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige; the past President of ASUU, Dr. Isa Fagge, Permanent Secretaries of Education and Labour, Sonny Echonu and Mrs. Ibukun Odusote respectively and other members of the federal government and ASUU delegation, both parties only reached an agreement to open up the issues and continue the talks this week.
At one of the meetings, the federal government had offered to release N20 billion as part payment of its demands.
The National President of the union, Professor Abiodun Ogunyemi, had described the proposal as a paltry sum, incapable of solving the myriad challenges of the nation’s public tertiary institutions, and is neither enough to settle their demands in terms of remuneration and others.
“Universities in Nigeria have been subjected to 20 years of continued re-colonisation under alleged democracy, in which all that the ruling circle have been regrouping among themselves in their various faction they called political parties. This has further retrogressed the economy in all spheres.”
He stressed that the strike is total, comprehensive and indefinite as members have withdrawn their services until government fully implements all outstanding issues as contained in the MoU of 2017, and concludes the renegotiation of the 2009 agreement.
The renegotiation might take a longer time given the misunderstanding between the union and the Chairman of the FG/ASUU 2009 Agreement Renegotiation Committee, Dr. Wale Babalakin.
Babalakin had explained areas where his committee disagrees with the striking lecturers, saying that he believes Nigerians deserve quality education, which must not be compromised as a result of inadequate funding. This he said has been the situation in the past 30 years.
He noted that his team and ASUU are in agreement on the need for improved education funding, but differed on where the funding should come from.
He explained that while ASUU wants the government to fund education alone, his team believes funding should come from multiple sources such as the government, private sector, education bank, student loan scheme and scholarships, among others.
Addressing journalists in Lagos on his team’s position with ASUU, Babalakin said: “Our attention has been drawn to several statements made by the President of ASUU, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi 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 N2 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. There is 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.
Some stakeholders, who have been monitoring the situation, are in support of the strike, saying that there is need for the country to get its education sector right once and for all.
A Director in the Quality Assurance Office, Lagos State Ministry of Education, Mr. Dayo Adekunle said: “The N20 billion is a far cry from the expected amount. What was agreed between government and ASUU a few years ago was the release of N20 billion every year. That was never done by the federal government. I support ASUU because we need to get at least for once.”
He expressed concern about the dilapidated and obsolete structures in public institutions, saying that they cannot also boast of adequate teaching material.
“You won’t believe it that the journals I used in the bibliography section of UNILAG for my project in 1987 are still there! Can you compare the learning environment of any public university with private universities?”
The Zonal Coordinator, North Central, National Institute of Cultural Orientation (NICO), Mr. Ohi Ojo bemoaned the current government/ASUU face-off, saying that it is unfortunate and that it portrays both sides in bad light.
“It is sad that government waited until ASUU had to go into strike before beginning negotiations with them and offering N20 billion. How far that would go in its demand is difficult to establish and when next the other tranches would come is another matter! It is sad that government usually waits for strike actions before taking demands from workers serious. It is a bad attitude as it generally portrays as being unserious.”
He described the recourse to strike by ASUU as un-ingenious, saying that one would expect more creative ways of making demands from government than strike from a body that comprises intellectuals.
“That is why the University of Ilorin should be commended for its refusal to join their colleagues in the calls for strike actions, and the stable academic environment in that institution is a big plus for the stakeholders, parents, students and lecturers. They must have found a way of having their demands met without necessarily going on strike as the national body who to me don’t consider the consequences of their action on students whose parents have to devise means of keeping their wards busy during the period of strike. It is unfair.”
He said he believes the education sector should be regarded as an essential part of the system like security that must not embark on strike.
“The police and army do not go on strike but have ways of dealing with their demands and having them addressed. We have reached that stage when we should consider that option in order to bring sanity to the sector. Enough of needless strikes by ASUU,” Ojo said.
A former Vice-Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Professor Michael Faborode expressed concern about the number of national and local strikes in universities, especially public ones, saying that they have brought about instability to and uncountable in the system.
“No nation should have whimsically mortgaged her future in such reality of incessant strikes. The federal government is culpable in not preventing the most potent and protracted disruptions. Surely government cannot and should not be happy with ‘Guinness Book of Records’ profile of strikes in Nigeria that has affected the global image and the worth of certificates from Nigerian institutions.”
According to him, often the mishandling of strike threats and notices by education ministry officials accentuate and prolong strikes, adding, “from the perspectives of the staff unions, it would seem that only the use of force could secure the grant of otherwise legitimate demands from governments and proprietors, and to that extent strikes have attracted a lot of gains to the unions and the education sector over the years.
“However, an objective assessment of the detrimental impact of strikes over its gains shows that strikes inflict much more lasting and permanent structural damage to the system. Empirical evidence has shown that universities with more stable calendar, such as private universities, given the same level playing field, would out-perform their perpetually striking counterparts.”
Faborode stressed the need for academics to re-examine the strike option as the instrument to settle industrial disputes at the slightest provocation, adding that both government and the staff unions must be alive to their responsibilities to keep Nigeria’s higher education in a sustained mode of revitalisation so that the country can become a place desired, a land of vibrant, goal-getting and successful higher education system for the eventual attainment of prosperity for all citizens.
“As it is in other more ethically and mission-conscious climes, strikes should be the very last option/joker that should be deployed as a last resort, hence its use should not be unduly frequent. For example, when teachers strike in England for only one hour, the cost to the economy is very quickly computed to let everybody see the colossal damage of the action.
“Why can’t we see things that way in Nigeria that is still struggling to develop, and grappling with a mirage of negative indices of development? The argument that the Nigerian power elite class are largely and collectively kleptomaniacs, unpatriotic, insincere and bereft of commitment to serious national development, but rather fixated on inexplicable personal ruinous primitive capital accumulation at the expense of our common patrimony and well-being, to buttress the need to ‘struggle un-relentlessly’ in a zero-sum destructive fashion cannot stand the rigour of intellectual ethics and morality, nor the imperative of sustainable development, which underpins our academic credential.”
A parent, Mrs. Nnedi Oke, regretted that the government has not eliminated the causes of strike in tertiary institution, saying that such incessant strike widen the gap between students of public and private universities, as all would compete in the same labour market after graduation.
She called for compromise between both parties so that the strike will not be allowed to linger, in the interest of the students who are always at the receiving end.
“If government says ASUU’s demand is on the high side, then ASUU should reconsider. Government should also be willing to implement any agreement that both parties reach amicably to ensure smooth running of our universities. I really wish we can find a lasting solution to this issue.”