Saturday comment

Idowu Awopetu urges government to create an enabling environment for the universities to thrive


The first reported reaction of the federal government, through the Minister of Education, to the ASUU strike was a declaration that the government “can’t meet ASUU’s demands now”. This statement shows either a complete lack of appreciation or understanding of the crises facing the university system in particular and education in general.

First is that the crises are longstanding that have been left to fester by successive governments. Secondly, is the implication that the current government is also not prepared to address the problems.

The Nigeria university system is passing through the third stage of its existence.

The first phase, 1962-1975, was marked by generous funding and adequate attention paid to the universities. Facilities were provided for teaching, learning, research and recreation. The federal government was contributing between 30-50% of the recurrent budget of regional universities – ABU, UNN, Ife (now OAU) and Benin, while funding fully UI and UNILAG.

The personnel, both academic and non-academic, were international in their composition with the studentship drawn from all parts of the world.

The establishment of each university was preceded by years of planning, recruitment and training of staff, and provision of infrastructure before the institutions were declared opened for students’ admission.

There was mutual respect and cooperation between the governments and the universities. The government relied on the ideas and researched knowledge emanating from the universities for the formulation of the developmental programmes of the country. In other words, the economic and social development of the country was based on the knowledge produced by the universities. The country’s development was based on the knowledge of our people. The universities were playing their role as the site or centre of knowledge production, and the universities were funded as such.

In summary, all the basic facilities and the environment that were required for the institutions to function as universities were put in place. Students and staff thereby enjoyed a conducive environment for learning and teaching. On top of this, the relationship between the government and the universities was largely cordial.

The second phase, 1975-1999, was marked by an unplanned expansion of the university system, with the number increasing from six in 1975 to 41 in 1999. In addition, the phase was also marked by incessant intervention in the affairs of the universities by the governments of the day. The governments intervened, either directly or indirectly through its agents, in the appointments of vice-chancellors, recruitment of staff, admissions of students, development of curricular and on other occasions ordered the closure of universities and the sack and dismissal of staff and students respectively. The era also witnessed the harassment, arrest and detention of staff and students.

During this phase, underfunding became the norm with the government insisting that the universities should generate at least 60% of their required revenue. This period was largely under military rule except for the brief period of 1979-1983. The universities were under tremendous stress and pressure and this led to the exodus of many Nigerian academics and the departure of expatriate staff. The period also witnessed many strikes and disruptions provoked largely by the anti-intellectual environment created by the military.

The current phase, 2000- present, has seen the ascendancy of anti-democratic and anti-intellectual leadership in the country and these have been extended to the universities. Every effort to insulate the universities from these forces is countermanded by the political leadership of the country. The University of Ilorin situation illustrates this phenomenon clearly. All the ills earlier identified as confronting the universities have become more pronounced.

Deliberate underfunding of public universities, the creation of ethno-varsities by converting mushroom colleges into universities by state governments and the promotion of private universities have contributed in no small way to the deterioration in our universities.

But by far, the greatest damage that the leadership of the country has done to the nation is the undermining of our university system’s ability to be the site for knowledge production. This has led to the loss of confidence in our people that we as a nation have the ability to develop our country.

This is why our youths travel abroad to secure employment for which they are paid a fraction of the salaries paid to citizens who do the same jobs. How our leaders do not see that we are using our resources to train our children only to let them go abroad to service other economies beats my imagination. By encouraging this we are subsidising other economies.

SAP, NEPAD, NEEDS, MDGs and the NERGP are foreign-motivated; they did not work, they have not worked and will not work. That is why ASUU has been agitating for the past 38 years that our universities be adequately funded.

The ASUU demands encapsulate the ideal that our university system be the site of knowledge production; that our universities are not only to teach but are also to produce knowledge through research and that this knowledge be used for national development.

This is why the ASUU demands can’t wait and education bank or capital market is not the answer or solution to the crises facing our universities.

The solution lies in the government’s resolve to invest heavily in education and create an enabling environment for the universities to thrive by abrogating laws and reversing policies that stifle our universities from being knowledge centres and teaching institutions.