Professor Biodun Ogunyemi is the President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities. In this interview with Funmi Ogundare, he explained why ASUU will not abandon its struggle to make the Nigerian ruling class accord university education its rightful place in the scheme of things, among other issues. Excerpts:
COVID-19 has thrown up serious global economic challenges, with the dismal economic climate, are we still going to witness ASUU calling out its members on strike?
As far as ASUU is concerned, Nigeria is confronted with two interrelated emergency situations. The emergency situation in the education sector has been with us in the last five years or so when budgetary allocations by federal and state governments were scandalously made lower and lower. The minister of education acknowledged this emergency situation in 2017 when he said Nigeria was the only country among the D8 nations that was allocating less than 20 per cent of its annual budgets to education. Since that year budgetary allocations to education hovered between 6 per cent and 7 per cent. That was before the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic. With recent report of government’s plan to cut allocation to education in the 2020 budget on account of COVID-19, it means the woes of the sector would be further worsened. So, there’s no shying away from the education emergency, and that’s where ASUU stands.
The second emergency situation, which appears to have overshadowed the education emergency, is the health sector emergency. COVID-19 has practically exposed our rulers as playing a big game of deception with investment in the health sector. But, this time around, they didn’t have any choice than to mobilise funds for equipment and medicaments in response to coronavirus. They had to quickly do this because COVID-19 does not respect creed or class and there’s no other country that will welcome members of the Nigerian ruling class under this situation of global lockdown. The coronavirus conundrum actually vindicated ASUU’s advocacy for investment in university education over the years. At the onset of COVID-19 attack, Nigerians suddenly discovered that even the most patronised teaching hospitals in the country could not boast of five functional ventilators. You then imagine how many medical students would have undergone their training neither sighting nor handling some other basic equipment and facilities which are critical to the production of 21st century physicians.
The root of this degeneracy can be traced back to university laboratories and libraries. So, the rot and decay thrown up by the COVID-19 crisis in the health sector are not in any significant way far from what is prevalent in the universities. That is why ASUU keeps saying the health emergency cannot be meaningfully resolved without addressing the education emergency. What ASUU has done in the wake of COVID-19 is to join forces with governments at the federal and state levels to combat the pandemic. Many of our medical and para-medical members are at the frontlines in the management of infected people.
Other members of the union are also involved in producing and donating materials and equipment needed for the prevention and control of the spread of the dreaded virus. We see our roles in this respect as historic. We are standing with Nigerians to prosecute and win the war against COVID-19 for the preservation of all of us. However, that does not mean ASUU will abandon its struggle to make the Nigerian ruling class accord education, particularly university education, its rightful place in the scheme of things. This is the second emergency, it is a struggle Nigerians need to join ASUU to address after victory over coronavirus. It’s a struggle for this and future generations of Nigerians.
Most stakeholders have expressed dismay at the inability of the university communities in Nigeria to proffer immediate solution, especially on ramping up advanced tests in several molecular laboratories and biological facilities in universities. What is your view on this?
As I hinted earlier, most university laboratories in Nigerian today are bereft of facilities and equipment for cutting edge research. How many of our first and second generation universities have functional molecular laboratories? Not to talk of the third generation universities and those established in the last eight years or so! You need to see the report of the federal government-sponsored Needs Assessment Report of 2012. Can you imagine university chemistry laboratories without running water and kerosene stoves were being used in place of bunsen burners? Besides, many of the campuses visited were without power for more than three-quarters of the day! Not much has changed since then. In fact it was the 2012 report that gave rise to the 2013 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in which government agreed to inject a total of N1.3 trillion revitalisation fund into public universities over a period of six years. The fund was to come in six tranches beginning with N200 billion in 2013, and N225 annually in the five subsequent years. We were gravely disappointed to learn later that what was released as the first tranche for 2013 was actually taken from the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund). That tells you how deceptive government could be.
This is why ASUU continues to talk of ‘revitalisation fund’ since 2013. Some little improvement you will observe on our university campuses today could be attributed to TETFund and the close monitoring by campus-based staff and student unions of the utilisation of the released revitalisation fund. Until the Nigerian rulers stop playing lip service to addressing the rot and decay in our universities, as well as change their mentality of turning universities into constituency projects, there is no way our institutions would make significant contributions to research of the magnitude of COVID-19. No doubt, we have the human resources. Apart from the motivation associated with their work, it is a fact that researchers cannot be better than the quality of their laboratories or libraries.
What efforts did the university community make to ease the pains of Nigerians, as it was observed that there was no matrix or model in the distribution of palliatives during the lockdown?
I am aware that some universities were involved in distributing palliatives directly to people and groups in their host communities, but I don’t have the full picture. What I am sure of, however, is that branches of ASUU nationwide were actively involved in producing and distributing information, education and communication (IEC) materials, hand sanitizers, hand washing devices, and so to support government’s efforts in checking the spread of COVID-19. Our union could have possibly purchased palliative items for distribution in the communities if not for the unjust seizure of our members’ salaries for three months now by agents of the IPPIS. They have remained adamant in lifting the embargo even when the president directed that the withheld salaries be paid unconditionally. To the best of my knowledge, ASUU members were not involved in the distribution of government’s palliative items. Maybe our members could have advised them on a more workable framework if government had approached them.
Now that it is obvious and shameful that there is no register of the poor and vulnerable in the country, what should be the contribution of the university community as an intellectual centre and with members of high integrity, to produce a validated register of the poor and vulnerable?
The greatest obstacle to coming up with accurate social register is overpoliticisation. In other climes, all information needed to reach out to the target groups would be sourced from their bank. This is a job for the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). State and local councils should also have their records. But our problem is the fear that the figures may be manipulated if you entrust the data collation to the sub-national authorities. A case in point was when the Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola did a census of Lagos residents a few years ago. I don’t think the federal government has accepted the outcome of the exercise since then. So, if there is a national understanding, departments of demography in our universities could work with federal and state governments to come up with a more scientific way of producing a credible social register for the country.
We are beginning to witness a shift by employers in the organised private sector to recruit trainee graduates from private universities. Does this not bother ASUU?
ASUU is not bothered about that. You can be sure that employability level of private university graduates is not anywhere close to those of the public. According to the NUC’s Statistical Digest, the population of students in Nigeria’s private universities is not more than five per cent of all the students in Nigerian universities put together. Truly, you there are one or two good private universities whose products may compete well with graduates from older public universities. But these are few and far between. We are not saying those who attended private universities should not be employed, if found employable. However, our worry is the surreptitious moves by the ruling class to underdevelop public universities for private universities to thrive. A former Nigerian ruler once boasted that ASUU’s wings would clipped once private universities were massively licensed. What he and his cohorts may have forgotten is that the poverty level of the country is not in sync with the elitist orientation of private universities.
What is the strategy of ASUU in revamping and repositioning public universities to take their place in the global universities ranking and contribute towards the development of the country?
For us in ASUU, the FGN/ASUU MoU of 2013, which was predicated on the findings of the 2012 needs assessment exercise remains the benchmark for the revitalisation of public universities in Nigeria. The MoU should have completed its six-year cycle in 2018 had government kept faith with it. The Goodluck Jonathan administration deceived us by going back to TETFund. This is an act we call ‘robbing Peter to Paul’ because it denied TETFund the resources required to fulfil its statutory obligations to tertiary institutions in the country the following year. Now, the current administration has been telling ASUU in the last four years that the 2013 MoU is no longer realistic because of the dwindling fortunes of the country’s economy. But we know that where there is a will, there will be a way. So, we have now put together our ideas on how to reposition Nigerian universities for global reckoning as part of our negotiating document in the ongoing renegotiation of the 2009 FGN/ASUU.
Universities are supposed to stimulate local content development through research efforts and be the cornerstone to innovations and product development. When and how are we mobilizing stakeholders especially young researchers who have received support from TETFund to occupy the research and innovation space?
Research comes in different grades and dimensions. There are basic research activities which are not necessarily meant to invent tangible products but are to lay the foundations for innovations and inventions. Research in theoretical physics or philosophy are good examples of basic research. Some other research efforts are applied. These are research activities directed at addressing practical problems in the immediate community of the researcher or the society at large. Both basic and applied research activities go on, to some variable extent, in our universities everyday. However, the reports of such efforts hardly get to the end-users. Oftentimes, they are turned into academic publications written in esoteric language.
Consequently, many reports of local research, including doctoral theses, have either been tucked away in academic journals or left to gather dust on the book shelves. However, it appears the intervention of TETFund is beginning to make some difference. The intervention agency is now encouraging applied research through its new policy on Research and Development (R and D). Many of our members have won competitive grants at both the institutional and National Research Fund (NRF) levels. ASUU is well represented on the TETFund Research Committees and the feedback we’ve got so far indicated that many of the grant beneficiaries are diligent with their research. If the current momentum at TETFund is sustained, we may soon be reaping the benefits of R&D in Nigeria.
NUC started yearly research exhibitions to encourage universities to display their research products. The products on parade are usually those that scaled the competitive screening at zonal level. ASUU members are active participants and the participation level would likely increase if the competition cascades further to the state and institutional levels.