2020: Year of ASUU Strike, Schools Closure, New Normal

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2020 witnessed an unprecedented closure of most sectors of the economy; education being the worst hit with the prolonged strike by academic staff union of public universities and delayed reopening of schools after the lockdown. In this report, Uchechukwu Nnaike and Funmi Ogundare recount activities that shaped the outgoing year

2020 can best be described as a year of uncertainty and struggle in the education sector. While the devastating effect of the COVID-19 pandemic was not envisaged, the indefinite strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) was inevitable, following series of disagreements between the federal government and the union over unpaid salaries and allowances and the refusal of ASUU members to enrol in the Integrated Payroll and Personal Information System (IPPIS), among other issues.

However the prolonged strike resulted in frustration and disappointment among students, parents and other stakeholders, as some students got engaged in various activities, both positive and negative, while the strike lasted.

Eventually, students heaved a sigh of relief as the strike that commenced on March 23, was suspended on December 23, though conditionally.

Coincidentally, ASUU embarked on strike the same day the National Universities Commission (NUC) directed universities across the country to shut down for one month to prevent the spread of the virus. Prior to the order by the NUC, the Federal Ministry of Education had approved the closure of schools as a response to the pandemic.

The schools closure and lockdown ushered in the new normal, as schools and teachers deployed various means of educating their students virtually while at home.

Unfortunately, the pandemic exposed the substantial inequalities in the sector, it led to more children being out-of-school, as children in rural and underserved communities in the country were left behind because they were not equipped to adapt or transition to new methods of learning.

Students in state and federal universities across the country also suffered the consequence of the prolonged ASUU strike, as their academic calendar was
destabilised, resulting in an extra year and delayed admission of new students. On the other hand, their counterparts in private universities took academic work online and the institutions conducted virtual convocation ceremonies.

While the strike lasted, the country recorded increased cases of crime, rape and other forms unrest, which were attributed to the youths, who are taking out their frustration on the society. The #EndSARS protest in October was said to have witnessed large turnout of youths because they were idle and bored as a result of the prolonged ASUU strike and the restricted movement as part of the COVID-19 protocols.

Despite the challenges already confronting the sector, it received a meagre 5.6 per cent of the total budget for 2021, which is way below the recommended benchmark. In the 2021 budget proposal presented by President Muhammadu Buhari to the National Assembly, the sector got an allocation of N742.5 billion. In the breakdown, N579.7 billion is for personnel cost, N35.4 billion for overhead cost, while N127.3 billion is dedicated to capital expenditure. The headquarters of the Federal Ministry of Education was allotted N65.3 billion and the Universal Basic Education which supervises education at the primary and secondary levels, received N77.6 billion. The remaining was shared across other institutions under the ministry.

In spite of the Coronavirus pandemic, which led to the postponement and delay in the conduct of the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) for school candidates, the outgoing year, saw the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) recording progress with 65.2 per cent of the candidates obtaining credit in a minimum of five subjects. There were uncertainties that many students may fail the examination as a result of the prolonged schools closure.

The Head of National Office (HNO), Mr. Patrick Areghan, who announced the results in Lagos, said a total of 1,003,668 candidates obtained credit and above in a minimum of five subjects, including English Language and Mathematics, while 1,338,348 candidates, representing 86.99 per cent, obtained credit and above in a minimum of five subjects.

In order to ensure quality service delivery and give deserving candidates an opportunity to excel, the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) conducted the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) and released its results at a record time for about 1,949,983 candidates, while putting in place the COVID-19 safety guidelines. It prunned down on crowds at the CBT centres and ensured that its services were not only active and available online, but were not disrupted in any way as a result of the pandemic.

The Director of Public Relations of the board, Dr. Fabian Benjamin in a statement, said it started with 250 persons at various centres at the beginning of the exercise, but the numbers were later reduced to ensure that candidates were not unnecessarily crowded in a place.

In the outgoing year, the board held the second edition of the National Tertiary Admissions Performance Merit Award for 2019, where it rewarded five best performing tertiary institutions in the country with N375 million. They were: University of Ilorin, which got the Most Subscribed Institution by candidates award, as well as Highest Number of Admitted International Students; Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, won the Most National Institution in Admission of Candidates award.

Others were; Federal University, Wukari, Taraba, which won the Most Improved Institution in Gender Balance, while Ogun State Institute of Technology, Igbesa, received the Most Compliant Institution in keeping to guidelines of admissions. They got N75 million each.

The Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu, who congratulated the benefiaciary institutions, lauded JAMB’s efforts at ensuring excellence, adding that the federal government would continue to play a critical role in teaching, learning and research.

In their assessment of the sector, some stakeholders said though 2020 has been a tough year, it is a year that innovation thrived.

In her submission, the Director of Archdeacon Brown Education Centre, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Ms. Ibim Sementari said players in the sector have been compelled to rethink the usual and be disruptive in the solutions they provide.

“One thing that has happened is that more and more schools and education service providers are leaning heavily on technology. The year has actually hastened the migration to digital platforms for many schools.”

Unfortunately, she said the sector has taken quite a hit and with so many people loosing their jobs, many schools are finding more parents not being able to pay the fees as they used to, adding that schools have had to review their payment plans.

The Vice-Chancellor of Glorious Vision University, formerly Samuel Adegboyega University, Ogwa, Edo State, Professor Idowu Babatunde expressed concern that the present administration has done nothing to increase education budget, instead the allocation has dwindled within the last five years, despite the fact that the country has not been able to meet UNESCO’s benchmark for education budget.

“Regrettably, even the implementation of the laughable budget is another matter altogether. Check the records, less than 65 per cent of the budget is implemented. Take this to the bank; this country can never make progress following this trajectory,” he said

The VC regretted the ASUU and federal government impasse, which led to the protracted industrial action in public universities, saying that at a time when various governments around the world were increasing funding for their universities in order to encourage research on COVID-19, Nigeria shut down all public universities.

He also expressed concern that Nigeria spent over nine months negotiating whether university teachers were deserving of their wages, after which an agreement was reached.

“This leaves us to wonder why such decision was never taken. Expectedly, professors and other scientists in these universities paid more attention to hunger occasioned by non-payment of salaries. I read an article recently which indicated that more professors and scientists in other climes became billionaires because of the medical research during this pandemic.

“I may want to add that with the first three days of the strike, the academic calendar for 2020 has been messed up. It will take over five years for the calendar to be normalised; if another industrial action is avoided. Even if we normalise the calendar, can we bring back the precious research opportunities that we lost?”

Professor Babatunde argued that while serious lessons were learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic in other climes, it appears Nigerian education sector learnt nothing, adding that with the outbreak of the pandemic, so many countries quickly switched to online learning.

“A lot of investment went into e-education in other countries. For Nigeria, there was no official implementable government policy on e-learning during the pandemic. In fact, there was no direction and coordination. One had expected the federal and state ministries of education to come up with an implementable policy on digital learning.

“None of these happened. Rather, the Federal Ministry of Education and Ministry of Labour were busy negotiating with ASUU. In fact, I am forced to agree with some observers who believe that the protracted strike was designed to distract the Nigerian people from the lack of capacity and direction on the part of the government. Let us not forget that this country has no steady power and good internet connectivity. These two are required for an effective online learning.”

He stressed the need for government at all levels to have the political will to implement UNESCO recommendations on education, as well as the deliberate effort to grow the sector.

The Chief Executive Officer, Lonadek Global Services, Dr. Ibilola Amao expressed concern that Nigeria has performed woefully in terms of progress in education in the outgoing year, adding that with the ASUU strike lasting for nine months, there is not much to be proud of.

“Most significantly, in a pandemic, when democratising and domesticating technology is key to national development and socio-economic transformation, Nigeria has not performed well.” She said education must be a priority if the country must achieve its full potential. “Based on the UNESCO’s official records from the EFA global report and World Education Forum 2015, 15 to 20 per cent of a country’s budget should go to education. Sadly, this recommended 15-20 per cent minimum budgetary allocation has not been achieved by the last two Presidents of Nigeria- Jonathan and Buhari (2014: 176,404,931) 10.6 per cent, Buhari (2020: 210,000,000 approx) 6.7 per cen according to sources: Ministry of Finance, BudgIT and PwC). It is sad that the population increase of 19 per cent has not been met with improved investment in education, rather spending on education has reduced by about 4 per cent.”

Amao regretted that since the academic barrier for politicians has been set so low, today a school certificate failure (provided she or he has a certificate) can aspire to lead in Nigeria. This she said is sad and has grave consequences on the nation.

For a nation that goes on six to nine months of ASUU strikes in almost every political dispensation, Amao opined that blended learning or online learning would be a better offer to the teeming youths who should be competing with their global counterparts.

“Most nations with natural resources are leveraging innovation, Technical and Vocational Enterprise (TVE) institutions which are better suited to accelerate development and wealth creation. For a nation like Nigeria where key resources like cocoa, timber, rubber, gold, precious metals, cashew, groundnut, cotton, etc, need to be processed to create jobs and wealth thus diversifying Nigeria from her petroleum dependency as a mono-economy, there isl need for traction in enhancing Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).”

She said the country must develop multicultural, multi-lingual Africans that accept continuous learning and development as a culture wherever they are and develop the ability to convert issues, challenges and problems into opportunities, projects, initiatives and businesses.

“The future and leadership of Nigeria should be bequeathed to well-educated human capital asset that are digitally empowered to make Nigeria a safe nation of educated, enlightened, empowered, engaged and entrepreneurs,” she said.

To ensure that Nigerians can compete favorably with improved standard of living in the near future, Amao said at least 20 per cent of the annual budget should be invested in education; the best brains locally and in diaspora should be encouraged to bridge the development gap, while the bar of competence and educational performance should be raised for any individual who plans to lead a nation as complex as Nigeria.