It’s time to reopen the universities
Despite the truce reached with the federal government on some of the contentious issues that led to the current strike of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the university teachers are yet to resume classes. The excuse, this time, is the lack of preparedness by the authorities to deal with the COVID-19 challenges. While the issues raised are important, there is the more serious matter of whether the question of COVID-19 protocols should not be left with individual universities to deal with. ASUU’s position looks like a convenient excuse for work avoidance, at a time the nation should ordinarily expect our scholars to act fast and make up for lost time.
Consistent with the trenchant calls by ASUU for the federal government to respect university autonomy, the decision on resumption of academic work should also be left to university councils. It should be done on a campus-by-campus basis. The ideal thing at a time like this is for all parties to focus on ensuring that students, who have already lost an academic session, get back to their studies.
Although strikes are not supposed to negatively impact the productivity of university teachers in the area of research, it would seem that our scholars simply close shop on all fronts whenever ASUU is on strike. This neglect of one of the very reasons for which universities exist says a lot about the mindset of many scholars today. With many countries coming up with vaccines for COVID-19, it is a shame that Nigerian universities have been completely shut out of the conversation. Yet we are talking about an ailment for which malaria drugs have proved to be the most effective in its treatment. Is this not a serious indictment on the academic community in the country? How come the erstwhile academic rigour that led to scientific breakthroughs in the past seems to have departed our shores, especially with regard to COVID-19 research?
Last year, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) announced that it was “developing a framework under which grants and long-term facilities will be provided to researchers, science institutions and biotechnology firms to develop the Nigerian vaccine.” This was obviously an attempt to encourage research and the development of drugs and vaccines. This challenge to “scientists at home and in the diaspora to go back to their laboratories and develop a Nigerian vaccine” cannot be taken up here at home, when our laboratories are under lock and key. That is why Nigerians are yet to hear the response of ASUU to this opportunity for its members.
We recognise that the education sector has not been adequately funded over the years. But money is not the only problem facing our universities. The quality of academic staff is a sore point. It would seem that not enough university teachers are taking care of resources that serious researchers can call upon, even within our environment, to upgrade themselves. In recent years, some funding agencies committed to uplifting standards have been frustrated by the inability of university lecturers to answer appeals for research projects. There are reports of Nigerian scholars presenting incoherent proposals that are even riddled with basic grammatical errors.
It is not enough to argue that the diversion of research funds to other uses by university scholars is a spillover of the general atmosphere of corruption in the larger society. Nigerian universities must examine their own failures and improve their internal administrative structures. It is time universities ensured that research turned out are implementable in critical areas – ranging from crops and livestock/fisheries to automotive breakthroughs and social re-engineering. The current ASUU strike has lasted long enough and should end now.