By Kayode Komolafe
0805 500 1974
A WhatsApp post that has been circulating for some weeks now vividly captures the travails of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in the struggle to save public education at the university from total collapse. The instructive post is the photo of the front page of the Ibadan-based Daily Sketch edition of November 26, 1981 with the following caption: “ASUU MAY CALL OFF STRIKE.” The story was written by the late veteran journalist, Eddie Ekpo, who was based in Calabar for a greater part of his accomplished career.
So in teling the story of ASUU, you may ask, as they would put it in Warri, na today?
It is indisputable that ASUU has been carrying the cross of the university system for over 40 years. Yet instead of the university system being saved, symptoms of decay are manifest on the campuses. Now, it seems that the option preferred in some quarters is that the lot of ASUU should not stop at carrying the cross of the rot in the university system, the organisation of teachers should be crucified as the ultimate solution to the problem.
In fact to some elements of the Nigerian elite, in and out of power, ASUU has become the problem of the university system.
The critics are always angry at ASUU for going on strikes, but they are hardly outraged that successive administrations have reneged on agreements reached with ASUU after years of negotiations. If some powerful forces have their way, ASUU would be banned for its perennial strikes as a way of ensuring a stable academic calendar in the universities. Such is the sort of absurd propositions coming from some of ASUU’s critics. The criticisms have ranged from that of ASUU’s methods of struggle to even the desirability of ASUU as organisation in the universities. Why should academics be members of a union in the first place? That is the question some pundits often ask with a tinge of cynicism.
To be sure, the debate on ASUU and its struggle has not really been decent in many respects. The union has been denigrated and its leaders frequently insulted not only by government officials, but also, ironically by public intellectuals. The cases of bad eggs in the system have provided a ready ammunition for the attackers of ASUU. The critics point to the corruption on the part of a few such as awarding marks to female students for sex and accepting bribes from students for grades. Is there any profession or sector in Nigeria from which cases of corruption and other crimes have not been reported? For clarity, the law should be judiciously applied to deal with erring members of ASUU. Discipline should be strictly enforced and competence should not be compromised. But the bad behaviour of a few should not be used to define a whole community of academics. Here we are talking of academics with a universal reputation. It is even more painful when you remember that emeritus professors who taught the teachers of some those denigrating ASUU are, at least, nominally members of the organisation, not to talk of many other decent scholars performing a yeoman service to sustain the system.
No society that is genuinely desirous of all-round development can afford to hold those primarily responsible for the production of knowledge in such utter contempt with which Nigeria treats university teachers.
Little surprise then that thinking is often not accorded primacy of place in many of the advertised efforts to solve societal problems. Intellection is secondary to brutal use of power and manipulation in policy making.
Doubtless, ASUU has suffered this fate because it has elected to deviate from the national culture of living a lie. Perhaps, ASUU would have been saved of the insults if it had ignored the poor infrastructure and inadequate equipment in the universities while most of its members merely register their presence on the campuses while some others opt for emigration. After all, public education at the primary and secondary levels in many states are in a derelict state. The teachers at those levels of the education system may not be going on strikes as often as ASUU. Meanwhile, everyone pretends not to be conscious of the decay in public education system generally. Like they respond to every other socio-economic problem, members of the elite find their own private solutions to the problem. Those who can afford it are giving their children education in expensive private schools at home and abroad. Those who attended public schools and are now accomplished in their careers do not contemplate sending their children to their alma mater as it is the culture in many developed climes. Elsewhere, it is a matter of pride to have members of three generations of a family attending the same school.
The systemic myopia in this selfish approach the problem of funding university education is, of course, obvious. But the policymakers and influential elements in the public sphere pretend not to be aware of this ominous dimension of the Nigerian crisis. The trend can only widen inequality and compound the class contradictions with all the socio-political consequences. Some of those who have been governors, senators and ministers in this dispensation forget that if public education was only available at a prohibitive cost 40 years ago, they might not be what they are today. At least two of the presidents who have emerged since 1999 had the benefit of quality public university education in Nigeria that was tuition-free with generous bursaries from their respective state governments. The last three governors of the Central Bank of Nigeria are members of this generation of leaders who benefited from affordable public university education in Nigeria.
The tenure of a former president was defined by months of ASUU strikes. His administration had no solution to the funding of public universities in eight years except abuses directed at the university teachers. Today the former president and his deputy are flaunting their ownership of private universities as achievements and a proof of their sense of enterprise. And this class society does not see anything wrong in this contradiction.
The method of ASUU could, of course, be faulted like any other human effort to solve a problem, but the legitimacy of the question that ASUU has been posing to prick the social conscience of the nation cannot be denied. It is often forgotten that, historically, ASUU was pushed to employ the weapon of strike as the last resort because of the frustration of industrial relations process by successive governments. In the 1980s, ASUU mainly released comprehensive communiques after meetings of its organs on the Nigerian political economy including the crisis in the education sector. A product of ASUU’s previous engagements with policymakers is the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND), which has proved remarkably helpful in ameliorating the situation in the universities like other tertiary institutions.
Beyond the small prints of the endless Government- ASUU negotiations, there is a broad philosophical basis for the divergence in the approaches to the problem. At the root of problem is the question on the table: how can university education be funded as a public good? Since the Ali Must Go crisis of 1978 over the cost of feeding on campuses, the debate has been polarised in the Nigerian public sphere. At one polar end are those (mostly in the policy arena) who see university education as a commodity like any other one on the shelf purchasable by those who could afford it. From the other polar end comes the progressive argument that university education should be delivered as a public good to those who are qualified to receive it. The right-wing technocrats have their standard neo-liberal argument that government cannot afford to fund university education. Period. As pointed out above, those who benefited from tuition – free university education and, in addition, received bursaries from their state governments are today among the leaders in the public and private sectors. It is certainly immoral that such elements cannot do more than glibly saying that those who want university education should be ready to pay for it. University managements are often challenged to seek funds through grants, endowments and enterprise. Alumni are also called upon to assist in funding projects. All these important sources of funds can only be in addition to government funding. There is nothing creative in suggesting that these additional sources of funds should be substitutes for government funding in a neo-colonial political economy. If university education is a development priority of governments at the federal and state levels, it would be funded better than it is done at present. To policy-makers, funding university education is a trade -off for some other items. As a matter of socio-economic justice, the reverse should be the case. That is if the government serious about development. Besides, while resources are admittedly limited a more judicious allocation would certainly improve the level of funding to the universities. But a lot mystification takes place in the process of allocating resources because what should constitute the priority is hardly examined by the public.
It is amazing that ASUU’s critics are never charitable enough to, at least, acknowledge the fact that the university teachers are not fighting for only higher wages and better conditions of service; at the heart of ASUU’s battles is the improvement in the standard of university education in general.
All told, the condition of Nigerian universities is another chilling pointer to the priority given to human development. The point at issue is that funding the social sector (particularly education and health) generally is not high on the priority of governments. Worse still, the government and the society do not treat the human beings responsible for running these sectors with the deserved respect. That is why no alarm is raised that university teachers are emigrating from campuses and doctors are on the queues to be recruited by other countries. These professionals and other categories of workers in the social sector are seeking better conditions of service abroad.
A fellow columnist, Simon Kolawole, posited on this page on Sunday that whoever seeks to be Nigerian president in 2023 should be asked what formular he or she has for what Kolawole calls the “ASUU Puzzle.” Kolawole is on point in saying that the paralysis on the campuses should be an issue of the next year’s election. However, ASUU is not the puzzle. The real puzzle is the hypocrisy of the Nigerian state and the elite in general about a central issue of development: funding university education. Political parties and their candidates should be asked to explain their solutions to this problem.