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Before ASUU is Crucified

Before ASUU is Crucified
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.

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