ASUU Strike: Any End in Sight?
Since February 14, 2022, over six months and counting, the nation’s universities have been under lock and key because of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) Strike. The seemingly interminable strikes have the potential of causing serious damage to Nigeria’s tertiary education system, if they haven’t already done so. In the last 13 years, ASUU has gone on strike nine times, keeping students out of school for various periods of time ranging from one week (2016 warning strike) to nine months in 2020. Aside from the fact that students end up spending a longer period of time to complete their studies because of the interruptions caused by the strikes, foreign universities and countries are said to be eyeing degrees obtained from Nigerian public universities with suspicion, unlike before. This may be due to the fall in the standard of education which is inevitable, due to numerous breaks occasioned by the strikes, and subsequent rush to complete the syllabus on resumption. What options are left for students and parents? Not too many. Private universities are too expensive. The prevailing foreign exchange rates, have also priced foreign universities out of the reach of majority of Nigerians. Professor Eyitope Ogunbodede, Norrison Quakers, SAN, Jefferson Uwoghiren and Kede Aihie delve into the issues and proffer possible solutions for ending the ASUU Strike, and and putting measures in place to prevent any future reoccurrences
ASUU Strike, the Conflicting Issues and Panacea
Professor Eyitope Ogunbodede
President Muhammadu Buhari recently gave a two-week ultimatum, which has since expired, for the negotiating parties to resolve the Federal Government-ASUU imbroglio. Some of us who have been in the educational sector long enough and have witnessed the aberrations knew it was a tall order, and more fittingly, an impossible condition. This is not because the matter cannot be resolved in less than two weeks, but because it was clearly discernible that the parties involved and other stakeholders in university education, have not been telling ourselves the bitter truth. The closest to uprightness, was the statement by the Honourable Minister of Labour that the Federal Government does not have the funds to meet its obligations in the agreement signed with the Unions, and that the country is broke. How else can one explain a 2009 agreement, that is still begging for implementation in 2022? What is the assurance that a follow-up agreement in 2022 will be implemented before another 13 years (2035), if the prevailing conditions remain unaltered?
I struggled within me, in deciding whether to send my modest suggestions covertly to the major parties involved, or put it in the public domain. I have however, come to the conclusion that it will serve greater public good with the latter approach, since virtually all Nigerians are stakeholders. The unwary public has the right to know what is responsible for this seemingly intractable challenge, the ultimate solution, and what should be their role in resolving the issues. It is embarrassing that the current ASUU strike which began on 14th February, 2022 has again been “rolled over” for another four weeks. Other staff Unions on our campuses (SSANU, NASU and NAAT), have not fared better. The last ASUU strike in 2020 lasted for nine months, and from all indications, the current strike may last longer. Must we continue this way? Is incessant strike the solution to the decadence in the educational system? Have the strikes been effective, or of any overall benefit to the stakeholders? The answer to all these questions is ambiguous, and clearly dependent on the side to which the individual belongs.
ASUU embarked on the current strike to press home its demands for: the renegotiation of the ASUU/FGN 2009 agreement, deployment of UTAS to replace IPPIS, release of the reports of Visitation Panels to Federal Universities, funding for revitalisation of public universities, earned academic allowances, poor funding of State Universities and promotion arrears. I have not been privileged to read the Nimi Briggs Report; but, snippets in the newspapers and other information outlets indicate that a major part of the report is increment in salary. Nigerian lecturers are now the poorest paid in Africa, and it is obvious that such a system can never retain the best. We know from the Minister of Labour, Employment and Productivity, Dr Chris Ngige, that the Nimi Briggs Committee proposed “109 to 185% increase in the University wage structure”, and that “the Federal Government will incur an additional N560 billion as salaries alone”. The Minister has opined that negotiating with ASUU without simultaneously doing so with other university-based unions, only delays the strike as it will not achieve a quick resolution of the issues. The Minister at several fora has also declared that Nigeria is broke (saying the obvious!), and that the Federal Government does not have the funds to meet its obligations in the Agreement signed with the Unions. He has therefore, called for renegotiation of the terms of the Agreement with ASUU, in the effort to end the ongoing strike by University staff.
Grouses of ASUU
If we continue this way, the negotiations are unlikely to record any significant achievement
Emeritus Professor Nimi Briggs (Pro-Chancellor, Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike Ikwo), chairing the current negotiating Panel, and other members of the Panel are reputable and highly revered individuals with very deep insight of university education. They have, over the years, proven their devotion and total commitment to the growth and development of higher education in the country. However, the fact remains that they have to work within the ambit of their terms of reference.
The Committee inaugurated on March 7, 2022 had three months to conclude the renegotiation of the 2009 FGN/ASUU Agreement, and, as expected, it submitted its report on schedule. However, the efforts of the 7-member renegotiating team now appear to be inadequate in resolving the present impasse, reopening our universities and keeping our campuses functional. It will be necessary to know the suggestions proffered by the Renegotiating Committee, on how the Federal Government would source the funds to meet the proposed salary increase.
Another major grouse of ASUU and the other Staff Unions with the Federal Government, is the introduction of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS). The IPPIS is domiciled in the Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation (OAGF). The IPPIS project, which commenced in 2007, centralises the payment of salaries and wages directly to the bank accounts of all Federal Government employees in Nigeria. It is one of the major issues that led to the 9-month strike by the ASUU in 2020, and the follow-up industrial actions by SSANU and NASU early in 2021. The challenges of IPPIS are enormous for all stakeholders, and especially for the Universities. Due to the peculiarities of the Universities, there are major challenges with the use of IPPIS. Most of these are, to all extent and purposes, human problems. The Scheme has become an albatross bedevilling the tertiary education system in the country, and further undermining the autonomy earlier enjoyed by the Universities. Interestingly, while the Unions are agitating, University administrators are lukewarm about the use of IPPIS, because it has shifted the heat and agitations on salaries and wages from the campuses to Abuja.
Compromise & Solutions
Instead of ASUU insisting on the use of University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS), and the Joint Action Committee of the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU) and the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) marketing the University Peculiar Payroll Payment System (U3PS), relocating and shedding the control of IPPIS for Federal Universities to the National Universities Commission (NUC) will be a fair compromise. My opinion!
The peculiarities of the University system, such as sabbatical leave, appointment of expatriate staff and other practices necessary to internationalise and make a university world-class, can then be continuously built into the IPPIS software domiciled in NUC. It could ideally be referred to as IPPIS-U. I do not expect ASUU to agree with this suggestion, just as I also would not expect the Federal Government to concur. This is because ASUU is known to fight “until the last man” for a just cause, and on the part of the Federal Government, egos of those who have maintained the “IPPIS or nothing” stance may be bruised.
However, for the sake of the system, and to bring some stability to our universities, it appears to me to be the best solution, and gladiators must at this point sheath their swords. The unending expectation of a positive outcome from the integrity test by the National Information Technology and Development Agency (NITDA) for both UTAS and U3PS, should be a source of worry to all Nigerians. We have had enough of IPPIS politics! No software, no matter how robust, would eliminate the negative factors identified with IPPIS, particularly if some of the operators are attuned to selfish and dishonest pursuits, and offenders are not severely and promptly punished. The very best financial accountability software in the world can always be compromised, but such occurrences are minimised where and when there are active deterrents.
It is time for the stakeholders in the education sector to now come to “reason together”, and stop acting in silos and fiefdoms. Government must declare an emergency in the education sector, and all critical stakeholders must now dialogue, and come to amicable and reasonable solution. Truth be told, this is not the time for negotiations spanning months; it smirks of insincerity or failure to grasp the enormity of the problem. While not ignoring the letter and spirit of the Trade Dispute Act on resolution of industrial actions, I will propose that the Government conveys an expanded assembly of critical stakeholders, and not just the Ministries and the Unions, to deliberate and take critical decisions that will move the education sector forward, and ensure that our students, who have been at home for six months, resume immediately. The meeting should have representatives of; the core Ministries (Education, Labour, Finance, and Science and Technology), the staff Unions (ASUU, SSANU, NASU and NAAT), the students, National Salaries and Wages Commission, Head of Service of the Federation, Accountant-General of the Federation, and the Tertiary Education Committees of the Senate and House of Representatives. The Federal Ministry of Education/National Universities Commission should coordinate the meetings, which ideally should be chaired by the Minister of Education. If discussions at such a forum is open and sincere, it will be possible to chart a new course for University education in the country, and forestall any future strikes and closure of our higher institutions. We all know the truth but, we must now allow the truth to set us free.
A quick background information on the current financial contribution of students in our Federal Universities, will shed some light on the insincerity pervading the system. Allow me to use Obafemi Awolowo University as an example. The students still pay N90, with N2,500 maintenance fees per session for accommodation, even in situations where the session extends beyond 12 months. The N90 is the same amount I paid as a student in the same University, in the 1970s. The cost of the receipt issued for the payment is probably more than the amount paid, and it would have been more “economical” for the university if offered free! The charging of “fees” is not supported by the Federal Government, but in OAU, undergraduate students pay ‘’Departmental charges” of N5,000 per session for Arts, N10,000 for Sciences, Social Sciences, Technology and Law, and N15,000 for Medicine and other courses in the Health Sciences. These charges were fixed over 20 years ago, and the uproar that followed has ensured that it remained the same.
OAU with a student population of about 25,000, runs an annual Personnel budget of approximately N10 billion. This, in essence, means N400,000 per student per session will double the personnel budget. Of course, it will be ridiculous to expect that all students must pay the same amount of fees. It may mean payments of between N200,000 and N600,000 per student per session, depending on the course. This is nowhere near the N900,000 to N3 million per session, that students pay in most private universities today. Students would be charged based on the standard staff-student ratio and the number of lectures per course, with a standard fee fixed for each lecture.
A personal experience would suffice. I was in a University in South Africa, as Visiting Professor in 2002, and the Department could not deliver a lecture because it fell on a Public holiday that was never envisaged. It was the last week of formal lectures, just before the examinations, and the department had to negotiate with the students to find a suitable time.
The students had to be persuaded that the lecture would be beneficial to them, and really worth sacrificing their revision time. It was strange to me, that lecturers had to plead with students for a lecture to be delivered. My host then explained to me that, failure to give the lecture would mean a refund by the Department to the students, but, that to him was not the problem. The real challenge was that the next set of students would reject that lecture because it would be deemed as inconsequential and unnecessary, if an earlier set could graduate without it. In Nigeria of today, such a lecture would never be given, and it would be rationalised. If students pay for lectures, no matter how minimal, they can boldly and justifiably exercise their right to quality delivery and regularity of the session.
Many would ask, if fees are introduced, what would happen to those who cannot afford the fees? Between 10 and 20% of the fees collected (an estimated N1-2 billion for OAU), should be set aside for partial or full scholarships to indigent students. While many may want to falsify and lower their status in order to qualify, two or three key criteria such as primary and secondary schools attended (fee-paying or non-fee-paying), loss of parents etc. would easily differentiate indigent students.
As Vice-Chancellor for five years (2017 to 2022), the incarceration of University administration on the issue of fees was quite distressing to me. Even when the students are willing to contribute financially, the Staff Unions led by ASUU had always been against the introduction of fees. The Federal Government also insists that the annual appropriation budget had taken care of all necessary expenditure, and that 25% of any income generated must even be remitted to the Federal Government. In 2020, the National Assembly passed a resolution that Universities should refund Acceptance fees (N20,000 per newly admitted student for OAU). It became a big issue and the University had to refund, even when we had a 9-month extension to the session due to ASUU strike, and the financial situation of the Federal institutions were highly precarious.
Also, in October 2019, the University of Maiduguri introduced a modest increment in their charges and were forced to revert to the old charges by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In ordering the University of Maiduguri to suspend the plan to raise the fees imposed, the House of Representatives concluded “Irrespective of the justification that may have informed the decision, either to address operational and managerial realities of the school, such decision is ill-timed, given the desire by the Federal Government, the Borno State Government and well-meaning Nigerians, to tackle the educational needs of Borno State and its environs”. A better approach, instead of the outright reversal of the charges, would have been to set up a special fund for Scholarships and Bursaries, for those who may not be able to afford the increment, due to the plight of the people in the North-East. Unfortunately, the prevailing situation in the region in 2019 has now spread to other parts of the country.
The University of Benin announced a similar increase in some charges in September 2021, which also had to be reversed. These occurrences are worrisome and confirmatory of our desire in a post-oil boom era to have everything for free, including university education.
Some have argued that education is a right and not a privilege, and that funding of education as stipulated in the Nigerian Constitution is the responsibility of Government and not parents. Must we allow the demise of our public primary and secondary schools, which we have all witnessed, to occur in our public universities? It is deceitful to expect that University education in today’s Nigeria, will continue to be free. The evidence and situation on ground, does not support such a grandiose illusion.
There are currently 217 universities in the country, of which only 49 are Federal, 57 State, and majority 111 are Private. If the Federal universities will survive, we must be sincere enough to admit our prostration, and be courageous to take far-reaching decisions. It is possible, with the support of all and sundry. We must always remember that, strong connections have been established between rising criminality and idle youths. It is dangerous for the country to continue to nurture university students that are wasting away at home, without the slightest idea of a possible date of resumption. We must not forget that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”. All involved must resolve to end this strike, and rapidly chart a better course for the future of university education in the country. I come in peace!
Professor Eyitope Ogunbodede, Vice Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, 2017-2022
How to Resolve the Protracted ASUU Strike
Norrison Quakers, SAN
A microscopic appraisal of issues in our fatherland, will reveal that the myriad of problems confronting Nigeria seemingly never depletes. Regrettably, one of these is the incessant strikes in tertiary institutions over non-implementation of the Agreement that the Federal Government reached with Unions in public tertiary institutions, most especially in the case of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the Non Academic Staff Union (NASU), Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and the National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT), over adequate funding of public tertiary institutions.
It is surprising that since February 14, 2022 public tertiary institutions in the country, with the exception of a few State universities, have been shut over the failure of the Federal Government to honour the over two decades old Agreement on issues bordering on funding of public tertiary institutions. It is even more befuddling that there is a new dimension to this, with the postulation that the Federal Government does not have the funds to meet its obligations.
The Convention Against Discrimination in Education (CADE, 1960) which is the first instrument in the field of the right to education defined education in Article 1(2) as follows – “all types and levels of education, including access to education, the standard and quality of education and the conditions under which it is given”. Of note, Section 18(1) and (3) of the 1999 Constitution provides – “18(1) Government shall direct its policy towards ensuring that there are equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels… (3) Government shall strive to eradicate illiteracy; and to this end Government shall as and when practicable provide: free, compulsory and universal primary education; free University education; and free adult literacy programme.” The foregoing is in recognition of the importance of education globally and nationally.
Asides the non-implementation of the Agreement that the Federal Government reached with Unions in public tertiary institutions, there is the introduction of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System which has caused disaffection among the members of ASUU.
Other reasons can be adduced, as causes of this lingering crisis. A situation where public office holders have children schooling abroad leaves the educational sector underfunded, with no commitment by the said public office holders. Another is the nature of persons that are elected and appointed into public offices, who lack true leadership qualities to manage the affairs of Nigerians and less concerned about the children of the poor.
The resultant effect of the ongoing strike, is numerous. Parents are currently having trouble keeping their wards, some of whom have returned home (not to mention the those refusing to return home) from public tertiary institutions, gainfully engaged due to idleness. Of note, even their counterparts who are graduates are unemployed or underemployed. The affected students are mostly depressed, and some are already engaging in despicable conducts. Some lecturers of public tertiary institutions have left the country to pursue their careers abroad, whilst some few students of privileged backgrounds have opted for Private Universities or admission into Universities abroad. Families of lecturers are not left out, since their source of livelihood has been depleted. Many who benefit from businesses tied to public tertiary institutions, are left to bear the hardship as well.
The Need to Urgently Resolve the Impasse
The need to address this menace is expedient. We already have a situation in which eligible students of public tertiary institutions cannot be mobilised for the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme, and those to proceed to Nigerian Law School are equally stranded. Overall, the ripple effect on the citizenry, the economy, the education sector and the country at large, is such that will stick with us like chameleon faeces for a very long time, since our public tertiary institutions constantly have to compete at the continental and global level.
As the impasse lingers, the average Nigerian impacted by this stalemate in negotiations, wonders what the dividends of democracy are exactly.
Federal Government must be committed to adequate funding of the education sector, to resolve the lingering crisis. Withholding the salaries of aggrieved workers in public tertiary institutions, is definitely not the best solution.
Nigerians must ensure that good leaders are elected to represent them; this is the profit of democracy. Also, public office holders must be mandated vide legislation, to have their children enrolled in public institutions.
Stakeholders in public tertiary institutions – (ASUU, SSANU, NASU and NAAT) must have a sincere examination of conscience, meeting with the relevant Government Ministries (Finance, Education, Labour, and Science and Technology).
The Federal Government should not arrogantly insist on renegotiation of the terms of the Agreement with ASUU, since the position of law as captured in the Latin maxim – pacta sunt servanda meaning – “agreements must be kept” is sacrosanct. Sincerity of purpose between parties to this impasse, is germane. A situation in which funds are being diverted, the worrisome state of non-prioritisation of the educational sector, and embezzlement of public funds by public office holders leaves much to be desired.
Likewise, there is a need to reconsider the adoption of strike as a sole mechanism in resolving the decadence in the educational system; sadly, workers in the public tertiary institutions have been left with few choices, owing to the lackadaisical approach of Government towards the educational sector.
The various demands of workers in the public tertiary institutions are definitely not such that should be downplayed; sadly, the mismanagement of the economy with poor decision-making has negatively impacted all sectors of the economy. As lecturers are complaining, the Judges who should serve as arbiter of the Federal Government/Academic Staff Union of Universities impasse, are also complaining over poor remuneration. This in itself is tragic!
Norrison I. Quakers, SAN, FCArb, Lagos
To End ASUU Incessant Strikes
At the heart of the conflictual, habitual, polarising annual disputes between the Federal Government and ASUU, is the benign exploit and abuse of the rights to form or join labour organisation, to bargain collectively and engage in other activities like strikes in furtherance of collective bargaining. The legal relations between Government as employers of labour and university lecturers, as with other employees of Government, is governed by contract, which defines the elemental services and public goods of the lecturers, and which said law makes for voluntary conditions of service.
Owing to administrative failures and incompetent management of the Educational sector, the Academic unit has developed and weaponised strikes and academic disruptions, as legal instruments of blackmail, to disrupt and violate, not just their condition of employments, but the academic lives of thousands of students. In pursuit of collective action, in satisfaction of self-assured bloated collective good, the Unions have mastered the art of selective incentives, electing to its offices, professional experts in agitation and propaganda.
The reason for the current action, is obvious and simple. The Union wants more money for its members. Government says it’s broke and can’t afford same, which is evidently so. No employer or government can pay more than it can afford to, nor commit itself to agreements financially impossible to implement. Thus, required balanced understanding, considerations and reality by the union. But, with a professional detachment that defeats reasons, they have plunged the once thriving Ivory Tower into a bibulous tower of conflicts by its periodic economic strikes, sympathy strikes, sit down strikes, wild cat strikes, slowdown strikes to intermittent strikes.
The major consequences of these perennial disruptions is the dislocation of tertiary education in Nigeria, with privately owned universities now the beautiful brides. Since Government cannot compel a return to classrooms and the Lecturers have failed to force Government to agree fully to their requests, something must give way now, in the interest of the traumatised students. Government should sell off these universities, to willing and capable investors! The fear of cutthroat school fees, will be mitigated by the forces of demand and supply. Teaching is an essential social service, payable for when affordable!
Jefferson Uwoghiren, Constitutional and Human Rights Lawyer, Benin City
What Does ASUU Want?
University Students have been at home for six months, due to the ASUU strike. Yes, for the avoidance of doubt, students have spent six months at home. In any rational society, something urgent would have been done to resolve the impasse between the government and the striking union. It does not look like, it is going to end soon.
What is the strike about, why has it not been resolved and most importantly, what is the way forward?
The disagreement stems from a 2009 agreement between the Federal Government and ASUU, over implementation of the 2009 pact and Memorandum of Agreement on welfare, improved funding to universities, the proliferation of universities, discontinuation of the controversial Integrated Personnel Payroll and Information System (IPPIS) for University Transparency and Accountability Payment System (UTAS).
The Federal Government has not Fulfilled its Part of the Agreement, Pleading Lack of Funds
Going by the comments of Minister of State of Labour, Festus Keyamo, SAN, on national TV, I doubt if the Government has any intention of negotiating in good faith.
The Minister arrogantly said the Federal Government is not going to borrow N1.2 trillion to settle ASUU’s demands, and that education as a sector is competing with others for limited Government resources. He did not make any meaningful suggestions, but asked that lecturers should be patriotic and return back to the classroom.
The strike has further eroded confidence in the Nigerian educational system. Parents are bearing the financial burden of sending their children to private universities, even going the extra mile to send them outside the country.
A loss of an academic session for students, also has serious consequences for those who have to complete their professional qualifications. What happens to final year Law students or medical students. Additionally, students will also miss out on serving NYSC.
What are the wider implications for the ongoing strike?
For starters, uncertainty about the graduation of students, miss out on furthering their professional careers. So, final year Law students will not be able to attend Law School, and will miss their scheduled Call to the Bar.
It sends the wrong signal generally, and to the international community, on the premium we place on education – little or none.
The reality is that, a new policy on education is required. The Government is broke, and even when it was in the position to, it didn’t.
Nigeria may need to take a leaf from the UK model of funding. Universities are funded by endowments, funding councils paid for by taxation, and tuition fees levied on students.
Kede Aihie, Publisher, Nigeria Magazine, London