Last week, the Academic Staff Union of Universities suspended its eight-month-old strike against its earlier resolve that the government must meet all its demands before backing down. Uchechukwu Nnaike examines the motive behind the change of course as stakeholders suggest ways to prevent future strikes
The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) embarked on a warning strike on February 14, demanding the release of revitalisation funds for universities; payment of its members’ earned academic allowances; the release of whitepapers from the reports of presidential visitation panels, as well as the deployment of the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) as the preferred payment platform for university workers.
The union said the IPPIS, which the government uses to pay all civil servants’ salaries, is fraudulent and does not recognise the peculiarities of the universities. ASUU continued to extend the strike until August, when the union announced an indefinite strike. Several meetings with the union and the federal government ended in a deadlock.
The government’s ‘no work, no pay’ policy further aggravated the crisis, as ASUU insisted that the government must pay their salaries for the period they were on strike. In the face of hardship, some lecturers reportedly sought financial assistance. Others engaged in small-scale businesses to survive, remaining resolute and united in their struggle.
Having exhausted all peaceful mechanisms to get ASUU to return to work, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, approached the National Industrial Court (NIC), which ordered ASUU to suspend the strike. The union headed to the Court of Appeal, which gave a similar directive.
Meanwhile, on October 4, the federal government registered two new academic unions in universities, the Congress of Nigerian University Academics (CONUA) and the National Association of Medical and Dental Academics (NAMDA). A week after the registration, ASUU announced the suspension of its strike. The union explained that it called off its eight-month-old strike due to the order of the Court of Appeal and various appeals by President Muhammadu Buhari, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila and other well-meaning Nigerians.
It directed its members to resume work, effective from 12:00 am on October 14.
ASUU President, Prof Emmanuel Osodeke, stated that the issues that led to its eight-month strike had yet to be satisfactorily addressed. However, beyond the reasons ASUU gave for suspending the strike, many believe that the registration of the new unions, especially CONUA contributed to its suspending the strike. But ASUU described the registration of the two unions as inconsequential and that it does not threaten its existence.
With the strike over (for now), it is expected that the management of the affected universities will start announcing resumption dates.
In a message to the students, the Dean of the Students’ Affairs of the University of Lagos, Prof Musa Obalola, said while the university senate will meet to adjust the academic calendar, the department will ensure that the hostels are in ready state to welcome them back into the campus.
“I will keep you informed as soon as the adjusted calendar is ready and when you can move into campus and the hostel. Until then, accept my kind wishes and warm regards,” the dean said.
Some stakeholders have proffered solutions to the incessant strikes that have affected the country’s quality and reputation of public universities.
Interim government campaigner and former presidential candidate Rev Chris Okotie said he did not foresee an end to the frequent labour disputes unless aboriginal democracy is accepted as the new political order in Nigeria.
According to him, professional bodies should, by virtue of their competence, make laws that govern their spheres of influence, meaning ASUU should make laws for education, and the medical association will do the same for the health sector and so on, to engender economic stability.
Immediate past Pro-Chancellor of Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma, Chief Lawson Imokhodion, called for re-establishing the Nigerian Student Loans Board. He said only a federal loan scheme can bring a lasting solution to the recurring ASUU strikes, insisting that any solution without the loan scheme and allowing the council to do its work according to the law and the rules and regulations governing the university can only be temporal.
He said the loans will enable students to pay fees charged by universities, and the universities will pay lecturers, leaving the government out.
Aliyu Ibrahim stressed the need to convene a national education summit, where various stakeholders will develop and agree on a sustainable funding model in which public universities will be given subventions and generate additional revenues for their sustenance.
He said a reasonable increment in tuition is unavoidable but urged the government to provide scholarships to indigent students.
“Additionally, the business community should be encouraged to also provide scholarships to the less privileged,” stated Ibrahim. “The proliferation of public universities should be addressed; strict requirements should be put in place for any tier of government to fulfil if it so wishes to open a university.”
Ibrahim added that a database for academic staff should be established to control academics from taking up many visiting appointments at a particular time for quality control.
“A minimum base pay should be established for each academic rank, which will be reviewed periodically, then universities can be allowed to fix their own remunerations,” he added. “This will stem the brain drain from our public universities and make them more attractive.”
He said universities could also seek for donations to augment their income.
“The appointment of vice-chancellors should be reviewed; being a professor is not enough,” Ibrahim stressed. “Evidence of the ability to attract grants should be a key requirement, and also there must be evidence that the person can mentor upcoming academics.”