Opinion

Brain drain vs budget drain

The impasse between the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is beginning to look like a shouting match between two deaf-and-dumb men. The notable metaphor here being that one deaf and dumb man understands sign language, while the other does not.

The more you try to reason things out the more confused you become, because both parties do not share a common frame of reference. My friend, Anie, assures me that the context is not too complex for the common man to understand.

He advises that for any common man to understand the context, he should just grab a copy of Professor Chinua Achebe’s book, “There was a Country” and read it. He should edit it to read, “There was a University”.

Whenever he gets to the word “Biafra” he should replace it with “ASUU,” when he comes across the word “Nigeria” he should replace it with “Federal Government” and whenever he comes across the word “pogrom,” he should begin to think of universities.

You are advised to read the book one chapter a day, and always with glass of water by your side and two painkilling tablets handy. “If he adds faith to his reading, he may hopefully understand the issues – somehow,” Annie says.

What if this does not help you understand the issues? My candid advice will be to make yourself a good cup of coffee, and take a nap. After all, in spite of all her travails, Alice did not kill herself in Wonderland; and we will survive this Buhari administration and live to tell the tale. I would have rested this matter here, but before I do, let me let you into some well-kept secrets.

One of the best kept secrets in Nigeria (so well kept that the Federal Government pretends not to be aware of it) is that our public universities are not properly funded (an understatement – it is very poorly funded).

Why are they not properly funded, when their vice chancellors normally declare the presidential election results? I’m glad you asked. The honest answer, straight from my heart, is that the answer is blowing in the wind – and in the budgeting processes. If you listen long enough to the howling wind of discontent, you will not need any scientific equipment to know that a hurricane is impending. We have been here before.

For years the Federal Government kept telling us of the grandiose plans it had for the Niger Delta, adding that these plans were in the pipeline. Well, the country stood at ease and waited for the plans to materialize from the pipelines. Then some hotheads started destroying the pipelines (and some said they were doing this in search of the plans). Government brought things to a head and took the plans “out of the pipelines” into the Niger Delta Development Commission.

The current situation is a little more complicated than the Niger Delta issue. There are no pipelines in our academic communities. The plans for the universities are in the federal budget – at least that is where conventional wisdom says it should be. The quagmire is that the Federal Government consistently treats the funding of universities the way a diner would treat a side dish he did not order.

Yet funding universities is the direct path to giving our youths a foothold in tomorrow’s world. Battles between ASUU and the Federal Government predate the Buhari administration. In its dogged fight to improve the lot of academic staff and their conditions of service, the association has met with stiff resistance from the Federal Government. ASUU has suffered many bruises as it was proscribed and de-proscribed in the course of its long struggle with the powers that be.

It has almost gone through the travails of job. Eventually an agreement was brokered between ASUU and the Federal Government in 1992 on the need for a separate salary structure and allowances for academic staff. It was hoped that this agreement would stem the bleeding occasioned by brain drain as many academics left the shores of Nigeria in search of better deals. There was a provision in the agreement for the establishment of the Education Tax Fund, which was later alchemized into the Tertiary Education Tax Fund (TETFUND).

This was supposed to further support governments funding obligations to universities. But the devil, as always, is in the details. ASUU insists that the Federal Government should abide by the recommendation of the UNESCO that at least 26 per cent of the national budget be set aside for education. Unfortunately, the Federal Government has consistently budgeted peanuts for education.

Sometimes something as low as about eight per cent of the budget, as was the case in 2012. In the same year the National Assembly, the honourable talk shop in Abuja, gulped 16 per cent of the budget. Right now, there are other cobweb issues like working conditions, allowances, obsolete infrastructure, remuneration, etc., involved in the squabble, and we are yet to sight harbour. According to media reports, the Permanent Secretary to the Federal Ministry of Education, Mr. Sonny Echonu, described the strike as uncalled for and unnecessary because all contending issues have been resolved.

“The government is working very closely. We are very concerned and the president is very concerned about this protracted strike, which to so many of us is unnecessary. We believe there are other ways of getting things done” he said.

ASUU National President, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, disputed the claim and warned that poor management of the issue could lead to another wave of brain drain. He maintained that Ethiopia has already recruited over 200 Nigerian professors. See what I mean? While ASUU is concerned with “brain drain,” the Federal Government is concerned with “budget drain” and in the end we may end up with “education drain” – and a compromised future.

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