N igeria’s public university system is in a state of ennui, and neither the Federal Government nor the warring unions are bothered. And there is no empirical evidence that the larger society which constitutes the bulk of stakeholders is sufficiently disturbed enough to speak out in condemnation of the prevailing stalemate that once again places students from less-privileged homes in a state of helplessness.
This is unfortunate because of its obvious socio-economic and moral implications for both students and the society. As if to perfect the ravaging process, more than four months on, nothing tangible has been done by the government while Non-academic Staff Union of Education and Associated Institutions (NASU) and Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) from the universities and the polytechnics and colleges of education unions got frustrated with government’s delay tactics and joined the fray. On its part, the Joint Admission and Matriculations Board (JAMB) concluded the 2022 Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination/ Direct Entry exams in May, notwithstanding the confusion and avoidable disputation.
The uncompromising attitude of tertiary institutions’ union leaders gives room for doubt as to how much, if at all, they care about the impact of the prolonged and recurring strike action on their students. And the Federal Government matches the teachers’ hardline stance with a debilitating intransigence unworthy of a father and provider for both the warring teachers and suffering students. As the two elephants flex their muscles, who bears the brunt? Students from average families and their impoverished parents, of course.
While some average but enlightened parents struggle to keep their children and wards busy with skills acquisition engagements, the less-informed ones, in frustration, abandon their children to swell the ranks of youths who delight in crime and prostitution. Meanwhile, children of the elite enjoy their unhindered learning in foreign institutions and exorbitant local private universities. But, that, without equivocation, is a symptom of failed leadership.
At a time every rightthinking Nigerian expects a meaningful dialogue between relevant government agencies and the union leaders, what you get are discordant notes and buckpassing. For example, after a recent Federal Executive Council meeting, State House Correspondents sought to know from the appointed spokesman if the ongoing strike that has led to closure of federal tertiary institutions nationwide was discussed. What they got was an arrogant retort: “It is not every matter that you discuss in Council, no! But I can tell you no government will just sleep and pretend that ASUU is not on strike, but there is engagement going on.”
Earlier, he had said that the on-going strike action embarked upon by both academic and non-academic staff unions of the nation’s public universities were being addressed by relevant government ministries and agencies. It is really disturbing to hear from a minister of the federal republic that a strike that has crippled learning in public universities and polytechnics with an obvious destructive impact on the future of millions of Nigerian youths is not worthy of mention at the Federal Executive Council meeting where the Minister of Education and Minister of Labour, Employment and Productivity are present.
The doublespeak did not end there, which is the most irritating aspect. Soon after, Dr Chris Ngige, who is directly involved in the negotiation, in a television interview said the Federal Government did not have the funds to meet its obligations in the agreement signed with ASUU, and that the government was considering renegotiation of the terms of the agreement with the Union in the effort to end the ongoing strike by university lecturers. It is important to note that the agreement in question was signed 13 years ago when the exchange rate was one dollar to less than N150 while today it is roughly N600. Given that the agreement involved salaries and allowances, will the government adjust the figures to accommodate the devaluation in naira rate? Naturally, the National President of ASUU, Prof Emmanuel Osodeke, was piqued, so he advised the Federal Government to either fund universities or shut them down. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has thrown its weight behind the strike action saying it was a patriotic move to resolve the issue of university funding.
Without taking a stand on who is right or wrong, New Telegraph notes that this has been a reoccurring issue since 1978, when Dr Uzodinma Nwala joined Dr Edwin Madunagu and Dr Biodun Jeifo to form ASUU. At the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nwala and Dr Inya Eteng released a document entitled, “Crisis in Nigerian Universities: Underlying Factors and Solutions,” chronicling what was required to enhance the status of our universities, beyond the welfare of academic and administrative staff. Forty four years after (military) and 23 years of democratic dispensation, not much has changed. And the quality of their products (graduates) has been a matter of concern. From the 2001 engagement to the 2009 agreement, and the 2013 devastating strike and the current imbroglio, details of the university teachers’ demands had not altered significantly.
Some of the union’s basic demands which have yet to be met are funding for revitalisation of public universities (and polytechnics), earned academic allowances, and recent administrative issues of IPSIS and transparency. For some inexplicable reasons, the government’s response had been a repetition of alibis and reluctance to change the status quo. Thirty-one years after UNESCO recommended that developing nations allocate up to 25 per cent of their annual budget to public education, Nigeria’s is still less than 10 per cent. At the end of the day, regardless of the positions of both parties, what is paramount is for both ASUU and the Federal Government to reach a compromise so that our students in public universities can return to school.