Education

No respite yet for varsities

˜FG: IPPIS officials to visit campuses for lecturers’ data capturing
˜ASUU: We’re still consulting, to meet FG tomorrow
˜SSANU: Today’s meeting with FG’ll determine our next line of action

The unresolved faceoff between the Federal Government and Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and other university staff unions over IPPIS and non-implementation of agreements reached with the government is stifling the system. KAYODE OLANREWAJU writes

There seems to be no respite for Nigerian public university system following the unresolved logjam between the Federal Government and the various striking university workers’ unions, if the current posture to reach a truce and set the sub-sector on the path of stability, is anything to worry about.

The Federal Government and the university staff unions have over the years been at loggerheads, resulting in incessant strikes and disruption of administrative and academic activities in the system.

This is as the university teachers, under the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), who are challenging the insistence of the government to force them to enroll into the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System (IPPIS), as well as non-implementation of the 2009 agreements reached with the government had since March declared an indefinite nationwide strike.

Similarly, their non-teaching staff counterparts, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and the Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU) had on October 5 declared a 14-day warning strike, which expired on Friday, October 16 to challenge what they described as floppy implementation of IPPIS and non-implementation of their 2019 agreement with the Federal Government.

Towards this end, the much awaited return of students to campuses on October 12, as announced by Federal Government after over six months closure of the institutions due to the outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country, has been disrupted as a result of the strikes by the unions. ASUU has vowed to sustain the strike until the Federal Government addressed its demands, which among others include implement the 2012 Universities Needs Assessment; revitalisation funds for public universities; renegotiation of the 2009 FGN/ASUU agreement; payment of outstanding Earned Academic Allowances, proliferation of universities by state governments and the constitution of Visitation Panels to federal universities, as well as the imposition of IPPIS on the university lecturers, and the failure of the government to pay their outstanding salaries withheld over their refusal to enroll for the new payment policy. According to the union, these issues were agreed upon by the Federal Government and ASUU through several Memoranda of Understanding and Memoranda of Action in 2013 (MoU), 2017 (MoA), and the 2019 MoA respectively.

ASUU, among other issues, is also demanding the adoption of the Universities Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS), which addresses the peculiarities of universities as innovative alternatives to IPPIS, and that the Federal Government should declare a five-year state of emergency in the education sector.

The President of ASUU, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, who regretted over the crisis and noted that once the government sorted out the issues of UTAS other issues would fall in place, however, insisted that members of the union will not enroll into the IPPIS, claimed to have been forced on the system in order to trample on the university freedom.

The Federal Government had in 2019 introduced the IPPIS policy for all workers in the federal civil service for salary payment in order to block all loopholes in its payroll, but which ASUU has since rejected.

Given the insistence of the union not to register for the IPPIS, President Muhammadu Buhari, while presenting the 2021 budget to a Joint Sitting of the National Assembly had said that no civil servant on the payroll of the Federal Government would receive salary henceforth without enrolment on the IPPIS, even as he insisted that there was no going back on the decision to use the IPPIS for payment of all categories of civil servants. However, Ogunyemi in a statement, pointed that Mr. President did not say the government would not pay ASUU members for not enrolling in IPPIS, rather he hinted that the directive was meant for civil servants as university academics are not civil servants.

He said: “We have an understanding with the government to develop an alternative platform which would be sensitive to the operations of the university, accommodate the peculiarities of the university system and respect the autonomy of our universities as obtained globally.

The idea of seeking clearance from the Head of Service or the Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation (AGF) is alien to university operations because it will halt its flexibility.

“The University Miscellaneous (Provisions) (Amendment) Act (2003), which the government gazetted as University Autonomy Act (2007), vested the powers of personnel and payroll system issues in the hands of the governing council of each university. ASUU has gone beyond the debate on this matter.

On January 9, 2019, when we visited Mr. President, who is the Visitor to all federal universities, we reached an understanding that ASUU would develop its proposed University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) for testing and adoption for managing personnel information and payroll system in the universities.” Meanwhile, the various meetings in the last few days between the Federal Government Negotiation Team, led by the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige and ASUU, led by Prof. Ogunyemi to resolve the lingering face-off ended in a stalemate amid deep and heated arguments with the attendant failure on the part of the two parties to reach a middle-point on the contending issues.

ASUU has continued to accuse the Minister of conspiring with other government officials instead of playing his role as chief reconciliator as he claimed, and for always keeping the union leaders waiting for hours, as he and some government officials formed the habit of attending the meetings late. The union, it was learnt, rejected the appeal from the Accountant General of the Federation, Ahmed Idris, to receive their salaries through IPPIS platform pending when UTAS would be ready after the series of integrity tests.

But, part of ASUU’s grouse is that IPPIS was not demonstrated to the union before the government started to use it for workers, and thus insisted that payment of the lecturers’ outstanding salaries should be paid through GIFMIS, which had been in use before, ahead of full implementation of UTAS. Given ASUU’s position, the Federal Government has also maintained that the payment of the lecturers’ salary must be on IPPIS.

Thus, in a fresh move to enforce the payment policy on ASUU members, the Federal Government was said to have directed the IPPIS officials beginning from yesterday, Monday, October 19, to visit the various campuses for biometric data capturing of ASUU members. But, the leadership of the union immediately directed all members of the union to reject IPPIS officials and to shun the data capturing exercise of their campuses.

“Members of ASUU should not engage in any activity relating to IPPIS in order to avoid jeopardising the ongoing engagement with the Federal Government on accepting UTAS,” Ogunyemi said. However, the lingering crisis has continued unresolved as the government and ASUU refused to shift grounds on the implementation of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System that has remained the main contentious issue.

In a new twist, Ngige, who said that the lingering ASUU’s strike contributed to the heightened ongoing ENDSARS protest across the country since students could not resume, however, debunked reports that the government had agreed to replace the IPPIS with the UTAS.

The Minister said: “UTAS would only be applicable to university academic staff if it was eventually accepted by the government. It has been approved to undergo three credibility tests with the first test completed on October 14.”

While reacting to the Minister’s accusation, Ogunyemi, who noted that the lecturers were willing to return to classes, also accused the government of refusing to attend to the union’s demands to push the tertiary education sector forward, warning members of ASUU not to jeopardise the ongoing engagement with the Federal Government on accepting UTAS by not engaging in any activity related to IPPIS.

The union, therefore, bemoaned the hardship the non-payment of salaries by the Accountant-General and other forms of intimidation by overzealous Vice-Chancellors have unleashed on its members, but said that they were leaving no stone unturned to redress the situation.

“We have received information that IPPIS officials from the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation will be visiting campuses from Monday, October 19 for biometric data capturing of academics.

All ASUU members should have nothing to do with the officials. Fact-check by ASUU with the figures from the OAGF has proven the claim that our members are trooping to enroll in the IPPIS in Abuja as false.

The enrolled number is inconsequential,” the union added. According to Ogunyemi, the UTAS was presented to the President and other leaders of the Senate on October 12, while discussions on the withheld salaries, Earned Academic Allowance, renegotiation of the 2009 Agreement, constitution of visitation panels to all federal universities and proliferation of state universities had since commenced.

As part of moves to resolve the logjam and for the universities to reopen after unduly long break occasioned by COVID-19, the Senate President, Deputy Senate President, the Senate Leader, Chairman of Senate Committee on Tertiary Education, Minister of Education, Minister of Labour and Employment, Accountant General of the Federation, among other government officials, had on Tuesday, October 13 met with the ASUU leadership on UTAS and other matters.

New Telegraph also learnt that the UTAS had on October 14 demonstrated to the Accountant- General of the Federation, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chairman of Senate Committee on Tertiary Education and the Executive Secretary of TETFund, as well as the NUC Executive Secretary, and other critical stakeholders.

The union leader, who said that “the first stage of UTAS testing had been completed, and what is left is the technical testing which is commencing immediately, lamented that IPPIS is a World Bank creation imposed on Nigeria, while UTAS is a creation of Nigerian scholars to secure our data, ensure autonomy of Nigerian universities and reposition our university system for global competitiveness.”

“Therefore, all members of ASUU should stay away from anything relating to IPPIS, so as not to jeopardise the ongoing critical engagement with the Federal Government,” Ogunyemi added. Also, on the alleged stalemate between the Federal Government and ASUU, Ogunyemi, who told New Telegraph over the weekend that he could not say when the crisis will be resolved and the strike called off, said: “We are still consulting.”

Ogunyemi, who told New Telegraphthatanother meetingbetween ASUUandtheFederalGovernment team had been fixed for tomorrow, October21, insistedthattheoutcome would determine what happened to their ongoing strike. Also, when contacted, the Public Relations Officer, Abdussobur Salaam SSANU, who said that the union’s 14-day warning strike had expired on October 16, noted: “The warning strike ended yesterday. But, we have received an invitation to a meeting with the Minister of Labour and Employment on Tuesday, October 21.

The outcome of that meeting will determine the next line of action for our union.” Worried by the protracted crisis, stakeholders have continued to bemoan the rigid posture of the government and especially ASUU to reach amicable resolution of the logjam and allow the students to return to their classes. For instance, some stakeholders, especially parents, who expressed dismay that the Federal Government could not use the window of the long closure of the universities to resolve the crisis before now, accused the two parties of playing and jeopadising the future of the students.

A non-governmental organisation (NGO), under the auspices of the Education Rights Campaign (ERC), which also condemned the poor attitude of government and its agencies to crisis resolution, particularly in the education sector, therefore, called on the Federal Government to, as a matter of urgent consideration, meet the various demands of striking university workers’ unions including ASUU, SSANU, NASU and NAAT as this would go a long way in restoring stability and move the university system forward.

The organization, which is seeking a united front for all university workers’ unions and students’ bodies to resist the government’s onslaught on public education, in a statement signed by its Deputy National Coordinator, Ogunjimi Isaac and the Acting National Mobilisation Officer, Adaramoye Michael, said: “We hereby call on the government to immediately and unconditionally meet all demands of ASUU, SSANU and NASU. Meanwhile, the Minister has said that ASUU had shown how the UTAS, developed by the lecturers could work, adding that the demonstration would continue. He noted: “We will involve other government agencies which would also come and assess it. Discussions on it are not foreclosed yet. UTAS is homegrown software.

It is what we call local content that Mr. President is encouraging. It will be considered by the government.” But piqued by the lingering face-off and continued closure of the institutions, the Senate President, Senator Ahmed Lawan had cautioned the union and the Federal Government to find a common ground and reach an agreement that will end the ongoing strike. He, therefore, blamed both parties for signing agreements that are almost unrealistic, saying: “When we sign agreements we must do so with the full intention of implementing them. When we negotiate, we must negotiate in such a manner that the final product will be implementable.

“We really don’t need this kind of situation where our universities are shut. Our children are the main victims of this face-off. Therefore, both the government and ASUU have to find a common ground for our universities to open and offer the kind of services expected of the universities.

“We cannot afford, as a country, to continue to have this kind of crisis. This may explain why those that can afford will normally go out of the country, even to West African countries such as Ghana to acquire university education.”

Thus, Lawan promised and assured stakeholders that some of the agreements signed between ASUU and the Federal Government will be reviewed. Towards resolving the crisis, the Federal Government had on Thursday agreed to release N30 billion to ASUU as a part payment for the Earned Academic Allowance, but that the money will be paid in tranches between May 2021 and February 2022, while N20 billion will also be released as revitalisation fund for the education sector as part of demands of the union.

But, Ogunyemi, however, told New Telegraph that the union was yet to receive any amount as announced by the government, arguing further that what is N30 billion out of what the union is demanding for the development of the university and entire education sector. Still on the UTAS, Ogunyemi further added: “We have since done that and presented the UTAS to the Federal Ministry of Education. What is left is to present to other major stakeholders, particularly the Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning.

The development of UTAS was done at no cost to the government. We used contributions from the check-off deductions of ASUU members to finance the project and this cost us millions of naira. IPPIS was designed by the World Bank for the civil service.

“We are aware of the antics of bureaucrats, especially in the Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation, aimed at bringing universities under their control. ASUU will not fold its arms and watch the gains it made on the autonomy of Nigerian universities slip by. It took us several years of continuous struggle during the military to get here. So, let nobody hide under the name of President Muhammadu Buhari to attack the autonomy of public universities, because Nigerian scholars are prepared to resist it to the last drop of their blood.”

 

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