Time to save the varsity system

The failure of the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to resolve the intractable crisis affecting the nation’s university system in the last eight months signposts the value Nigeria places on education.


It is indeed worrisome that the on-going nationwide industrial action embarked upon by the university lecturers since March 22 has been allowed to fester without concrete action to end the logjam.


It is regrettable that several meetings between government and ASUU teams in the last few months have failed to resolve the crisis.


The continued stalemate in the negotiation due to the uncompromising attitude of the teams to shift grounds for the sake of students, who are at the receiving end, is a matter of concern.


Ordinarily, for public university system to be in limbo for eight months should be a serious concern to the nation. To imagine that a critical sub-sector, adjudged all over the world to be the nerve centre of national socio-economy and industrial/technological development, could be subjected to the whims and caprices of government or any of its establishments, is a sad development.


The intervention of the leadership of the National Assembly, and given the submission of the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) by ASUU as an alternative to the controversial and contentious Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), which is believed to be currently going through some trial lines, should have been a good signpost, at least in the direction to end the crisis.


Despite this and other interventions, the insistence of the Federal Government that ASUU members must enrol in the IPPIS, the non-payment of the lecturers’ withheld salaries, allowances and union’s check off dues, has not only frustrated negotiation to restore normalcy, but has further widen the gulf.


ASUU’s National President, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, said that the union had shifted position by 50 per cent, especially by reducing the demand on payment of one tranche of N220 billion revitalisation fund, as well as agreed that N30 billion out of the arrears of N40 billion Earned Academic Allowance arrears be paid to members, while the payment of the balance of N10 billion should be spread over the next two tranches.


With this shift of ground, one would have reasoned that government would latch on this window to end the crisis. But, to the union, what has continued to stall the meaningful dialogue is the insistence of government that the striking lecturers’ withheld salaries and other entitlements would only be paid through the IPPIS, a payment policy, which ASUU has repeatedly vowed not to enrol into.


In justifying its position and readiness to return to class, ASUU said that the Federal Government should be held responsible for prolonging the on-going strike with its insistence on dragging the union to IPPIS, which, they claimed, infringed on university freedom.


While the hope of resolving the crisis was raised last week based on ASUU’s position and the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige’s promise to send to the union government’s written position on ASUU’s response to their initial offer, such hope was again dashed following the minister’s statement that ASUU cannot claim that the universities are autonomous when lecturers are being paid by government.


“Autonomy can only work when a university generates its resources to pay workers and meet its obligation,” Ngige had said when defending the ministry’s budget before the Senate Committee on Labour and Employment.


The minister did not stop at that. Also last week, he toyed with the idea of invoking labour law against the union, as well as merging all the staff unions in the university system, such as ASUU, Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and the Non-Academic Staff of Universities (NASU), forgetting that the unions were neither formed by government nor operating under his ministry.


Like many other stakeholders, we believe that these are unnecessary grandstanding.


Nigerian university education, today, has continued to suffer an unmitigated slide due to neglect, infrastructural decay, brain drain and poor funding, among other depletions as a result of government’s failure to do the needful.


Now that other nations of the world are strategising and scaling up new approach to mitigate the effects of the ravaging COVID-19 scourge, Nigeria still finds it convenient to keep the university system shut.


While we condemn the on-going ASUU strike in it’s entirety, the decision of the Federal Government’s negotiation team to hold the public university system down is not only unacceptable, but has also diminished and put the integrity of the negotiators to question.


Government should have been more responsive and proactive, rather than killing the university system in defiance to the unions’ demands. We see it as laughable for government to make IPPIS and non-payment of lecturers’ salaries the reasons for shutting the university system for almost eight months, when the COVID-19 lockdown window would have been used to mend the fences.


For the country to move forward, it is high time government reordered its priorities and steps towards setting the university system on the path of recovery by resolving the lingering strike without further delay in order not to further jeopardise the future of Nigerian youths.


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