ASUU, the Government and Tertiary Education in Nigeria: The Way Forward by Ashton Dagana

Since 1999, successive governments have at least two things in common; ASUU and strikes. ASUU strikes. The ASUU strikes always follow the same pattern; initial noise about a possible ASUU strike, a warning strike, government ignores ASUU all along, the public isn’t particularly interested, ASUU goes on long strike, everyone gets interested, government and ASUU meet over and again, agreements are signed, ASUU goes back to school, tick tock tick tock, repeat cycle.

As usual with most things Nigerian; no one really cares about a sustainable solution that ensures there is no repeat of a bad situation, attention is often paid to what Nigerians would call ‘patch-patch’ solutions. Each government deals with ASUU in a way that ensures ASUU returns to the classrooms, knowing fully well that the underlying problem of why ASUU goes on strike remains perpetually unresolved. Like debts and corruption cases, they pass on the ASUU burden to future governments. It is why over 18 years into our new democratic experience; our universities continue to face exactly the same challenges they faced in 1999. Poorly funded, absenteeism of lecturers, normalization of the handouts menace, strikes, dilapidated infrastructure and the inability to compete globally. This simply means that we are not going to fix our universities and the recurrent ASUU challenge with the same Band-Aid approach we used in the past. We need a far more sustainable solution. The challenges of our universities and indeed other tertiary institutions are not that these challenges exist; it is that these challenges more or less remain the same over decades. What we must now do is solve them and work out ways of meeting new challenges and not continue to sink under the weight of the same challenges decades on.

We should not be in this position where all the lecturers in virtually all the public universities can go on strike at the same time. None of the countries where the children of the rich and powerful go to school abroad have this model. Our leaders, including even some of the privileged lecturers have their children in schools everywhere but public schools where they are exposed to some of the menace already mentioned above. Like with most of the challenges Nigeria has had to deal with over the course of almost its entire Independent existence, the problem is centralization and control by the Federal Government. The current structure does not work and we already know that. What we probably aren’t so sure of is how to move forward.

The universities should be run by Trusts. Government should simply give grants. Trustees should include private sector big wigs and people that can help raise money and endowments for the University. They will also check fraud by the VCs, which is very rampant. At the moment, at least six former or current Vice Chancellors are under investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. There are verifiable rumblings for the arrest of some others. Some of them have even been charged. This piece is not about the obvious so I will not be elaborating on that but I should add that University administration has since been taken by the general Nigerian malaise; corruption. The Trust sets the terms and conditions for employment. That way, each lecturer is an employee of the trust, not directly of the Federal Government. For instance, if UNILAG lecturers choose to strike against their Trust, the strike will only affect UNILAG. This is the same problem we have with Health and why doctors constantly go on strikes. These problems have become permanent simply because we choose the same Band-Aid solutions that are not sustainable and far reaching over much more sustainable and effective ones.

The FGN appoints people as Ministers of Labour or portfolios of the type and automatically assumes that they were born as skilled negotiators. No negotiation skills. No training. Two things then happen. First, each strike is an opportunity for the Labour Minister or the cronies to make money. In the past, huge sums were ferried at night to Labour leaders to persuade them to call off strikes. The Minister, of course, got a huge cut and it was in his interest to collude with the unions to hold out for more money, while publicly “appealing to them to go back to work.” Secondly, the glory for him was that he had successfully ended the strike. He would therefore sign anything, knowing fully well that government could not afford it. In his mind, ‘the next Minister can worry about that.’ This, just so he can say, “when I was Minister, I ended the strike.” This is all that matters to them in a country where the interests of personalities continually trump the collective interest. Today, they agree with ASUU. Tomorrow, Non-Academic Staff of Universities will claim that you can’t give ASUU alone and so they go on strike too. The Minister will sign another agreement with them. ASUU will get angry again and the cycle continues. The exact same thing we do with Doctors of NMA and Health Workers under JOHESU. It’s a sad expensive joke, really.

While one is sympathetic to the claim that agreements should be honoured, the quantum of ASUU’s claim is put at about N1.2 Trillion. In 2009 when this was agreed, this was about 25% of the Budget. Someone was illogical enough to sign this on behalf of government. To move forward, there may be a need to overhaul the system altogether. This reset of the system could even cost an entire academic year but if it fixes this particular problem permanently, it would be a very useful sacrifice to make for the sake of the future. Since 1999, ASUU has embarked on some 12-strike actions that lasted about over years cumulatively.

ASUU through the individual universities establish university staff schools without consultation with government. There is apparently an agreement with the government on funding the staff primary schools and secondary schools. Government had in the past agreed to fund the primary schools 100% and part-fund the secondary schools. Then the universities open the schools up to outsiders and charge handsome fees. They pocket those fees and don’t remit a kobo to the FGN. The schools want government to pay the teachers that they – the schools – recruited. They want government to maintain the schools while they pocket the fees they charge. This, according to available reports is part of their reasons for striking. I wonder, did a government official sign these agreements without making it clear these schools were to serve the children of the staff of the schools or make it clear government funding would not cover for discretions taken by the schools outside of the agreement?

ASUU has organised resistance to IPPIS, the government biometric payroll system that has already helped to weed out thousands of ghost workers in several ministries, this so that they can continue to create ghost workers. There is an estimate from a reliable source at IPPIS that some 30% of the people ASUU is striking for are ghost workers. Part of government’s negotiations should therefore be to do biometric capture so that they know who they are paying. The situation is the same with hospitals. They refuse to go on IPPIS, recruit illegally and create ghosts. That way, the salaries government sends are spread to half pay for all and government is then accused of owing salaries when it has paid everybody it gave approval to be recruited in full. Government gets to be used and treated like an entity whose failings mean nothing, when in reality the people are the government.

Government needs to cut a deal with ASUU but must think sustainability when going to the table. A recent news report has the current Education minister Adamu Adamu saying the ASUU strike will be over in a matter of days. This simply means that we are about to wash and rinse the same dirt from the previous playbook. This means that in the very near future, another government, if not this one even, will have to call ASUU back to the table again, when they embark on yet another strike. The government must go all out to overhaul this system once and for all by divesting and relinquishing control and ending this centralization that favours everyone else but the very people the universities were set up for, the students.

Ashton Dagana, a Quantity Surveyor writes from Port Harcourt. (ashtongana@gmail.com)

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