By Carl Umegboro
“When two elephants fight, the grass suffers”. This has over the years become a lot of helpless students in the country’s universities who cannot afford the high tuition fees in private universities, let alone travelling overseas for education, but accepted their fates in the public schools. Absolutely, nothing is wrong with attending public schools except some shortfalls and extremisms. Prominent among them is the strike action always embarked upon at every election year by the umbrella body of lecturers; Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) which makes public schools look unserious. Going through the litany of ASUU demands, all things being equal, the demands are germane as no investment on education is superfluous, however, it is characterized with traitorous lacuna.
To start with, the 2022 total budget of the country stands at N17.13 trillion from which N923.79 billion is allotted to the education sector. Interestingly, ASUU is made up of intellectuals that understand and teach checks and balances. Now, in Nigeria’s education sector, there are four levels of education, namely: i) Early childhood (pre-primary); ii) Basic Education (9years) – comprising Primary and Junior Secondary Education, awhich is compulsory and free; iii) Senior Secondary Education; and iv) Tertiary Education. Under tertiary education alone, there are three categories, namely; universities, colleges of education and polytechnics. By the above categorization, annual budgets on education must always split equitably to take care of the four levels. And by the clause ‘compulsory and free’ on the basic education, more funds must certainly be voted to effectively implement the policy. Of course, by prudence and precedence, investing in the first three levels is very critical as they are pillars for a sound tertiary education which is the fourth one. So, whereas all levels are important, basic education demands added attention, and cannot be ignored.
Now, from annual budgets, education sector in 2015 got N492.03 billion; 2016 – N369.60 billion; 2017 – N550.00 billion; 2018 – N605.80 billion; 2019 – N620.50 billion; 2020 – N671.07 billion; 2021 – N742.52 billion; and 2022 – N923.79 billion. In all administrations, education is just one out of many sectors demanding critical attention from the treasury, hence, scaling up preference based on priorities remains the only option vis-à-vis meagre resources. Thus, ASUU is under duty to first consider the nation’s aggregate budget, followed by allocation to the education ministry, before tertiary institution which includes two other categories aforesaid. Understanding this template will give insight and bring about implementaable agreements for sustainable activities. Regrettably, the seeming competition on who spearheads the longest strikes is becoming a cycle which is absurd as it is always counterproductive. Undeniably, scores of students at home have many ugly stories to tell. Basically, they will pay additional rents for hostels and other unbudgeted necessaries. Meanwhile, the comrades unrelentingly, cataclysmically demand remunerations during the strike. The utmost task on nation’s academic unions is eradicating cultism, sexual harassment by lecturers, forceful sale of handouts to students and other uncivilized acts prevalent in the nation’s tertiary institutions. It is worrisome that well-to-do families have abandoned home universities for foreign schools including stone-throw countries like Ghana, Republic of Benin. Shockingly, the mess didn’t reflect in ASUU litany.
Defending the strike embarked upon on February 14, 2022 which lasted for eight months, ASUU President, Emmanuel Osodeke knocked federal government’s renege to the agreement signed many years ago. Amid the strike, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige approved the registration of two equivalent bodies – Congress of Nigeria University Academics (CONUA), and Nigeria Association of Medical & Dental Lecturers in Academics (NAMDA) possibly to unbundle the union against monopoly. The action further received condemnation from ASUU. But the bitter truth is that exigency, expediency demands a radical remedy against monopoly for meaningful engagements and activities. Literally, monopoly anywhere characterizes despotism. Amongst ASUU’s demands is funding for the revitalisation of public universities which the federal government in an agreement entered with in 2009 and 2013 to inject a total of N1.3 trillion into public universities in six tranches, starting from 2013. From record, only N200 billion has been released since 2013. The second is payment of earned academic allowances (EEA) which the government had in 2019 agreed to pay lecturers, but failed to implement it. In 2020, the government agreed to pay N40 billion, but released N22.127 billion earned allowances of both academic and non-academic workers of universities to 38 universities. The third is reconstitution of the FGN/ASUU 2009 Renegotiation Committee agreed upon in the 2009 agreement to review university’s conditions of service, funding, university autonomy and academic freedom. The conditions of service included a separate salary structure for university lectures to be known as ‘Consolidated University Academic Salary Structure’. The fourth is that ASUU vetoed government’s Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), overbearingly dictating its own ‘University Transparency Accountabilitya Solution’ (UTAS), strangely to its employer, while the fifth is a demand for the government to visit universities every five years accordingly. And many others.
Logically, meeting the gigantic demands concurrently is unrealistic irrespective of the length of strike. Beyond that, any agreement that is blind to annual budget is dead on arrival, and akin to a bicycle-rider promising an airplane to a child. Budget is a critical factor in fiscal planning, and must be placed side-by-side with demand. To be instructive, anything not captured in the budget is unimplementable. Thus, any meaningful mass action should be to implement the budget accordingly. Arguably, the strike is flawed. For instance, let’s imagine the two other categories under tertiary education (polaytechnics and colleges of education) present similar demands, let alone the three other levels of education respectively, certainly, collapse of the economy is inevitable. Other unions, agencies in various sectors also have their respective needs. So, there must be sincere, sustained engagements to address all the critical units. Succinctly, ASUU misfired. If the union believes the demands are compelling, the appropriate action should be to approach the Legislative arm to consider them in the Appropriation Bill by oversight function if of the view the Executive arm is unyielding.
But to shut down a critical segment of society over items not captured in the budget is unfortunate and weird. It’s akin to a revolution against a government.
To add up, strikes in public schools do more harm than good to society, and should be vetoed. It must be discouraged. For instance, when academic activities eventually resume, there’s a likelihood of crash programmes and subverting morale thereby giving room for deficiencies. Ultimately, society suffers. It’s unacceptable to destroy society under any guise. Emphatically, public schools should not be used for power tussles, as globally, no school anywhere has everything on ground, and everyone that attained enviable heights is through a long-term plan, not hostility.
Umegboro, ACIArb is a public affairs analyst and social advocate (08023184542-SMS only)