The Union, which is said to be on its “15th annual strike”, has not been able to come up with any other way to resolve its problems with the Government.
As the campaigns for the 2019 general elections begin in earnest, it is important to highlight some of the issues that should guide the discourse. The ongoing penchant for elevating outright false news and the demonisation of political opponents to a campaign art should give way to a sensible interrogation of issues that are critical to the welfare of majority of the people and the overall development of the country.
Critical, among these issues, are the challenges in the educational and health sectors, with the ongoing strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) signposting the serious problem in our education sector. Since November 5, lecturers in the nation’s universities have downed tools over the failure of government to adhere to the provisions of the 2009 agreement it entered into with them, and the unending problem of poor funding of the institutions.
The Union, which is said to be on its “15th annual strike” has not been able to come up with any other way to resolve its problems with the Federal Government. But it has, this time, come up with a 50-point list of shortcomings in the university system and its other heart of these complaints is the issue of poor funding, which has made it impossible for universities to have the necessary equipment and other facilities that are required to teach effectively and produce well-grounded graduates.
The ASUU list of shortages in the universities is an indictment of the country’s leaders over the years for their failure to properly fund the institutions. Both ASUU and the government’s negotiating team are agreed that poor funding is one of the major problems bedeviling the system.
Their disagreement, however, is how to raise the badly needed money to provide the requirements. While ASUU wants government to fully fund the universities, the government negotiators are insisting that the funding should be through a multiplicity of sources involving the government, parents, the private sector student loan scheme, an education bank and scholarships. All these are necessary to meet the estimated N2 trillion per annum required for the universities by ASUU, a figure which is more than the sum required for all capital projects in all sectors of the economy in the 2018 national budget.
The government’s proposal of student loans and an Education Bank probably explains why reports are rife on the government’s plan to start charging higher fees ranging from N350,000 to N500,000 in its universities. Although the government has denied any plans to hike fees, the plans for an Education Bank and student loans scheme presuppose increased school fees, which students are expected to pay with the loans from the education bank.
The crux of the crisis is the funding which the government has said is just not available to the tune of N2 trillion at this time when capital projects budgets for the entire country is N2 trillion, and with only N1.5 trillion devoted to capital projects in all sectors, including Security, Health, Roads, etc in the 2017 Budget.
Even if the government allocates N1 trillion annually to university education, without talking about the requirements for the primary and secondary levels of education, what happens to the other sectors where there are equally serious needs for capital projects? What is clear from the above is that the nation’s leaders need to put on their caps with regard to the funding of education, generally, not only university education. ASUU and all Nigerians also need to come to the realization that students will need to pay more for higher education, either now or in the future. A situation in which people are ready to pay humongous sums of money for primary education, but little or nothing for university education, is not sustainable on the long run. The rot in education is also not limited to the university level. There are also problems at the primary and secondary levels, where many schools are operating without the required libraries, laboratories and the like. Even many primary schools, especially outside the states’ urban areas, lack basic classrooms, chairs, tables and teachers. Many of the pupils study under appalling conditions.
As it is in the education sector; so also is it in the health sector where many public hospitals are in a shambles, with inadequate laboratories, drugs and other medical equipment. Many of them suffer a dearth of doctors and other medical personnel, even while many professionals in these fields are roaming about without jobs in the country.
It is clear that the problem of the country is largely a failure of our leaders to get their priorities right. Too much attention is paid to politicking and all manner of intrigues designed to keep them perpetually in office, while scant attention is paid to the actual reasons they were elected into office in the first place. It is all about who is to occupy which position and how much is being made from which political office to raise money to prosecute the next election. Nobody, it seems, cares about ordinary Nigerians and their plight. It is all about money, political offices and the making of huge sums of money to be stashed away in foreign countries, and to fund affluent living, which is daily flaunted in the faces of the people.
Yet, the electorate is not getting any wiser. When it is time for elections, the issues that come up for debate are so banal, so irrelevant, as to suggest that many Nigerians are complicit in their own exploitation by their leaders. Voters are ready to blindly follow politicians and even sell their votes for a pittance, when it is the only power with which they can have a say in the kinds of leadership that they desire for their communities, states and country. Nigerians have been in this position for too long. The time has come for the electorate to take a long term view of their condition and take a more active role in the matters that affect them. There ought to be a public hearing on the state of our universities and hospitals at which patients, students and lecturers will be able to freely air their views.
Funding of critical aspects of national life has become a critical issue and it is one of the issues on which the 2019 poll campaigns should be based. How does the country improve its revenue base to be better able to meet its responsibilities to the citizens? How will the contestants reorder our national priorities to free funds for education, health, roads and bridges? Should Nigeria continue paying huge sums of money to legislators who should be able to do the job for even a fraction of what they are paid now? Should we give vent to the new ongoing campaigns to pay the equivalent of permanent secretaries’ salaries to senators and members of House of Representatives?
Should these legislative bodies be made up of selected permanent secretaries in our ministries to save costs? How do we seriously diversify the economy beyond mouth service to agriculture, which has failed to have the desired impact?
These are the questions we should be asking our aspiring leaders at various levels. It is not enough for them to discredit their opponents and paint them with the tar brush. The most important question we should be asking them is: what can you, as a candidate, do differently to take Nigeria out of the woods, consolidate on our present achievements and make a difference in the lives of the citizens?