As the strike enters the sixth week, education stakeholders have called on the Federal Government to avert a prolonged industrial action
Gabriel Dike, Bianca Iboma (Lagos) and Fred Eze (Abuja)
The majority of the country’s federal and state universities are still reeling from the effects of the Sunday, November 4, directive of the National Executive Council (NEC) of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to its members to embark on total and indefinite strike with immediate effect.
The marching order was the outcome of the deliberation of the NEC, which met at the Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA), Ondo State.
Six weeks after, the various campuses across the country are looking like ghost towns as students were forced to go home. Since then, the students have been anxiously waiting for when the government and ASUU would resolve the issues in contention.
Checks on campuses across the country showed that the lecture halls and libraries are empty while the lecturers have also abandoned their offices in compliance with the NEC directive.
The representatives of the Federal Government and the leadership of the union have met severally, including on Monday, December 10 with no end in sight. Even when the Federal Government invoked the ‘no work, no pay’ rule and asked vice chancellors to stop salaries of the striking lecturers, the university teachers were not bothered as they vowed to also apply ‘no pay, no work’, a development that forced the government to withdraw the directive.
After one of the meetings, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, told Nigerians that the government had partially met the demands of ASUU, which led to speculations that the union would suspend the ongoing strike.
But in swift reactions, some principal officers of ASUU on Wednesday and Thursday last week denied that it was planning to suspend the industrial action, stating that there was no concrete agreement on ground.
The officers told Sunday Sun that only the NEC could suspend the strike, pointing out that no NEC meeting had yet been fixed.
Since the strike, ASUU and the government have met many times, the last being on Monday, December 17, and like others in the past, the meeting ended in a deadlock. The leadership of the union expressed displeasure in the way the government representatives were handling the discussion.
One of the branch chairmen told Sunday Sun that if the government officials continue with the lackadaisical attitude towards resolving the issues in contention, the implication would be that the students would continue to stay at home for a long time except President Buhari intervened and took decisions that would allow peace to return to the various universities.
Genesis of FG/ASUU logjam
The relationship between ASUU and the Federal Government went sour over numerous issues such as poor or low salaries, delay in payment of salaries, poor conditions of service, poor funding of education, inadequate facilities and non-implementation of agreement signed by the government.
According to O.C. Nwana, these issues have led to endless cycles of face-offs and strikes leading to long periods of closure of educational institutions. Recall that the 1993/94 academic session was cancelled due to the prolonged ASUU strike and Nwana admitted that by October 1996, some universities had lost two academic years, with students admitted during the 1991/92 academic session for four/five/six-year programmes remaining in the universities longer than required.
Two main reasons of ASUU agitation
ASUU has continued to maintain that its decision to embark on strike has not been for the sole purpose of getting salary increment, but for improvement in the funding and betterment of the academic environment with adequate facilities in the universities.
Aside agitating for the implementation of the 2009 agreement, ASUU is also seeking for the release of funds to implement the Needs Assessment Report done on public universities, which is meant to address the state of facilities in state and federal universities.
Deadlock in the renegotiation with FG
Following the protest by ASUU demanding for renegotiation of the 2009 agreement, the Federal Government reconstituted the committee headed by the Pro-chancellor and Chairman, Governing Council of University of Lagos, Dr Wale Babalakin, in March 2017, to meet and discuss with the unions.
At the inauguration of the committee in Abuja, Education Minister, Mallam Adamu Adamu, said the renegotiation would be completed within six weeks. Early this year, ASUU pulled out of the renegotiation and the National President of ASUU, Prof Biodun Ogunyemi, described Babalakin as a stumbling block in the renegotiation exercise.
His words: “The chairman of the government renegotiation team, Dr Wale Babalakin, has constituted himself to a stumbling block in the process of the renegotiation. He has arrogantly exhibited the I-know it-all attitude and also conducted himself as a judge, instead of a negotiator.
“He has also consistently attempted to substitute core constitutional provisions of Nigeria on education, including university education, by market principles of trading in and purchasing higher education, putting Nigerian children in debt in order to acquire higher education. This situation is not acceptable to the union.”
The union after its NEC meeting held at University of Calabar rejected Dr Babalakin as the chairman of the government renegotiation team and backed it up with a letter to the education minister, in which it stated that the renegotiation effort had collapsed, asking the government to remove Babalakin. The union later withdrew from the committee.
ASUU explained that Babalakin was trying to introduce tuition in the universities through the back door with his proposal for the establishment of an Education Bank, where students could borrow N1 million and pay N700,000 to the universities as fees and keep the remaining N300,000 for sundry expenses. The students are expected to repay the loan when they start working after graduation.
However, Babalakin denied the allegation by ASUU, and stated that at no time did he propose the introduction of fees in the universities. Members of government renegotiation team also came out to defend the integrity of the chairman and passed a vote of confidence in him.
Shocking outcome of NEEDS Assessment of public varsities
The NEEDS Assessment Report on the state of Nigerian public universities was the basis for the FG/ASUU agreement in 2013, which the union said the government failed to implement. ASUU said that based on the agreement, the government was to inject N1.3 trillion into state and federal universities for the revitalization (infrastructural and manpower development) over a period of six years (2013-2018), adding that so far, only the 2013 tranche has been released.
According to the report, 701 development projects in Nigerian universities, 163 (representing 23.3 percent) are abandoned while 538 (76.7 per cent) are perpetually ongoing projects. Some of the abandoned projects in Nigerian universities are over 15 years old. Similarly, all projects funded by the Niger Delta Development Commission across universities in the Niger Delta states have been abandoned. About 84.6 per cent of them are students’ hostels with some of them over 40 years old. Less than 10 per cent of the universities have video conferencing facility, less than 20 per cent of the universities use interactive boards, more than 50 per cent don’t use public address system in their overcrowded lecture rooms/theaters.
Equally, Internet services are non-existent, epileptic and slow in 99 percent of Nigerian universities. The library resources are outdated and manually operated and bookshelves are homes to rats/cockroaches, no university library in Nigeria is fully automated, less than 35 percent are partially automated.
Other shocking findings in the report include the fact that Nigerian universities instead of having 100 percent academics with PhDs, they have only about 43 per cent. The remaining 57 per cent have no PhDs. Nigerian medical students are trained in the most dangerous environment, some only see medical tools in book. Only seven Nigerian universities have up to 60 per cent of their teaching staff with PhD qualifications, while the majority of the universities in the country are grossly understaffed, a few cases present a pathetic picture. There are universities where the total number of professors is not more than five. For instance, Kano State University of Science and Technology, Wudil, established in 2007 (11 years old) has only one professor and 25 PhD holders; Kebbi State University of Science and Technology, Aliero, established in 2006 has only two professors and five PhDs; Ondo State University of Science and Technology, Okitipupa, established in 2008, has a total of 29 lecturers, makeshift lecturing system: Out of a total of 37,504 lecturers, only 28,128 (75 percent) are engaged on full-time basis while 9,376 (25 percent) Nigerian lecturers are recycled as visiting, adjunct, sabbatical and contract lecturers. In Gombe State University, only four out of 47 professors are full-time and all 25 Readers are visiting. In Plateau State University, Bokkos, 74 per cent of the lecturers are visiting, in Kaduna State University, only 24 out of 174 PhD holders are full-time staff. The report also made so many other sterling revelations.
Stakeholders seek resolution of FG/ASUU face-off
As the strike enters the sixth week, education stakeholders have called on the Federal Government to avert a prolonged industrial action in the universities by acceding to some of the demands of the lecturers. They also appealed to ASUU to reconsider its position in the interest of the students.
The Proprietor of Focus International School, Abeokuta, Chief Lanre Ogunjobi, decried the incessant strike in the university system over the non-implementation of staff unions’ demands leading to prolonged strikes and disruption of academic calendar.
According to him, strikes have made students to spend additional year(s) in school for no fault of theirs and that even parents spend extra money when eventually the strike is called off or suspended. He said the non-implementation of N1.3trillion determined through the Needs Assessment Survey for public universities since 2013 is worrisome.
On ASUU demands for government to remove Babalakin as chairman of the renegotiation committee, Chief Ogunjobi explained that it would be difficult for the union to continue talks with him in-charge and advised the government to apply wisdom in handling the issue.
Another educationist, Mr Clement Tobi, expressed concern that students in public universities have been at home for about six weeks now while the children of top government officials are schooling abroad, hence the non-nonchalant attitude by the government to address the demands of ASUU since 2009.
Tobi, with 23 years teaching experience, said that Nigeria has become a laughing stock because of the state of the education sector and urged the government to include the demands of the staff unions in the 2019 budget and reconstitute the committee so that ASUU will return to the negotiation table.
The Executive Director, Education First Consult, Dr Bayo Makinde, stressed that ASUU’s incessant strike has contributed to lowering of the standard in the university system and also prolonged the graduation of students for no fault of theirs.
Makinde asked ASUU to think of other means of making the government accede to their demands other than the use of strike as a weapon, warning that industrial action had never solved any problem. He advised the union leaders to embrace dialogue to resolve the current crisis.
A partner at Strategy and Innovation for Development Initiative in Bayelsa, Mrs Monisola Aiyekusehin, in her view said: “I think to put an end to the incessant strike that disrupts the academic calendar is for the Federal Government to enact a law banning public office holders from sending their children to study abroad as a measure to check the spate of strikes by ASUU.
Her words: “The fact remains that most top officials of the government who have their children schooling abroad do not understand the effect of the strike. Whenever there is a strike, academic activity is crippled and students are left with no choice than to wait until it is called off. The FG and ASUU usually drag their negotiation; it is a shame for education to be treated as something unimportant. They don’t show commitment to addressing the issue, which has lingered for years. Since their children are not affected, it is difficult for them to contribute positively towards upgrading and stabilising the education system. Our leaders must change their attitude towards educational development.”
Responding to the FG/ASUU face-off, the Provost of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ), Mr Gbemiga Ogunleye, observed that incessant shutdown of tertiary institutions was due to non-payment of emoluments, among other demands, should be reviewed by the government. “Government should know that the effect of strike would be felt in the next five years. It is not something that they should overlook; we should take a leaf of how the developed world take education seriously.
“The many challenges faced by the staff unions are due to government not keeping their promise. Government should keep their promise so that the academic session would not be rushed when they resolve the contentious issues. The sector must be transformed and undergraduate given the opportunity to develop within the specific time they ought to be in school rather than produced half baked students. We must find a way to enact a law/policy that will prohibit public office holders from sending their children/wards to study abroad.”
The Chairman, Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), Ojo, Mr Tajudeen Oladipupo, observed that strike has become a permanent feature in the nation’s education sector, stressing that “government has been unable to meet wage bill, including other entitlements of staff unions which require urgent attention to put an end to the strike embarked by the staff unions.
“Access to education is a human right. Preventing the youth from furthering their studies affects them and the community at large. Academic activities are usually grounded in public universities and extension of students’ academic calendar. ASUU is always agitating for the implementation of their demands. If government fails to meet their demands, should the students continue to stay at home that is my concern? I call on the government and ASUU to come to terms and put an end to this incessant strike,” he said.
ASUU and NANS spit fire
Commenting on the prolonged strike, ASUU President, Prof Ogunyemi, expressed displeasure that the union held several meetings with the government representatives and no concrete effort has been made to end the periodic strike that had continued to lower the quality of education.
He said: “I was surprised when I read some media reports that the union was considering suspending the industrial action early in the week. That never happened. I only told journalists that nothing was available for us to take to our members.
“Government likes making promises as usual. Nevertheless, we would watch closely until something concrete is done before we respond in any way. Besides, the President of ASUU cannot take such decision. There are procedures to take that decision and no basis to do that now.
“We have presented our major demands to government representatives and, as usual, they made promises. First in our demand is the revitalization fund. Second is the release of forensic report on Earned Academic Allowance (EAA).
“The salary shortfall of our members is another demand we presented to government representatives and the last being the anti-labour practices of some state-owned universities.”
Prof Ogunyemi was particularly impressed that the government has released the outcome of the forensic audit of academic earned allowances, which contained the specific amount of money being owed the university lecturers.
He, however, suggested that whatever money government desires to release to the universities should be mainstreamed into the 2019 budget to avoid unnecessary excuses regarding the release of the fund.
The ASUU president maintained that the National Executive Council (NEC) of ASUU would be ready to reconvene meeting and possibly suspend the strike as soon as the government makes realistic commitment.
A lecturer in the Department of International Law, Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Chukwuemeka Eze, said that the strike was regrettable, but had to be embarked on to compel the government to attend to the needs of the institutions and the workers.
Eze suggested that the government must take seriously the issue of funding of education and infrastructural provision in the universities as recommended by UNESCO.
He said: “UNESCO recommended allocation of 26 per cent of annual budget to education. Unfortunately, nothing near that has been achieved in the case of Nigeria. Worst of all is that lecturers lose motivation daily due to poor remuneration.
“Expectedly, they would not give their best because of the poor motivation and discouraging conditions of service. That has obviously contributed to the poor quality of education in Nigeria. The worst was that those charged with the responsibility of policy formulation have sent their children abroad to get quality education.
“You could imagine that lecturers assigned to supervise exams for several hours are given soft drinks and snacks for lunch. Expectedly, he or she will compromise. That ill treatment could even make them submit to mouth-watering offers of some rich students who could go to any length to get what they want.”
He summed up the unending agitation in the universities by academic workers as a product of frustration, adding that until the government makes sincere financial and infrastructural commitment to the education system and workers’ welfare, such industrial disharmony would continue to exist.
President of National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), Bamidele Akpan, said that the students would continue to appeal to the aggrieved lecturers to suspend the strike.
He said: “We observed that the documents being reviewed are much and that could have been responsible for the prolonged discussions. We have participated in some of the meetings and we are optimistic that the industrial action would be suspended soon.”
From all indications, ASUU is not ready to shift ground and has informed members to prepare for a long strike.
Feelers from the union indicate that it will not continue with the renegotiation if Dr Babalakin remains as chairman of the committee.