Nigeria’s public universities are broken. And no one seems to be bothered. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has been on strike since March 2020. Nine months on, there is no indication that the strike would end soon. The valuable time lost by students and teachers can never be recovered.
The logjam in the current negotiations or lack of movement in negotiations seems to be government’s inability to pay what it had pledged to pay to resuscitate universities that are facing collapse.
ASUU said parents, students, and the public should not be cowed by the government’s argument that it could not afford to pay a modest amount of N110 billion for revival of public universities. It said the 2012 Needs Assessment Report provided proof that there was a need to save public universities from disintegration.
Coordinator of the Lagos zone of ASUU, Professor Olusiji Sowande, pointed to other sectors in which the government had intervened through financial support. These included the aviation sector, power generation and distribution companies, and commercial banks. He wondered why the government could intervene to save these businesses from imminent downfall but refrain from assisting public universities.
Sowande further clarified the position of ASUU: “In the interest of our students who have been at home for seven months, our union has shifted ground from the initial insistence of a release of one tranche of N220 billion revitalisation fund to demand for 50 per cent of one tranche (N110 billion) for government to show its commitment to revitalisation of our universities.”
The government’s position is that it does not have the kind of money that ASUU leaders are demanding. Additionally, the government said there was no provision in the budget to take care of those demands.
Listening to both sides, you get the impression that the issues are tangled, that one side is playing a game, and there is lack of goodwill and faith in the negotiations. If government and ASUU cannot negotiate in good faith, the negotiations must be seen as unnecessary. They are not helpful. They are a waste of time. They becloud the issues. They make future negotiations more problematic, less clear, less attractive, and less inspiring.
The Federal Government should be concerned about the impact of a nine-month-old strike on the academic calendar of public universities, in particular the consequences on the quality of graduates. Students will feel the impact more than anyone else. Unfortunately, quality education and research have been weakened.
The current confrontation between ASUU and the Federal Government can best be described as a game of hide-and-seek. ASUU and the government have been wringing their hands, pointing mindlessly at each other, claiming the other side must take responsibility for the mess in public university system. While ASUU believes it has reasonable grounds to continue the ongoing strike, not minding that nine months have been lost, the Federal Government believes it has bent over backward too many times to accommodate ASUU’s unending demands. Regardless of the arguments, the two sides must be held blameworthy.
First, ASUU overstepped the bounds of fairness by going on an indefinite strike since March 2020. The period so far spent on the strike represents months of idleness and unproductive output. Additionally, the strike has harmed the learning objectives of students, I cannot see how an indefinite strike would advance the interests of students. A strike that has no specified duration can have irreversible consequences on the university system, the products of public universities, and the integrity of academic degrees awarded by those universities.
Regardless of how ASUU feels, strikes cannot be the only means of settling industrial disputes between the labour union and the Federal Government. ASUU cannot claim to be fighting in the interest of students when it is clear that the educational needs of students are being overlooked, undermined, and indeed imperilled by the strike.
The government must be condemned for breaking an agreement it reached with ASUU months and years ago. If the government was concerned about declining standards in public universities, it would have acted much earlier to fix the problems rather than wait too long to avert a full-scale strike. If the government could not keep to the terms of a deal it reached with ASUU, then the government must imply, in essence, that it is incapable of upholding the deal it signed with university teachers. That says a lot about the moral character of the men and women who govern our country.
When government modifies or disregards an agreement it signed with ASUU, or any other organisation for that matter, the government is conveying the message that it is untrustworthy and irresponsible.
The direct victims of ASUU strike are undeniably undergraduate and postgraduate students whose studies have been disrupted severely. Whenever we wonder why the quality of university education has collapsed so spectacularly in Nigeria, the impact of frequent interruptions to academic calendar must be taken into consideration.
The consequences of endless strikes by university staff are apparent. The first is the number of hours, days, weeks, and months that are lost in productivity, including additional years that students are compelled to study before they can graduate. The second consequence of endless strikes is a substantial deterioration in the quality of teaching and research.
The third impact is that university graduates will become comparatively far less competitive and far less attractive to other postgraduate schools and employers in developed and developing worlds. The fourth consequence of endless strikes is devaluation of the quality of the degrees, diplomas, and certificates that are awarded by the universities. The graduates also miss out on mouth-watering scholarship opportunities available to graduates from other countries.
Consider this point: Nigerian universities were established to advance teaching and learning and research, and also to contribute to community service. These goals cannot be attained when ASUU and government officials constantly disagree on how to move university education forward. Those disagreements frequently undermine the core objectives of public universities.
Dispute resolution is a skill. ASUU leaders who lack crucial negotiation skills tend to lead their members into dark passageways in which militant and mechanical responses are easily and naively perceived as appropriate measures to engage an obstinate government. But taking that path often can be misleading. The art of good union leadership is to know when to strike and when to call off a strike.
Edward Bernays, undoubtedly the father of modern public relations, said that organisations live and die by the way they relate with their internal and external publics. While ASUU may relate well with its internal publics, it has struggled many times to cultivate good relationships with its external publics, such as the government, the education ministry, the National Universities Commission, parents, and the public.
In a vexatious and disrupted industrial relations environment driven by mutual disrespect and bad belle (as our people say in pidgin English), university students cannot tell you when they expect to complete their studies. That is how uncertain the study time frame can be for students in public universities.