Millions of Nigerians with interest in tertiary education dread strikes by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). When, last week, the union decried the Federal Government’s ‘silence’ on its demand for the implementation of the agreement signed with the union in 2019, and warned of a looming crisis, the sceptre of another looming strike raised by the lecturers engendered panic among Nigerian parents, students and other stakeholders across the country.
The National President of ASUU, Comrade Biodun Ogunyemi, who spoke after the union’s national executive council meeting in Lagos, observed that the Federal Government had turned a blind eye to the issues confronting tertiary education and by so doing, endangered the country’s development and its university system. He also argued that the 2009 agreement between ASUU and the Federal Government had been observed in the breach by the government. Those agreements had caused two previous strikes by ASUU in 2012 and 2013, and students lost much of the academic year.
In 2013, the union and the Federal Government signed a memorandum of understanding which required the government to rehabilitate the decaying infrastructure in the universities. Apparently, after the initial down-payment of N1.2 trillion and a promise of an annual disbursement of N200 million, the government has been unable to meet the payment schedules. Worse, government earnings have plummeted by more than half.
The 2009 agreement, on its part, requires huge financial outlay to pay the earned academic allowances, implement the NEEDS Assessment Report and register the Nigerian Universities Pension Management Company. These are big ticket expenditures, besides the shortfalls in personnel emoluments, the contentious refusal of the government to continue to fund staff schools, and the failure to provide funds to pay for water, electricity, stationery, chemicals and other basic supplies.
We do not need economic wizards to figure out that the Federal Government bit off more than it could chew in the 2009 agreement. It is not in doubt also that even in 2009, the Federal Government, conscious of the volatility of the oil market, would have endorsed the agreement on the understanding that its implementation would be contingent on the availability of funds. ASUU has disputed this position, but whether or not it was conditional, reality cannot but trump the best of intentions.
We share ASUU’s position that the Federal Government must strive for the UNESCO benchmark of allocating 26 per cent of the national budget to education, not the paltry 12 per cent in 2014; miserly 11 per cent in 2015; and a disastrous eight per cent in 2016. We need to put our money where our mouth is. Investment in education is universally acknowledged to be the best yielding investment of any nation, especially now when the world is knowledge-driven. It is also lamentable, as the Chairman of the Bauchi Zone of ASUU, Prof. Nanmwa Voncir, stated, that many universities now pay a fraction of salaries or are unable to pay salaries at the end of every month, while state universities hardly receive subventions from their state governments. The consequence is that many owe salaries of staff up to six months.
The problems besetting the universities are legion but we urge the Federal Government to be proactive and immediately begin exploratory discussions with ASUU. The union has argued that the 2009 agreement provides that the agreement shall be reviewed every three years, but that since 2012, the government has failed to set up its negotiating team despite repeated requests by ASUU. The government should use the opportunity of a review to renegotiate the 2009 agreement and present an honest position on what the nation can afford in terms of funding for tertiary institutions. The universities must be adequately funded to produce graduates that the nation can be proud of.
The Federal Government must listen to ASUU and strive to reach an agreement that is just and fair. Nigerians are tired of strikes in the education sector. Thousands of Nigerian students have been seeking university education abroad because of the endless strikes in Nigerian universities. In the end, the beneficiaries have been the universities Ghana, Turkey, South Africa, Europe and America, to which our students pay millions of pounds, dollars and other foreign currencies yearly because no one can predict Nigeria’s education calendar.