Just weeks after the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) called off its nine-month-old strike that shut down teaching and learning and research in universities, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and Non-Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (NASU) called their members out on strike to compel the government to accede to what they said were long-standing issues the government has refused to address. Frankly, the university environment in Nigeria has been turned into something of a dog’s breakfast. Public universities are disorganised.
What this suggests is that the leadership of any university union can wake up any day and call a strike or commence what they usually call “warning strike.” And the government’s refusal to respond promptly to serious deficiencies in the universities has given the unions the basis to go for the jugular.
Strikes usually set in when university staff feel they have exhausted their energy shouting for the attention of the government to address the collapse of quality education, including crumbling infrastructure, science and technology laboratory equipment, and library facilities. For decades, military and elected governments seem to suffer from the same disease that makes them to respond with coldness over calls by university staff for urgent funding and replacement of decrepit facilities. When apathy collides with demands made by academic and non-academic staff of universities, the effects are endless strikes that lead to disruptions in academic calendar. Ironically, the victims are not the government and the university staff. The casualties are university students and their sponsors.
Frequent strikes in universities have become a routine, indeed a part of the illusion called teaching and learning. Students admitted into universities must factor into their calculation of the expected year of graduation the impact of unforeseen interruptions caused by union strikes. It is awful to be a university student in Nigeria today. You have no idea about the year you are likely to graduate. Owing to the uncertainties, you cannot plan for your future. You cannot even plan for the present. These complexities make life incredibly difficult for university students.
Every Nigerian parent who has a child in a public university must be fatigued by endless strikes by academic and non-academic staff who are paid to advance knowledge. Ironically, public university owners (the government) and the university staff do not operate or interact in a harmonious environment. It is a poisoned or toxic relationship. There is no indication that the government represented by the Education Minister, the Labour and Employment Minister, the National Universities Commission (NUC) and other stakeholders would one day understand the urgent needs of academic and non-academic staff of universities. It is this misunderstanding that perpetuates the disagreement between the government and university staff. What a tragedy.
The environment for university education in Nigeria is seriously dislocated. I am not a supporter of the government’s messy policy on higher education. I am also not a supporter of university staff who have taken to militant labour strategies to achieve their objectives. All these illustrate the disorganised nature of universities and the atmosphere in which teaching and learning and research are expected to thrive. In a messy higher education environment, there is no way students can engage in or focus on academic and research activities.
In the existing muddled situation, the underlying message is that there is no strong agency of government that has clear responsibility to promote quality education in universities. The NUC is more of a dog that barks but has no teeth to bite. What we have is a mixed salad bowl of jumbled policies that encourages university unions to behave as they like. The disruptions in university calendar must be seen as the outcome of a lack of strong leadership, the lack of patience by university academic and non-academic staff unions to negotiate their demands, and inability of senior management of universities to plan for the future and to carry their staff along.
Lack of discipline, self-control, feeling of responsibility, that core value that drives university education, and the presence of a central authority to which university staff should report, have all disappeared or have been diluted. In most public universities, the feeling is that government is uncaring, that senior supervising education officials are lousy and uncommitted and, therefore, academic and non-academic staff are not obligated to do anything or impart knowledge to students as long as they are remunerated at the end of the month. This is baffling. What moral philosophy supports the government paying university staff who go on long periods of strike while university education decays? That culture or tradition is bizarre, unjustifiable, inexcusable, unforgiveable, and intolerable anywhere in the world.
It is often said the labourer deserves their wages. In our universities, that phrase has been reconstructed to suggest that academic and non-academic staff do not have to be labourers to earn regular monthly payments. That must be the absurdity of Nigerian public universities. Work or no work, academic and non-academic staff can expect to be paid. That is like giving university staff the oxygen bag that helps them to breathe and to find the energy to engage in more strikes. Other countries look at the way we manage our universities and they wonder what manner of a country Nigeria must be.
We have supervising secretaries and advisers on education who supervise little or nothing and advise no one. In the Education Ministry, many people are paid for doing nothing, just like some university staff are paid even when they have no demonstrated evidence of innovative teaching practices, or for having no active research profile. Surely, this is not the way to move higher education forward, or to advance teaching, learning, and research in universities.
It is true the government has acknowledged it is owing the unions arrears of unpaid wages and other unresolved issues such as the payment of earned allowances, an assessment of the governance system in universities, improved funding, provision of infrastructure, implementation of the National Industrial Court judgment on university staff schools, and registration of NUPEMCO, the Pension Fund Administrator recommended for university workers. However, these issues constitute no genuine ground for non-academic staff to disrupt academic and research activities and to undermine the future careers of university students. The unions can wring the hands of the government but that must not interfere with students’ objectives to continue their education in a harmonious academic environment.
As in the recently ended ASUU strike, both SSANU and NASU and the Federal Government are blameworthy this time around. The rash of strikes in Nigerian universities symbolises the breakdown of diplomacy, and the failure of government and university labour unions to negotiate.
Regardless of how complex and intractable the disagreements might appear, there are always alternative channels to resolve labour disputes. Every disagreement does not have to be settled through strikes. Unions must not disrupt university academic schedule to make known their quarrel with the government.
The question must be asked: Why does Labour and Employment Minister, as a representative of the government, wait till the last minute before responding to the notice of strike given by unions? The answer is that it must be a part of the contempt with which the government treats labour unions.