By Cosmas Omegoh
Perhaps, Nigerian universities would wish the 2019/2020 session was not here. It was a session crippled by a nine-month industrial action never seen before in the annals of varsity education in the country. While the government and the lecturers’ union bickered, the unthinkable erupted – COVID-19 berthed – wreaking everything on its course, including what was left to salvage just before the session went down. Put together, it was an era of academic crises, both self-made and the untoward.
Here, some university stakeholders have been reflecting on the crises of 2019/2020 session. To them, it was a session of “dual pandemic.” Their story about what went down during the period was the same, their thoughts and fears are the same. They were unanimous that COVID-19 and the nine-month industrial crisis wreaked enormous havoc on the Nigerian university system, so much that it would take a miracle to return to real scholarship. Pity the graduates that would be churned out during this period. They would be the obvious everyone is expecting – “half baked.”
The road to this valley began on March 23, 2020, when the Academic Union of Universities (ASUU) commenced an industrial action to press home a list of demands. Then a dingdong battle with the Federal Government ensued.
While the strike was underway, COVID-19 swept down from China, with Nigeria recording her index case on February 25, 2020. With the rapid spread of the virus across the country, the Federal Government on March 30, 2020, ordered a lockdown of major cities. Subsequently, tertiary institutions – including private ones – began sending home their students.
By the time ASUU eventually called off its strike on December 24, 2020, students had lost a whole academic calendar.
With COVID-19 still at the corner, some universities then mounted virtual teaching as a way of helping the student to salvage whatever they could. It is such a huge task for everyone, both the students and their lecturers.
Now, looking back to those days of locust, Prof Joseph Olagunju of the Lagos State University, Ojo, Prof Demola Aremu of the University of Ibadan and Prof John Didiacus Njoku of the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, are unanimous that the university system has never had it so bad. So much they said had been lost to the “dual pandemic.”
The crises as they see them
Looking at the overall impact of COVID-19 and the nine-month strike, Prof Olagunju told Sunday Sun: “We could not teach the students in a coordinated manner during the pandemic era; then the strike added to it all.
“If you do not have your thoughts well organised, do you expect to have excellent understanding? That will be difficult. The crises themselves will have multiplier effect on the students unless they make serious efforts to get out of them. The students have to make conscious effort to get out of the situation. But how many of our students are ready to do extra independent study? Very few! I’m sure they are less than 10 per cent of the current students we have. That is the summary of what I think about the situation.
“To be honest with you, the pandemic and the strike have really done a general damage to the standard of university education in our country, and our ability to really deal with the curriculum and execute it to the letter,” he said.
Following up on that, Prof Aremu recalled that “as a result of the twin crises, the universities cancelled a whole session. University of Ibadan cancelled 2019/2020 session.”
The inherent danger in that he said was that “globally, if a student now wants to use his transcript to study abroad, universities out there will be surprised to note that 2019/2020 is missing. They will see 2021, and begin to ask why.
“The implication of that, of course, is that the affected students will be seen as a half-baked graduate – a graduate who was not in school for one year out of the four years they were supposed to be in training.
“I have my fears that in the days ahead, we are going to have doctors who will be killers. We are going to have engineers who will design bridges that will be fail and fall. We should know what that means. We are going to have people who will design structures that will be collapsing. We are going to have policy makers who will not be able to make any good policy impact on governance.”
Equally Prof Njoku entertained similar fears. He said: “What happened could be termed double pandemic of the 2020.
“The lecturers and students were at home for close to 10 months partly because of the strike and partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The harm is grievous.
“Now, as soon as some of the universities resumed, it was revision and then examination. It was no fault of the students and their teachers. And so when you produce these fellows, it is likely that they are not going to be well baked. Many of them might not really be able to compete in the international community and even locally for jobs, for studies and for academic scholarship.”
Lamenting the overall impact of both COVID-19 and the strike, he told our correspondent that “the Nigerian educational system at the tertiary level until recently, was facing serious challenges. But the two pandemics further heaped more challenges on the existing ones, thus making forward movement a very difficult one.
“At the point we are now, things have gone further down. It will take perhaps a longer time or things may not even be achievable in the near future.”
Prof Njoku expressed worry that the nine-month strike might have done more damage to the system it set out to rescue.
“Look at the system that the strike was aiming to protect, because the unions went on strike the system it was protecting further decayed. Then after the strike was called off, there was little or nothing that could be done.
“While the strike and COVID-19 lasted, you can imagine a situation where lecturers would forget the titles of the courses they were teaching. You can imagine a situation where students lost their notes and whatever materials they were given. You can imagine a situation where the students had to go into things that couldn’t allow them to go on with their academics. You can imagine that many of the students went off their academic tracks. Even beyond the academic system, the consequences of both the strike and the virus were obvious for a country like Nigeria,” he pointed out.
Loss of academic calendar
Meanwhile Prof Olagunju is regretting the loss of one whole academic year, stating that it is all troubling.
“Both COVID-19 and the strike really disrupted our university calendar. In many universities of the world, you are given the calendar of activities. And they are always faithfully kept.
“When I was a graduate student in the University of Philippines in Manila, at the beginning of every session, you knew the date you were scheduled to take a test. You knew the date you were scheduled to end the semester; usually we had a five-year calendar.
“But now, we can’t even draw a calendar of one year in Nigerian universities because you cannot predict what happens next. So, both the COVID-19 and the strike have worsened the academic calendar of the various institutions,” he said.
Loss of revenue
Secondly, Olajunju said: “There are so many universities that depend on receivables to operate – school fees, services – which they render, particularly the private universities. You discover that such universities were hardest hit because students that were supposed to be on campus were not around to pay their normal fees. This affected the income of such universities. The spiral effect is that it led to non-payment of salaries, and loss of jobs. You recall that just before the lockdown, Bowen University sacked closed to 120 staff. These are some of the negative impacts we are talking about.
“The public universities did not have much of such negative impact in the sense that the government still pays the salaries of the staff. But that did not mean that some universities were not affected in some ways.
“In some instances, the money released as subvention is far less than the wage bill. And that means the affected universities might have to augment the salaries of the staff with their internally generated revenue. In that instance, I doubt if remittance of taxes would be possible. This, I’m sure, will also affect the government.”
Public health issue
Looking at the health of the university community during the period, he recalled that “the university is a busy place; you see too many people gathering at the same time especially at the lecture halls. But everybody had to be cautious. We couldn’t bring in a large number of students into the campuses. So, we had to stagger the student population on group basis so that the number within the universities would be kept low to curtail the spread of the deadly virus.”
However, Aremu said that the essence of that was lost in UI. He recalled that the students were not allowed to stay in school on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“But then, the student had to rent most of the accommodation around the school campus.
“Sadly, what we are trying to prevent in the university campus is what they are experiencing out there. Most of them who cannot afford to rent individual accommodation now contribute money to rent group accommodation. You see over eight students holed up in a room. So, what we are trying to prevent by disallowing them from being in school is still what they are facing outside; they are still vulnerable to Coronavirus attack,” he stated.
Economy of others on campus
Both the strike and COVID-19 did not spare other part members of the university communities, especially their means of livelihood, Olagunju revealed.
“Economic activities within the universities were also affected because of less number of people on campus. We have people who make their living by rendering services within the universities: canteen, business centre operators, among others. They all stayed away. They too lost a lot,” he pointed out.
Did virtual learning change anything?
Depending on the university, virtual learning appeared to have helped to change the colour of things, but not in all the universities any way.
This is what Prof Olagunju had to say: “On the positive side, we noticed that certain things that we considered to be possible were actually possible, for instance, online teaching.
“During the lockdown era, we discovered that it was something we could do. In my university, we went to the extent of conducting online exams. We were able to put all the measures in place to prevent cheating. It was not totally full proof. Right now, I still have courses I teach online. I’m glad that right now, some universities are adopting online teaching for their student.”
But while that seemed to be the way out, it is not so in UI, according to Prof Aremu, who said: “Again, the students were supposed to be doing virtual learning. But the truth of the matter is that Nigeria does not have what it takes to do virtual learning. We don’t have constant supply of electricity. High Internet connectivity is not available. And that means that the quality of knowledge that we transmit is going to be low. This is because where lecturers want to do virtual learning that will stretch to three to four hours, they will be considering the cost. What that means is that you have to rush through the content or you don’t fully discharge the content. So, at the end of the day, the full complement of what the students are supposed to know, they will not know.
“Even in some universities that have Internet facilities, mere logging on is not free. Most universities don’t even have free Wifi facilities for teaching and learning. So, it means every lecturer has to provide their own facilities from the meager salaries they earn.”
Njoku on his part, admitted that virtual learning is encumbered by the “Nigerian factor.” Some universities, he said, might engage in virtual learning, while some are still doing contact learning.
“Truth is that you cannot introduce virtual learning in a vacuum. Most of the universities don’t have the right funding, and requisite facilities, yet we want them to do virtual learning. The universities are already poorly funded. That is part of the reason for the strike. Doing virtual learning is like putting another burden on them.
“Virtual learning cannot take place in the air. It has to be supported by facilities – power supply, either from the national grid or power generating set. Most universities don’t have them.
“Besides that, if a lecturer uses his data to teach students, who pays for it? Students or the university?” he queried.
Vices students faced
Reflecting on some of the challenges that confronted the students, Prof Olagunju identified drugs as the biggest of them all, lamenting that the government has not learnt a lesson from the debacle of 2020.
“The truth of the matter is that the Nigerian government is one that does not see education as a sector it must adequately invest in. It is never their priority.
“What we see is a decline in university facilities and this is impacting on the quality of the graduates we produce.
“Right now, COVID-19 cum the strike have worsened everything.
“You know the impact of keeping people who are supposed to be in school away from school – social vices, drug dependency, drug addiction? These were on the rise during the strike cum COVID-19 era. The negative effect that COVID-19 had was bad. But the strike exacerbated everything.
“But I’m not so sure that all the problems that led to the strike have been addressed. That is what we know our government for. They will never honour any agreement; they pay lip service to everything; they will politicise everything. People may not like ASUU, but we are doing what we are doing in the interest of the people and the system,” he said.