By ENYERIBE EJIOGU
Inadequacy of funding for the operations of public tertiary institutions in the country has been the recurring decimal in every industrial action declared by academic staff of universities and polytechnics. Barely two months after the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) called off their eight-month long strike, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU and Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU) have also signalled that they would embark on strike, to back their demand for improved remuneration. In this interview, Founder of Southern Atlantic Polytechnic, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, Pastor Bassey James, draws on the vision of the institution which is focused on “Education for Wealth Creation” proffers a long term solution to the issue of inadequate funding of public tertiary institutions, which primarily fuels strikes by academic staff and other workers of the institutions. Pastor James who is National President, Association of Founders and Rectors of Private Polytechnics in Nigeria, also makes a case for inclusion of educational institutions that run commercial agriculture projects in the Anchor Borrowers Programme of the Central Bank of Nigeria and other similar intervention initiatives.
Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) after about eight months called off its strike last December; now the Senior Staff Association of Universities (SSANU) and the Non-Academic Staff of Universities (NASU) have jointly given notice that they would go on strike from February 5. As a parent how do you feel about these developments?
For someone that just got involved in the educational sector, to contribute to the growth of educational opportunities for our children, who may not be admitted into the universities, but can still develop the God-given intellectual and creative potentials through studying in a polytechnic, I am disturbed by what is happening, both as a parent and founder of Southern Atlantic Polytechnic, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. It is painful, traumatic, unbelievable that a group people can hold the whole nation to ransom and also distort the life and disrupt the educational progress of these young and innocent children that represent the future of the country is wrong, indeed despicable. As it is today, we have lost almost one full academic session. Some Federal and State polytechnics are strike. This is the worst strike, which has never happened in any country in the world. I want appeal to SSANU and NASU, to understand that they are not doing the Federal or State governments any harm. Rather it is the children that are suffering and bearing the brunt of their strike. What is happening is very, very sad. There is a lot of frustration. The mind is the devil’s workshop as it is said.
We know that the #EndSARS peaceful protest held last year was the result of accumulated frustration of ordinary citizens over the brutality and highhandedness of that special unit of the police. With what seems like insensitive treatment of the future of youths, are we likely to see a situation where parents can initiate a protest against incessant strikes in tertiary institutions which are distorting and disrupting the academic calendar and future of adolescents?
Yes, parents can protest through the social and mainstream media platforms by making representations to the National Assembly and the religious leaders. But they are not to go to the streets. Of course they can protest on their knees, praying to God to touch the hearts of the leaders of the unions in the tertiary institutions and the relevant government officials. The problem has somewhat become spiritual. It is wicked to force children to stay at home for one year. Parents should protest and prevail on the two unions not to go on another strike. Incessant strikes are not good for the children and the institutions because the strikes disrupt a lot of programmes. I totally condemn violent protests. Another strike will destroy the educational sector in Nigeria. We should not keep driving our children to Ghana, UK, Dubai and other foreign institutions.
At the core of most strikes is the issue of money. It has been said that huge budgetary allocations to the Executive and Legislative arms of government and the profligacy displayed by officials in these two arms contribute to the agitation for better remuneration by teachers and lecturers. What is your opinion on this assertion?
I am one of the people who have been campaigning for better funding of education and health. I have spoken out against the severe under-funding of the education and health sectors. The under-funding of these two vital sectors is outrageous and unconscionable. It is very sad. I believe that there should be higher statutory allocations to critical sectors like education, health and housing, which directly affect the masses. I expect members of the National Assembly and officials of the Executive Arm to make a patriotic sacrifice in this regard. I believe that this will go a long way to reduce the agitations, which lead to incessant strikes in the educational and health sectors. This will restore stability to the functioning of the two critical sectors. I want to commend President Muhammadu Buhari and Senate President Ahmed Lawan, for ending the era of prohibitive cost of carrying out legislative oversight functions by members of NASS committees. I dare say that the leadership of the 9th National Assembly has done well in this regard.
There are several good people in the National Assembly who have been governors and transformed the lives of people. I believe that those ones will champion the quest for patriotic change needed to make things better in our nation in the educational and health sectors. There has to be a demonstration of patriotic sacrifice by members of the National Assembly and the Executive Arm of government to drastically reduce the cost of governance for the sake of our children, so that we can give stable qualitative education to the next generation who are the future of Nigeria.
Let me put this in perspective: if a lecturer somehow gets elected to the National Assembly today as a senator, he would automatically become entitled to over N250 million annually as salary, allowances, etc. Clearly, the profligacy of the Executive and Legislative arms of government to a large extent fuel the incessant agitations for better remuneration by university lecturers and health care professionals.
Still talking about money, some people have been advocating that public institutions should begin to do more to support themselves. What is your view?
In this day and age, it is not right that public tertiary institutions are not productive. Many private tertiary institutions run commercial ventures to serve their primary communities and the larger society.
Given the realities of today, it is not right that public tertiary institutions should depend wholly on federal subventions. I think that public tertiary institutions should become more entrepreneurial, to fund their operations. That is the way tertiary institutions are funded in the United States. They invest in the shares of quoted companies. They are commissioned by corporate organisations to conduct research. They also offer other commercial services and do different things to generate income. They actively prospect for grants and endowments from private foundations. Public tertiary institutions need to raise their game in this area of seeking independent funding. When this happens and they attain high degree of financial autonomy, I believe the incessant strikes will end.
Has Southern Atlantic Polytechnic implemented the advice you just gave to tertiary institutions?
I am pleased to tell you that Southern Atlantic Polytechnic was established with the vision of providing education for wealth creation. Right from inception we have been pursuing this vision and it reflects in everything we do and in all our courses and programmes. All our lecturers are encouraged to have an entrepreneurial mindset.
Currently, we have a shoe-making factory. We produce shoes for the security services and state governments. Our garment production unit will employ experienced people, producing basic clothing materials and also provide our students opportunity to practice what they are taught.
We have acquired land for agriculture, where we have set up a farm to produce food crops for use in our polytechnic and for sales to the public. We have established a palm plantation that will produce oil. We also have a furniture-making factory where we produce most of the furniture used in the polytechnic.
You are aware that the Central Bank of Nigeria has been providing grants and loans to qualified organisations for commercial agriculture. I believe that an academic institution like Southern Atlantic Polytechnic which has demonstrable credibility should be considered for financial support under the CBN Anchor Borrowers Programme and such other intervention initiatives created by the Federal Government. This is one of the reasons some private polytechnics came together to form the Association of Founders and Rectors of Private Polytechnics, to have a common platform that will enable us make a representation to the CBN in this regard. We will do this in due course.
Nigeria is a fertile ground for productive commercial ventres. Imagine a university that has up to 20,000 students. That is a captive market for sachet and bottled water, bread, cakes, pies and pastries. It can also produce and sell to students of secondary schools in its immediate vicinity. For instance, what stops Lagos State University (LASU) from owning a big confectionery enterprise and selling its products to Lagosians.
I have maintained that tertiary institutions should become more entrepreneurial and connect the gown with the town. I want to see tertiary institutions go into joint ventures with corporate organisations to commercialise the result from research studies. This will make the institutions less dependent on government subvention.