By Olakunle Olafioye and Henry Okonkwo
Concerned Nigerians have called on the Federal Government and the leadership of the Academic Staff Union of University (ASUU) to reach a middle ground on the demands of the nation’s universities lecturers, which have paralyzed academic activities in the universities for more than two months.
ASUU had embarked on the current strike to press for improved funding of universities and implementation of previous agreements with the government.
The union is also demanding implementation of the 2009 FGN/ASUU agreements, Memorandum of Understanding (MoU; 2012 and 2013) and Memorandum of Action (MoA, 2017) and the truncation of the renegotiation of the union’s agreements.
The union asked the government to release funds for the revitalisation of public universities, based on the FGN-ASUU MoU of 2012, 2013 and the MoA of 2017.
University lecturers are also angry over the failure of the government to release operational licence to the Nigerian University Employees Pension Company, NUPEMCO.
However, a major issue dragging the negotiations is the revitalisation of the universities. At present, the government is yet to release the N1.1 trillion it agreed to release as part of the funds for the revitalisation project. The 2013 MoU stipulated that public universities need N1.3 trillion for a modest revitalisation. The fund was to be released in tranches of N200 billion in 2013, N220 billion, 2014; N220 billion, 2015; N220 billion, 2016; N220 billion, 2017 and N220 billion in 2018.
But as a condition for calling off the strike, which commenced on November 14, ASUU asked the Federal Government to release N50 billion to demonstrate its commitment to the revitalisation of public universities, in line with previous agreements with its union.
The N50 billion, the union said, would form the first tranche of the N220 billion the government agreed for the project this year and add to the N20 billion earlier released for the year.
The Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, however, revealed that last Monday the Federal Government had released about N163 billion to the universities from TETFUND account as a show of commitment to end the strike.
But, Biodun Ogunyemi, the national president of ASUU, said that the strike would continue as there were some important areas in the proposal they made to the government that have not yet been addressed.
Speaking to journalists after the meeting on Monday, Dr Ngige said that the debts owed ASUU by the government dates back to 2009, but that the present administration was committed to clearing them.
”Today, we have agreed to fund revitalisation. Government has released from TETFUND account about N163 billion. The meeting will reconvene at the instance of ASUU. FG is not weak in the negotiation. The strike is not slipping out of our hands.
”We did not take a long time than we anticipated. We have other commitments, but the important thing is that we have made substantial progress. We have reached some agreements in seven areas.
”If you aggregate the total amount of money involved, it is beyond N50 billion. We are paying in several compartments and these are debt from 2009 to 2012. We have started defraying the earned allowances there and released N15.4 billion for shortfall in the payment of salaries,” he said.
Yet Ogunyemi, the ASUU president, disclosed that the strike has not been suspended, saying that “discussions will continue at a later date. We are going back to our members for further consultation.
“Revitalisation is central to our academic work. Unless that area is addressed, our members will still have issues.
“We are not demanding for N50 billion, we are saying that the minimum that FG can release to reactivate revitalisation fund is N50 billion.”
Reacting on the face-off, Prof Abiodun Michael Oni, head, Political Science Department, Babcock University, Ogun State, said that the strike by ASUU was becoming too incessant, a development he noted was capable of diminishing the relevance of the union in the country.
According to him, “the strike by the Academic Staff Union of University is becoming too incessant, too unpopular and if care is not taken the union will lose its relevance. Most Nigerians now see them as self-seeking people who do not have the interest of, not only their students, but also the interest of the entire nation, at heart.
“The implication is that they end up producing half-baked graduates, because some of them, as soon as they call off the strike they might just rush their students and administer examinations without thoroughly exhausting the syllabus.
“On their threat to compel their members to boycott election duties, the government should look in the direction of the lecturers in private universities. Nobody should be allowed to hold the nation to ransom.”
Another concerned Nigerian, Dr Margaret Okafor, an educationist, also decried the incessant strikes in the tertiary institutions and called on the government and the union to find a lasting solution to the problem, which she claimed impacts negatively on the standard of education in the country.
“It is very disturbing that Nigeria is yet to find a lasting solution to the cycle of strikes in our tertiary institutions. There has been endless noise over why graduates in this country are not employable, but nobody is paying attention to ASUU dimension of this problem. There is no way the performance of the Nigerian graduates won’t be abysmal in an atmosphere where the students learn in fits and starts. If the students have to break their academic pursuits for more than two months, the result is predictable.
“So, it is high time the government took a decisive action to end this disturbing trend. This is the third ASUU strike since 2015. Although the agitation predates this government, those in leadership now were quite aware of it before they assumed office and it was one of the problems they campaigned they would solve if elected. The government must rise to its responsibility in fulfilling its part of the agreement. On the other hand, the lecturers, in the interest of the students and the nation at large, must shift their ground and try to reach a middle ground in their agitation,” she admonished.
Speaking of the negative implications of strike on public tertiary institutions, another educationist, Remi Sonaiya, a Professor of French Language and Applied Linguistics and former lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, said that strike should be an option that must not be resorted to because of its devastating effects on the education system.
According to Prof Sonaiya, ASUU should explore other means to mount pressure on the government to wake up to its responsibilities.
“One of the effects of strike is what we see nowadays when our academic certificates are not respected in many places. For me, I don’t believe in having a strike linger for so long.
“It is true successive leaderships of the country have unfortunately, not valued education. They have not devoted the kind of funds to education as they should have. And they have allowed our universities and schools, in general, to rot away. I know, for instance, that UNESCO recommends that developing countries should devote 26 per cent of their budget to education. But what do we have in Nigeria? It is not even up to 10 per cent. So, it is clear that our leaders are not serious about education. Those who determine the allocation of our budget are more interested in having plenty of money coming into their own pocket than devote money to training Nigerian children. There’s no doubt about that and it is a very sad reality indeed. So, one can understand the frustration of the lecturers working in an environment that does not give them the best tools with which they should be able to work. I’m sure if you go to any of our universities, you would see the decaying structures.
“I was a student of OAU, Ife, in the 1970s, I came back and worked there for 30 years and retired in 2010. And I saw how the standards and the structures just decayed before my eyes. And I strongly suggest that we could find other ways of keeping the pressure on the government to do that which they needed to do rather than go on endless strike because the long academic strikes do not have any positive effect on the university system or on our students. This is my personal conviction and opinion,” Sonaiya said.
Also x-raying the consequences of strike, Akeem Kelani, an education social worker of the Out of School Children Empowerment Foundation (OSCEF) described the lingering strike as exposing the idle students to social vices.
“It is a very sad situation because we are exposing the idle students to the dangers of being the devil’s workshop. The disruptions in academic programmes serve as a non-motivational factor to the students. It discourages them from learning. It is not surprising, therefore, that during strike actions, most students are seen involved in diverse activities such as sexual immorality, cyber scam, pool betting, unnecessary gossips, watching of films and reading comic materials for entertainment purposes rather than reading their books. In the long run, they soon forget about academics and are no longer prepared for class activities which negatively affect their learning capability,” he posted.
Some student leaders and graduates who bared their mind to Sunday Sun lamented the negative impact of the ongoing strike on the students.
Mr Emmanuel Ogbaje, a former student leader at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Enugu State, said that the continued ASUU strike portends a bad omen to an already weakened educational institution in the country.
“The intermittent disruption of academic activities owing to the incessant strikes affects the students whose academic activities are not only interrupted, but the duration of study elongated. The poor funding of the educational sector and lack of quality leadership by the government has always been a key factor for the reoccurring strike. It’s unfortunate that the students are caught in the middle in all of these and there’s little or nothing they can do to change the situation.
“I was still a student at UNN when our lecturers went on strike for over six months. It was the longest strike I experienced. During the cause of the strike, I was lucky to work as an intern in a company, but some of my friends who couldn’t get a place to work stayed home all through, while a few with wealthy parents abandoned their education in the country and travelled to continue their life abroad. I can still recall six of my friends who travelled out to complete their education due to the strike,” he said.
Another student, Mr Daniel Enemuo of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State, pleaded with both government and the academic union to consider the plights of students and sheathe their sword by coming to a compromise.
“As the saying goes, when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers it. The grass, in this case, is we the students who bear the brunt of the disagreement.
“These incessant strikes by ASUU or any other union dwindle our academic performance as students. When learning is suspended for a long period, our reading abilities fall. For some, the knowledge acquired during the learning period is even forgotten when they stop going to school. Also, most protracted strikes distort our school calendar. And the after-effect is prolonged school year that exceeds stipulated periods. Students who are supposed to do a four-year course end up spending six years in the school for a simple programme. Most academic activities for the school year are distorted. This is one of the major reasons our schools keep producing unqualified graduates who are deficient in their fields of study,” he said.