The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) deserves commendation for suspending the strike it embarked upon nine months ago. In calling off the strike last week, ASUU said it would monitor the compliance level of the Federal Government to the agreement they both reached. Having lost one academic calendar already, it is our wish and hope that there will never be any need to embark on this type of action anymore in our tertiary institutions.
ASUU had gone on strike in March this year to protest against the series of unmet agreements the Federal Government had reached with it. Essentially, it asked for better funding of the universities and some welfare issues. The Integrated Payroll Personnel Information System (IPPIS) was another contentious issue. The union developed an alternative system it calls the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) and insisted that it must be UTAS or nothing. Good enough, this issue appears to have been resolved.
We feel the pain of ASUU and other concerned citizens regarding the rot in the universities. Lecture halls are grossly inadequate and usually overcrowded. Some of the hostels are dilapidated and not fit for human habitation. The few available ones are overstretched with students staying up to 10 or more in a room meant for six.
ASUU had once noted that less than 10 per cent of the universities had video conferencing facility and less than 20 per cent use interactive boards. Internet services are very slow and epileptic. Most of the libraries are not digitalised and facilities are outdated. Good laboratories, clean toilets and potable water are either non-existent or grossly inadequate. There are many abandoned developmental projects in many of the institutions. Publications in academic journals are far from being satisfactory. Many of these universities do not have enough qualified academic staff. They rely heavily on part-time or visiting lecturers.
Efforts to correct some of these anomalies had failed as ASUU said government was fond of reneging on its agreements in the past. The dispute dragged on for too long and terribly affected the academic calendar and the future of varsity students. As it is now, a student who entered the university for a four-year course will end up spending five or more years on campus.
The long strike led to the frustration of many students. The success of the #EndSARS protest is largely because many students were at home and might have participated in it. The emergence of the dreaded COVID-19 disease worsened the situation. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF have noted that prolonged closure of schools occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic exposed students to poor nutrition, stress, violence, exploitation, pregnancies and challenges in mental development.
The greatest damage this strike has wrought on university education is the negative perception of Nigerian graduates. The rating of our universities has gone down further in the eyes of the international community. Products of our universities seeking admission for postgraduate courses abroad may face some hurdles and unnecessary tests to ascertain their academic fitness. In the World University ranking, Nigerian universities are nowhere near the first 500.
That is why some parents now prefer to take their children to private universities. Those who can afford it send their children abroad including some neighbouring countries like Ghana and even Togo and Benin Republic where they are assured of a stable academic calendar. Sadly, Nigeria has lost millions of dollars to education tourism.
While ASUU strike necessitated the closure of Nigerian public universities, universities across the world have continued to make giant strides in research and scientific discoveries. The University of Oxford, for instance, is among top institutions that developed COVID-19 vaccine recently.
While we sympathise with ASUU over the rot in the universities, we feel that frequent strikes have done more harm than good to our universities. ASUU had made its points clear in the past but the union should not be too overbearing. There must be some other ways of engaging the government and resolving disputes without frequently going on strike.
Government on its part must respect the agreement it reached with the union. Reneging on such agreements erodes its credibility and makes people doubt its intentions. We believe that if the universities are adequately funded, there may not be any need to go on strike. We have paid much lip service to university education and this must stop.
We commend ASUU for ending the industrial action. However, the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic has presented fresh challenges to the universities. Before they reopen, the universities must strictly comply with stipulated safety protocols. University authorities should ensure, as much as possible, that staff and students wear facemasks, always wash their hands and use hand sanitizers regularly. There should also be regular checking of temperature and isolation of whoever exhibits signs of sickness.
In all, there is need for ASUU and the Federal Government to demonstrate good faith in resolving the contentious issues. We believe that enough lessons must have been learnt by both sides to the industrial dispute. Nigeria cannot really develop with frequent strikes by varsity teachers, especially when the academic calendar is unpredictable. We urge ASUU, the government and other unions in the universities to ensure industrial peace in the universities.