The university teachers said they were going on strike to compel government to address the funding for the revitalisation of public universities in the country
It was yet another unwelcoming piece of news. On Sunday, November 4, uncertainty, anxiety and confusion pervaded the nation’s university system, as the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) directed its members to commence an indefinite strike the following day.
Why ASUU rages
The National Executive Council of the union, after a meeting at the Federal University of Technology, Akure, had expressed disappointment at the Federal Government for its failure to ensure the implementation a series of agreements entered into with the union over the years.
These include 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 university teachers said they were going on strike to compel government to address the funding for the revitalisation of public universities in the country based on the FGN-ASUU MoU of 2012, 2013 and the MoA of 2017. The union also sought the reconstitution of the current Federal Government Negotiating Team led by eminent legal practitioner and Pro-Chancellor, University of Lagos, Dr. Wale Babalakin (SAN).
Other demands by ASUU include the appointment of a new chairman for the government negotiating team, one “who has the interest of the nation and its people at heart;” release of the forensic audit report on Earned Academic Allowances (EAA), payments of all outstanding earned academic allowances and mainstreaming of same into salaries, beginning with the 2018 budget; payment of all arrears of shortfall in salaries to all universities that have met the verification requirements of the Presidential Initiative on Continuous Audit (PICA); and the release of University Pension Fund operational licence.”
Expectedly, the strike has paralysed academic activities in the nation’s government-owned universities. The ASUU leadership has vowed that the situation would persist until the body’s conditions are fully met.
FG and funding of varsities
At an interactive session with journalists in Lagos last weekend, the chairman of the Federal Government Negotiating Team, Dr. Wale Babalakin addressed some of the concerns raised by ASUU. He also adduced a number of factors to explain why it had become absolutely impracticable for the government to totally fund university education, even as he proffered a wide range of alternatives for a seemingly seamless operation of the nation’s tertiary education sector.
Dr. Babalakin explained that he, as leader of the committee, had always canvassed the position of the entire membership of the negotiating team. The senior lawyer averred that he had never spoken as an individual on issues concerning ASUU and the federal government, insisting that all the members of the team were united in their position.
While admitting that, over the years, inadequate funding had indeed beset the university system, Babalakin said the Muhammadu Buhari administration was convinced that Nigerians should have access to quality education, and that no citizen should be deprived of university education because of unsavoury financial circumstances.
ASUU president, Prof Biodun Ogunyemi had claimed, in 2016, that Nigeria required close to N 2 trillion annually to make the academic institutions compete favourably with others across the globe.
He said the costing was arrived at after the Federal Government conducted a Needs Assessment of public universities in July 2012.
Babalakin explained that it was simply unrealistic to expect such a humongous yearly budget from government. “This figure exceeds in value the total amount of money available for all capital projects in Nigeria, including health, infrastructure, security and others,” Babalakin said. “Government cannot ignore all other areas of expenditure that require funding”
He repudiated claims by some ASUU leaders that his committee had proposed N350, 000 or N500, 000 as tuition fees for university undergraduates. “Aside from the fact that our committee has no power to impose fees on students, we are at a loss regarding the source of the said figures,” Babalakin said.
Babalakin also refuted the claim by ASUU that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) had advised developing countries to allocate 26 percent of their annual budget to education.He said ASUU had always failed to provide documents
to back up the claim, which he said was unfeasible in a developing society with unstable economy.
According to the Nigeria Universities Commission, as at 2010, the cost of training an undergraduate to full accreditation in Nigeria was about $3,364 dollars. At the moment, that translates to over N1 million per annum per each student.
With about one million undergraduates in Nigeria’s universities, funding university undergraduates alone would cost the government N 1 trillion annually. Funding of post-graduate students is even costlier.
It was gathered that the federal government barely manages to pay salaries and basic overheads of the federal universities. At the University of Lagos, for instance, while the budget for personnel cost for last year amounted to N12.9 billion, just about N10 billion was released. Less than N150 million, it was learnt,
was released to the institution for capital projects and overheads. For an institution with about 50,000 students, the university would require no less than N50 billion to achieve full accreditation of its courses. In spite of the amount it got from the Federal Government last year, UNILAG got a miserly 20 per cent of the funds required to properly run the institution from the government.
There are other interventions from government agencies, including the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), Petroleum Trust Development Fund and Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). Some ministries and agencies of government also contribute funds to some federal universities. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Science and Technology contribute to Federal Universities of Agriculture and Federal
Universities of Science and Technology directly. But all this, including the yearly allocations from the federal government, generates just about 22.5 per cent of the total requirement of running a proper federal university system.
Babalakin informed that the total budget of the Federal Government for 2017 was about N8 trillion. Out of this, recurrent expenditure gulped 41 per cent, while capital expenditure took about 28 per cent. Debt servicing was 23 per cent, statutory transfer, five per cent and sinking fund, three per cent.
From the budget, the total revenue available to government, which is 69 percent of N8 trillion, was N5.5 trillion. Of this amount, N3.28 trillion was for the payment of salaries. This might even go higher
with the likely increase in the minimum wage. About N2.24 trillion was left to fund infrastructural projects in the health, education, security and public works sectors, including roads and rail.
The negotiating team contended that with the state of the Nigerian economy, allocating between N1.3 trillion and two trillion annually to education remains an unworkable option.
The team, according to Babalakin, believes that whatever funding the government is providing for university education should be sustainable. Its position, he emphasised, is that funding of university education must not be subjected to the uncertainties of government resources “and the swinging political dispositions of political office holders.”
Need for alternative sources
Babalakin said it had become obvious that the federal government alone could not adequately fund education. He contended that since the government was desirous of having a university system with products that could effectively address the nation’s intellectual and technological challenges, exploring alternative sources of funding had become imperative.
Govt must do more
At the moment, statistics have shown that in the University of Lagos, for instance, the Federal Government is responsible for just 22. 5 percent of the running cost of the institution. In more basic terms, the government had provided sponsorship to 22.5 percent of the student population. Pegging the number of students in the school at 50, 000, it means that the federal government has been able to defray the educational cost of about 12, 500 students.
The Babalakin Committee suggested that the Federal Government should, as a matter of priority, increase the percentage to 30.
“This will immediately add another N3.6b per annum to the annual revenue of the university. This money should, however, not be seen as a bonanza. It is proposed that this additional funding ought to be tied to the achievement of certain milestones or key performance indicators that would be measurable and show clearly if the recipient university is producing the quality graduates expected from it. At this stage, government would have increased its funding of the university system substantially, however with a qualification that this increase is purposeful and for a defined purpose which is measurable. It is not a largesse.”
But even at that, there would still be a 70 percent shortfall. But Babalakin and his team believe there is a way out.
To resolve that, Babalakin said the time to establish the Education Bank, as supported by the National Council on Education, was now. The bank, he stated, would provide soft loans for students seeking university education. He explained that the council had also directed that student loan schemes be set up by the various state governments.
He explained further: “Our position is that every student who gains admission to a university and is unable to qualify on merit for the Federal Government’s scholarship should be entitled as of right to obtain a loan from the Education Bank. A loan of N1 million per annum would be made available to each of such students. Seven hundred thousand naira out of this loan will be paid to the university as tuition fees while the balance will be available to the student as support towards his upkeep allowances.
“Every university will now have the resources it requires to position itself as one of the leading universities in the world within the next ten years of the operation of this system.
“The loan from the Education Bank is a right for all those who are qualified and who apply for it. It will be provided at an interest rate of no more that 5% per annum to enable the Bank cover the cost of administering the loan.
“The loan will be structured in a manner that the student borrower will not expend more that ten percent of his income in repaying the loan over a given period.”
Benefits of students loan scheme
Babalakin contended that the loan scheme would be a win-win situation for all parties. While access to funds would no longer be a factor militating against the acquisition of university education for the nation’s youths, inadequate funding would also cease in public universities.
“Indeed, every university will have the resources it requires to position itself as one of the leading universities in the world within the next ten years of the operation of this system. It will create an immediate boost to the funding of the educational system. It will create a cash flow that is ring-fenced against the vagaries of the economy and will save the funding of education from the changing political mood of a ruling party,” he said.
But opponents of the scheme would argue that repayment process might not be as seamless as it seems. The loans made available to students by the defunct Students Loans Board provide an easy illustration. Some students with loans may simply disappear after graduation.
But Babalakin explained that with technology, such scenarios are unlikely.
“With a BVN and other modern technological devices, debtors can be easily be traced, irrespective of their location. Their names will remain in a database until the loan is liquidated. It is our position that loans should, in addition to being documented in the database, also be domiciled in the respective local governments of the borrowing students. From our experience loans are easier to recover in Nigeria where the local community is involved in the loan process,” he said.
He argued that the universities must also start operating as institutions established and designed for the promotion of scholarship in an intellectually competitive environment, and not as a bureaucracy. Outstanding performance must be rewarded appropriately by various university councils, he proposed.
The FG team has additional suggestions: “The university leadership must have the capacity for original thinking. University councils must be constituted in a manner that councils can provide the leadership it requires. In present day Nigeria, universities must be led by persons who have a serious commitment to the university system and not those who are mainly representatives of the ruling party.”
The team recommended that federal universities must be “truly federal”, with the leadership of such institutions reflecting the geographical diversity of Nigeria.
“Our position is that out of the five principal officers of the university who occupy the positions of Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Registrar, Bursar and Librarian, not more than three of these positions should be held by persons from the same geographic zone.”
The team said for a cohesive supervision of the system, the Ministry of Education must be the federal organ coordinating affairs of the institutions. “The idea of certain universities being supervised by other ministries such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Science and Technology and Ministry of Health is not appropriate.
“Whatever contributions those Ministries want to make should be routed through the Ministry of Education in order to achieve a centrally coordinated supervision of the university education system,” Babalakin contended.
He said if these proposals were allowed to work, there would be a total turnaround in the education sector, such that Nigeria would, within a few years, have a strong university system whose products could compete anywhere in the world.
“At a time, the University College Hospital (UCH) was the fifth or sixth best among the members of Commonwealth of Nations. Our institutions were among the best in the world. It will take some years of consistent and faithful implementation to accomplish, but we will get there. But we welcome other ideas. If ASUU or anyone has better suggestions and ideas, we will be willing to consider such,” he said.