I was puzzled by a news story published in The Sun newspaper of Wednesday, 25 May 2016. The story was entitled “Bill against sex-for-marks scales through in Senate”. The first two paragraphs of the story read: “A bill prohibiting sexual harassment of students by educators in Nigeria’s tertiary educational institutions has scaled the crucial Second Reading in the Senate. Sponsor of the bill, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, who also led debate on the bill, argued that sexual harassment was rife in many higher institutions of learning in Nigeria, hence, the need for a law outlawing the vice.”
Senator Omo-Agege was said to have told his senator colleagues: “Sexual harassment is a vice in our higher institutions. We are using this bill to send a message that enough is enough.” While universities need to stand up against predators, harassing students for sexual gratifications in their campuses, I am not persuaded that the Senate needs to pass a law before sexual harassment could be taken seriously and dealt with vigorously by society or higher education institutions through punitive measures.
There are a number of issues that will challenge the implementation of this bill even after it has become law. Given the master-servant relationship between lecturers and students, it will take a bold and courageous female student to rise to allege sexual harassment against a lecturer and still expect to graduate without the offender, seeking ways of retaliating in a brutish way. This is a major challenge that confronts everyone – how to get victims of sexual harassment to stand up and speak out. How many female students would feel supported by their institutions to be strong enough to speak out?
So, while the bill “against sex-for-marks” in universities might have passed the second reading, the Senate also needs to debate how to empower female university students and indeed all women to know their rights and to feel free to express themselves when they are subjected to unfair treatment in their society.
Another reason the bill in the Senate could be described as something of a dud cheque is that sexual harassment is not limited to university campuses. It occurs in secondary schools. It is practised in public and private companies. It is perpetrated by lecturers in colleges of education and polytechnics, who feel sexual abuse of female students is a part of their reward on earth. Indeed, sexual harassment is everywhere. It is that morally reprehensible part of our culture that many people tend to ignore because they feel it is a way of life. No, it is not a way of life to maltreat a female student, a female worker, or even a female official. What is bad is bad and must be proclaimed so.
The shocking part of the news story appeared in the paragraph where it was stated that Senator “Dino Melaye said sexual harassment was a two-way traffic and argued that some students wilfully seduce their lecturers with the aim of getting academic favours”. Dino Melaye was reported to have said: “I support, wholeheartedly that this bill be enacted to stand as deterrent to lecturers, who take advantage of female students. However, the seductive and provocative dresses of our students, who enter offices of lecturers, who have no anointing to resist sexual temptation, should be discouraged.”
That was a callous and insensitive argument, an untenable position to adopt over a serious matter. It is strange that a senator of the Federal Republic tendered this morally blameworthy argument even as he stated his support for the bill. Even if this were to be the case; even if female students tempt their lecturers by wearing the so-called “provocative dresses”, shouldn’t lecturers be morally strong to resist approaches from some female students?
The senator who really captured my attention and support was Yahaya Aliyu, who advocated a law that would address sexual harassment in general rather than a law that is specifically focused on university teachers and female students. Aliyu was reported to have said: “If we are to make laws against sexual harassment, we should do it across board. Targeting one section of society is discriminatory.” I endorse his view.
There is no question that sexual harassment is rampant in universities. But so too is the criminal behaviour widespread in other sectors. Notwithstanding this, there are major contradictions that undermine perceptions of universities, as pinnacles of morality. The paradoxes damage the credibility and integrity of universities. For many years there have been calls on universities to reform in order to reflect the needs and realities of the 21st century. University teachers have been reminded numerous times that they are responsible or accountable to their students.
The quality of university education in Nigeria has been significantly undermined by continuing allegations of sexual harassment against university lecturers, who are hired to advance knowledge and research. These moral lapses have degraded many female students; they have antagonised parents, and tertiary education stakeholders. When universities are loathed by students whose interests they should protect, you know our higher education institutions are facing major moral challenges.
There are many abuses that take place in universities without the perpetrators being held to account for their bad conduct. That is a worry. There is also the impression (true or false) that some academic staff frequently engage in dreadful practices that will never be allowed in other institutions and other countries. For example, some academic staff are known to engage in bullying of students, forcing students to buy their second-rate or unsatisfactory teaching material, known as “handouts”.
Other excesses associated with university academics include subjecting students to physical and psychological abuse, emotional torture, and sexually stalking female students without being censured by university authorities. These are the abuses that universities must eradicate. Unfortunately, some universities don’t want to hear about the peccadilloes or failings of their staff. Their usual response is to shove under the carpet official complaints of sexual harassment brought against their staff. These indiscretions do not portray universities in positive light.
Many universities do not like accountability, particularly changes that require them to enhance standards of teaching and learning and research, including changes that could expose flaws in university education. For example, academic staff members, who operate like lords unto themselves will not like to associate with a system that requires them to demonstrate transparency in conduct and moral forthrightness in the way they relate with students. Surely, they will not approve a system that will require them to demonstrate their research achievements on a regular basis.
Indeed, academic and research staff of universities, who are at ease with the current state of affairs will reject outright a system that will allow students to evaluate their teaching practices in terms of introduction of innovative teaching practices and engagement in research that has significant impact on society. They will not accept a structure that requires academic staff to produce evidence of successful competitive research grant applications, as well as publication record evidenced by the number of peer-reviewed articles published in international reputable journals. These are the benchmarks for assessment of quality, significant achievements and readiness for promotion in the university system.
These benchmarks are sorely needed in many Nigerian higher education institutions. This is why some lousy academic staff will frown at suggestions to introduce or implement assessable standards for performance evaluation. The world is changing and Nigerian universities must not adopt the business-as-usual attitude that inhibits intellectual growth.
For the sake of quality in higher education, in the interest of intellectual development of students and staff, universities must reform. Yesterday’s model of university education is inapplicable and unproductive. It will impair innovation in teaching and research. It will compel academic and research staff of universities to be morally irresponsible. It will make universities less competitive than their counterparts in other parts of the world.