Enyeribe Ejiogu, Olakunle Olafioye, James Ojo Adakole (Lagos) and Fred Eze (Abuja)
Students in Nigeria’s public universities were spared another round of frustrating moment when the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the umbrella body of lecturers in federal universities, announced the suspension of its proposed industrial action last week.
ASUU had threatened to go strike following the warning by the Federal Government to stop the payment of the union’s members not captured in the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), initiated in 2007, to curb fraud in the payment of salaries and pensions of government workers.
Notwithstanding the decision of ASUU to put off the planned strike, several aggrieved parents, their undergraduate children, as well as those who recently secured admission, who would have received the baptism of fire if the industrial action had taken place, ventilated their frustration over frequent strikes in the country by university teachers.
Recall that President Muhammadu Buhari while presenting the 2020 budget proposal before the National Assembly on October 8, 2019, had vowed that Federal Government employees not captured on the IPPIS platform by October 31, would no longer receive their salaries.
IPPIS is a computerized human resource management information system that is being implemented in ministries, departments, agencies and local governments to perform various human resource functions. The implementation of IPPIS was part of the public service reform programme aimed at strengthening accountability and improved service delivery through automation of human resource functions and provision of reliable and timely information for decision-making.
IPPIS is a department domiciled in the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation and responsible for the payment of salaries and wages directly to the bank accounts of government employees. As at June 2017, over 300, 000 employees from 459 MDAs had been captured on the IPPIS platform. And since inception in 2007, the system is said to have saved the Federal Government billions of naira by eliminating thousands of ghost workers.
ASUU fears over IPPIS
However laudable the IPPIS initiative appears in the government’s effort to block all leakages in the payment of workers’ salaries and allowances, ASUU has consistently maintained that the policy lacks the capacity to effectively accommodate the peculiar nature and structure of the Nigerian universities and address the many negative concerns and their foreseeable consequences.
The union had at different fora expressed its concerns, maintaining that universities operated differently from the civil service and should, therefore, not be seen as appendages of ministries, departments and agencies of government.
At a press conference organized by the Bauchi zone of the union last Monday, ASUU maintained that the imposition of IPPIS on the federal universities would amount to flagrant violation of the law of the country.
It accused the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund of misleading the president on the issue.
According to Prof Lawal Abubakar, coordinator, Bauchi Zone of the union, imposing IPPIS on federal universities would affect the autonomy of the universities.
“The university system is so flexible that a lecturer may decide to disengage from service at any time. So should such a situation arise, and a vice chancellor whose university has lost its autonomy needs to get replacement, must have to go through some offices in Abuja and senior officials there could insist on having their own candidate included in the list. A VC that rejects this would have to suffer the consequences of future denials of approvals,” he said.
Abubakar maintained that the university might no longer be able to assist lecturers who have issues with their research allowances, rent allowance or retirement benefits, and as such lecturers would have to travel to Abuja before they can get that done, insisting that the university system is too dynamic for such delays and bottlenecks.
Similarly, the Port Harcourt zone of the union insisted that it would not under any circumstance join the IPPIS, describing the claim by the Federal Government that IPPIS would help fight corruption as fictitious.
Coordinator of the Port Harcourt Zone of ASUU, Uzo Onyebinama, stated their position at a media briefing in the Rivers State capital.
Onyebinama said that IPPIS is a calculated attempt to impoverish Nigerians just to benefit the elite, arguing that IPPIS is incapable of checking cases of ghost workers.
“The IPPIS is a programme of government to undermine public universities. Our union has no sympathy for corruption contrary to the campaign of calumny by the Accountant-General of the Federation,” he said.
The National President of ASUU, Prof Biodun Ogunyemi, said that the union has another template that would factor in the peculiarities of the universities and promote their interest.
He declared that IPPIS, as designed, lacks the capacity to address wide range of issues in the university system. Citing an instance of the fallouts of the policy on the university system, Ogunyemi said the imposition of IPPIS on members of the union would affect the fortunes of the nation’s universities in ranking, saying the policy will constitute a major disincentive to scholars from other parts of the world from coming to the nation’s universities, as it has the potential of subjecting them to the harrowing experience of delayed payments.
ASUU as thorn in government’s flesh
Formed in 1978 as a successor to the Nigerian Association of University Teachers, ASUU has remained a thorn in the flesh of successive governments in Nigeria. The union relies on industrial action as a major weapon to force recalcitrant governments into partial submission as no Nigerian government has ever met the union’s demands holistically.
The union was active in struggles against the military regime during the 1980s. In 1988 the union organized a national strike to obtain fair wages and university autonomy.
As a result, the union was proscribed on August 7, 1998. The ban on the union was lifted in 1990. That, however, only lasted for two years following another ban on the union on August 23, 1992 in the aftermath of another strike. However, an agreement was reached on September 3, 1992 that met several of the union’s demands, including the right of workers to collective bargaining. ASUU organized further strikes in 1994 and 1996, protesting against the dismissal of staff by the military regime of General Sani Abacha.
After the return to democracy in 1999, the union continued to be militant in demanding the rights of university workers. In 2007, ASUU went on strike for three months. In May 2008, it held two one-week “warning strikes” to press for a range of demands, including an improved salary scheme and reinstatement of 49 lecturers who were dismissed many years earlier.
In June 2009, ASUU ordered its members in federal and state universities nationwide to proceed on an indefinite strike over disagreements with the Federal Government on an agreement it reached with the union about two and a half years earlier. After a three-month strike, in October 2009, the union and other staff unions signed a memorandum of understanding with the government and called off the industrial action.
The longest ASUU strike lasted from July 1 to December 17, 2013. The industrial action resulted from the failure of the government to implement the 2009 agreement under which the government agreed to improve funding and conditions of service, as well as promote greater university autonomy and academic freedom.
One of the major issues in the memorandum of understanding signed in 2013 with the Federal Government involved a yearly fund of $687.5 million to be deposited into a special account at the Central Bank to develop public universities. This was meant to happen every year until the end of 2018. In September, the Federal Government approved $62.5 million to develop public universities, falling short of the 2013 agreement.
The last ASUU strike lasted three months. It was declared on Sunday, November 4, 2018 after the union’s National Executive Council meeting held at the Federal University of Technology, Akure and was suspended on Thursday, February 7, 2019, after a series of meetings between the ASUU leaders and government representatives.
Nigerian parents angry, blast ASUU
It is, therefore, understandable that ordinary Nigerians who had for long borne the financial pain and psychological trauma of seeing the academic progress and socio-economics of their children stunted and essentially destroyed by the incessant strikes embarked upon by ASUU, rose in revulsion when the union once again issued a strike notice to the government over the issue of enrolling their members under IPPIS.
For several of the angered parents, whose children were about to experience another distortion in their academic calendar, the ASUU threat was like the last straw that broke the camel’s back, and they screamed, “Oto ge” (enough is enough).
For Mr Joseph Ibezim, a senior corporate executive in a private company, whose 18-year-old son just secured admission into a federal university to study Computer Engineering, the prospect of the teenager not starting off the programme on schedule was offensive, considering that the boy sat at home for one full year after he was schemed out of the admission process at the University of Lagos for the same course on account of the state of origin/catchment area criterion, when his school mates from Ekiti, Oyo and Ogun, who had lower combined scores (in UTME, Post-UTME and WASSCE) were offered admission by University of Lagos, to study Computer Engineering.
“I do sympathise with ASUU and its quest to enhance the welfare of lecturers. That is important because a labourer is worthy of his wages. We see members of the National Assembly being paid humongous amounts for doing so little. People in the Presidency get a whole lot too. I understand all that, but ASUU should not make our children pay the price for the profligacy of the Presidency and the National Assembly. They must find another way of fighting for their rights, which the public can enthusiastically support, because what is good for them will be good for our children. I am totally against the incessant strikes by ASUU because the children of the officials in the presidency, MDAs and members of the National Assembly are either studying abroad or in private universities in Nigeria. Even some of the lecturers themselves have their children in private universities or they are studying outside the country. These lecturers write little books, which they force our children to buy at high prices, and the money they make is used to pay for children’s fees in private universities. They cannot use the heads of children (their future) to break their coconut. I reject that totally,” Ibezim angrily said.
For other parents like Ibezim, ASUU strike evokes horrible memories of extra costs incurred by them because their wards in public universities were sent home before the end of the semester or session, thereby lengthening the duration of their courses.
Mrs Oluwole Ibidun, who has two undergraduate children in a federal university, lamented that the incessant strikes by ASUU had been taking a huge toll on her and other parents struggling to give their children university education.
She said: “ASUU strike is always a nightmare for me and other parents in my shoe. We are not saying what they are pursuing is not good, but they should always have the interest of the common man at heart. How do they want parents who are struggling to be able to meet the huge financial demands that often come with such strikes? The government and ASUU must always think of those who bear the brunt of their perennial face-off.”
Also speaking, Mr Akin Ibrahim, another parent stated that incessant ASUU strikes show further evidence of leadership collapse in the country and an indication that those in power do not care about the masses.
“Everything is becoming difficult for ordinary Nigerians nowadays. When strike happens, it is we the poor that lament, the rich whose kids are either studying in private universities or abroad hardly bother about the situation. For the sake of posterity, we appeal to ASUU and government to consider the ordinary Nigerians who struggle to sustain their wards in the universities,” Ibrahim said.
A social commentator, Mr Ogbaje Emmanuel, called for declaration of a state of emergency in public universities across the country, saying, “the incessant strike by ASUU calls for serious concern because of its disruptive nature on the lives of students and the academic calendar of institutions. I would suggest a total reform of the system to help salvage the situation. In my time in school, we went on strike for over six months because of a standoff between ASUU and the Federal Government and that greatly affected our studies then. When we resumed, we were literally rushed to complete our studies and take exams so that we can make up for time lost and this was not a great experience. I believe the poor funding of the universities is at the heart of the numerous strikes and it’s something that government needs to pay serious attention to. A year hardly passes by in the academic calendar without any strike happening and this has more or less weakened our institutions and made them unable to compete with others at the world stage. A state of emergency should be declared on the universities if that would help to holistically address the many issues that plague the universities.”
The smooth operation of the academic calendar of private universities, which has seen their students study and graduate within the specified duration of their courses has endeared them to many Nigerians, including those in the middle class who strive to save money and enroll their children. Again, with thousands of qualified students not being able to secure admission in public universities of their choice, a huge and widening gap now exists as the hunger for university education grows. This has created a demand for more universities, a fact buttressed by the flood of applications to the National Universities Commission (NUC) for licences to establish private universities.
In April this year, the National Universities Commission (NUC) confirmed that 303 applications from individuals, corporate organisations and faith-based organisations were being considered for operational licence to run private universities in Nigeria.
Currently, there are 79 private universities in the country. Of this number, 36 are located in the Southwest geopolitical zone. South-south region is second with 14; the Southeast has 13, North-central has 11 while the Northwest and Northeast have two each.
The commission said its enabling Act listed 11 statutory requirements for establishment of private university in Nigeria, and they include; an application letter stating the intent for such university, payment of N1 million to NUC for 10 copies of application form, payment of additional N5 million for processing of application (including verification visits), academic brief and physical master plan.
Others requirements are counterpart deed of assignment, certificate of incorporation of the proprietor, certificate of occupancy of the university land, university law, evidence of available cash and bank guarantee of funds to the tune of N200 million from a reputable bank.
The Commission also highlighted modalities for processing such applications, which must be duly completed before operational licence could be awarded. They include a letter stating intent of the university, interaction with university promoters to ascertain their seriousness, collection of application form, submission of same and relevant documents, interactive meeting of NUC officials with the proposed universities.
Other criteria include completion of submission of outstanding relevant documents, intensive review/analysis of documents, first site visit, revision of documents by proprietor, second and final site assessment visits, among others.
NUC Executive Secretary, Prof Adamu Rasheed, at a recent meeting with proprietors of private universities in Nigeria said that he would be glad to issue operational licence to the applicants if they could hasten up and fulfill the requirements.
Adamu agreed that there was need for more private universities to complement the efforts of public ones in providing quality and affordable university education to thousands of Nigerians.
Concurring with the submissions of Adamu, Co-founder, Micheal and Cecelia Ibru University, Cecelia Ibru, said that private interventions in Nigerian university education system is the way out of the quagmire threatening the quality of graduates in the country.
She said: “We need more of them. United States has over a thousand private universities, including the ones that specialise in a particular field. Malaysia has over 90 private universities even though they are smaller than us in terms of population and size. “
While commenting on the frequent disruption of the academic calendar, Founder, Gregory University, Uturu, Abia State, Dr. Gregory Ibeh, noted that this was partly responsible for the proliferation of private universities.
He said: “The situation of the public universities is pathetic. Private universities have obviously restored sanity and confidence in the system even when they are not making profit like in the case of secondary schools.
“Howbeit, the number of private and public universities put together is not enough to cater for the educational needs of Nigerians, and that could be the major reason the NUC left the door open for anyone that can meet the criteria to come in and intervene.
“As public universities drop in quality, opportunities are provided for private universities to rise. In summary, the poor academic and non-academic situation in public universities gave rise to the establishment and proliferation of private universities, and they have done marvelously well.
“Even with over 300 applications being considered by NUC, the number is still low when compared to number of universities in countries with less population than Nigeria. So, NUC is right to leave the door open so that anyone that meets the criteria can be allowed to operate. In private universities, you don’t have ASUU or any labour union that would disrupt academic activities.”
Meanwhile, a graduate of Bingham University, Karu, Nasarawa State, Amaka Agu, told our correspondent that ASUU strike was one of the major reasons she chose private universities.
She said: “ASUU was on strike when I wanted to enter the university. I was seriously disturbed about it. I told my parents that I don’t want to spend extra year in school for any reason, ASUU strike or whatever, and that informed their choice of sending me to a private university.
“I had no unnecessary delay, I secured admission at the right time for a four-year programme. I completed my registration, started class and graduated at the end of four years. There was never a reason to spend extra year in school.”
In the same vein, Esther Ajayi, a graduate of Adeleke University, Ede, in Osun State, which is a private institution, never experienced strike of any kind during her four-year programme at the university.
It was only through her friends at Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH), Ogbomosho, in Oyo State, that she learnt about the frequent strikes.
“Like most private universities, Adeleke University is not affected by strike of any kind. I mostly get to know of ASUU strike because of my friends in LAUTECH and other public universities,” she told Sunday Sun.
Ewa Chiamaka, a fresh graduate of Mass communication from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) in Enugu State did not have a smooth ride through the university unlike Amaka Agu and Esther Ajayi.
During her days as an undergraduate, frequent strikes by ASUU was commonplace, a development she says, impaired the learning process.
While ASUU usually claimed the strikes were necessitated by its drive to improve the state of infrastructure and the standard of education in public universities, the same students bear the brunt of such disruption in the academic calendar.
Expressing their displeasure over the strike, Chiamaka said: “ASUU strikes have become a nightmare in the lives of Nigerian students. I experienced the 2018/2019 strike, which lasted for about two to three weeks. We were made to sit at home for months without any meaningful result. The previous one ended in February for the obvious reason that the 2019 election was about to commence and being the commencement of the 2019 general elections. Knowing full well that the university lecturers would be highly needed in the exercise, the government knew that something had to be done. The system is corrupt from those in power down to the ASUU members. I feel if they have real intentions towards Nigerian universities, more action would be put in the place than mere regular meetings without meaningful results.”
Nnadiekwe Patience also shared the same sentiment and stressed that ASUU strikes are inimical to the students.
“ASUU strikes are hardly in students’ interest because they affect the students negatively, physically and spiritually. Such strikes often put the future of students at stake as most people often lose interest in their study during such periods. They also amount to wasted time that eventually prolongs the duration of degree programmes.”
That was exactly the bitter pill Precious Eze had to swallow when her graduation from the university extended from 2017 to 2018.
She told Sunday Sun: “I was affected by such strikes during my stay in school and the experience was really ugly. It extended my graduation date, made me lose interest in the system. My parents spent a lot of extra money on my education. The strikes are never in the interest of students. They just use students as pawns in their fight with the government. Have you ever asked yourself why ASUU always embark on strike few weeks before exams or close to resumption?”