ASUU, salvage our university system – Punch

Disruption to the Nigerian university system is imminent. Upset that the Federal Government has again reneged on the long-standing agreement to revitalise the system, the Academic Staff Union of Universities is threatening to go on strike. As is customary, the government is handling the threat with levity. Perhaps, it is doing so because it has been wriggling out of past strikes by placating the union with tokenism. To save university education from implosion, the Muhammadu Buhari government should grasp the nettle this time round.

The cause of disagreement is the 2009 FGN/ASUU Memorandum of Understanding aimed at resuscitating tertiary education in Nigeria. Its key components include upgrading infrastructure, funding research/training, equipping laboratories and payment of backlog of earned allowances (for lecturers). But with the government’s failure to honour the agreement, ASUU has embarked on a series of strikes to press home its demands.

Cumulatively, the lecturers went on strike for 36 months between 1999 and 2013. ASUU President, Biodun Ogunyemi, said, “We are very saddened by the way the government is handling the various agreements and Memorandum of Understanding it has entered into with us.” Fittingly, the ASUU boss warned against the move to commercialise university education with the payment of high tuition, which the government has already denied, saying it only planned to establish an education bank that would give loans to students.

In financial terms, the cost is enormous. The parties had agreed that government would fund the universities with N472 billion in 2009, N497 billion in 2010 and N548 billion in 2011. Unfortunately, government honoured the agreement in the breach, leading to a fresh ASUU strike between July and mid-December 2013. When it was renegotiated in 2013, government agreed to service the agreement with N220 billion per annum until 2018. It has failed to do so. This caused a warning strike in 2017.

When the MoU was inked in 2009, there were 27 federal universities, according to the National Universities Commission. As of October 2018, the number has mushroomed to 43. This is irrational. At every turn, government betrays its lack of understanding of the importance of universities in research, innovation and economic development. Curiously, the erstwhile Goodluck Jonathan administration established nine universities to assuage political interests with a seed fund of N1.5 billion each even when it could not fund the existing institutions.

Without any rigorous underpinning, the Buhari administration has embarked on the same trajectory, establishing universities for the Army, ICT and another one for Transportation set to take off in Daura, the President’s hometown, in 2019. As we have argued many times, the proliferation of universities by the federal and state governments is reckless and nonsensical.

The state of tertiary education in Nigeria is dispiriting. In the just released 2019 Times Higher Education World Universities Rankings, which covered 86 countries, only the privately owned Covenant University, Ota, made it to the first 600. The University of Ibadan and University of Nigeria, Nsukka, squeezed into the 1000+ category. The 2012 Need Assessment report on Nigerian universities captures the rot in bold letters.

Among other ills, the NUC suspended 150 illegal courses in 37 universities. Facilities for teaching and learning are grossly inadequate, overstretched and dilapidated. The laboratories are dysfunctional, overcrowded hostels coupled with insufficient furnishing and electric power are the order of the day.

Several capital projects have been abandoned because of paucity of funds. There are no fully automated libraries. With ICT defining this age, this puts our graduates at a huge disadvantage when matched with the products of other institutions worldwide. The Need Assessment report said there was a deficit of 34,000 teaching personnel without PhDs in the system. This can only be addressed by expanding and attracting the best to the teaching profession with adequate financial and professional rewards.

With this precarious scenario, the government has to sit back and instil a scientific restructuring in the system, instead of this rule of thumb approach to the problem. Tackling the rot demands foresightedness. ASUU needs to be resolute and force the government to do what is right. First, the government has to pay fully the backlog in the renegotiated agreement. This will engender improvement in infrastructure, teaching and welfare of lecturers and undergraduates. To get funds, government should privatise its loss-making entities and open up the economy to international investors.

Second, government should reverse itself on the new universities established. Some of the specialised institutions like the universities of agriculture, to which very few students are applying to study, should be merged or scrapped. There is no need for separate universities for the land, air and naval armed services. There is also no need to establish a maritime university when a faculty of maritime studies can be integrated into the existing universities. The same applies to the police and Transportation universities. These politically-motivated creations should be discarded outright.

For now, a moratorium should be placed on the establishment of new public universities at the state and federal levels. It is pointless for state governments owing civil servants to be granted licences to create new universities, especially when they cannot fund existing ones.

Third, the government should prioritise education. In Germany, the 16 states abolished tuition completely for university education in 2014 for both Germans and international students, according to a research by London-based QS, an education research outfit. In addition, Germans and select foreign students are given a lifeline to study through grants from Germany’s Federal Student Financial Aid Programme. Therefore, Nigeria should stop paying lip service to education and recognise that it is a social service and an inalienable right of every citizen.

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