The Academic Staff Union of Universities remained undaunted after its last meeting with the Federal Government on its ongoing strike that is now in its ninth week. Until the government releases one tranche of the N220 billion revitalisation fund, spread over four quarters of this year, the union says there will be no end to the impasse. Its doggedness is commendable.
Its stance is the exact opposite of the impression the Minister of Labour and Productivity, Chris Ngige, created, that both parties had reached an agreement. The minister said there was evidence that the N15.4 billion lecturers’ salary shortfall had been released to the universities, just as President Muhammadu Buhari had approved the release of N20 billion, being arrears of their verified allowances between 2009 and 2012.
But ASUU President, Biodun Ogunyemi, says members’ concern transcends the unpaid allowances, which he regards as tokenism that has been rejected. He says, “The revitalisation fund and the earned academic allowances are the two critical areas, which our members feel strongly about. They expect necessary adjustments on the part of government before they can reconsider their decision on the ongoing strike action.”
The journey to this gridlock began in 2009 when ASUU entered into a pact with the Federal Government, but was renegotiated in 2012 on improved funding of public universities. The government was expected to release N1.3 trillion to universities over a period of five years. But only the N200 billion meant for 2013 was released by the Goodluck Jonathan administration in 2014. The N200 billion each for 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 has not yet been released at all. However, other demands such as the Consolidated University Academic Salary Structure and increasing the retirement age of professors from 65 to 70 years, among others, have since been implemented.
It bears repeating that the degradation of our universities, following long years of neglect, has rendered them otiose, compelling many academics to transfer their services abroad. With underfunding and proliferation of universities, lack of basic facilities like water, electricity and bathrooms, sufficient lecture halls, students’ halls of residence, office accommodation and bookshops, outdated libraries, ill-equipped laboratories, low research funding, admission of students beyond carrying capacity and deficiency in lecturers with PhDs, characterise their existence. It is unfortunate that since the 2012 Needs Assessment of Universities highlighted these shortcomings, serious efforts have not been made to reverse the rot.
There are 91 public universities in the country, 43 of which are federally owned, while the states own the rest. If federal universities are in the vortex of financial mess, the condition of those run by the states could be unimaginable. Some of them (states) have two universities, colleges of education and polytechnics to compound their prostrate situation. It is sheer irresponsibility for government at all levels to set up universities they cannot effectively fund. Therefore, government should meticulously learn from the headwind the ASUU imbroglio seems to represent by placing embargo on new public universities and cancelling the newly established ones. Indeed, ASUU should enter the trenches each year government fails to release the revitalisation fund. More universities have sprung up since 2012, which means that more institutions would partake in sharing the N220 billion fund now; inflation has also reduced the value, thus vitiating its possible impact.
If the authorities are ignorant, employ political expediency and the rule of thumb to establish these deficient institutions to hearken to the call for expansion of access to university education, they should henceforth be guided by reason and the revelation of the Registrar, Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, Ishaq Oloyede, that the existing 600,000 spaces in the country’s 150 universities are sufficient. A total of 1.6 million candidates sat the 2018 Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, out of which only 700,000 of them had the minimum O’ level admission requirement of credits in five subjects, including English language and mathematics.
Given that the admission cut-off score was as low as 120 marks in 2017, because of poor performance in the UTME, it is difficult for all the 700,000 qualified candidates to pass the examination. Where 900,000 candidates who sat UTME are unqualified, on the basis of which public and private universities proliferate, educational policymakers should pause for some soul-searching.
Universities are global centres of excellence, devoted to teaching, research and innovation. And many countries are leaving Nigeria behind. A report says India’s quest for world-class universities has been translated into a search for 20 “institutions of eminence” (10 public and 10 private). The Indian government has committed to spending up to INR10 billion on each of the 10 public institutions over the next 10 years. The INR100 billion total amount is roughly equal to US$1.5 billion dollars – or US$156 million per institution.
We urgently need to develop the most effective and relevant tertiary education system for rapid economic growth. A World Bank study, “The Road to Academic Excellence,” attributes the making of world-class universities to academic talent, financial resources and governance, especially autonomy and academic freedom. This consciousness should underpin the funding of our universities, which will guarantee the quality of our degrees – now being questioned locally and outside our shores.
Some experts have argued that the absence of foreign faculties and students in Nigerian universities has eroded their universalism and weakened their development. Universities like Bologna, Oxford, Paris and Cambridge set the pace in developing values and tradition of citadels of learning. Their diversity in masters (professors) and students, gave them the uniqueness of being melting pots of culture-enriched learning. Lack of this touch, arising from paucity of funding here, explains why even the University of Ibadan, the best ranked locally, according to Webo Metric rankings 2018, is outside of the best 1,000 globally.
Institutions of higher learning are not constituency projects as the House of Representatives is in the process of turning them into, with its bid to set up 87 new ones, first, before addressing how they would be funded. Such irrationality and the demotion of seven professors for “lack of requisite scholarship…,” in one of the nine new but ill-equipped universities the Goodluck Jonathan administration established, bespeak lack of planning and the bitter truth that our universities have yet to become an essential element in the scheme of our national development.