Challenges in staggered universities calendar – Punch

Unified academic calendar of universities in the country, which used to start in October and end in June, has been ruptured, putting the academic system out of alignment with the norm globally.  Thus, university lecturers who normally use the global calendar to enrich their knowledge are shut out. For the students, the time of graduation and mobilisation for the compulsory one year National Youth Service Corps programme is no longer predictable.

Worse still is the fact that the calendar now varies from university to university due to incessant strikes by lecturers, non-academic staff and students in their quest for improved conditions of service and better learning environment.  It is a phenomenon which Ayo Banjo, a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, recently excoriated at a book launch. The aberration has inflicted on universities a siege mentality with its damaging effects on the quality of degrees they offer. Sabbaticals, exchange programmes and conferences Nigerian academics used to share from the globally unified calendar have diminished. Universities are centres of excellence, which lose their allure once the universal appeal vanishes.

Painfully, universities in Nigeria have been grossly underfunded and mismanaged by administrators. This is why they are not reckoned with globally, evident in the Webometric ranking of universities. In the 2019 ranking, the University of Ibadan was placed 1,312 in the world and 19th in Africa. This is not laudable at all, considering its eminence in the 1960s within the Commonwealth.

A major culprit for this is the incessant industrial action. In 2003, the Academic Staff Union of Universities embarked on a strike that spanned six months due to the non-implementation of previous agreements it had reached with the government, which covered poor university funding and disparity in salary and retirement age.  Again, in 2010, another indefinite strike lasted over five months. The strike started on 22 July, 2010, and was called off in January 2011. The ultimate losers were the students and the larger society. These two strikes and many others resulted in the loss of a whole academic calendar.

By the nature of their existence, universities are centres of knowledge, which engage in teaching, research and innovation for the advancement of the society. The Western world has benefitted so much from their output with the economic growth and development that sprang from productive knowledge. Such benefits cannot be harvested without serious financial investment.

This is why Banjo argued: “When society is forward-looking and optimistic, it is prepared to invest in the youth as the leaders of tomorrow. But when the larger society appears to have lost its way and stops looking beyond itself, the youth, in utter disappointment, are left to look after themselves.” Undoubtedly, the country is at a crossroads presently with the way universities are funded.

To halt this disruption of the university calendar, finding a pragmatic solution to funding tertiary education has become a necessity. The Tertiary Education Fund and other interventionist channels are far from providing definitive results. Since 2009, ASUU has been in the trenches in its bid to compel the Federal Government to implement the agreement it entered into by injecting N1.3 trillion into the universities for a period of five years for their revitalisation. But instead of doing so, the government has been dragging its feet with the release of only N200 billion in 2013 after the pact was renegotiated in 2012. Last year, it released N25 billion for the payment of ASUU members’ Earned Academic Allowances, a move that only calmed frayed nerves temporarily.

However, all agree that the present decadence in universities: lack of basic facilities water, electricity, sufficient lecture halls, students’ halls of residence, office accommodation and bookshops, outdated libraries, ill-equipped laboratories do not promote quality education. There are 43 universities owned by the Federal Government afflicted by this rot. Amid these challenges, the Federal Government set up a seven-member panel in 2017 to study how to improve the funding of public universities. It is, therefore, time government acted on the report and stopped establishing more universities it cannot fund.

What separates world-class universities such as Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, Columbia and Cornell among others, from other universities is the huge funds at their disposal with which they create the best learning environment that attracts the best faculties and students the world over. The Harvard endowment fund alone was worth $40.9 billion during the 2019 fiscal year. In addition is the fees students pay.

With other governance concerns such as infrastructure deficits in roads, security, healthcare, transport, power, bridges and large workforce, the idea that only the Federal Government can fund tertiary education without the students paying some form of fees is becoming a farce each day. The issue should be revisited. The concern is how indigent students could be accommodated, or stopped from dropping out for being unable to finance their education. Whether in Europe or America, such category of students exists. Through fees subsidy, scholarships and loan schemes, they complete their schooling.

Ironically, many private secondary schools in Nigeria charge fees, which universities dare not ask their students to pay. It is for this reason some people believe that students should pick part of the bill government pays, if the learning environment in universities is to improve.

The underfunding of universities, the cause of this crisis, should be addressed, if the academic system is to get out of its present mess. Banjo, an Emeritus professor, says, “A stable calendar spanning October to May is a defining character of the university globally… Without adequate funding, we cannot have the quality of laboratories and libraries comparable with the best globally. Severe underfunding also affects the quality of infrastructure, which in turn affects welfare and aesthetics. Given these unwelcomed features in the universities, it is hardly surprising that between the staff and their employers, and between the students and their vice-chancellors, there is recurrent unease.”

On this, Ayo Olukotun, a professor, weighs in: “Without dramatically raising fees…we can begin to look at renegotiation of fees in tertiary institutions against the background that many parents can still afford to send their children to expensive secondary schools. They pay like N200,000 and so on, but when it comes to universities, they claim they are poor.” According to him, a discriminatory system should be fashioned out to take care of students in dire need of financial support. Ultimately, there is nothing like free education anywhere: either the individual or the government picks the bill.

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