Showing utter derision for education in Nigeria, the government is setting a dangerous precedent with its apathy towards the seven-month-long strike embarked upon by polytechnic lecturers across the land. A while ago, the Goodluck Jonathan Administration basked in false self-adulation for resolving the five-month strike by university teachers demanding better infrastructure and working conditions. The euphoria of that delicate balancing act has since died. In its place are the ashes of the strike by polytechnic lecturers.
How have the President and the Education Minister, Nyesom Wike, been able to sleep well all these months without finding a solution to this quandary, which Chibuzor Asomugba, the President of Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics, aptly describes as “a very debilitating experience”? Sadly, the government has not shown that it is interested in ending the fiasco that has seen students of polytechnics likely to miss one academic session altogether.
According to ASUP, the problem started in 2001, but in a re-negotiated deal in 2009 between it and the Federal Government, both parties agreed to a review in 2012, which has not been done to date. But seven months of paralysis in the polytechnics is not tenable in a country that professes to value education. In spite of the intrinsic benefits of education to the society, it has been treated with so much levity in Nigeria. It is even more crucial in a country that fancifully launched two pet projects last month – the Nigerian Industrial Revolution Plan and the National Enterprise Development Programme – aimed, it claimed, at putting the country on the path of an industrial revolution. Nigeria ought to get serious with polytechnic education first. This is because, without the technical manpower that polytechnics produce, these plans will remain mere rhetoric.
In a focused country, addressing the grievances of ASUP members – which are similar to those of the university teachers – should not take this long. But giving credibility to the allegation that the polytechnic system is deemed inferior to its university counterpart, the government has failed to resolve the issues at stake. In order not to reinforce this disdainful impression, Abuja should match its words with action by unveiling a plan to tackle the main issues that gave rise to the strike, which Asomugba says can be “resolved within two weeks.”
Although the union lists 13 complaints against the government, the central issues ASUP is fighting for are poor infrastructure (particularly in state government-owned schools), poor welfare of lecturers, the disparity between polytechnic and university graduates, and the non-establishment of a National Polytechnics Commission. In monetary terms, ASUP is asking the government to pay only N20.4 billion as arrears of the new (CONTISS) salary structure. But the government, playing pranks with such a grave matter, claims that “a majority of the issues have been addressed reasonably satisfactorily,” which flies in the face of the ASUP strike.
Developed for the first time in 1794 in France, polytechnic education has had a chequered history, but has become popular around the world. In European countries such as Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany, the system is well structured. In Germany, the schools award first and second degrees in engineering, technology and the social sciences. Although the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, was founded in 1948 as the first tertiary institution in Nigeria, polytechnic education has suffered over the years.
The loss of focus has affected this crucial area of education, leading to a proliferation of polytechnics and erosion of standards. Yet, no country can industrialise without a solid technical manpower base. There are currently 81 polytechnics in the country, according to statistics from the National Board for Technical Education, while an over-centralised system is making candidates to go through the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board with university and College of Education applicants. With a proposal of N493.4 billion for the education ministry in the N4.6 trillion federal budget estimates for 2014, funding for this segment remains a major problem.
The government should halt the establishment of new federal polytechnics, and consider merging some of its existing ones. This is to provide adequate funding for the remaining schools. There is little point in setting up tertiary institutions that are glorified secondary schools and where the quality of the graduates is suspect and their prospects in the labour market modest. Moreover, the government has to reinvigorate the manufacturing sector of the economy with the right policies so that polytechnic graduates can receive the needed employment boost.
However, stakeholders in the system have to introspect on their demand for parity with university graduates in the labour market. In a free market economy like ours, it is futile to legislate what employers of labour will pay. The quality of the graduates will determine that, whether they are from the polytechnic or university.
For a country that has a global record of 10.5 million of school age children out of school, according to UNICEF figures, our education system is in urgent need of critical rethinking. Getting the polytechnic students back to the classroom will go some way in solving the problems.