Protecting universities from COVID-19 – Punch

As fresh agitation builds up against the resumption of universities, the Nigerian academic community is on edge again. Essentially, the staff unions of the universities have firmly expressed their opposition to the January 18 reopening date of the institutions set by the Federal Government. Citing the second wave of the coronavirus plague and implementation of the payroll system, the Academic Staff Union of Universities and the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions insist that resumption is not feasible now. After the months-long lockdown, the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, the state governments, university authorities and the unions should collaborate on the safe reopening of the institutions.

Unfortunately, the public university system has lost at least three semesters, leaving thousands of undergraduates unable to complete their degrees two years behind schedule. Schools were shut nationwide in March 2020 to contain the outbreak of COVID-19. The closure coincided with a strike by ASUU, whose members downed tools to press home their demand for the implementation of the MoU it signed with the government for the revitalisation of the system. Although the government lifted the national lockdown last August, universities remained shut until early this year when ASUU terminated its industrial action. By then, the institutions had lost 10 months. This is a huge setback for the youth.

But the highly anticipated resumption is now ensconced in controversy. Shortly after ASUU ended its strike, NASU embarked on its own round of warning strikes and protests against the Federal Government’s Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System. Like ASUU, NASU also argued that it was not safe to resume because the school authorities and government had not put in place COVID-19 protocols, warning that it was not ready to lose its members to the second wave of the virus that is reportedly more virulent.

This dissonance pitted the unions into a contest of wits with university vice-chancellors, who argue that it is safe for schools to resume. The University of Lagos, the University of Port Harcourt, the Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta, the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and the University of Jos, among others, have pencilled between January 18 and 29 as the dates for the resumption of academic activities.

This is a double-edged sword. Both parties have their good points and areas to improve on. ASUU and NASU are right to insist that COVID-19 protocols be observed. Nigerian universities are notorious for overcrowded lecture halls and hostels. As of January 13, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control put the COVID-19 infections rate at 103,999 cases out of the 1,135,535 million samples tested. From this, 1,382 have died. But it is the second wave that has exposed Nigeria’s hollow health system the more, leading to fears of a second lockdown. Besides, potable water for sanitation and electricity are deficient on the campuses. The Nigerian Medical Association too is wary about school resumption. But with determination, focus and a dose of funding, all this is surmountable.

This brings in the VCs, who point out that they have implemented non-pharmaceutical protocols like hand-washing, thermometers for temperature measurements and fumigation. Also, the founder of the Afe Babalola University Ado-Ekiti, Afe Babalola, reasons that after following the protocols, universities should reopen. This is logical. Therefore, it is time for the combatants to harmonise their positions and reopen the universities.

It is inimical to keep out students from school in perpetuity. They have lost too much academically. This should not continue under any guise. It is detrimental to the students, the parents and the economy. Their counterparts in other parts of the world – and even in the private schools – have gone beyond lockdown and long resumed learning online and physically. This hybrid format should be given a serious consideration. We however insist that the protocols be strictly enforced as the universities resume. Unlike some of the private universities, the government should bear the cost of testing in the universities. This will encourage those who are suspected to be sick of the virus to come forward voluntarily.

In support of the VCs’ position, UNICEF argues that the reopening of schools does not drive the spread of the virus. “If children are faced with another year of school closures, the effects will be felt for generations to come,” it warned. That is apt. Targeting a balance between the spread of the contagion and schooling, British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said, “COVID-19 is a disaster while the closure of schools is more disastrous. Keeping schools closed a moment longer than it is absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indecisive.” In Nigeria, the universities, ASUU and NASU should also take steps to fulfil the resumption.

In a way, this explosive discourse is a vital lesson for universities and demonstrates the weakness of Nigeria’s public tertiary education system. Currently, Nigeria has 92 public universities – 44 for federal and 48 for states (and 79 private institutions). Over time, these institutions have usually admitted more than their carrying capacities, leading to acute pressure on facilities and schooling without learning. These universities rank low in the global excellence index. According to the World University Rankings, the University of Ibadan, the best here, did not make the first 400 in the world in the 2020 assessment. This is appalling; it should not continue. It is argued that the private universities are coping well because of their compact student intake. Public universities that have lost more than two semesters should not consider cancelling one academic session by not accepting new JAMB intakes.

On its part, the Federal Government should place a moratorium on the establishment of public universities to enable it fund adequately the existing ones. Likewise, state governments should refrain from such proliferation. Universities should admit the optimum number of students every given year and refuse to yield to pressure from any quarter to exceed their carrying capacity. Matching existing top universities so as to achieve economies of scale and reach a better position to compete globally will not be a bad idea to consider.

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