The injection of embarrassingly huge amount of money into government projects, without corresponding positive results to show, has been one of the drivers of corruption in the land. Apart from entrenching underdevelopment, it is one of the dubiously ingenious ways of grounding a nation’s transparency index and its sense of public accountability. It is for this reason that the plan by the Federal Government to spend N1.3 trillion to develop and rehabilitate infrastructure in public universities should be of utmost concern to students, university administrators and the generality of Nigerians.
The intricate details of the government’s plan may not be known yet, but the Minister of Education, Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau, was quoted to have said: “The Needs Assessment of Public Tertiary Institutions enabled us to identify challenges the institutions are facing in relation to the ability to serve the interests of the society.”
Is this plan a gimmick by government to draw the university community to its side as the elections approach? Or is it a sincere response by the government to effect a comprehensive implementation of the 2009 Agreement signed by both the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Federal Government?
For the sake of recollection, the amount of N1.3 trillion is the figure arrived at by the Federal Government’s own implementation committee when they identified and quantified the problem facing the university system in the country, prior to the 2009 agreement. The main issues of that agreement, as this paper had earlier highlighted, comprised the funding of the universities to provide infrastructure and facilitate teaching and learning, university autonomy and academic freedom, improved staff welfare and condition of service to attract the best hands and discourage brain-drain, and other matters. Of the other items further delineated by the MoU, the government was claimed to have fully implemented two: the review of the retirement age of academics in the professorial cadre from 65 year to 70 years and the re-instatement of governing councils. The remaining seven items bordering on funding of universities, university autonomy and academic freedom, staff welfare and condition of service have not been addressed.
If the N1.3tr is based on the needs assessment for public universities, it should be clear that the situation on ground is different from what it was five years ago. At the time ASUU entered into an agreement with the Federal Government in 2009, and signed a Memorandum of Understanding on January 24, 2012 to comprehensively implement that agreement, public universities were said to be a dispiriting environment for research and learning. They were bedeviled by overcrowded classrooms, dilapidated infrastructure, ill-motivated staff and students and, in some cases, unqualified staff, all of which had had its toll on the socio-economic and political life of the nation. Following a long and bitter industrial action by ASUU, the government also planned in July 2013 to spend N100 billion on university infrastructure.
It is now five years since that agreement. Although some thousands of lecturers, to be fair to Shekarau, are benefitting from scholarship programmes from Masters to doctorate levels, feelers from the reports of those in foreign universities indicate that a very great percentage of these lecturers are either unfit for doctoral scholarships, or are ill-prepared for it. Furthermore, the infrastructural decay in the university system that led to industrial actions is still very much visible, and has attained a more frightening dimension. As universities gravitate towards becoming mere producers of sub-standard graduates, the havoc they wreak stares in the face. Besides, within the last five years, the Federal Government has established 11 new universities.
Given this situation, it is pertinent that Nigerians raise questions. Is the N1.3tr for the rehabilitation of all the 100 public universities? Or specifically for those universities whose needs had been assessed prior to the 2009 agreement? Is this rehabilitation going to consider the differential in the dilapidation since the last five years? It is not enough to begin to spend money. Before the government begins to spend people’s money, structures must be put in place. A fundamental aspect of this structure is the institution of a monitoring committee to implement the rehabilitation. In line with this, it is also the burden of ASUU to independently monitor the implementation of the supposed rehabilitation.
Since N1.3tr is a very huge sum of money and not just politicians’ patronage money, the impact of the rehabilitation must not only be felt on paper, it must be visible, both in terms of service delivery and the products that are churned out of the universities. Realistic and measurable impact of this exercise should be felt in the way homegrown solutions are found to the myriad problems affecting the country.
Even though the proposed rehabilitation emphasises the development of infrastructure, adequate monitoring from stakeholders like ASUU and other bodies, should discourage the creation of white elephants that would lead to uncompleted projects. In societies where tertiary education is an integral part of national development, the advantage of an ICT-driven educational system is a cost-effective way of infrastructural management. In thinking about rehabilitating the universities, the authorities should bear in mind that indiscriminate erection of structures come with huge maintenance cost; and as history has shown, maintenance of infrastructure has since taken flight from public administration.
For so long money has been pumped into the university system, and like many lofty projects, there has been nothing to show for it. This must change now.