The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is a household name in the various corners of Nigeria and abroad. The expectation of ASUU and many of us who have passed through the four golden walls of Nigerian universities will be that when that name rings in our ears, we remember the wonderful exploits of our lecturers – from research to teaching.
Unfortunately, a Google search for ASUU these days will reveal virtually only results of strike-related reports. And if you check the Wikipedia entry on ASUU, more than 85 per cent of the entry is on strikes! Curiously, this is at the time when the world needs our higher institutions most – Oxford University is delivering on her mandate to research on matters of direct local and global relevance to the United Kingdom, and within the next three months, Britons will be enjoying the COVID-19 vaccines from their ‘own’ university’s laboratories – Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine!
In that period of six months plus that it took them to research and deliver the vaccine with 95 per cent effectiveness, ASUU has been on another ‘total and comprehensive’ but paralysing strike. You wonder for how long and how many more times?
Records show that ASUU has been on strike for more than four years and seven months cumulatively over the last 27 years, and if we take into consideration the current strike, it will be five years and counting. ASUU embarked on the current strike on March 9, 2020 with a two-week warning strike preceding this. So, in all by now, ASUU has been on strike for nine months which is equal to a full university calendar.
While experts have put the cost of past strikes conservatively at N1.2 trillion based on a Businessday newspaper analysis of salaries earned over four years by ASUU members while on strikes, the cost is far more enormous and deeper.
How do we calculate losses in revenue to the universities and the business owners dependent on a vibrant university system? What about the opportunity costs to the students who are forced to graduate 1 – 2 years later than their admission letters would suggest? How about effects on quality of education, with many claiming the decline in quality of graduates is a reflection of serious and regular interruptions in universities’ calendars. At the same time, we cannot close our eyes to the causes of this strike which in the final analysis boils down to underfunding of universities.
Specifically speaking the current strike dates back to a controversial 2009 agreement predicated on:
– Payment of Earned Academic Allowances (EAA).
– Revitalization of the university system
– Setting up Visitation Panels to universities.
– Fulfilling conditions included in the 2009 agreement reached between the two sides amongst others.
– The government payroll system which is supposed to eliminate corruption and ensure accountability – IPPIS
Like I have said above, all this has to do with funding which is quite important in birthing a great university system in tune with the realities of 21st century scholarship and research. The question that should, therefore, be before us all, including ASUU, should be how do we afford the trillions of naira needed to revitalise the universities as envisaged by the 2009 agreement? And how can the government afford the ever-expanding irregular EAA? Nigeria’s budgets in the last 10 years have been full of deficit funding with more than one-third of our projected 2021 revenue going to debt servicing while Nigeria borrows more as revenue takes a hit with oil prices debacle and COVID-19 global economic effects. It, therefore, does not take a genius to deduce that the federal government, alone, cannot afford the trillions needed to revitalise the 43 federal universities. And that reality is brought to the fore with the purported agreement reached last week between ASUU and FG reported gleefully in Nigerian newspapers – ‘Government releases 65 Billion to ASUU’ all over the dailies!
Unfortunately. even if the present strike is resolved and in case the IPPIS-UTAS logjam get sorted out, the agreement only lays foundation for another round of strikes in the near future. ASUU had asked for a preliminary N110 billion as part of trillions of naira owed 43 federal universities for revitalisation apart from the irregular EAA unknown to the National Salaries, Incomes & Wages Commission. The government has made an offer of N65 billion – 40 billion for EAA and 25 billion for revitalisation of 43 federal universities! My question is, how do you share N25 billion among 43 federal universities to transform them overnight? My alma mater, Bayero University Kano, alone will happily spend that amount and still ask for more if she wants to get compared to her peers in South Africa, not to talk of the United Kingdom.
In essence, dear all, quality education cries for sustainable and buoyant funding. Someone has to pay well for us to have the kind of quality education that will attract back home the more than N1.5 trillion Nigerian students spend on university education abroad annually. Ghana alone enjoys nearly N200 billion tuition fees from Nigerian students. Imagine this amount going into the purse of Nigerian universities! Our comity of intellectuals we are blessed with in ASUU should please have a rethink if they want to truly escape these vicious cycles of strikes. The funding gap is not going away unless we all open our mind to a better sustainable funding source as obtains in South Africa, Ghana and beyond. We need creative thinking by each autonomous university which should be allowed to charge moderated tuition fees and international students charged similar fees to what our citizens pay in Ghana and beyond. That is the best way out of these incessant strikes if we will not be talking about another one soon. It is when cometh the next strike unless we embrace a paradigm shift of true autonomous accountable and transparent university system in every sense of the words!
Let us hearken to the counsel of another great scholar, Albert Einstein: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Safiya Musa wrote from Abuja. (firstname.lastname@example.org)