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Breaking the circle of ASUU strikes

Once again, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is on a “warning strike” continuing the process of Nigeria undergraduates studying in dribs and drabs.…

Once again, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is on a “warning strike” continuing the process of Nigeria undergraduates studying in dribs and drabs. This is the 15th strike since 1999. ASUU claims that the government hasn’t implemented a Memorandum of Action previously signed by both parties. Regrettably, the government routinely involves itself in the chicanery of signing agreements which it has no intention of adhering to, thereby serially creating reasons for ASUU strikes.

It’s public knowledge that university lecturers aren’t well paid compared to their colleagues elsewhere. Indeed, poor conditions of employment and lack of research grants have been at the centre of the never-ending battle between ASUU and the government. Their frequent strikes have achieved nothing concrete in terms of improving conditions in public universities, but serve to highlight a failed industrial relations policy.

The Minister for Education debunked allegations that he avoids meetings with ASUU negotiators and said, quite ridiculously, that he was “looking for them” to talk to because he was “attending to their demands” even as they declared a one-month warning strike! The truth is that there is nothing new for ASUU to talk about. Government should stop backsliding and honour its previous agreements. There is no point in asking for further negotiations when previously signed agreements have not been honoured.

It’s sheer poppycock to say that government doesn’t have the money to satisfy ASUU’s demands. Even though the government doesn’t have enough money to do everything, it has enough to do whatever it wants. It’s a matter of priorities. Apparently there is always enough money for international gallivanting, banqueting, purchase of new official vehicles, and increasing political office holders’ allowances, but never enough to satisfy the yearnings and aspirations of the citizenry. What ASUU has failed to take on board in demanding improvements in the public university system is the truth that political office holders paid with public funds ranging from the president to vice-president, governors, senators, representatives, and ministers, send their children to overseas universities where standards are maintained. Social media is replete with pictures of top Nigerian political office holders posing for photographs with their children graduating from universities in foreign lands and proudly displaying their contempt for Nigerian universities. The truth is that second-rate foreign universities are better than the best Nigerian ones.

There is no doub that ASUU is in a fight for the survival of public universities which are being destroyed in the same manner as government primary and secondary schools whose common traits are neglect of facilities and poor remuneration of teachers. There is a case to be made that since incessant strikes have not been beneficial in any way, a new strategy should be adopted.

Indeed, ASUU appears to have misunderstood their relationship with the Minister of Labour, Dr Chris Ngige, who made it clear that the Ministry is only a conciliator in the ongoing dispute and not the employer of the striking lecturers. In the context of employee/employer relationship, the appointment letter of each lecturer contains the name and logo of a university and not that of the Ministry of Education, let alone the federal government. ASUU should be negotiating with the management of individual universities whom they habitually ignore, and desist from dealing with Federal Ministry of Education officials who by errors of commission and omission have made it clear that they care less. While education ministry officials are justifiably and roundly condemned for failing to honour signed agreements, the truth is that ASUU’s objective of ensuring uniform conditions of employment for all lecturers in public universities is unjustifiable and unrealistic.

The operating and financial conditions of universities are not all the same and the best approach is for ASUU National Executive to cede powers to branch unions to negotiate with their individual universities while providing them with advisory and strategic support. With all due respect to ASUU, the nation’s best brains have been turned off from the lecturing career path. Universities have an atrociously low starting salary for graduate assistants. Furthermore, no matter how long graduate assistants work, they will not get promoted without a masters degree for which there is no research grant, meaning all expenses must come from their meager salary.

After all the hardship and stress, they are promoted to the rank of assistant lecturer and to gain further promotion, they must then enroll on a PhD programme, present papers, and attend conferences again all at their own expense. The increasing number of students to lecture and scripts to mark doesn’t count towards any sort of promotion. Quite scandalously, Nigerian public university lecturers are perhaps the only workers who are required to use their salary to work to achieve the criteria set for their promotion.

The current administration has proved incapable of improving the nation’s intellectual capital and providing a lasting solution to perennial strikes in the university system. The incoming 2023 administration must take the bull by the horns and insist on signing and adhering to “rules of engagement” contained in a procedural agreement outlining issues over which the employer has prerogative, those which are negotiable, and those which are merely consultative or for discussion. The procedural agreement should also address the frequency and timing of negotiations, duration of agreements, and the procedure for handling grievances which may arise in the relationship. It’s long past time to break the cycle of regular ASUU strikes.

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