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Rebuilding our university system

Last Friday, I gave the Convocation Lecture at Modibbo Adama University in Yola. The theme was the Nigerian University System and the Public Good: Pathway…

Last Friday, I gave the Convocation Lecture at Modibbo Adama University in Yola. The theme was the Nigerian University System and the Public Good: Pathway to Recovery. I addressed the problem of declining finances of the university system, which makes it difficult for the universities to recruit and above all to retain quality staff, engage in research and provide a conducive atmosphere for learning and research. I also addressed the more complex story about the corruption of Nigerian society in general but particularly, insidious in the university, which created a mentality of looting and wanton exploitation in whatever situation people find themselves. 

University student enrolment has had an immense increase since its inception. It started from barely 100 in 1948 to 3,681 in 1962 to 7,697 in 1965-66; to about 17,750 in 1972-73, to about 250,000 in 1994. Over the past two decades, there has been an incredible growth of student numbers. Currently, there are 1,855,261 undergraduate students in Nigerian universities out of which only 102,500 are in private universities. 

Meanwhile, the university landscape has been transformed significantly with the dramatic growth of private universities where lecturers are not allowed to join the union. 

Nigeria’s national educational policy is based on the premise that the greatest investment that a nation can make for the quick development of its economic, political, social and human resources is education. It is considered to be the greatest force that can be used to bring about change. It is in this context that the Nigerian Constitution defines education as a public good that the State has an obligation to provide to citizens in an equitable manner as enunciated in Article 18 of the Constitution.

The problem with the constitutional policy is that successive governments since the Ibrahim Babangida regime have simply refused to place it on the policy agenda. They neither believe in it nor are they ready to implement it. There has been no national conversation on sustaining or reformulating the policy and the occasion of the in-coming government is an opportunity to place it on the public agenda. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has however been very committed to it and has worked very hard for over four decades to sustain it. The public good was defined essentially as – FREE AND HIGH-QUALITY EDUCATION PAID FOR BY THE STATE. The arrival of radical unionism in the university system meant their engagement was no longer focused on catering for the advancement of the staff welfare of academics but also to have a greater voice in the operations of the Nigerian university system and the affairs of the nation at large. ASUU radicalism has however left society behind on the theme of education as a public good. 

The university cannot serve the public good if it is perpetually on strike. The addiction of ASUU to the strike option as the only way to promote its interests has to stop. ASUU strikes have become part of Nigeria’s national strife and trauma. Enormous working days are lost regularly due to strikes. Over the past twenty years, public universities have been closed for five years due to strikes. As Emmanuel Emmanuel, the best all round student said in his valedictory speech, in his “final year”, there were 18 months of strikes – do the maths. These long strikes have been sustained for a very long time because ASUU has the power and capacity to organise them without consequence to its material interests as eventually they do not work for the said periods and they get paid for the period, which most academics use to work in private universities. The capacity to carry out long strikes, keep students at home for three to six or eight months at a time and get them to put pressure on parents and the government of the day to sign a deal is an apparent sign of strength. 

Successive presidents have all been forced to sign deals, but signing is the simple issue, implementation has always been the bane of policies in Nigeria. It could be argued that in reality, ASUU is weak because it’s too focused on grandiose victory called an AGREEMENT that often yields little in real results. This state of affairs might be changing. After an eight-month strike from February to October 2022, the government refused to pay lecturers the backlog of salaries for the period they were on strike for. This might signal a change in the balance of forces. If the government maintains its refusal to pay, ASUU will understand that long strikes are not always the best forms of industrial action.

The strikes have seriously affected university calendars over the decades and generations of students have lost one to two years of their lives waiting for their lecturers to return. The strikes have shortened teaching weeks and the capacity of lecturers to cover the course outline thereby contributing to the decline in the quality of graduates. Precisely because of this impact wider sections of the elite have taken their children out of public universities to private universities where ASUU is not allowed to operate so there are no strikes and lecturers teach and cover the course outline. As more elite take their children out of the public system, the unintended consequence is that increasingly, governments have less commitment to rebuilding the universities because their children are not there, they are in private universities within or outside the country. The fact of the matter is that family budgets have transformed drastically over the past three decades with considerable percentages of the family budget devoted to expensive private education for children from the nursery to the tertiary levels. In other words, public education has been abandoned to the children of the poorest in society. 

The Nigerian government has not reflected on its philosophy of education for 50 years. Since ASUU started negotiating with the federal government in 1982, the union has always had a position paper but the government has never had a position. It simply ducks blows from ASUU and threatens or cajoles them to reduce their demands. Government does not even brief its own negotiating team on the principles upon which it should negotiate with ASUU because it does not have any. A good example was the last three government teams – Wale Babalakin, Munzali Jibril and Nimi Briggs all had their recommendations rejected by the government that appointed them. ASUU puffs and rants about disrespect of government to negotiated deals it signs but the Nigerian government was never an interlocutor because it never had a position to negotiate from so all its moves are tactical rather than strategic.  

The context today is that the rentier state has collapsed and massive corruption and oil theft have wiped out petroleum revenues. Over the past decade, public expenditure has been based on massive borrowing and the country is now in a debt trap. The State is no longer capable of funding quality education for all. Nigerians know it and they decide for the education of their children. ASUU is stuck in the context of the political economy of the 1970s and 1980s. A responsible government would have placed the current reality on the table for a national debate. They have not done this. The central task today is to get the government to engage the subject of education as a public good in today’s context. My key recommendation is that the in-coming government should immediately produce a Green Paper on Education as a Public Good, which would then be presented to a National Conference on Education as a Public Good. Key issues would include the following:

Making our educational system fit for purpose; B) Developing a national strategy to Bring Back Our Students from foreign universities; Enhancing equality and access to education; Funding of education, including payment of tuition fees and scholarships; Ending the regime of permanent strikes in our universities; Addressing corruption in the education system; Ending Sexual Harassment in tertiary institutions and raising academic standards.

We should all lobby the incoming administration to immediately review the constitutional, legal and policy framework for higher education or simply the education system. The conference itself should be preceded with stakeholder meetings where issues are discussed.


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