The Vice Chancellor of Benue State University (BSU), Professor Joe Iorapuu, in this interview bared his mind about the ongoing Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) strike and the need for the union to expand its think-tank for the desired result.
When will Benue State University reopen against the background that similar institutions are resuming classes?
Benue State University is owned by the state, there is a visitor to the university and council of the university, I’m aware that about a month ago, the visitor had appealed to ASUU, BSU chapter to suspend its strike and resume, and that has expired. I want to believe that the visitor is not oblivious of his request and his appeal.
I want to believe that the visitor is reflecting on his appeal, and at the appropriate time, he will like to act. But let me also say that I’m aware that many people have put pressure on the visitor. The citizens of this state have cried out to the visitor, students and parents have done so; and the chairman of the council and management of this university have gone on their knees at different instances, appealing to our exco-members and members of this community to think deeply with respect to the current strike.
As soon as we get appropriate directive from the council to reopen the school, we will do it immediately.
Why do you think the striking workers will heed the directive?
Whether the lecturers and workers will resume when the school is open is not for me to say but I want to believe that they are responsible people and they are adults. The reason I think they will be in a hurry to resume is that even federal universities have not been able to achieve what this state has done as far as the lecturers and workers of this institution are concerned.
The issue of salary for instance, since the strike started, our colleagues here have been receiving their salary and if there is any salary hitch anywhere, it affects the entire state. I can say very proudly that the visitor to this university has put it on the first line charge. So, at no time did the government compromise the salary of this institution.
What will be the fate of state universities like BSU if the federal government eventually agrees to increase salaries as ASUU is demanding?
There are certain things one can say without sounding controversial, people argue that university lecturers are global. We make this argument but we are not sincere when it comes to accepting the reality. For instance, in the UK, we visited a university that BSU is partnering with, in that university, people were on strike, but while the strike was on those who didn’t want to go on strike were teaching while others who felt compelled to go on strike were on strike.
The vice chancellor of the university told us that those who were teaching would be paid and those who were on strike would not be paid. So, each time we talk of global practice, we shouldn’t be selective in our decisions or when we are talking about the principle of collective bargaining globally.
The way universities function over there, the truth about this is that yes, government gives money to institutions but these instructions also generate their money through research and grants but here where are the functional industries that can promote research?
As intellectuals, we must balance conversation. Another reason why institutions out there are also doing pretty well, especially in the UK, is that most of their students are foreign students and they are paying heavily.
Nigerian children are learning in Ghana, in Kenyatta University, why should we allow that? Many years back, when these countries were coming to learn in Nigeria. I still have friends – some Cameroonians – who studied in Nigerian universities like Unijos and others.
The struggle is very important, but as intellectuals we need to cultivate and have as many strategies as possible in order to win the battle. During the military regime, strikes never went this long despite their draconian behaviour; except during Babangida, and the reason was that we had two world orders; socialism and capitalism.
Whenever there was an attempt to implement an economic policy that would be detrimental to students, and affect the populace, there was an uproar in the ivory tower. The military did not like that because the moment the young kids went on the streets, it was a signal to the young military officers to begin to consider mutiny so quickly that they would want to stop it.
We are discussing democracy where these people are not thinking very quickly, not thinking of military coup, especially, when they are only thinking of four years after which there would be an election. So they take their time and they have mastered the act of buying even our colleagues.
And now the worst aspect is that they have made sure there are enough private universities, the same way there are private primary and secondary schools.
The question I ask our colleagues is how many of them have their children in public primary and secondary schools? If that is not happening, technically, sooner than later, there would be many university lecturers whose children are in private universities or schooling abroad and they would be paying heavily.
But here (public universities), when you want to talk about introducing user charges, it becomes an issue. So, where is the reality?
To be honest, with the way things are becoming challenging, our colleagues don’t seem to understand. If the insecurity does not end, how many Nigerian universities will go for accreditation? And with the crisis in the airline sector today, how many people can afford to fly?
My candid advice to our colleagues is that the reason we are intellectuals is that we find solutions to things that seem to be impossible.
How can frequent strikes be permanently addressed?
Let the federal and state governments take education seriously because there is no alternative to education. We shouldn’t be discussing banditry, kidnapping, insurgency, and those vices in this country if the government from day one took education seriously.
What we are passing through is a function of poor planning because the same government that improved primary healthcare did not see that the product of primary health care would be healthy reproduction and an increase in population.
For me, I think government from day one got it wrong because as the population increases, the schools too should increase and brought closer to the people, though, the government has done that by opening more schools in rural areas.
But the question is, what is the plan for when they graduate? Where will they go to? So, partly what ASUU is saying is to wake the government up. So a permanent solution lies with the government.