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Still on the trouble with ASUU

The long industrial action by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) appears to be near its end now. The government...

The long industrial action by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) appears to be near its end now. The government has agreed to increase the salaries of academic and non-academic staff in the universities, which is fully justified. It has agreed to adopt the University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS), rather than IPPIS, as the payment platform of lecturers, which is partially justified since an employer reverses the right to determine on what platform the employee would be paid. It has also committed to increasing the funding to the universities, which is justified only in principle. The unresolved issue between government and ASUU is the salaries accumulated over the six months ASUU has not worked, which is completely unjustified. This is not only an affront to industrial relations but also amounts to rewarding employees precisely for not doing their job.  

However, the broader point is that ASUU always sees all the problems with our universities only in terms of money, and more money. But as we wrote in these pages a few weeks ago, if the goal is to “revitalise the universities” as ASUU likes to put it, then we must recognise that some of the biggest problems with our universities have little to do with money per se. The main problems are, as I said in the first installment of this piece, the standards in our educational policy, for example, the low requirement for admission into university and the lack of integrity in the exams that prepare students into university in the first place. If these two do not change, no amount of money can revitalise our universities. After all, it is these standards that make other university systems “world-class”, not just money.    

Yet, there is another major problem with our universities which money alone cannot solve, however much is made available by the government. The standards of recruitment and promotion of lecturers who teach and research in the universities are damagingly low, and those for the non-academic staff who support teaching and research are almost entirely non-existent. The federal government has agreed to pay more money to the lecturers and to provide more funding to the universities so that ASUU can call off its militant strike, but I am very confident that this more money will not necessarily address the real problems with our universities. You don’t need much money to set and enforce high enrolment standards for students, and correspondingly higher recruitment standards for staff. And for emphasis, these are the things that make universities great.    

Working as a lecturer at a university, like serving in the highest echelons of the military, for example, requires some of the highest standards for recruitment and promotion. In the countries with the most robust university systems, the standards for recruiting and promoting academic staff are very high. In Nigeria, this is simply not the case; certainly not anymore if it used to be. And right here, there are two serious problems that, in my view, contribute to the worsening situation of quality in our universities other than lack of money for more lecture theaters or laboratories. 

The first is the low standard, and even the indeterminacy of the entry point to an academic career in the university. The entry point and minimum requirement to start work as a full-time lecturer in many countries is a completed—or near completed—PhD in the subject or relevant field. In Nigeria, the dominant practice is to start with a good first degree as a Graduate Assistant (GA). There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such a starting point and requirement; and it might even be better in principle than in the other countries where a PhD is required to start.  

However, the sad truth is that the requirement of “a good first degree” (a First Class or 2:1) is not always adhered to. Many lecturers in our universities did not have either themselves. But even worse, in many instances this requirement is in fact basically pointless. There are many Nigerians with a First Class or 2.1 degree who yet cannot demonstrate that they merit it. Many of them are working as lecturers in the universities today, making the implementation of such a basic standard difficult. So old problems compound on the new.   

The second problem is the administration of the PhD degree itself. For all the noise ASUU makes about our universities, I don’t think that it has fully conceptualised how important the PhD degree is to the overall working of the system. And lacking in that understanding ASUU thinks, erroneously, that the problem is more money which government must give. The PhD degree is in fact the single most important thing that holds the entire system together. It is the “rite of passage” for the new initiates into the system; the minimum training requirement for any serious teaching and research work at that level; the life-blood that sustains the system and transmits its values; and the academic and cultural glue  that defines and determines entire academic careers.  

Without an effective and efficient system of producing new PhDs worth their onions, there can be no revitalisation in our universities. Unfortunately, the organisation and administration of the PhD degree is almost completely bastardised in Nigerian universities today. First, the system is largely closed to outsiders who do not work in the university, even though that degree has proved useful for those who work in government and policy, as well as in business and the non-profit sector. It is also grossly inefficient: those enrolled spend years on it without completing it. And then, it is often quite ineffective: many who complete it probably didn’t learn enough to earn the designation. And while this is about money—a quality PhD is very expensive—it is more about how you spend it.  

As far as I know, no one in the entire Nigerian university system has grasped the significance of the PhD degree to the system than the current Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) when, as then Executive Secretary of what is now Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND), he devised the Academic Staff Training and Development programme to encourage the training to new PhDs to sustain the system over the long term. Unfortunately, ASUU had no hand in the conception of that programme and very likely does not have its own report on how far it has been working to purpose more than a decade after it first commenced. But then, ASUU does not conduct research to inform tertiary education policy. Who needs research when you have militant strikes?  

And then, there is the recruitment process for hiring academic staff. In the university systems that ASUU likes to cite as examples of “world-class”, even a single opening for a place is advertised, the hiring process is robust but transparent, and you can guarantee that the job will go to the candidate who demonstrates not only paper qualifications but also real teaching and research abilities. University jobs in Nigeria are often advertised, but no one knows how robust or transparent the hiring processes actually are. But your state of origin, the language you speak or not, as different from the language of instruction, and your ‘long leg’ can all be useful criteria and may even determine whether you get the job or not, regardless of your academic degrees, or teaching and research abilities.  

My point is that a university system with all of these problems cannot thrive, cannot be revitalised, and cannot become world-class no matter how much money the government pours into it. And not recognising all this is a serious blind spot in the overall ASUU argument for increased funding. And yet, there are many more such problems with our university system that take more than money to resolve.