The present strike embarked upon by teachers in the nation’s ivory towers may turn out a prolonged action as the leadership of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has called on its members to brace up against intimidation from vice chancellors and governing councils in the coming days. Realising that whatever decision it takes may provide opposition parties campaign materials against the All Progressives Congress (APC), the federal government, through the National Universities Commission (NUC), hastily beat a retreat on the ‘no-work-no-pay’ order it served on vice chancellors to punish the striking teachers. According to a source privy to the matter, the withdrawal of the order was aimed at encouraging quick resolution of issues that predate the present government and extend an olive branch to ASUU whose members have been more on the streets than in the classrooms, demanding enhanced teaching environment. Since the commencement of the present strike, consultations have been deadlocked, not because there is no tenacity of purpose in achieving a bargain; both sides have become headstrong in working towards truce. The hope of many students now hangs in the air as the union is set to meet with government officials the day after tomorrow to seek a way out of the unending feud over the 2009 agreement.
In the details of the 2009 agreement signed after two years of negotiation between the lecturers and a government team that was appointed by the then education minister, Obiageli Ezekwesili, it was jointly decided that each federal university was to be paid not less than N1.5 trillion between 2009 and 2011, while state universities were entitled to N33.6 million for each student between 2009 and 2011. The government team was led by the then pro-chancellor, University of Ibadan, Gamaliel Onosode, while ASUU was led by its then president, Abdullahi Sule-Kano. They also agreed on conditions of service for university lecturers, funding of the ivory towers, university autonomy and academic freedom, among other contentious issues.
Nearly 10 years after the agreement which has become the basis of the contention, the resolution of the ASUU-FG crisis is far from being resolved as it was five years ago. While it must be stated that nothing should be left to chance to provide for the emergence of qualitative varsity system in the country, critics of the university system have often alleged a humongous scale of corruption crippling the entire setup. The prevailing putrefaction bedeviling Nigerian ivory towers, the critics insist, is hinged more on the management of available resources than unavailability of required whopping sums of trillions of naira to resolve some of issues raised by the union.
For the university teachers, there are so many issues that have been left unattended to in the management of the ivory towers. Apart from deterioration of infrastructure and poor salaries for lecturers, the universities have acquired a notoriety for producing half-baked graduates who are incapable of defending their certificates. According to a recent study commissioned by the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), the state of disrepair and bourgeoning population of students in universities and the incredible lecturer/student ratio render Nigerian universities as some of the worst places to study.
Against the backdrop of worsening conditions of public universities, private investors have taken advantage of the gap created by public schools to deliver on quality education. As it is, like in primary and secondary education, the elite have withdrawn their children/wards from public schools and enrolled them in universities operated by private entrepreneurs. Even some members of ASUU are sending their children to schools abroad, an act seen as a demonstration of lack of confidence of the very system they are operating. Those who cannot afford the cutthroat fees for foreign university education are left with the option of private universities that are slowly becoming a huge financial drain on the lean pockets of Nigerians.
To make the task of supporting these children through these private schools and survive the present grinding hardship, the demand for improved working conditions may have formed the subterranean fulcrum of the current struggle. With the government not caving in to demands for improved budgets for the lecturers, they have devised so many means to resolve their financial quagmire. Some ASUU members are now visiting lecturers to some of these private varsities. It is not unexpected for them to abandon their teaching posts and spend several weeks and sometimes months in private universities to complement their poor earnings. When financial survival becomes the main thrust of a profession, excellence is relegated and all rules are subject to economic exigencies. It is a fact that Nigeria has not been fair in its reward distribution. In most nations of the world, the role of the teacher is key to development. Unfortunately in our nation, we reward the wrong people and punish those upon whose shoulders our development rests. It is a public secret that the salary of a councilor is more than that of a professor, and cleaners and drivers in certain agencies of government earn more than teachers and lecturers.
Permit a certain narration to buttress my point. As a polytechnic teacher in 1996, I had a friend and a senior colleague whose salary was less than N4, 000. Of course, my friend was seen by his relatives as someone ‘up there’. He assisted a lady from his village to secure a job as a cleaner at Kaduna Refinery. It was a month later when she returned to show gratitude that my colleague discovered that her salary was about N6, 500 per month. That is the incredible nature of our reward system. Of course, efforts by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to improve poor working conditions yielded little hope, but subsequent governments after him abandoned the teacher in the cold. Even former President Goodluck Jonathan forgot too soon the frustrations of the academics and did nothing to turn things around for his former colleagues.
It is not true that the government cannot resolve some of the key demands raised by ASUU. The academics should also understand that awaiting trillions of naira to tackle all of the issues contained in the agreement amounts to waiting for the rat to hatch. Both government and ASUU must take advantage of the resumed talks slated to hold this Monday for a realistic way forward. What can be achieved in the immediate should be allowed to hold sway, while timelines agreed on subsequent points for implementation. Against the backdrop of prevailing realities, universities must find means of turning their researches into viable financial earnings to support the system. Government must not blackmail the teachers by alleging that the union is playing the script of opposition politicians. The prevailing rot in the nation’s universities has become an eyesore and there is urgent need to inject funds to run an efficient university system.