An Associate Professor of English Studies at the University of Uyo (UNIUYO), Akwa Ibom State, Happiness Uduk is the only female chair of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). In this interview with INIOBONG EKPONTA, she bares her mind on the lingering crises in the university system and other related issues. Excerpts:
Recently, the protracted crises in the university system and the prolonged strike by ASUU members forced a sympathy action by NLC and other affiliate groups. Do you think any positive result will come out of this?
I believe one thing we have demonstrated by that action is that we have made a bold statement with the NLC that the cliche of the union that ‘injury to one is injury to all’ has actually been taken to the front burner. But the NLC taking up this struggle doesn’t mean that we have handed over everything to the NLC. It was a solidarity protest. Also, it goes to show that this struggle essentially, is not a struggle that should be left for only ASUU, or other university-based unions. It’s a struggle that touches everybody because I don’t think there’s any family where there is no student or people that have something to do with the tertiary institution. Even the military will have people who are doing programmes in universities; the police, the DSS would have, and then other paramilitary units have people who are in the university system whose academic pursuits have been truncated as a result of the strike. So, everyone is supposed to carry the message, not just being borne by us only. Therefore, what the federal government should essentially do is to see this as a wake-up call. The federal government should see this as the reverberations of the saying, ‘enough is enough.’ So, for us, enough is enough as we have waited for several years, before renegotiating. You can imagine after having a series of memoranda of action, memoranda of understanding and agreements, nothing tangible has been achieved. So, enough is enough to government not sponsoring and catering for federal universities that they set up. Sometimes one imagines what would have happened to public tertiary education if ASUU were not to be in the picture because since childhood, the first strike was in the 1980s, and that is over 40 years now.
What essentially are the issues in dispute?
When we say that there is nothing we have had that has not been pivotal to this struggle, we are actually not exaggerating. It is for our students to have good classrooms for lectures; have up to date facilities in terms of laboratories and libraries. The struggle is for there to be infrastructure within the university. We have been struggling for everything including for the federal government to set up visitation panels; for the federal government to make public the white paper of these visitation panels. That’s essentially what we are thinking government should do.
All these are essential for the university system to grow and keep running. So, why do you think the government is dilly-dallying about the implementation?
I think that essentially, the government is insincere; government is insensitive. Any government that is sensitive would not wait until people go on strike before doing anything good for the people. And also, maybe because their children don’t attend public universities. So, it doesn’t bother them whether there are facilities there or not; whether things are moving on well or not.
Therefore, it’s not only about ASUU because right now, ASUU is at home, NATE is at home, SANU and other affiliate unions are at home. So, it’s not the battle of us alone but every unit in the tertiary institution, including ASUP of polytechnics and even COASU of colleges of education. There’s a total collapse of the entire education system.
Are these issues too much for government to really sit down and resolve?
It’s about the disposition of government. It’s not about the bigness of the issue. We’re all in this country, and in this world, and we know that there are certain things that have happened – inflation, etc. So, largely, I think it’s the fact that government does not have the willpower to want to sit down and resolve this matter.
I remember sometime ago, the aviation union said that they would not fly from a certain Saturday and the evening of Friday, the government bailed them out.
It is just about priority.
Government has said it has no money to address all the issues at once. What are the basic ones that could push for a quick end to the strike?
One is the fact that we need to renegotiate our agreement with the government that was last renegotiated in 2009. It’s more than 13 years now. What this translates to is the fact that we’ve been on the same salary for more than 13 years; there’s been no improvement.
And for us to be earning the same salary of more than 13 years ago, with the current realities, the government is not fair to us. And as a matter of fact, I’m thinking that the government is doing this in bad faith because they know that we buy from the same market where every other set of people are buying, but our salaries still remain the same.
Another thing is that there’s no promotion. Even if you have been promoted years back, you still earn the same salary.
This means that a professor who was earning N450,000 in 2000 continues to earn the same thing years after being promoted till now.
So, there has not been any increase in terms of upward review of the salary scale to reflect your current position. It’s abnormal that for instance, I became an Associate Professor since 2019 (or any other associate professor for that matter) but what we are earning is the same salary. Nothing has essentially changed in the payment system.
We’re not for any new thing. We’re essentially on strike because what we agreed in December 2020 have not all been met. Another major problem is the fact that the government is allowing proliferation of state universities. This means that every state governor has the freedom to establish a university when those already on ground have not been well-funded.