This piece arose from a conversation we had that dragged on and on. We have had a combined experience of and exposure to university education in Nigeria and an active interest in this sector, with one of us also having being an academic staff of a federal university for a substantial period, while equally engaging in ASUU activism actively. The discussion started with a view that we do not take the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) seriously anymore. That the organisation has lost the essence of the struggle and that much of ASUU’s problems are self-inflicted. Many in the university leadership in Nigeria are stealing their institutions blind, and are thus not different from the politicians they condemn. We are presently in that season of yet another ASUU strike that may be called off shortly, so it is timely to revisit this malady.
The incompetence of our government seems to fuel the inglorious system that we currently have in place. Yet, there is a solution to the current inveterate strike of ASUU that can make the Nigerian university system stable for at least the next decade, but the government lacks the will to enforce this simple and indeed democratic solution. There is need to play the game of union membership and strikes as it is played in Europe and many other Western countries. It also requires the will to enforce our own extant laws on unions and strikes.
Presently, the Nigerian government indulges ASUU by allowing academic staff to be automatically registered as members of ASUU. Let us make membership voluntary and see how this would help. Contract in, rather than contract out. So ASUU will only have people who willingly register with it and pay their membership fees directly to the organisation. ASUU would need to convince academic staff that there is value in their membership of the body and that their membership dues will be transparently used.
Furthermore, there must be a membership vote before any strike and majority must support such strike before it can take place. In addition, universities should not collect union dues on behalf of ASUU, as the Union must be made to collect its dues directly from members. That is the standard practice worldwide. We cannot want democracy and freedom of association publicly and practice something different privately.
Once this is done, only academics convinced of the value of membership in the body will remain there and the Union will strictly be negotiating with their employers. ASUU will become restricted to the issues that affect the welfare of its members, going back to strictly trade union matters and becoming less political. Presently, ASUU seems to be trying to run the university system through the back door, so to say. That is not its job.
Unfortunately, the government is often irresponsible. They freely enter into an agreement and often fail in their duty to comply with or implement the said agreement. Government does this with impunity and often without any consultation with ASUU. If as an employer you perceive a problem with an existing freely negotiated agreement or some problems with its implementation, the fair and sensible thing to do is call a meeting to update the other partner – in this case ASUU. This would result in a modified timeline and ASUU will be well informed, less agitated and clearly have much less grievance. They would brief their members and feel like serious partners in the business of higher education. When government deliberately ignores ASUU and reneges on signed agreements, a fair description of their action is arrogance and irresponsiblity. This has been the practice since 1992 from the Babangida years, when the very first serious long-term agreement to improving higher education was signed between ASUU and government.
One often wonders what exactly the senior civil servants in the relevant government ministries contribute to this failure of governance. There are some directors and deputy directors and even the permanent secretaries in the Education and Labour ministries who must be aware of these agreements and the responsibility and obligations of government in fulfilling them. Before one calls them out for blame, the real issue is: Do they give their principals the right advice and guidance on what is correct and appropriate? Do the relevant ministers often ignore such advice? Politicians will come and go, and we need not argue that many of them are often more interested in the office and the money they can make from their positions than the success or indeed sustainability of government policies. Yet, the success of most Western countries lies with a strong, vibrant and highly professional civil service. Western countries often attract and retain their best brains to work for government. Nigeria used to, but not anymore. Perhaps that would even get worse before it gets better. How is our civil service positioned to support the country’s progress and development? Perhaps, like the politicians, the top civil servants are also more interested in the “goodies” of office and choice properties in Abuja, London and Cape Town… But we digress!
Now back to ASSU. Every discussion between government and ASUU in which the alternative funding question has been raised has been jeopardised by ASUU. The Union is often quick to insist that there is no alternative to the current way our educational system is funded; but there’s always an alternative solution to every problem. So, there is nothing new here. Different versions and suggestions of an alternative to our current system have been on the table from successive governments since 1992. We are not arguing here that they have all been impressive proposals, but they are proposals nonetheless and often contain ideas we could twist, tweak and turn as we go along.
It was part of this alternative funding proposal that brought about what we know today as the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND). The TETFUND scheme was originally formed as a product of the Education Tax Act of 1993, which is now the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (Establishment, etc.) Act, 2011. ASUU suggested that with a two per cent dedicated education tax payable by companies, all our education problems will disappear. Several years down the line, TETFUND is announcing that billions of naira set aside for research is not being applied for year-on-year. The body says the money is lying fallow. Research funds never get unused in serious countries, as they are never enough! What has ASUU ever done about this? Is it not a shame of some sort? Seriously, our politicians know how to use such funds. Houses will be bought in Banana Island and Asokoro to start with.
However, the governments of Presidents Jonathan and Buhari have perhaps made the most serious arguments about the need to change the funding system of higher education in Nigeria. The only reason it has not materialised is because since 1992, ASUU has consistently said NO to this! If any Nigerian-based academic is not familiar with ASUU’s stance on this, s/he needs to talk to his/her local union. S/he needs to ask to get full briefing. Ask why government offers and suggestions are not tabled for full discussion at branches.
One suggestion was for government to bring in a large seed sum into higher education to jumpstart a process where students would take loans to pay their fees and some participating banks will loan money to students. When students begin to work, they then start to pay the money back. This system obtains in countries like the U.K. and South Africa, but ASUU says no to this – that education must be free! Government proposed to give bursaries and other forms of grants and supports to indigent students, but ASUU has also been suspicions of this; perhaps rightly so!
ASUU’s rather clever and commendable suggestion of 1992 has worked well to a large extent. That was what led to the 2 per cent tax on businesses, which presently finances TETFUND. Businesses have been paying this tax since 1993, yet it has not solved the problems in higher education. Should ASUU not own up that there is a more fundamental change required in our educational system?
It is not rocket science to investigate and find out that Nigeria remains one of the few countries in the world where no effort has been made to tweak educational funding, despite our challenges. A cursory evaluation of many African countries will reveal that many of them have made modifications in policies they consider no longer working for or meeting the challenges of the contemporary times. ASUU needs to reconsider its rigid stance, and to consult more openly and transparently with its broad membership. The dominance of ASUU’s leadership by successive hard-line leftists, employing arguments and postures disguised as “radical”, needs to be open to scrutiny. Succeeding ASUU leaders have been cleverly positioned to replace each other by the radical left. Gladly, both authors here are more sympathetic to the left and left leaning, but ASUU should be freed of the strong accusation of being a “leftist cult”.
A lot of anomalies are rampant in higher education in Nigeria. Academics are often looked up to as the simple, honest, contented and trusted ones. This is what informed the choice of vice chancellors as the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) returning officers for elections in Nigeria since 2015, as introduced by Attahiru Jega, a former ASUU national president. Yet, when one looks around, reports of university leadership being arraigned in courts for all forms of financial misappropriation abounds. Many former VCs, registrars and bursars and other senior management team are reported very rich – often owning properties far in excess of their legitimate earnings. Nobody is asking them the sources of the wealth. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is too overwhelmed with cases of corruption all over every sector and section of Nigeria, and it has limited personnel and resources, and just cannot cope.
A change in the funding system that would make students and their sponsors have a significant financial investment in their education will change the face of higher education in Nigeria. If students were to pay, for example, students and their sponsors will take more active interests in monitoring the quality of the service delivery. Academics will no longer be able to miss classes unhindered, less alone be able to harass female students or sell handouts. The existing unchecked freedom to “misbehave” will be curtailed to the benefit of tertiary education. Moreover, universities, if financially independent, will have to survive on good management. They will no longer be able to hide incompetence. There would be competition. A careful look at the more successful private universities in Nigeria will give you an indication of where we might be headed.
ASUU has always argued in favour of university autonomy. A shift in its current rigidity and support for a fundamental change on how higher education is funded will be putting money where its mouth will be. For a time after Nigeria’s Independence, the few Nigerian universities we had were semi-autonomous. They charged some fees, oversaw their individual students’ intake and were even able to appoint their own vice chancellors and other principal officers. It is true that they were largely funded by government. Since the federal government took over these universities, their autonomies have been completely lost. A change in the funding system will expose academic impunity in our universities, but it will also bring the academic freedom that ASUU has always asked for. Universities will be more competitive and more transparent. Each will develop at its own pace, find its own level. But more importantly, academics will be more accountable. Is this what really brings fear down the spine of ASUU officials and some academics?
There is a serious claim that ASUU leadership operates like a cult. That if it were to open up what goes on entirely at the negotiations with government to its membership, it will lose support and followership hence the secrecy and manipulation.
Government may soon release some money and ASUU will call off its strike. That would end this year’s “ASUU’s annual yam strike festival”. When it is time for new yam, next year or the following year, it would go back on strike again. It is all in the interest of the system, according to ASUU.
The view expressed thus far may be perceived as anti-ASUU and conservative, even bourgeois. Yet, we are also passionate about ASUU’s success and more importantly the success of our universities. People who hold views like these are often quickly misunderstood. To be fair, being based abroad is a reason not to bother about these issues unless one has that Nigeria bug in one, like some of us do.
What we need more now is for Nigerian academics who are active ASUU members to begin to speak up within ASUU. Not necessarily to speak up against ASUU but speak up for common sense. The emergence of a parallel body, “The Congress of University Academics” (CONUA) is proof of a need for this common-sense approach. CONUA emanated from the intransigence of the ASUU leadership. We do not welcome this divisive politics at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, a hitherto strong bed of ASUU. ASUU needs to reunite its membership and come out of this mess stronger.
Academics are the masters of self-criticism through peer review, so they are used to critical feedback on their writings before getting published. There is a need for more ASUU members to not just face the same direction. Right now, ASUU is just facing one direction. There are always alternative ways to solving most problems.
What is needed presently is for more people to insist that we cannot destroy a system we belong to before we improve it. ASUU has become part of the problem than the solution. We need people to ask ASUU simple questions. For example: why are these prolonged strikes not happening in other countries? We are not the only African or developing country with poor funding of universities, but we are the only one with these repeated and regular prolonged rounds of strikes. We embarrass our graduates when they go abroad as they often have to explain the long strikes and the impact of these on the quality of their education. Academics need to tell ASUU’s obstinate leadership we are better than this and are certainly more intelligent than APC and PDP combined; so why are we not making progress in these fights? How can we fight it differently? University education is not the most serious problem of education we have in Nigeria. Primary and secondary education pose much more serious, more urgent and more fundamental problems. It is not suggested that academics should quit ASUU – that would be wrong. They should stay but must have a voice. They must clearly affirm that ASUU needs reform in its approach and struggle.
Part of the rapid progress that the University of Ilorin made in global ranking and the ganering of a worldwide reputation is due to the stability of its academic calendar, enhanced research output, global collaborations and particularly the no-strike policy of many years. In whatever list you look at, the University of Ilorin is there – and near the top in Nigeria. Covenant University, a private relatively new institution, has also recently made a big advancement in its global ranking. Granted the ranking has its various problems, it remains the “eyes” that people use to judge universities around the world until a better option comes along.
And to be honest, there is a simple solution government can apply that will kill ASUU with a stroke of the pen. Hopefully ASUU will not force government to take that route. And one is not talking about a ban on ASUU, as such a ban would be a lazy option. Nobody needs to ban ASUU to kill it, but ASUU must reform. There is a more workable approach which we do not want government to take. The Nigeria university system will rise again and ASUU will be stronger with it.
Gbolahan Gbadamosi can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org and Akintokunbo Adejumo, through email@example.com.