Let’s get a few things straight. If ASUU decides today not to embark on any strike again ever, this will not solve any of the problems of the education sector; rather, it will compound them. But ASUU cannot keep on keeping on going on strike for at least two reasons. First, because many of the issues involved are not very clear to the public, it will lose the public relations war and all the blame will ultimately become an albatross on its neck. Second, if there is any least common denominator at which it should meet government, when the government decides to act in good faith, is at the altar of the sanctity of the academic calendar.
While meeting a negotiating partner in whom it has totally lost confidence is going to prove difficult for ASUU, it is nonetheless something that must be done. Along the way, ASUU has to accept that universities must reopen, and it must become realistic enough to accept that a government whose minister can unilaterally buy unauthorised materiel and bullet-proof cars for her use with an amount that is the equivalent of more the annual basic salary of one hundred professors is not the government that can be forced by logic or by university shutdown to see reason.
Right now, it is difficult for ASSU to resist the temptation and urge to ride the high horse thinking that it is involved in a great war on behalf of the civilisation that is us—and it is. Even with ASUU, things have not become any better or at least not as good and as well as they should; but without ASUU there wouldn’t have remained even the inkling of the semblance of an education system by now. The problem with the union’s struggle is that it can be as altruistic as it is egocentrically personal, depending on how a viewer looks at it; but the import of its 2009 agreement with the government is largely for the salvation of the tertiary education system.
Here is how it saw its brief then. The single term of reference of the committee was to re-negotiate the agreement reached between ASUU and the Federal Government in 2001, and enter into a workable agreement. In the course of discussion, the committee agreed that the essence of the re-negotiation was: to reverse the decay in the university system, in order to reposition it for greater responsibilities in national development; to reverse the brain drain, not only by enhancing the remuneration of academic staff, but also by disengaging them from the encumbrances of a unified civil service wage structure; to restore Nigerian Universities, through immediate, massive and sustained financial intervention; and, to ensure genuine university autonomy and academic freedom.
On December 14, 2006, the Federal Government inaugurated the FGN/ASUU Re-negotiation Committee, and on January 23, 2007, the re-negotiations began at the National Universities Commission, Abuja. Since the end of the negotiations and the signing of a memorandum between it and the government in January 2009, the government has refused to deliver its part of the bargain. But ASUU has.
ASUU has always enjoyed the support of the Nigerian public. To be sure, much of its early support was ideological; and even if it was fighting a just—and a particularly just—cause, it was also an extension of the Left, or so it was seen by, well, almost everybody. Its support solidified as successive governments, under the order or glare of the Breton Woods institutions began withdrawing support and funding; and as people began to see that the struggle by ASUU was the only way to ensure the long-term survival of education.
However, as strike after strike began to be long and drawn-out, and graduation date began to recede into the distant future, ASUU started to lose the support of some parents and other otherwise well-meaning sympathisers. At one time, students—and today, student leaders—began turning against their lecturers.
But all this ire is really misplaced because right now all the cards are in the hands of the government, and if it chooses to play the right ones, straightaway, lecturers will be back in class, students, ever so eager to graduate, will be back in school, and the public will applaud. But a stay in the university is not just about eagerness to graduate or receive a certificate; it is more about the content of what one goes through and the receipt of quality, functional education, which is what ASUU wishes to ensure. But some people have opposed the ASUU position on the premise that there is corruption in its rank. Yes, so there is; but so is there in government—incomparably so!
No doubt, there is corruption in ASUU members: there are incidents of plagiarism on campus among its members; there are professors without peer-reviewed scholarly articles to their credit; there is harassment of female students, in order to get that thing for marks ; there is greater devotion to unregulated part-time lecturing than faithfulness to tenured positions; there is glaring failure to carry out crucial assignments, like the marking examinations scripts, in which case, they do what they call ‘mark allocation;’ there is abuse of the famous democratisation process, with members electing not the best person for the job but someone who will do only what they like, often leading to incompetence, inefficiency or even a breakdown of law and order; there is ASUU’s inability to discipline its members owing to the voluntary nature of its membership; and there is too much unjustified and indefensible globe-trotting as members junket from one unnecessary conference to another using funds that are supposedly and otherwise inadequate even for teaching and research; but the quality of today’s graduate is inescapably as much a failure of the system as it is of neglect by the university lecturer.
But all this will not absolve the government of its own faults: its notorious, continuing,, insupportable pigheaded failure to adequately fund education even as it misapplies the resources that will have done what is required in the sector; its highhandedness in always taking ASUU for granted; its cynical adoption of deception and serial insincerity to define the modus operandi of its approaches to, and interactions with, members of the staff union; and its adamant refusal to ever honour any of its agreement with ASUU until it is forced into doing so by a determined strike action. What is there in ASUU’s demand that will take the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, the Senate President, the Vice President and the President himself to fail to solve? If it is the question of funding that the government is running away from, the report has presented its solution to that.
In addition to the other sources recom-mended in the ASUU Report—the Higher Education Fund [TETFUND], PTDF and many others—the following may be explored. In order for universities to be able to generate sufficient internal revenue, they should charge internationally competitive fees, provided state governments will ensure that all needy or, in fact, their entire students get full and automatic scholarship to cover tuition, board and lodging. Many states have sent hundreds of students overseas and their fees are being paid in dollars—thousands of dollars, why should it be difficult for them to support internal effort to regain lost academic glory?
And if government could direct the setting up of rural branches by commercial banks in areas where patronage might not be sufficient, it shouldn’t be difficult for it to direct them to set up specifically ‘education bank’ branches; or charge all commercial banks to pool resources and set up one giant Education Bank to cater for everyone such that every eligible university student gets a loan sufficient to see him through university.
No doubt, the 2009 agreement with ASUU and the memorandum resulting from it provide a very good starting point if the government is really interested in helping education. But perhaps that much is clear that no one in Abuja is really interested in anything that can move the nation forward, especially anything as nebulous as education, and more especially what needs to be spent on it.
It tell a lot about the government that, with the exception of the civil servants who, strictly speaking are not part of it, there is no one in its upper echelon who knows what government really is or what its processes are. And it tells a lot about the lack of seriousness in public life that the Senate president will call a group headed by Chief Gamaliel Onosode as people who don’t know what they are doing. If this is the expression of gratitude by the government for his three years of painstaking negotiations on its behalf, it leaves much to be desired; but if it is merely an expression of the appreciation of the situation by the Senate president, it desires much to be left.