Lecturers’ strike highlights troubled education sector

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By Economist

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University lecturers in Nigeria have once again embarked on a prolonged nationwide strike to press the federal government to improve conditions in the country’s underfunded higher education institutions. This latest industrial action by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), which began on July 1st, is aimed at forcing the government to implement its 2009 agreement with the union that covered several issues including funding, university autonomy, academic freedom and lecturers’ remuneration. Coming on top of the strike by members of the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics between April and July over similar issues, the industrial action highlights the widespread discontent in Nigeria’s troubled higher education institutions, owned by federal and state governments.

The long-running tussle between ASUU and successive governments over university funding and pay conditions on campuses has had a damaging impact on the education system. Over the past two decades there have been numerous and often long strikes by discontented lecturers, which have forced the closure of campuses and disrupted the education of students. The latest strike comes at a time when final-year undergraduates are about to sit their exams, and so jeopardises their chances of completing their courses on schedule. Avoiding such disruption has been one of the factors prompting wealthy parents to send their children to foreign universities or to the local privately owned universities that have mushroomed in Nigeria since the restoration of civilian rule in 1999.

Financing is one problem Of the many issues of contention between ASUU and the government, the most critical is probably the demand that the government live up to promises to significantly increase funding of universities and education in general. According to ASUU leaders, the government agreed to progressively raise its education spending as a percentage of the annual budget to 26% by 2020. However, the federal government allocated a total of N509bn for education in the 2013 budget, which is just 10.2% of total planned expenditure, and the 2020 target looks highly ambitious. The lecturers’ union also claimed that the government promised to set aside a N100bn (US$620m) intervention fund in 2012 to address the problems facing the university system, including infrastructural decay and poor facilities, with additional injections of N400bn between 2013 and 2015. However, the union complains that universities have not received the N100bn earmarked for last year. Considering that the administration of the president, Goodluck Jonathan, is running a fiscal deficit and revenue has fallen below expectations, it is difficult to see how it can significantly raise spending on education without making drastic cuts elsewhere. On July 16th the finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo‑Iweala, told the parliamentary committee on appropriation and finance that the Nigerian economy was experiencing shortfalls in oil revenue (due to low crude output caused by oil theft and pipeline vandalism) and in customs duties. Although government officials frequently state the need to boost public investment in education to enhance human capital and promote economic growth, improving the country’s poor infrastructure, particularly electricity and transport, is probably the more pressing priority of the administration.

There is more to the issue than money alone

ASUU leaders make the point that Nigeria spends less of its annual budget on education than do many comparable countries that are also striving to industrialise and achieve rapid economic growth. This is undoubtedly true, but the problems facing Nigeria’s higher education system, particularly universities, are not simply due to official neglect or underfunding. Since independence in 1960 Nigeria has experienced remarkable growth in its higher education system, from having only one university to now boasting 128 universities, not to mention almost 150 polytechnics and monotechnics. However, this expansion has occurred at a faster pace than has growth in available resources to adequately support existing institutions at high standards. Also, universities have not been adequately geared to meeting the labour needs of the economy, although in recent years governments have endeavoured to create more technology- and science-oriented tertiary institutions. The economic case for increasing public spending on universities has been weakened by the growing number of graduates who leave college and are unable to find appropriate employment. Graduate unemployment in Nigeria has been estimated to be as high as 60%. The issue of graduate joblessness was highlighted late last year by reports that thousands of degree holders applied for the 100 places in a truck driver employment scheme advertised by Dangote, a manufacturing conglomerate. Critics contend that it makes little sense to pump more public money into a higher education sector that supplies more graduates than there is demand, requiring the government to devote more resources to graduate job-creation programmes, such as the Graduate Internship Scheme started last October. There are graduate opportunities in some more dynamic sections of the economy, such as finance and communications, but not yet enough. The energy sector is also a graduate employer, but frequently uses expatriate staff given the lack of suitable skills of many Nigerian graduates. This situation has seen greater calls for foreign companies to be forced to hire more local staff, but this does not address the issue of the suitability of Nigerian graduates.

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