A Google search of ASUU, the acronym of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, comes with the suggestions ‘ASUU strike’, ‘ASUU strike update’ and ‘ASUU strike update today.’ The above are not surprising because most Nigerians have come to associate ASUU with ‘strikes’.
ASUU is a union of teachers in the universities in Nigeria founded in 1978. It succeeded the defunct Nigerian Association of University Teachers formed in 1965. It is a trade union which was set up to fight for the rights and welfare of her members. It is the responsibility of the union to assist the stakeholders of the Nigerian university system in attaining the set classic standard of education through the provision of quality education in the Nigerian university system. Furthermore, the union strives to ensure adequate welfare and job security for her members and facilitate for them an enabling working environment.
‘ASUU strikes’ have become a familiar and disturbing refrain in the Nigerian body polity. They have probably become the gravest threat to the Nigerian university system, in particular, and the Nigerian education sector in general. Since the return to democratic rule in 1999, ASUU has embarked on nationwide strike more than 20 times during which students have lost a cumulative period of almost four years of the academic calendar. And this is not taking into consideration the avalanche of ‘local ASUU strikes’, whereby a particular vice-chancellor, University Governing Council or state government is at loggerheads with the academic staff of a specific university.
The effect of ASUU strikes has been devastating to the Nigerian university system by watering down the quality of education offered to Nigerian students which has at best been mediocre. The academic performance of students is adversely affected, and the entire educational system is almost crippled. These result in half-baked students and graduates who are unemployable and who lack the basic skills necessary to survive dynamic environments like Nigeria and the rest of the world.
Students are known to perform poorly in examinations upon resumption from prolonged strike action. This is unrelated to short contact hours and the diminished motivation to read and conduct research, which invariably affect the quality of their education.
On the part of the lecturers, prolonged ASUU strikes, make them rush academic work. The import of this is that they tend to forgo essential aspects of their course work, the semesters are cut short, and the students get bombarded with a lot of academic work within a short period. In the end, this “scattergun approach” to literary and scientific academic studies lead to poor performance by students and demeans the overall standard of our tertiary education system.
Incessant ASUU strikes naturally extend the period a student spends in school and the attendant cost implication. Some undergraduates are known to spend up to seven years for a four-year course due to ASUU strikes. It is common to hear students talk about their year of graduation for four years course by adding mathematical integer “X” representing an unknown number of years. This has a ripple effect on some forms of employment, like in the banking industry and military where age is an essential consideration for entry-level job positions.
Another effect of the continuous industrial activities of the ASUU is that most students, after a prolonged stay at home, deem it fit to venture into the street to eke out a living. Some of them do not return to school when the industrial action is over. There are others who out of loneliness and boredom, resort to crime and criminal activities such as advanced fee fraud, armed robbery, and kidnapping. Others are overwhelmed by juvenile delinquency, engage in vices like gambling and wanderlust, while some of the ladies become susceptible to abusive relationships and unwanted pregnancies. The speculations in certain quarters that some of the hoodlums who took part in the lootings that ensued from the recent #EndSARS protests were university students forced to idleness due to the prolonged ASUU strike may have some merit.
Some of the demands of the university lecturers are germane. One of the recurring issues is the underfunding of the education sector, which has an impact on the quality of infrastructure, instructional resources, and research. Budgetary allocations for the education sector are inadequate, and over the years, this has had a collateral damaging effect on the educational sector in the country. Nigerian universities that used to be centres of excellence, that attracted academics from far and near, have now become grotesque carcasses of their former selves.
The standards of our public universities have fallen so low that many Nigerians now resort to the more expensive private universities. Those who can afford it amongst the upper class send their wards to good schools in North America, Asia, and Europe.
A troubling report released last year showed that the country loses over N1.5 trillion per annum to overseas studies. This amount though modest by some estimation is still staggering considering the foreign exchange pressures it mounts on Nigeria’smeagre foreign reserve. It is disheartening to note that countries previously considered to be beneath Nigeria in terms of human development indices like the Benin Republic, Ghana and Togo are some of the prime beneficiaries of the education capital flight from Nigeria. Ghana alone is estimated to be benefitting from about N160 billion per year from thousands of Nigerians trooping to pursue university education there.
Another demand of ASUU is the earned allowances of lecturers. Earned allowances are typically a kind of overtime allowance whereby the lecturers make extra allowances when the class size they are teaching exceeds the maximum allowed. It is surprising that instead of ASUU insisting on increasing staffing levels and universities admitting students according to the ratio of their capacity, it would instead prefer agitating for earned allowances for their members.
Standards and employment contracts of our academics are Soviet era model. Lecturers are remunerated equally irrespective of their standards of research excellence. Ordinarily, in a free market system, private sector endowments should pay academics for relevant outstanding research, ensuring that the more productive scholars are better paid.
The third issue related to the first is ASUU’s demand for an increase in funding. However, ASUU seems oblivious of the challenges posed by decreasing government revenue mainly due to the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is on record that at N743bn, the education sector only lags behind defence in the current budgetary allocations by the federal government.
The money given to education is relatively small, given the population and the educational gap in Nigeria. The budgetary allocation to education represents 6.33% of the budget, which falls short of UNESCO benchmark recommendation of between 15% and 20% . Interestingly the capital allocation to the Ministry of Education is higher than that of Ministry of Defence. Does this have any visible impact on education in Nigeria?
The current ASUU strike started since March 2020 which media reports say they have only worked out a truce with the Federal government after seven months comes at an enormous socio-economic cost.
The country cannot make progress with the current system whereby incessant ASUU strikes continues to damage the Nigerian educational sector and imperils the future of the Nigerian youth. It’s time to get to the root of this matter and close this chapter.
The academic staff of Nigerian universities should explore other viable means of protest than strike actions. Industrial actions should come as a last resort due to the enormous damage it does to our educational system. There should always be open communication between ASUU and the Federal Government with each party ready to understand the other and willing to place national interest above “ego” and short-term political considerations.
In the face of depleting government revenues, Nigerian universities should source for alternative means of funding. Nigerian lecturers should drive this process. They should engage in research for which they can get funding from private organisations and from which they can also generate revenue. There are examples in other climes, for example, Standford University’s endowment of $28.9billion and Harvard University’s endowment of $41.9billion surpasses Federal Government of Nigeria proposed budgetary expenditure of N13.08trillion for 2021 even with a fiscal deficit of N5trillion.
A constant in ASUU demands on the Federal Government is university autonomy where it seeks minimum government interference in the universities. I agree with the principle of non-interference; however, the reality is that “he who pays the piper dictates the tune”. If our universities are heavily dependent on government funding, expecting that the same government would not interfere in the affairs of the universities is tantamount to crass wishful thinking.
In as much as it may be painful to most students, the current tuition fees paid in some of the public universities are grossly inadequate. The unit cost of a university education in the public institutions is less than a nursery education in a private kindergarten. In most countries, tertiary education is costly that is why some countries like the United States of America have a system where students get soft loans to pursue their university education, which would be paid back in future. The Nigerian rducation authorities should explore the idea of soft loans to students to pay higher tuition fees to help universities get requisite funding.
On their part, the government should learn to keep the agreements they entered with workers. Government is a continuum, and an incumbent government should naturally see that it keeps to commitments made by its predecessors. Government negotiators should put future government revenue projections into considerationbefore making future funding commitments to avoid default.
The educational sector is the bedrock of any society that wants to meet up with the challenges of a dynamic world. Incessant ASUU strikes have pilloried the Nigerian educational system and have continued to jeopardise the future of our youths. The future of our nation rests on quality education, and all stakeholders must work together to get it right.
•Dr Dakuku Peterside ( DAP) is a leadership & organisational development consultant and corporate political strategist. He can be reached on +2348033123801 www.dakukupeterside.com