MY take on the ongoing faceoff between the federal government and the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU) is that the latter tends to make light of a very serious matter. Agreed, no Nigerian can give the federal government thumbs up over the way it handles the matter of tertiary education, particularly the universities, but ASUU cannot pretend to be operating in a system different from what obtains currently in the country as a whole.
On the ongoing “warning strike” for example, it is hard for most Nigerians to say precisely why the union called out its members. Is the strike over the issue of Integrated Payroll And Personal Information System (IPPIS) per se? Is it about the refusal of the federal government to pay the February 2020 salaries to their members who have refused to enroll in IPPIS as alleged? Is it about the previous agreements between the federal government in 2009, 2013, 2017, 2019? Is it about the proliferation of universities? Just what?
Indications are, however, that the immediate cause of the strike action was the alleged refusal of the government to pay February 2020 salaries to those who have refused to enroll into IPPIS. The question to ask, therefore, is, what should Nigerians expect if the salaries are paid before the end of the two-week warning strike – on March 22, 2020? Will the union call another warning strike to address each and every of the unresolved issues that have cumulatively led to the very circus the university system in Nigerian has become?
In my view, the ongoing warning strike is an unnecessary trivialization of the matter. ASUU called off its last strike on February 7, 2019 after the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the federal government on earlier agreements beginning from 2009. These include the agreement to inject a total of N1.3trillion revitalization fund into the university system beginning from 2013. So far, only N220 billion has been released. There was also the agreement to address the issue of proliferation of universities which has been breached. The Goodluck Jonathan administration, under which the agreement was reached, was the first to contravene it when it established twelve more federal Universities shortly after the agreement. The Muhammadu Buhari administration has taken a queue with the establishment of a University of Transportation, University of Health Sciences, University of ICT etc, to say nothing of state governments which, as learnt, go to the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) to collect money for the establishment of brand new universities contrary to what the Fund was establish for – the maintenance of infrastructure in existing Universities. Now, since the federal government has serially failed to meet its agreements with ASUU on issues that go even beyond IPPIS, it then means that calling a strike action just because of IPPIS is at once a deceit to the generality of Nigerians and a misplaced strategy.
One of Nigeria’s best academics, Professors Wole Soyinka, once advocated for a closure of all the Universities in the country pending the time a comprehensive solution to the system’s problems is worked out. While we need not go to such an extreme, ASUU cannot also suggest a casualization of the services of its members. One of ASUU’s henchmen, Dr. Adeola Egbedokun, chairman of the union’s Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) branch, was quoted as saying their members have adopted the “NO PAY NO WORK” posture. I am worried that University lectures have been cajoled into seeing matters from such an ordinary point of view. It is like “FINISH AND GO” which employers of daily-paid workers usually say to their employees while apportioning their respective assignments.
Of course, on the perennial issue of government neglect on the universities over the years, Nigerians stand with ASUU and its members. Where I am not sure they have sympathy is resorting to peace-meal strikes like ongoing one. The union leaders have given a list of the issues they have against IPPIS, chief of which is that it erodes university autonomy. They argue, for example, that under IPPIS, Nigerian universities will no longer be able to engage foreign academics needed to make their standards meet international standards. The question, however, is: Did we meet international standards without IPPIS? The answer is, of course, a big “NO”. So, why would IPPIS now be seen as a stumbling block to meeting those standards?
The ASUU leaders also talk about corruption in the IPPIS system. That’s not saying anything new to Nigerians who also know that the universities in Nigeria are not populated by angels. It is good that ASUU is talking about corruption in IPPIS. That means that there is a point of convergence here. In other words, even as imperfect as the government’s corruption-fighting machinery has been adjudged to be, the latter in saying that it has seen IPPIS as one of the tools to employ in that fight. If, as learnt, the idea of incorporating the universities into IPPIS was first muted in 2013, it then means that the disagreement over it is part of the fundamental issues in the system which equally require a fundamental solution beyond the tentativeness of warning strikes. In any case, reports have It that over 60 percent of ASUU members have enrolled into IPPIS even though its national president, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, said “we are not bothered”. So, is he suggesting that we should completely discountenance the involvement of such a population its members in IPPIS? Certainly, we cannot.
In place of IPPIS, ASUU came up with its own version of how to tackle corruption in the university system in Nigeria, the University Transparency And Accountability Solution (UTATS) which it claims is a “more robust system of human resource management and compensation” and which will address the “peculiarities” of the Nigerian university system.
Last count however, the system – UTATS – is still on the drawing board despite several assurances by the union that it will “soon” be ready to be put into use. That was the situation as late as last Friday when the union’s leaders met with representatives of the federal government. Of course, we can give ASUU the benefit of doubt to the effect that its failure to develop its own invention might be as a result of the systemic problem of inadequacy of infrastructure in the universities but does it not make sense that it should direct its members who are yet to comply to go for IPPIS pending the time UTATS is fully developed?
Nobody can, of course, suggest that Nigerians are happy with the way the government is managing the affairs of our public universities. But they are also not unmindful of the fact that the problem is fundamental and that such, solution to it must be fundamental and does lie in stampede activism. Yes, the lectures are the people living right within the rot but other stakeholders outside the university system are the worst sufferers. While many even believe that some of the lectures are benefiting from the rot in the system, parents are meant to bear the main brunt. Their children and wards now stay extra years before graduating. When it is not a result of ASUU strikes, it is because the student(s) have one or two issues to settle with a particular lecturer. The initial thinking that allowing private universities will help broaden the educational base of our system has not altogether turned out as expected. Majority of the private universities are substandard. And in a bid to met the required standards, in terms of academic staff, physical infrastructure and equipment, they charge exorbitant fees. Yet, the standards have remained a mirage for many of them even with the higher fees which some of them increase nearly every quarter. Many parents have become pauperized because they are forced to patronize private universities in order to ensure that their wards do not lag behind for failure or get accommodated in the public universities.
Still, the truth remains that had the government-owned universities been properly managed, each of them is capable of taking all the students of twenty private universities put together. A visit to the first and second generation universities will show that successive administrations have merely succeeded in destroying the vision of the founders of those universities. The University of the Ife, now OAU, was once said to be the most beautiful campus in the whole of Africa. Today, the place is nothing to write home about. Two years ago, I visited the University of Nigeria, Nsukka for the first time and I kept saying to myself: “It’s no big deal, after all, that I wasn’t here”. The place doesn’t look like what its founder, the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, had in mind when he gave it the sobriquet: “To Restore The Dignity Of Man”. We can go on and on.
The point, therefore, is that the present crop of teachers in public universities in Nigeria should not think that the rot in the system is a matter of “we versus the rest of Nigeria”. The parents of those they are teaching are even more traumatized not only by the rot in the universities which some of them – the lecturers – help to perpetrate but also because of the decay in the larger society. Time was when parents counted the days to the graduation of their wards. But not anymore, for reasons that are not difficult to fathom.