That the Nigerian education system is in severe crisis is self-evident. If the increasing trend of our University graduates being unable to read and write is not enough evidence, then the virtual absence of our universities in the upper end of the league of African Universities should suffice. And if you are still not convinced, you can read the articulation of the parlous state of our education system by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) during its annual strikes. ASUU’s grouse with the government over the years has a constant theme:
On June 24 2009 for instance, the umbrella body of university teachers embarked on a prolonged strike over an apparent refusal by the government to endorse a 2006 agreement that would, among other things, devote 26 percent of annual budgets to the education sector as well as implement a new salary structure requiring a budget of some N78 billion Naira.
Between July and December 2010, ASUU once more called its members out on a sympathy strike. This all started on July 22 2013 when some university workers under the aegis of Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU), and the National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) embarked on an indefinite strike in the South-Eastern part of Nigeria. The affected institutions included the Cross Rivers State University of Technology, Anambra State University, Enugu State University, Abia State University and Ebonyi State University. At issue was the refusal of the affected state governments to implement the agreement signed with the federal government on the development of the university system in 2000.
On December 6 2011, ASUU embarked on yet another strike that spilled into 2012 after giving a one-week notice of its intention do so. At issue in this round of the annual ritual is the same old story of the failure of the Federal Government to implement an agreement – this time an agreement it entered into with the Union in 2009. Among other demands, ASUU was asking the government to improve funding for universities, review the process of appointing Vice-Chancellors and review upwards the retirement age of University professors to 70 years.
From the foregoing, the current strike, which has lasted nearly a month, is a mere continuation of an annual ritual with a predictable outcome: after a prolonged strike, pressure will come on both the government and the ASUU to end the strike, government will make a number of promises, most of which it will not fulfill, and which will ensure that next year the same strike ritual will be repeated. The outcome will be the same, varying only on its nuance.
No one, who has been to any of the country’s government-owned universities (whether federal or state-owned) will feel amused. There are indeed several instances where over 300 students will struggle to squeeze in a classroom meant for 50 or 60 students. Again although the salary and working condition of University lecturers improved under Obasanjo’s second coming, they still effectively lag behind their counterparts elsewhere, even in Africa, especially given the large class sizes and the quality of the students, which often means that lecturers here spend more than four times the amount of time their counterparts elsewhere spend in supervising an average student – whether at the undergraduate or post-graduate level.
However, despite the legitimate grounds on which the strikes are based, the truth is that there are several negative consequences of this course of action that paradoxically help to complicate the problems in the education sector – the very reasons why the lecturers annually embark on these strikes.
Apart from their impacts on the psyche of the affected students, the incessant strikes help to perpetuate the current class structure of the society because those who have the means now send their children to study abroad or in one of the prohibitively expensive private universities here, which will at least guarantee a regular academic calendar, if not academic excellence.
With our current education system already disadvantaging the local students, those who can afford to study abroad gain double advantage. For instance, while it takes only three years to study engineering or Law in the UK, in Nigeria, an engineering student is expected to spend five years on the programme while a law student will need to spend six years to graduate. On top of this, you have to add the disruption in the regular academic calendar. This means for instance that before the engineering or law student will graduate, his counterpart who went to study in the UK, will be coming home with a PhD degree – if the person chose to pursue postgraduate studies.
Strikes indirectly also fuel corruption precisely because of the instance cited above. Because most people will do anything for their children to get quality education or avoid the hiccups in our University academic calendar, and because most parents cannot afford their children’s education overseas or in private universities here from their legitimate earnings, anything they can do to raise the money to do so becomes legitimate in their eyes.
There is equally an impression that both ASUU and the government use strike to blackmail each other. For instance by allowing the university teachers to embark on strikes before opening any serious dialogue with their union, an impression is created that the government is impervious to dialogue and negotiations and that the only language it understands is strong-arm tactics. ASUU repeatedly hypes the point about how the government routinely reneges on agreements it freely entered with them. Again largely because its strikes have become annual events, the University lecturers are portrayed as part of the problems of the education sector. They are projected as insensitive people who are preoccupied with bread and butter issues and who fail to appreciate that the problems in the education sector are reflections of the general problems of underdevelopment, and not something unique to the education sector. It could therefore be surmised that each time ASUU embarks on its annual strike; the government faces a declining sense of legitimacy just as the university lecturers themselves lose some of their integrity and respect. In essence strikes by ASUU generate a balance of dishonour – the government experiences a declining sense of legitimacy while the University lecturers lose public sympathy and esteem. That neither side benefits in the court of public opinion by prolonged strikes is the more reason why both should urgently find ways of modifying their behaviour as both sides have become just too predictable.
While the conditions under which our lecturers work are unacceptable – just like the conditions under which the police, doctors and others work are also unacceptable – what is urgently required is for ASUU to be more pro-active in coming up with alternative sources of funding for universities to augment the allocations from the federal government. We need for instance to know why most of our universities have been unable to successfully embark on commercially viable activities such as consultancies or to serve as incubators for certain types of businesses. We will equally like to know how many companies have been spun-off by our universities as some of their counterparts in the West do. In this respect, there could be a need for an annual league table, where universities and the various courses they offer are ranked, with part of the funds allocated to universities based on their ranks in the league table and the research output of their academic staff. In South Africa and some Universities in the UK for instance, funding is partly dependent on the intellectual output of lecturers in certain approved periodicals. It may be time for the country to take a closer look at such a system. In essence, rewards and obligations should go together. Just as the lecturers make legitimate demands on the government as their employers, the government should not be shy in articulating the minimum obligations expected of the lecturers, including demonstrable teaching or research abilities.
Missing in the competition to blackmail each other by both ASUU and the government is the voice of the Industrial Arbitration Panel and the relevant committees of the National Assembly. If lecturers take a knee-jerk recourse to strike it may not only be their appreciation that it is the only language the government understands but also an indictment on the IAP itself. Had IAP a way of enforcing its judgment and with a matching PR machinery, both sides would think twice before reneging on agreements. Similarly if the relevant committees of the National Assembly are as proactive as they should be, issues will not too readily degenerate to the point where every year the University calendar has to be disrupted by strikes.
The strikes by ASUU and their constant complaint that the government reneges on its agreements with it should also be a mirror on which we look at ourselves. The government is often a reflection of what happens in the larger society. We live in a country where agreements are often honoured in the breach – not just by the government buy many Nigerians and institutions, including our Universities, if they can get away with it.