At the beginning of the last ‘downing tools activity’ by ASUU, Biodun Ogunyemi, President of the union and Professor at the Department of Curriculum Studies and Instructional Technology, Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU) expressed: “To have public universities that will be pride of all, to secure the future of our children and their own children’s future, and to lay the foundation for a university system capable of producing a country of our dream, we must make the federal and state governments implement the provision of the 2009 Agreement, the MoU of 2013 and the understanding reached in November 2016”.
However, the content of this 2009 agreement and the conduct of university aces in recent years are in dissonance with ASUU’s much-emphasised chantings of ‘universities that will be pride for all’, ‘securing the future of our children’ and laying the foundation for ‘a university system capable of producing a country of our dream’. Sincerely, the Nigerian university system is in a mess. In many universities, learning facilities are antiquated and inadequate, lecturers are overworked and some of them seek greener pastures abroad, hostel accommodation for students are insufficient and scruffy; the list goes on. Generally, universities are operating beyond their carrying capacities, consequently breeding systems where irritated lecturers are dealing with disillusioned students. The end result, as expected, is a chaotic society as ours, where competence and integrity are usually mutually exclusive.
In January 2007 when the ASUU team led by then President Abdullah Sule-Kano and that of the federal government led by Dr. Gamaliel Onosode began meeting to re-negotiate the 2001 agreement, the terms of reference for the ensuing committee were to: (a) reverse the decay in the university system, in order to reposition it for greater responsibilities for national development; (b) 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; (c) restore Nigerian universities through immediate, massive and sustained financial intervention; and (d) ensure genuine university autonomy and academic freedom. However, when ASUU itemized the issues for negotiation, they are: (i) condition of service; (ii) funding; (iii) university autonomy and academic freedom; and (iv) other matters.
ASUU and FG agreed to have a separate salary structure for university academic staff which would see a lecturer earn as much as ₦7.5m per annum. Agreement was reached on Earned Academic Allowances (EAA). With assistant lecturers to receive ₦15,000 per student per annum, senior lecturers ₦20,000 and readers and professors ₦25,000 as postgraduate supervision allowance; the lecturers can receive the payments for up to five students. Added with other allowances, a lecturer can make up to ₦580,000 per annum in earned allowances. There is ₦200,000 for external assessors of candidates for the position of Reader or Professor, plus a Responsibility Allowance that sees Hall Wardens receive ₦150,000 per annum and Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors and Librarians receive ₦750,000. A list of other non-salary benefits includes housing loan, research leave, sabbatical leave, annual leave, sick leave, maternity leave, injury pension and improved proposals for vehicle loan/car refurbishing loan.
One would observe that the ‘condition of service’ or safely put, ‘salary upgrade’ cannot constitute the most important step in reversing the decay in Nigeria’s university system in order to reposition it for greater responsibilities for national development as ASUU puts it. It is disheartening that ASUU prioritised condition of service over university’s infrastructural development. As much as I do not support arguments in some quarters that ASUU’s remunerative demands are unreasonable-as one knows the exorbitant amount lavished by our Senators and the political class and in fact, labour unions reserves the right to propose whatever conditions it considers effective for motivating its members for optimum job performance- there seem no reason ASUU agrees to be disengaged from the scheme of a unified civil service salary structure but posits that whenever there is a general increase in public sector salaries and allowances, the remuneration of academic staff shall be correspondingly increased. That’s an obvious case of eating one’s cake and still having it. ASUU’s feigned advocacy for ‘having public universities that will be pride of all’ was exhibited in the 2009 agreement when it ensured that the renegotiation team agreed to its salary demand but assumes advisory role when the discussion shifts to matters involving the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board (JAMB), Education Tax Fund, amendment of the National Universities Commission Act (2004) and funding of universities, which are major established channels for reforming education.
The rot in our nation’s universities speaks volume. Should we talk of odious modes of assessing competence of both students and academics or engage ourselves with a system where lecturers’ unionism are true and justified while that of students is faced with expressions as ‘management cannot be held to account by students’ as viewed by Prof. Abel Idowu Olayinka, UI Vice Chancellor? The number one reason ASUU went on the last strike was that it wanted ₦825bn from the government, being the accumulation of yearly release of funds to universities as contained in the 2009 agreement. Prior to that industrial action, only ₦475bn was released by FG. Yes! The government should be blamed, for an agreement is revered regardless of which government signed it. But what happened to the ₦475bn initially released. One great secret on Nigerian campuses was that VCs saw so much with the bulk siphoned and mismanaged. White-elephant projects sprang up everywhere, mass recruitment of ghost workers and the under-declaration of internally generated revenue became the order of the day. Also, our revered Varsity Dons were not interested in engaging those frustrating FG’s effort to audit the previous release of funds to universities. The government released ₦23bn EAA to universities December, 2016 and initially insisted further release must be preceded by an audit of that tranche. No wonder ASUU clamoured for exemption from FG’s TSA policy. I do not mean TSA is a flawless policy; as much as it helps to reduce wastefulness in government parastatals, it slows down the pace of governance.
Many university aces come on air now and again to criticise the political administration but fails to address retrogressive development they are not immune to in our ivory towers. The intensive chantings of ‘funds hampering research’ was refuted by Abdullahi Baffa, Executive Secretary of TETFUND in August this year that since the establishment of TETFUND in 2009 with the seed fund of ₦3bn plus an additional ₦1bn in 2016 to beef up the intervention, only ₦1.7bn had so far been disbursed to finance researchers in different thematic areas due to the low quality of research proposals. Is that also the fault of the government? History will not forget that system, which upgrades scholastic weaklings into the points of professorial veracity; you see them in lecture rooms dictating and reproducing antiquated notes with diddle creativity and alteration. This is indicative of what Prof. Wole Soyinka wrote in his resignation letter at the University of Ibadan when he was denied his professorial seat: “I look forward with impatience to the inevitable moment when the present expedient but valueless and dishonest rankings in all Nigerian universities will be replaced by a new system which eliminates the desperation which goes into canvassing, bargaining, denigrating, begging, cheating, forging and even specialised forms of bribery”. Promotions are awarded and denied by the caucus you belong or do not belong but not by the prim intellectualism you have exhibited. Bright students are deprived 1st class based on religion and envy while some shallow fellows are granted the black belts. Here’s the system we operate and revel in!
If we are truly interested in reversing the decay in our university system and the emergence of a country of our dream, government and lecturers must stop jeopardising the future of our wards in their quest for fighting for their pockets. Our elders-lecturers and the political class- must lead by example by being the stronghold of probity, propriety, tolerance, sincerity and proffering intellectually-driven solutions to tertiary education problems and Nigeria’s at large. As the Buhari-led government has proved true to its claims of good governance by releasing some funds to ASUU in fulfilling the agreement reached as a prerequisite for suspending the last strike action, we hope ASUU would not resume the strike at the end of this month as initially stated, and would cease being a union of strikers but rather remain a union of illustrious academics.
(c) Muhyideen Imam