With the Academic Staff Union of Universities’ extension of its national strike by 12 weeks, Gboyega Akinsanmi writes that a strategic response is needed to save the tertiary institutions from outright collapse
The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) last week rolled over its national strike by 12 weeks. The union thinks the government will use the 12 weeks to satisfactorily respond to its demands, which were renegotiated under the 2020 Memorandum of Action (MoA). The resolve of the union stoked deep-seated resentment in the public space.
For parents, ASUU should have resumed work to save the public universities from outright collapse. Also, the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) has threatened to occupy airports and highways to stop political parties from holding their primaries. But the decision-makers are obviously pre-occupied with political activities in preparation for the 2023 elections. Consequently, according to ASUU President, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke, crisis in the public universities does not occupy a prime place in their order of preference. As shown in its response, the federal government did not decisively approach the dispute with all the seriousness it deserves.
Rather than coming up with a template of pragmatic measures to nip the standoff in the bud, the federal government resorted to subtle campaigns against the union, which might have been launched to lay the blame on the striking lecturers for making legitimate demands or justify its ineptitude to implement an agreement it first entered about 13 years ago.
This approach now throws up some questions on whether the government is really committed to its promise to turn around public universities or whether all issues revolving around the 2009 FGN-ASUU Agreement will ever be resolved. This also stokes concern about how the government has been keeping faith with ASUU since the agreement was first entered and why the union is insisting on the implementation of this agreement as a condition for resumption. After eight months of industrial action that ended on August 25, 2008, the agreement in dispute was first brokered under the administration of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua.
In January 2009, precisely, the government and ASUU signed the agreement, which they then believed, would address fundamental challenges that placed Nigeria’s public universities on the extreme end of global ratings almost annually. As shown in the 51-page document, the parties hoped, if duly implemented, the agreement would reverse the decay in the university system; put an end to the brain drain by enhancing the remuneration of academic staff; restore public universities through sustained financial interventions and ensure genuine university autonomy and academic freedom.
In specific terms, they agreed on the cost implication of restoring public universities between 2009 and 2011. Within this timeframe, as shown in the agreement, about N1.518 trillion was recommended to revitalise federal universities. Under this plan, the government was supported to disburse N472.032 billion in 2009; N497.532 billion in 2011 and 548.768 billion.
Also, the parties agreed to a comprehensive rescue plan for state universities. In monetary terms, this plan shows that each state university shall require N3.68 million per student between 2009 and 2011. In 2009, each state university would require N1.144 million per student, N1.206 million in 2010 and N1.330 million in 2011 to address its inherent challenges. As inclusive as it is, both federal and state governments have failed to fully honour the agreement, which ASUU’s leaders believed, would have been better implemented if the president that contracted it did not die in office. Yar’Adua’s death, as they argued, led to series of renegotiation that produced three different memoranda between 2013 and 2020.
Within this timeframe, the government renegotiated the 2009 agreement three different times, citing fiscal deficit to implement an understanding it never conceded to at gunpoint or under compulsion.
First, it renegotiated the agreement under the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan. This led to the conception of the 2013 memorandum of understanding, to which the Jonathan administration showed some commitment with the release of N200 billion to public universities in February 2014. However, Jonathan’s commitment to the 2013 memorandum of understanding was truncated when he lost re-election in 2015.
Under President Muhammadu Buhari, also, the government renegotiated the agreement. Buhari’s request for renegotiation was premised on Nigeria’s slump into recession, a proposal the ASUU embraced on a just ground. Eventually, the outcome of the second renegotiation led to the crafting of the 2017 memorandum of action, which the administration had hardly shown any commitment to its implementation.
The failure of the federal government to honour the 2017 memorandum of action under Buhari forced the ASUU into a national strike that commenced in March 2020 and ended December 2020. Citing economic relapse again, the government set up the Munzali Jubril Renegotiation Committee to renegotiate the 2009 FGN-ASUU Agreement, which made it fourth time within a decade the government would seek renegotiation. After intense deliberation, again, the committee came up with some proposals encapsulated in the 2021 memorandum of action to address ASUU’s concerns about the public universities.
As part of its proposals, the committee recommended a 200-per cent increase in the remunerations of academic staff, which the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige claimed, the government could not afford.
This has been a point of endless controversies between the government and ASUU. With these controversies, the federal government has neither approved nor implemented the 2021 memorandum. Rather implementing it, the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu constituted the Nimi Briggs Renegotiation Committee to start another round of renegotiation with the ASUU.
After it had been a party to three different renegotiations, ASUU rejected the new committee, insisting on the implementation of the 2021 memorandum. At least, the agreement addressed ASUU’s core demands. First, it proposed a 200-per cent remuneration rise. Second, it suggested that the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System (IPPIS) be replaced with the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS).
Third, it advised that the reports of visitation panels to federal universities be made public. Fourth, the committee recommended that all issues involving salary payment distortions be resolved. Fifth, it proposed sustained funding for revitalisation of public universities. Sixth, it directed that all earned academic allowances be settled. Seventh, it proposed that all issues relating to funding of state universities and promotion arrears be decisively addressed.
For the third time under Buhari, the government is seeking renegotiation again, which the union utterly rejected. Since 2009, the government has serially flouted every understanding with ASUU, which justifies the latter’s insistence on the implementation of the 2021 agreement or the system remains under lock and key.
As Osodeke recently observed, the 2021 agreement is sacrosanct and should be implemented as a condition to return to public universities. This obviously calls for practicable measures to revitalise the public universities from their darkest realm of dereliction.
Citing its inconsistency to handle ASUU’s demands, an Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of Ibadan, Prof. John Ayoade claimed this government “is practically bereft of clearer initiatives to manage crisis in the public universities.”
In a recent conversation, a former Chief Executive, Bank of Agriculture, Prof. Danbala Danju identified what the people have been pushing in response to crisis in the public universities.
At one end is a conviction that education is a commodity, which should be priced according to its value. This model is prevalent in most western countries especially the US and the UK, entailing the government to share the burden of funding tertiary education with those who are seeking it. This model also embraces a workable student’s loan scheme that indigent students can access to fund their university education.
At the other end is a belief that education is a public good in which government must as a matter of national priority inject reasonable investments for the current and future generations. In China, Japan and Scandinavian countries, this model has brought about socio-economic transformation.
In 1998, for instance, China invested billions of Renmibi in nine elite universities in order to retain world-class status that would attract foreign students. As shown in the global universities’ ratings, this investment indeed paid. Aside from generating $250 billion annually from human capital, China is now home to seven universities in the world’s top 200.
Only last quarter, Japan unveiled an $82 billion national endowment fund for universities. This fund was conceived to support new ideas “to solve its problems and boost its global competitiveness.” In Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, public education – from basic to tertiary – is never a commodity, but a public good in which governments massively invest annually.
In Africa, most countries are now investing more in public education. In 2021, for instance, public education gulped about 12 per cent of Niger’s national budget; 15.1 per cent in Chad; 16 per cent in Mali and 21.1 per cent in Senegal. In the same fiscal year, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Gabon and Ethiopia budgeted at least 19 per cent for public education.
On its part, however, Nigeria only budgeted 5.7 per cent of its 2021 total education for public education, which Ayoade claimed, was inadequate for basic and secondary education funding by global standards.
As the world enters into a new phase of knowledge economy, he observed, Nigeria has a choice to make whether to sacrifice its own future or pursue an ambitious human capital development programme that will not only make ASUU’s strike a history, but also position the Nigerian universities for global competitiveness. Attachments area