Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Nigeria Varsity Crisis: Not yet Uhuru

It is heart-warming to know that the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities has on Friday, October 23, 2009 decided to suspend indefinitely the 4 months old industrial action embarked upon by the union. It would be recalled that government owned universities, made up of 27 federal universities and 35 State universities, had been on strike since June 22, 2009 leaving out the 41 private universities (this is inclusive of the 7 newly licensed). The 2009 ASUU-FG agreement had taken eight years and no fewer than four strikes to conclude and kudos must be given to Comrade Governor Adams Oshiomole of Edo State for his sagacity in brokering the deal after it was initially deadlocked. It is hoped that government did not sign the October 21 agreement just to avoid the embarrassment of proposed ASUU and other varsity unions’ street protests during the on-going FIFA U-17 World Football tournament.
The gist of the signed agreement include the approval of about 50% salary increase for the university lecturers, administrative autonomy for the universities, 70 years retirement age for university professors and enhanced funding of the universities as well as signing of the agreement centrally. According to ASUU President, Professor Ukachuwku Awuzie, the agreement signed with the Federal Government prescribed the UNESCO minimum of 26% of the annual budget to education, which, he said, must be achieved by 2020 in accordance with the vision 20:2020 of the Federal Government. Nonetheless, the union has called on the Federal Government to ensure that 18 per cent is allocated to education in 2010 budget and progressively as indicated in the signed agreement.
On the autonomy granted the universities, Awuzie said financial autonomy was not given to the universities, but certain prescriptions that would enhance administrative autonomy for smooth and effective running of the university from department to council levels were included in the agreement. To this end, he said the proposed amendment for the JAMB Act, Education-National Minimum Standards and Establishment of Institutions Act- and the National Universities Commission (NUC) Act (2004) would be presented to the National Assembly “without prejudice to any other proposals that might be brought or have been brought before the National Assembly.” ASUU president also clarified that the agreement signed was binding on all universities operating in Nigeria, saying “what the union negotiated was a minimum benchmark.”
He also made case for the assistance in funding to the state universities by the Federal Government, citing Section 164 (1) of the 1999 Constitution empowering the National Assembly, adding “the agreement contains in addition to the constitutionally backed assistance, a provision for a new direction of the Education Trust Fund (ETF) intervention in Higher Education, access to the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PDTF) among others.”
From the tone of the agreement it can be deduced that it is yet a long way to freedom for Nigerian universities. Other things that need be done before a lasting peace can return to our ivory towers include the conclusion of negotiation and signing of agreement with other unions in the universities, these include: the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities (NASU) and National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT). The union also said that the agreement signed with the Federal Government “does not address the brain drain in a way that will significantly reduce this threat to the development of Nigeria,” adding that the issue was yet unresolved as the government failed to meet up with the demand for ‘African Average’ on the salary increase.
This is another challenge. Brain-drain has been one of the major problems of tertiary education in Nigeria. There is high turn-over of staffs who are leaving the academia for greener pasture in Nigeria’s private sector and for foreign universities. ASUU has also enjoined people of goodwill to pressurise government to implement the signed agreement and that its members who participated in the strike should not be victimised. This is instructive. It is based on precedent that government is not to be trusted. The UNILORIN 49 saga was a case in point when in May 2001 forty-nine staffs of University of Ilorin were sacked in defiance of a court order for participating in strike action. It is also worth recalling that primary and secondary school teachers in 19 states recently had to embark on another round of strike because of their state governors’ failure to implement the 27% pay rise agreed with them since 2008. It is hoped that the governors will not make good their threat not to honour any agreement signed centrally between ASUU and Federal Government.
It is important for the federal and state governments to capture the financial cost of the implementation of the October 21 agreement in their respective 2010 budget. National Assembly should pass all the necessary legislations to give effect to this agreement. Most importantly, there is need to develop a blue-print for Nigeria’s education sector. Ad-hoc, cosmetic solution will not take us anywhere. In a world ranking of universities published in July 2009 by US News & World Report, no Nigerian universities ranked among the top 400 in the world. It will take a conscious and systematic step to address this. A lasting peace in the universities must also factor in the students. It is unfortunate that the menace of campus cultism has continued unabated in many of Nigerian universities in spite of amnesty granted repentant cultists under President Obasanjo’s administration. These terrorist groups must be uprooted from our ivory towers for peace to reign.
Government, University Senates and their Governing Councils must also enforce discipline on campuses. Lecturers, staff and students who are involved in admission racketeering, sex for grade, gratification for marks, cultism, indolence, truancy, hustling and all acts that are tantamount to compromising the integrity of the university system must be effectively sanctioned. ASUU must ensure that the whole semester the students have lost to strike is made up for them through intensive teaching and supervision. To whom much is given, from him much is expected.