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Striking a balance between teaching and non-teaching staff of universities

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Education Minister, Adamu Adamu

As the non-teaching staff unions of universities brought many of the institutions to their knees due to the crisis of earned allowance, Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL and UJUNWA ATUEYI, examine how some of them remained open despite withdrawal of services by the striking workers and the possibility of exploring outsourced non-teaching staff as a way of lessening the ivory towers’ financial burdens and sundry issues.

For many weeks now the university has been functioning without the input of the non-academic staff. It’s apparent they’re not as relevant as we thought,” the grey-headed bespectacled man said with a note of victory, as he clutched some time-worn files under his left armpit.

“So far, so good; but the university has to tread with caution. For how long can we continue to work this way? We’re working twice as hard, Prof,” the younger person, a lady replied.

“Come on! They’re meant to be support staff. Right now, they’re trying to equate themselves with us in the academics. How can they possibly be asking for what the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is getting?” the older lecturer argued.
 
“I hope the sooner this issue is resolved, the better. Whether they’re subordinate to the academic staff or not, I feel they should be treated justly. I don’t think we can carry on like this,” the young lecturer said with a tone of resignation.
 
For over three months, the Non-academic Staff Union of Universities (NASU), Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), and National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) went on strike.

Their grouse was the Federal Government’s failure to pay their earned allowances.

The union members withdrew their services from the universities in areas like bursary and administration, works and services, and hospital/health centres.

However, some of the ivory towers refused to bow to the attendant difficulty brought about by the withdrawal of services by the non-teaching staff. They carried on as if nothing had happened, suggesting that the non-academic duties do not necessarily have to disrupt scholarly activities.
 
Some have even argued that the non-academic duties should be outsourced, as the university is primarily an academic and research centre.

How effective and practical will that approach be? Will that not mean the laying off of thousands of non-academic staff? It remains to be seen whether such outsourcing will not cost the institutions and government more financially and perhaps create more problems.
 
Others have noted that the issue is not about whether the non-academic staffs are part of the core of the university system.

According to them, it is about whether the federal government is living up to its obligations and not responsible for current disruption in the university system.
 
Experts noted that ivory tower across the country are kept fully operational by people who perform specialised complementary roles other than teaching to make the university system work.

They have also identified that dissatisfaction and disharmony usually emerge and develop from unsatisfied demands or unchecked exhibitions of managerial prerogative between the academic and non-academic unions, resulting in conflict and disruption of academic activities.
 
While the strike lasted, institutions like University of Ibadan (UI), Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), University of Ilorin (UNILORIN), University of Lagos (UNILAG) as well as University of Benin (UNIBEN) and few others are conducting exams for students without the usual support and services of the non-teaching staff.

If the universities were able to sustain academic activities throughout the over three months of strike by the non-teaching staff, does it mean the unions are not as powerful and relevant as they would want the public to believe? 

The universities do not think so. Some top management members who spoke on the development maintained that the non-teaching staffs have their roles in university administration, which cannot be filled by just anyone.

They are of the view that non-teaching staffs are specialists in their areas and nobody can take their place in the system.
 
At OAU for instance, an official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the unions actually gave some concessions to the university management so as not to ground academic activities.

“Series of meetings were held and the management appealed to leaders of the three staff unions not to make the strike total so that the final year students would not miss National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme and law school”.  

If the non-teaching staff had gone all out, activities would have been grounded on campus. Besides, the unions were not fighting against the university management but the federal government.

If the reverse was the case, things would have been grounded. Most of them decided to assist their institutions because they are not fighting against them.”
 
The situation was the same at UNILORIN. 
 
“Things were not as smooth as people thought. Members of the non-teaching staff were actually rendering skeletal services to the university, like power, water supply, library and health services.
 
“Some of the non-teaching staff were actually working though the works being done were peripheral-laboratories were under lock and key instead of practical, students were practicing alternatives, using diagrams,” an official said.
 
“No staff in the university system is useless though government believes that university system is about students and academics. Teaching, research and community service cannot be accomplished solely by academic staff.”
 
Although its planned convocation was postponed, UNILAG held its matriculation ceremony under a tense atmosphere as the aggrieved unions attempted to shut down power.

The management eventually dialogued with the leadership of the three unions where an agreement was reached on how to go about their strike without totally paralyzing activities on campus.
 
The official who spoke with The Guardian admitted that it was not easy running the school while the strike lasted as many things were not in place.
 
“It was not easy without the input of non-teaching staff. The truth is that universities cannot function without non-teaching staffs; they complement ASUU in delivering the mandate of teaching and research in the university system.”
 
On his part, ASUU President, Prof Biodun Ogunyemi, said the non-teaching staffs have their roles in university administration.
 
“We all have our roles in university administration; the non-teaching staffs have their cadre in the system. They provide complimentary services to the academic staff and cannot be dispensed with.

You cannot outsource their services, they are not casual workers and we cannot encourage that in the system. Whatever inadequacies occasioned by labour issues should not warrant dispensing with their services,” the ASUU president noted.

He added, “Academics went the extra mile during the just suspended strike by non-teaching staffs. ASUU was concerned that the system must not be allowed to break down to reassure parents and stakeholders.

Non-teaching staffs are specialists in their areas, and nobody can take their place in the system. Look at hostel management for instance; while the hall warden is an ASUU member, other support staffs are from NASU.

“Some of our members were also registering new students and doing clearance for graduating students during the period of the strike, which ordinarily should not be our responsibility. 

The atmosphere during the strike was not conducive at all; no water, no light and these are all primary responsibilities of non-teaching staff.”

Former Chairman of Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Oriwaye Adefolalu, stated that the relationship between teaching and non-teaching staff in a university system is complementary.

“The university is incomplete without the contribution of the non-teaching members of staff. University is a system; all of us work together to achieve success. It is just like a car, it cannot work without fuel or tyres. If any of the system is not functioning, it affects the whole system,” he said.
  
SSANU Chairman, Lagos State University (LASU), Oseni Saheed, maintained that for a system to work well, the whole components must function aptly.

“For instance, will a professor of accounting at the same time be in charge of the management of finances and resources of the university?

Will professors of public administration and political science also double as administrators in the university; be in the classroom and at the same time be in the senate and cover senate proceedings? Will they also attend council meetings and convocation covering all the activities?

“Professor of engineering should at the same time maintain the electricity of the university, the water and other electrical outputs of the university, just like a professor of medicine will at the same time, leave the classroom and attend to students and the university community in the health centre?” Shared argued.
 
As important as the non-teaching staffs are in the system, can’t their services be outsourced?

Former Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of Nigeria to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Prof. Michael Omolewa, said although universities were established to produce manpower, conduct research and undertake community service, the non-teaching staffs assist with research, teaching and community development.

Omolewa, however, observed that in most institutions all over the world, there is general discouragement of spending on support services like clerks, typists and messengers due to the advent of new technology.
 
“However, one must remember that job creation is also necessary to absorb the unemployed so that you can help them also to fend for their families, therefore, if you cut jobs, many families will be affected.

What we can do is to deploy the staff, maybe send them to the secretariat as policy advisers and each one is to identify his area of competence that can be used order than opening or locking the door; cleaning the classroom.”

What then should be the way out?

The professor of Adult Education said there is the need to find out what is done in other universities around the world.

“Although in many of these institutions, there would be no need for anyone to go and put on the generator because the generator is not needed.

But here, if you are going to ask a lecturer to put on that generator which is an additional responsibility, I think it is necessary to also review the salary of that lecturer because that lecturer is having additional responsibility which would deprive him of the time that he would normally invest in his research or writing.

“In the long run, I don’t think the issue should be whether to spend money or not; rather the issue should be there must be increase in allocation to the universities so that they can do more efficiently what they are doing at the moment.

But in the process, when it comes to the issue of the review of the workload and responsibilities of non-teaching staff, I think we have to sit down and work out the cost effectiveness so that the university is no longer held to ransom because some people refuse to open the gate or register students,” he pointed out.


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