COVID-19 shortfalls has exposed government’s neglect of sector, says Fajana
Prof. Sola Fajana is the former vice chancellor, Joseph Ayo Babalola University (JABU), Osun State. In this interview with UJUNWA ATUEYI, Fajana, a professor of labour economics and human resource management decried the age-long neglect of the sector by successive governments, and how the deficits arising from the pandemic have bared the necessity of relevant research among other issues.
How would you assess the effort of universities so far in the fight against coronavirus pandemic?
Universities are universal institutions established by society to provide meaningful solutions to problems that beset societies and humanity in general. They enjoy autonomy, which is regarded as the veritable ingredient to enable them function optimally. The roles are basically tripartite: research, teaching and community service.
Teaching is the simplest aspect of this role set and it is the aspect that uninitiated members of the society erroneously take as the main work of university people. This perception of universities in some climes lead to their relegation, poor assessment of their potentials and their poor funding by some ill-informed political elites. In a recorded history of Nigeria, military rulers declared suggestions from academia as too technical and un-implementable!
The incidence of the ravaging novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has now fully exposed the misconception of the role of universities. The main mandates of these institutions are in the real research and community service. In Nigeria, the COVID-19 task force had employed their utmost to get us out of the woods. The response of society however simply reveals that there can never be a perfect system.
Consequently, the deficits thrown up by this ongoing event are obviously illustrating the necessity and importance of relevant research. The approach I would want to propose is not blame placing, but strategic problem solving and strengthening of the capacity of our systems to withstand strains and stresses in the future. It is perfectly within the capability and mandate of universities to render this function creditably. Nigerian universities have ample ability but lack enabling capacity.
These universities are also said to have a huge role in socio-economic recovery post-COVID-19, what are those functions?
Yes they do have a mandate towards socio-economic recovery and these mandates have political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal (PESTEL) aspects, which must be addressed using the lens of the tripartite mandate of the universities, research, teaching and community service.
For instance, under economic aspect, universities will use before and after research design to explore impact assessments, and test economic models for recoveries with good balancing of livelihoods with staying alive; equip students with an inquiry mind to continually engage effective economic research for sustainable national development; and at the community service level, they should do rigorous impact assessment, advisories to political and business elites at all levels. Nigerian academics are making waves at the global level, but ignored with destructive impunity at the national level.
For political, they will find out the deficits in the existing political system and structures thrown up by COVID-19 pandemic; ensure learning and effective application prospects in students at all levels, using the appropriate pedagogies; equip students with an inquiry mind to continually engage effective research into politics and public administration issues; and also at the community service level, they will use their expertise to provide advisories on political strategies, participation in political administration like elections, task force, visitation panels, audit teams, at national and international levels.
On technology, they would assess the impact of COVID-19 on technological structures, infrastructure (medical, manufacturing plants, energy, roads, etc). What are the deficits in the existing system thrown up by COVID-19 pandemic? Test kits, reagents, ventilators, among others; equip students with an inquiry mind to continually engage effective research for medical and technological development for the benefit of humanity; and provide advisories on technological trajectories, strategies; participation in administration of technological institutions by offering consultancies for a technology usage policy for the nation; audits of national technology centres among others.
For environmental, the focus should be to discover the deficits in the existing practice of environmental management thrown up by covid19 pandemic; equip students with an inquiry mind to continually engage effective research in environmental management for sustainable national development; on community service, institutions have the capacity (intellectual and otherwise) to formulate, install and supervise environmental policies and practices to forge socio-economic recoveries and sustainable development thereafter.
On legal aspect, what are the deficits in the existing legal system thrown up by covid19 pandemic? Students should be equipped with an inquiry mind to continually engage effective legal research to ensure laws are sufficiently dynamic and effective; then at service level, institutions have repositories from which legislative, executive and judiciary can benefit in forging recovery and instigating sustainable development in the aftermath.
How equipped are our institutions in providing the needed national services?
Obviously, our institutions have been effectively and consistently incapacitated in the last thirty or so years by executive recklessness and neglect by successive administrations. The neglect is so palpable and loudly threatening that some hitherto highly committed academics are beginning to have the sad conclusion pointing in the direction of a deliberate government move to weaken and destroy the federal university system so that private owners can take over failed universities.
Government now equates ‘universal’ institutions with peculiar cultures to the status of the general civil service for the purpose of salary administration via the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS.). While discussion was ongoing to address the failed implementation of the 2009 collective agreement, a large proportion of academic staff salaries were owed three months in the midst of a lockdown without employer palliative and accumulated unpaid salary.
In spite of this mal-treatment on the part of government, academic staff would continue to patriotically subside the system from their personal resources, to engage in research to find a vaccine for the ravaging pandemic. If you doubt the capacity of Nigerian academic to find such a solution, then the case of Dr. Babafemi Taiwo, the leader of the USA research team on Remdesivir should be an accurate corrective to such notion that Nigerian academics can continue to be ignored and relegated.
What is the way forward in in all of these?
The capacity of the university system to instigate recovery is precedent in the chequered history of the struggle of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) for the survival of the system. The National Universities Commission (NUC) was a suggestion of ASUU when the managers of universities were found encumbered and ineffective operating under the Ministry of Education.
At the turn of the century when it was discovered that budgetary issue was eventually crippling the universities, ASUU again suggested the establishment of the Education Trust Fund (ETF), later renamed Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND). The Need Assessment arrangement was meant to increase the capacity of the National Universities System (NUS), to carry out more of these ‘internal recoveries’; but the government party scuttled it.
It can only be expected that internal recovery of the NUS coupled with its proven ability would eventually translate to national socio-economic recovery both within and after COVID-19. Again, I say, Nigerian universities have ample ability but lack enabling capacity.
How are higher institutions coping with the virtual learning challenges currently?
Calls are now being made at ministerial levels for distance learning for universities during the current pandemic. Most federal universities have installed some learner management systems (LMS) for a few degree programmes; well monitored and accredited by the NUC.
Unfortunately, not more than five per cent of degree programmes in most of our institutions are content-ready for distance learning. The content process is long and quality is required by the NUC. In addition, for all programmes to be uploaded to LMS requires bigger Internet bandwidth, steady power supply and data access by students at their remote locations.
Unfortunately our national leaders would need to have this information so that they are properly guided about investments that are requisite for distance learning, which certainly would become more globally appropriate post-covid-19! We had better start now.
If the right quality management of industrial relations is provided; if the right environment is created; if our local and foreign colleagues can be attracted and motivated to stay here; our universities will be truly universal, rendering the services for which they are well aware, and are respected abroad by colleagues and agencies of the United Nations.