‘New universities are created for political exigencies, not quality learning’
General Secretary of Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities and Associated Institutions (NASU), Peters Adeyemi, in this interview with Collins Olayinka of Abuja Bureau, explains why university autonomy is difficult to attain among other thorny issues afflicting the nation’s tertiary institutions.
Autonomy has been a contentious issue in the nation’s universities, what is your take on this?
Granting full autonomy to universities should be the freedom to raise funds that are needed to run their affairs, which include payment of salaries and allowances of workers, and freely choose their officials without external influence of any sort.
It will also include freedom to determine what to do with what they generate. They will also not need to wait for government to constitute their councils. But what we have presently is a dominance of government in the affairs of universities. A big chunk of money allocated to universities comes from government, either the federal or the state.
With the principle of ‘whoever pays the piper dictates the tune,’ the government dictates what happens in the system. Therefore, the councils are not independent of government’s interventions. Under absolute autonomy, the Councils will be able to do everything they need to do with all the approvals domiciled within their system.
Presently, Vice Chancellors are not appointed by Councils. All the Councils do is recommend two or three candidates to the Visitor, who then picks one out of the list sent to him. In some cases, the candidate picked may not even be the most suitable for the job. We have seen situations in this country where Sole Administrators had been appointed to run institutions as if universities are military environments. Autonomy is good for the universities but in our situation right now, there is no absolute autonomy.
We are not in a situation where each university can determine what to pay its staff. But if autonomy is total, each university will be able to recruit its staff and determine what to pay them. It will not be mandatory for university A to pay the same salary as university B. This is the case because government is the largest employer of labour in our country. This is a problem. We as unions, because of the need to protect the interests of our members and society generally, have resisted the attempt to commercialise education.
But why are university unions opposed to the commercialisation of tertiary education when government has said it cannot provide all the system needs to perform optimally?
Let government pay good wages, provide basic amenities, make life more meaningful for citizens, ensure the Naira has value, and see what happens. If citizens know they can access electricity, a functional medical and efficient public transportation system, they will be willing to pay for expensive education because they would have been sufficiently empowered by government.
How can a worker on a monthly salary of N100, 000 afford to pay millions of Naira as school fees for two or three children in the university? This is the reality in our country today. Most Nigerian workers are just getting by. What is the percentage of those that are receiving living wages that are comparable with European standard?
But government has continued to say it does not have the financial resources to pursue this type of social sector revival you are advocating?
That is incorrect. The same government that claims it does not have money has created so many loopholes for people to steal money in several million and trillions. Don’t we see it every day? The claim is very insincere. A government that does not have money won’t vote N4 trillion for petrol subsidy.
But it is the labour movement that is blackmailing government into sustaining petrol subsidy. You have held successive governments hostage over the matter for several decades. What do you have to say about this?
It is not labour. It is the inefficiency of government. Who are the petrol dealers? Is it not the government that is continually creating avenues for these people to make cheap money? Who imports petrol?
It is the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) limited that is the sole importer of petrol. The private marketers decline to import because of subsidy. Why are you blaming government that seems helpless by the insistence of labour on subsidy?
Whose responsibilities is it to shore up the value of Naira? That is a function of a productive economy. The Nigerian economy is not a productive one, at least for now. Who is supposed to be responsible for ensuring the economy is on the right track? So, when citizens are disempowered, how can anyone talk about raising fees in universities? Those things that people take for granted in developed economies of the world and even in some African countries are not available in our country. There is a clear lack of willingness to put Nigeria on the path of sustained development because if the will is there, there will be a way. We continually pay lip service to education.
As renegotiation of 2009 agreement begins, will it not be better for NASU and other unions in the university system to negotiate an implementable agreement to forestall the back and forth that the process is known for?
The matter is not about negotiating what is implementable. What is implementable may not be just and equitable. We must, first of all, consider the elements that work in the system. What is the pay of similar elements in other establishments outside of the education system? What will government pay either as salaries and allowances that will stabilise the system and raise the standard of education? In getting quality education system, quality personnel is needed, both for teaching and non-teaching staff. If our universities will rank among the best in global space, they must go beyond equipping laboratories and classrooms. The standard of life of those that are working there must be commensurably lifted to the level of those working in the highly-ranked universities because they are not less qualified. So, we will not negotiate something that is implementable, but we shall negotiate something that will enhance our status. We shall look out for tangible things that will enable us do this work in a way that will enable parents see the benefits of our work. Anywhere workers are demotivated, they cannot produce maximally.
If it is lack of money that is creating problem, why is government creating more universities? These glorified secondary schools lack basic infrastructure and end up creating more problems for government. So, there must be an incentive that is pushing government to want to create new universities at the slightest opportunity.
Our findings show that government creates universities for political exigencies. Creating more universities would have been ideal if we can fund existing ones. However, I do not think we need new universities. What I think we need is to expand the capacity of existing ones by creating multiple campuses and improve on the facilities. A lot of things have been destroyed in our country because politicians want to play politics with almost every facet of our lives.