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FG turning varsities into constituency projects, says ASUU President

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National President, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Prof Emmanuel Osodeke

National President, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Prof Emmanuel Osodeke, spoke to LAWRENCE NJOKU, Southeast Bureau Chief, on some pertinent issues concerning the union, particularly salaries and the controversial Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) and why improved funding is imperative for tertiary education sub-sector.

NUC law on the establishment of new varsities should be reviewed to discourage proliferation

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ASUU is at loggerheads with the Federal Government over unresolved issues of salary, IPPIS, and revitalisation of universities. What is the update on these issues?
We have a procedure. As you rightly said, a number of our members have not been paid for a long time.  Some, as much as 16 months, and we have been meeting with appropriate authorities. We have met with the Minister of Labour, we have also uploaded this to the Chief of Staff to see if he can intervene to avoid a crisis, because of personal interest in IPPIS, which they put as a means of paying our salaries, but up till now, a number of our colleagues are not paid. We don’t know what they have done, no reply, and tension is mounting. I do hope that the Nigerian public will mount pressure on the government to implement the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) it signed with us in December 2020.

Don’t you think the economic realities of the country are affecting the implementation of the 2020 agreement?
The economic situation of the country has nothing to do with the agreement. What really are the issues that the economic situation will hamper? Does paying my salaries through the appropriate body in line with the law of the university involve an act? The truth is that government is not interested. Most of the issues there do not involve finance and again, why can’t they afford it? When there was COVID-19, were they not able to cough out a lot of money to see how they would address it? Which one is more serious – coronavirus, which as far as Nigeria is concerned is gone, or education which affects the fabrics of our society?

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Today, there is criminality all over the place. If we have a well-educated society, you will not see people who are involved in crimes and criminalities to the extent of killing and kidnapping people. You can have money to rescue banks, but you cannot fund education appropriately not to talk of keeping to an agreement you reached.  Why this is so is because their children are not here.  If their children were studying here, they will see the need for adequate funding of the institutions. That is the problem we are having. So, if there is a way that we can compel this country, once you are taking a political office, you must train your children in Nigerian universities as well as other segments. When we have that, it will make them start looking at those areas.

What is the general mood like, especially with those lecturers that have not been paid for some months?
You can imagine for yourself what it will look like. That is why we are hoping that government will do the needful to avoid further crisis. These lecturers that have not been paid are the ones that will produce quality graduates, go into research and lift our education system. How do you think that such will be possible for a man who can no longer take care of his responsibilities in his family? That is why we are asking Nigerians to intervene and make government do the needful to avoid a crisis. How would somebody who has not been paid for several months teach? That is part of the damages being done to this system. When we cry some people will think that we are always demanding, it is not true. We have a government that is not ready to abide by its own agreement. We have been engaging them in discussion as well as asking our people to continue to exercise patience. But the truth is that there is a limit one can exercise patience, especially when he or she is hungry and angry.

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Apart from going on strike, what other options do you think you can adopt so as not to disrupt the system?
Well, you can suggest something to us. Ordinarily, if we were people who love to go on strike, by now we would have resumed our strike. This is because the government had promised to pay all our outstanding salaries by January and now we are in June and a number of people are owed for 16 months. We have taken the issue to the minister who said that he would intervene. We have taken it to the Accountant General and Chief of Staff to the President and till now nothing has happened. We have been thinking of other options and whether to continue to allow these people to go on without salaries? That is the big question and problem we have.

How comfortable is ASUU with the way the Federal Government is establishing new higher institutions even when it has not met the funding responsibilities of older institutions?
Our position on that had been that the Federal Government is toying with the future of the society. They are turning universities into constituency projects, where every village must have a higher institution; the purpose is not to have good universities and a good environment for academic excellence.

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Every politician wants to have a university in his village. This is not how a system is run. They are establishing a university of Medical Sciences and other specialised institutions, why not go and fund those old universities so that you can upgrade the Faculty of Medical Sciences to professional standards, so that the Nigerian politician, including the President, who usually go outside the country for medical attention, will have their medical issues solved here.

But we will not do that; rather, the Federal and State Governments are busy establishing mushroom universities. It is very unfortunate. But as a union, we are also thinking of what we can do in the future to compel them to stop this. One of the things we did in the earlier agreement was that we agreed that the National Universities Commission (NUC) law should be reviewed to make it almost impossible for any governor or Federal Government to start a university without adequate preparation for funding for over 10 years. But till now, that resolution has not been implemented. What we are saying is that the law should be reviewed to give NUC power to ensure that before you can start a university, you have to show good evidence that you can fund the system.

The other plank of the argument is that creating additional universities will enlarge student’s intake and provide employment opportunities.

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You are looking for an immediate job, aren’t you? But I ask you, is that what a nation should be looking for at this time when countries of the world are thinking about technology and science? We are talking about sound knowledge, a good university, and a sound educational system that can create competitive jobs all over the globe, not going below standard. We are thinking about a situation where you can see somebody from China is coming to work in Nigeria and Nigerians can go anywhere and work and not do all the menial jobs in any country they are fortunate enough to find themselves. That is what we are after.

Again, if you really want to create admission opportunities, that money you will use to start a new council, a new structure, and what have you, why not put it into the older university to enable them to create more admissions and employment, rather than putting it in a new university in one location that can hardly admit 100 students? Go and check those universities, the last 12 created by former President Goodluck Jonathan, when you look at their admission, all of them put together, cannot be compared with the admission of a first-generation university. Why not fund those ones to increase space?

There is a university in Egypt, it has more than 100,000 students, but what is the situation with our own? They are busy creating mushroom universities. That is not the way to go. When they do their ranking outside and say Nigerian universities are not doing well, somebody will start complaining, why do you complain?

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Now that salaries are not being paid, do universities still get government support for research?
If you look at our agreement or our MOA, we have what we call the revitalisation fund. You can only do research, especially in the science-based area, when you have good facilities. When you look at other countries of the world, the government can come and announce that it is giving a university some millions to do research in a particular area. The companies are willing to fund university research but that is not so here. The reason again is that the facilities are so poor to fund classical research in any area. That is the problem we are having.

Let me give you an example, we told the government that we will produce an alternative to IPPIS and as a union, we produced something better than IPPIS within three months. We have personalities but the environment is not conducive and we are asking the government to create an atmosphere where our people exert their authority. We are in a university and if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. I went to one of the universities; I found out that they were using stone as a burner. How can you do research in such a place? One of the things we have in the agreement is to pay lecturers, fund universities properly so that we can attract grants and research from companies and from other countries. That is part of the reason we went on strike.

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Most universities adopted online platforms for learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, how effective has this become in public universities?
What we said when they were using the platform during the pandemic is that, as a country, we have not developed the infrastructure that can sustain online teaching. How many villages in Nigeria do you have a network? How many of these children can afford data that can enable them to have lectures of eight hours a day? It is impossible. So even if the environment is there, those who can benefit from it cannot afford it. When you go to other countries, wherever you are, you switch on your gadget, you can have a network but we don’t have that in this country. We are developing but we need to do more to ensure we have the options of going online or by physical contact.

What are the plans to regain lost sessions following the disruption in the academic calendar in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?
What we said is that many of our colleagues will sacrifice their time, to ensure that we meet up with the shortfall. A typical session is about 36 weeks and a year is about 56 weeks. So, our colleagues are going to sacrifice their time, their leave to ensure that they meet up. In one or two years’ time, we would have recovered from the matter and run our normal academic calendar.

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Any suggestion on how to make the system work better?
All we need is funding. When the sector is properly funded, the lecturers are properly renumerated, then, you have a good system and the right personnel that will deliver. When there is proper funding, the environment is made conducive and the system will deliver.

When you go to other parts of Africa like Ghana and Benin Republic, you have lecturers from outside teaching in those countries because they have a competitive salary. But in Nigeria, we are even going towards states. If you have a university in Kano, 90 per cent of those teaching and working there are indigenes of Kano. You have in Imo, 90 per cent are from Imo. In those days, when I was in the university, in my department, we had four lecturers from different countries teaching there. Today, they are all gone because, what we are paying as salary and funding to the system, cannot make anyone excel on the job.

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