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COVID-19: ASUU vindicated on objection to resumption by public universities

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Introduction:
IT is a notorious fact that the Federal Government closed down all educational institutions in Nigeria with effect from Monday, March 23 to curtail the spread of the invisible killer christened COVID-19 pandemic which made an incursion into the country the previous February.

Since then, the equation of virtually every facet of human endeavour, including education, has been altered to the discomfiture of all. However, the on-going pandemic is not the first and it will not be the last the world will witness judging by the history of pandemics. Therefore we have to learn how to manage it the way we have managed and lived with malaria (1880), smallpox (1492), flu (1889), influenza (1933), measles (1875), yellow fever (1793), polio (1916), cholera (1817) and typhoid (1880).


Blanket closure of Universities by the Federal Government:
As earlier mentioned, all schools in Nigeria have remained closed since March 23, leaving Nigerian young adults idle for over 5 months. Education is a necessity because it is the panacea to lack, ignorance, diseases, and all forms of extremism.

To underscore the importance of education, the British Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson, recently said that “COVID-19 is a disaster while the closure of schools is more disastrous”. He went further to say: “…Keeping schools closed a moment longer than is absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible. Without the resumption of formal education, a generation of children is likely to have its employment and earning prospects blighted”. I cannot agree with him any less because we are all too familiar with the aphorism that “an idle hand is the devil’s workshop”. When we, therefore, leave young Nigerians idle for almost six months, and the end is not even in view, we may be wittingly or unwittingly destroying their future.

Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 Guidelines:
To curb the spread of COVID-19, the Federal Government set up the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19. I am impressed that the PTF came up with a guideline for the resumption of schools which I agree with. Final year students in Primary and Secondary Schools were allowed to write their final Examinations. Unfortunately, however, the Final year students of tertiary institutions were not allowed to write their own Final Examinations. This is in spite of the fact that it is the Final year students in Secondary Schools that will become First-year students in tertiary institutions whenever the tertiary institutions are reopened. This is the more reason why Final year students of tertiary institutions would have been allowed to write their Final year Examinations at the same time.

The Associations of Vice-Chancellors and Pro Chancellors of Private Universities in Nigeria have written to NUC that they had complied with government guidelines and are therefore ready to resume. They went ahead to ask the Ministry of Education and the PTF to visit their universities and verify their readiness.

Unfortunately, up till now, there has been no response. To underscore the readiness of private universities to resume, the parents and students have protested the continued closure of private universities even after the private universities have met the PTF conditions.

It is common knowledge that many universities in countries such as the United States of America, England and even China where COVID-19 originated have since resumed.
Back home in Nigeria, only the children of politicians and wealthy Nigerians have returned to schools overseas leaving the children of those who cannot afford to send their children overseas to be roaming about.

Lessons from COVID-19:
COVID-19 is a two-phased phenomenon. The first phase is destructive while the second phase has exposed the unpreparedness of public universities in the areas of poor infrastructures, underfunding, inefficiency and corruption which ASUU had documented and published. These inadequacies and neglect by those managing the nation’s public universities forced ASUU to go on strike and are still on strike long before the universities were closed down.

COVID-19 has now vindicated ASUU’s position that rightly concluded that public universities are not safe for resumption because of the intolerable and poor condition of most of the public universities. The PTF has laid down conditions in its guidelines for the resumption of universities. However, as things are, most of the public universities can not comply with these PTF conditions due to lack of funds.

Vindication of ASUU:
From available facts on the ground, COVID-19 has undeniably vindicated ASUU’s position, protests, and grievances over the years about lack of necessary facilities, equipment, and decayed infrastructure. This is in sharp contrast to what obtains in private universities most of which are reputed for their moral and physical discipline, quality and functional education, hygienic and safe environment, predictable Academic calendar, absence of unionism, committed teachers, modern teaching equipment, and laboratories as well as adequate preparation to prevent Covid-19.

Lumping of private and public universities together:
It is hereby suggested that the NUC, Ministry of Education, and PTF should advise the Federal Government on the danger of lumping public and private universities together when considering whether or not to allow universities to reopen. Many of the private universities have full residential facilities for both their staff and students. This makes it possible for teachers in private universities to mentor and monitor their students day and night. Some of the private universities even have lectures in the night while some have state-of-the-art Teaching Hospitals and well equipped Medical Centres. To ascertain their readiness to reopen for Academic works, many of the private universities have written to NUC to come and verify their claims of compliance with the PTF guidelines.

Negotiation with ASUU:
The Federal Government should call ASUU which is currently on an understandable strike because of the lack of necessary facilities, equipment, and infrastructure in most of the public universities, negotiate with them, pay their salaries, and equip the various public universities with a view to making them safe for reopening. The Federal Government needs to concentrate on the provision of the necessary equipment and infrastructure to make them attractive like their private counterparts. You can imagine a public university that recently announced a reduction in students’ fees from N150,000 to between N100,000 and N120,000/session. This is one of the reasons why the quality of education in public institutions in the country continues to wane. It, therefore, follows that because of its importance, education should not be politicized particularly now when the trend all over the world is for students to pay fees in the universities in order to guarantee quality. Because of those who cannot afford school fees, the government should set up Banks to give loans to students at NO interest of Low interest as practiced in some more developed countries and also give scholarships to deserving students.

Cancellation of free feeding of school children:
There should be an immediate cancellation of the N186 billion slated for feeding of school children when schools are closed and the school children are with their parents and especially when their addresses will be impossible to trace. Instead, the N186 billion earmarked for the feeding should be used to support public institutions to purchase testing machines such as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Machine, Face Masks, Sanitizers, and Serological Test Machines. These safety measures will enable the public higher institutions to re-open because the hygienic status of their campuses would have been guaranteed with enhanced thereby making it possible for them to comply. I believe that using the money for public universities, which are currently being grossly underfunded, would enable the Federal Government to take care of students of such institutions and prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Compliance with UNESCO recommendation:
The Federal Government should realize that the time has come to comply with the UNESCO recommendation that each nation should devote 26% of its annual budget to the funding of education. It will be recalled that it was only the old Western Region under Chief Obafemi Awolowo that devoted as much as 55% of its resources to education. Of course, the result of that bold step is there for everybody to see in the overall development of the old Western Region today. However, as soon as the military took over in January 1966, they whittled down the allocation to education and that has been the trend since then. For example, currently, about 7% of Nigeria’s annual budget is allocated to education. And so when Covid-19 came in February, it met a badly battered educational system.

number of children per couple:
The Federal Government should as a matter of urgency introduce a law on the maximum number of children a couple should have. The era when people will bear children and abandon them to the government to train is far gone. Every couple should raise the number of children it can adequately cater for. When the problem of overpopulation stared China in the face, the Chinese Government had to pass a law on the number of children per couple. As I have said at different fora in the past, I recommend a maximum of two children per couple.

Conclusion:
It is a well-known fact that I am not a fan of ASUU. This is simply because of their penchant for strike actions with one strike action taking off sooner after another has just been called off, thereby elongating a four-year programme to between eight and 10 years in most of the public universities. However this time around, the Union has my support on account of their publishing the numerous problems afflicting public universities and the fact that the public universities don’t have the resources to meet the PTF conditions. Their position on these two important matters is part of their duties of ensuring that they don’t disseminate ignorance and half-knowledge to their students, thereby producing a bunch of unemployable graduates.

On its own part, the government should adequately fund education so that teachers can be well paid while infrastructure, teaching aids, and research grants will be readily available for them. It is trite to note that no nation develops without a sound educational system and the foundation is really not in the Primary School. It is the university level of education because it is the university that trains other levels.

Like a former ASUU President, Prof. Festus Iyayi, once said: “…if you want to teach in Primary School, you need people who attended the Colleges of Education; if you want to be a teacher at the College of Education, you must have a degree from the University. So, it is the university that provides the manpower for other levels of education and that is why you must concentrate efforts on university education. If you don’t do that, other levels of education will suffer and that is what has been happening in Nigeria.

Aare Afe Babalola, is Founder & Chancellor, Afe Babalola University,
Ado-Ekiti, Nigeria.


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