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ASUU, FG bicker over unfulfilled agreement

By Iyabo Lawal (Lagos), Collins Olayinka and Kanayo Umeh (Abuja)
01 August 2021   |   4:30 am
Failed agreements, claims and counter-claims by university teachers and the Federal Government, threats of industrial action, and lately, a nine-month-long strike action form the odious...

Senator Chris Ngige, Minister of Labour and Employment PHOTO:Twitter

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• Nigeria Loses N1.5tr Annually To Overseas Studies Over Deplorable Varsity System — Report

Failed agreements, claims and counter-claims by university teachers and the Federal Government, threats of industrial action, and lately, a nine-month-long strike action form the odious sequence that has characterised the nation’s public university system for several years.

Sadly, going by feelers from the ivory towers, this scenario that has disrupted academic calendars, putting destinies of many Nigerian youths in tatters may be replayed anytime soon.

In the wake of the last strike action by university teachers, under the aegis of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), which lasted nine months and was ended by a December 2020 truce between the ‘feuding’ parties, representatives of ASUU and the FG met at least seven times before the lecturers agreed to resume work.

In November last year, the Federal Government had offered to commit about N50b to the sector – N20b for revitalisation and N30b for earned allowances. This was reviewed to N25b and N40b respectively when ASUU rejected the offer, insisting on N110b, which is 50 per cent of a tranche of N220b that it had demanded, but which the government declined, citing paucity of funds.

The disagreement over the government offer led to raising the revitalisation fund to N40b, while earned allowances remained N30b. The Federal Government also gave assurances that it would address the pending issues of constituting visitation panels for federal universities, which it had since done, as well as raising a new renegotiation team to begin talks with ASUU on the 2009 agreement.

But almost a year after the hard-earned truce, the fragile peace between the parties is about taking another flight, especially with the teachers warming up for another round of strike action because “the Federal Government is failing to honour the agreement reached with its union, which led to the suspension of its industrial action last year.”

THE National President of ASUU, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke, noted that the protracted strike, which they embarked on to demand for the continuous survival of public university system, was suspended in December 2020 after ASUU and the Federal Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on various issues, providing timelines for the implementation of each of the eight items on the list.

Some of the demands touched on earned academic allowance, funding for revitalisation of public universities, salary shortfall, proliferation of state universities and visitation panel, renegotiation, replacement of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) with the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS), withheld salaries and non-remittance of check-off dues.

Osodeke, however, lamented that seven months after the MoU was signed, the Federal Government has only addressed issues of salary shortfall and visitation panels to federal universities.

“The starting point is to say that those were outstanding issues from the Memorandum of Agreement signed with the government on February 7, 2019, which it had yet to do anything significant to address. But since then, IPPIS has been elevated almost over and above these other issues earlier highlighted.

“Recall that it was as a result of that, that we engaged government on developing an alternative to IPPIS, which we have since developed to an advanced stage. We have presented it to the minister of education and members of his team, the Senate President, and to a larger audience in the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation, where all major stakeholders were represented – Ministries of Labour and Employment; Education, Finance, Office of the Accountant-General, and of course, experts from the Nigeria Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), the body that regulates information technology development in the country.

“We have done all those presentations and the general impression was that our alternative, called University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS), is superior to IPPIS. However, because of the need to fulfill the requirement of integrity test, we were expected to follow up on that. We believed that with all we have done, the government has no reason to withhold salaries of our members, which in some cases, are up to eight or nine and even 10 months, including their EAA, salaries and check-off dues of our union. As long as they continue to withhold the salaries of our members, they are not paving way for a smooth resolution of the crisis. We are at that point where we need to resolve the issue of mode of payment for what the government owes our members,” Osodeke said.

The ASUU boss stressed that in 2012, when the NEEDS Assessment of 16 universities were carried out, the government agreed to release N1.3t over a period of six years, starting with the sum of N200b in 2013. But lamented that the payment remained the only tranche the government ever released, which it spread over five years.

He disclosed that since 2017, ASUU members have been urging the government to pay the balance or come up with a new schedule for paying the balance of N1.1t. But the best that had come from government was the release of N25b, then N20b as a sign of commitment, which, according to Osodeke, does not address the fundamental issues. This, he said, was because the intent of the MoU of 2013, which the Federal Government signed with ASUU, was to massively inject funds into public universities, to among other things, solve problems in terms of facilities and human capacity, among others.

WITH the latest development, university campuses are becoming restive across the nation, as academics are threatening to shut down schools again as a result of government’s failure to implement many aspects of the Memorandum of Action (MoA) that it willingly signed with ASUU in a bid to end the last strike in December, 2020.

According to Osodeke, “Given the glaring and deliberate failure of government to honour the agreement it willingly signed with the union, it is becoming obvious that industrial harmony is gradually being destroyed in our institutions. Enough is enough. ASUU is fed up with deceptive antics of the Federal Government of Nigeria.”

The ASUU chief alleged that the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation (OAGF), through the IPPIS office, omitted some members in the payment of salaries while others experience serious salary amputation.

He called on well meaning Nigerians to wake the government from slumber to avoid another disruption of academic activities on university campuses, as the atmosphere was already tensed and charged.

But a public analyst, Austin Iloebe, faulted the union, saying it could not be brandishing an agreement reached between it and government in 2009 now because the socio-economic circumstances are no longer the same.

Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu PHOTO:Twitter

He said: “We view the whole altercation as needless as the issues at stake are in no way ambiguous. What the lecturers’ union demand from the government is for it to honour its own promises made in 2009 for improved funding of the university system, and the working condition of the lecturers. Even though government has now devised a means of strategically disowning the 2009 agreement signed between its representatives and ASUU, it should be reminded that government is an institution and not persons.

“Change of administration should not be an excuse to renege on binding commitments made by the government, especially that relating to a critical area like education,” Iloebe said.

Underfunding of the education sector, over the years, has had a collateral effect on the country. Universities, hitherto exemplary centres of excellence that attracted academics from far and near, have become grotesque carcasses of their former selves.

The deplorable education system has forced privileged Nigerians to send their wards out of the shores of the country for studies. A report released last year put the figure of what Nigeria loses to overseas studies at N1.5t per annum. It could be higher.

Embarrassingly, countries like Ghana, Uganda and Benin Republic, hitherto considered not at par with Nigeria in the area of standards in education now constitute a Mecca of sort for Nigerians seeking quality education.

Ghana alone is estimated to be benefitting about N160b from hundreds of Nigerians thronging the West African nation in search of good education, while government officials who should take action to improve the Nigerian education system also take delight in sending their wards to choice universities around the world. The result has been seen in the progressive decline in standard in the public tertiary education sector.

A committee headed by erstwhile Executive Secretary of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), which conducted a NEEDS Assessment of universities, recently came up with a report that unearthed the odious rot in the system.

The report, which was commissioned by the government, bared it all on the appalling condition of the universities, both in terms of human and infrastructural resources. While the teacher-student ratio stands, on the average, at the embarrassing figure of 1:100, basic teaching tools in laboratories, workshops and libraries were discovered to be either grossly inadequate, or non-existent.

In most, if not all universities, students have no adequate hostel facilities while some defecate in the open, due to the absence, or inadequacy of toilet facilities.

The same students, according to the report, take lectures in jam-packed lecture halls and theatres. The consequence of this neglect of the education system is the soaring number of half-baked graduates coming off these institutions.

Even though varsity teachers are said not to be totally without blame in this, stakeholders stated that it is only fair to expect a good result when the condition for good performance is set.
In the midst of this grim scenario, ASUU has spent a total number of 1, 500 days, which translates to 4.09 years on industrial actions since the return to democracy in 1999, findings by The Guardian has shown.

The breakdown of the striking days by the union suggests that about 19.5 per cent of every academic year in the country is spent on strike.

This, perhaps, explains why some stakeholders perceive the activities of ASUU, especially with respect to the industrial actions, as an attempt to frustrate academic pursuits of Nigerian undergraduates.

The timelines of past industrial actions by the union are listed thus:
1999: After the end of the military era in 1999, Nigerians ushered in democracy and a government that promised to be people-oriented. But it didn’t take long for Nigerian students to experience a disruption in their academic pursuit. Few months after the Obasanjo-Atiku administration was sworn-in, ASUU embarked on a nationwide strike and it lasted for five months.

2001: In 2001, ASUU declared another strike over the reinstatement of 49 lecturers sacked at the University of Ilorin. The industrial action was aggravated when the then President, Olusegun Obasanjo described Nigerian university lecturers as “a bunch of lazy and ungrateful people.” The strike was called off after three months.

2002: Having had an agreement with the Federal Government during the previous strike, the union was forced to embark on another industrial action on December 29, 2002, after the Obasanjo administration failed to implement the agreement. The strike lasted for only two weeks.

2003: In 2003, Nigerian university undergraduates had to stay at home again for six months as ASUU embarked on another industrial action due to the non-implementation of previous agreements, which covers poor university funding and disparity in salary and retirement age.

2005: University students experienced another disruption in their academic calendars as lecturers went on another industrial action. The strike lasted two weeks.

2006: In April 2006, academic activities were paralysed in all public universities across the country when ASUU declared a three-day warning strike. It eventually lasted for one week.

2007: The 2006 industrial action was followed by another one on March 26, 2007. The strike lasted for three months. The reasons for the strike were pretty much the same for the previous strike.

2008: In a bid to press home its demands, ASUU went on strike for one week in 2008. The demands included an improved salary scheme and reinstatement of 49 lecturers who were dismissed at the University of Ilorin.

2009: In 2009, lecturers in public universities across the country embarked on an industrial action that lasted four months. The strike, which started in June, was called off in October. Before the strike was called off, the Federal Government and the union had an agreement. The 2009 ASUU/FG agreement would later become the reason for subsequent industrial actions.

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

2010: The year 2010 saw another setback for undergraduates as ASUU embarked on another indefinite strike that lasted over five months. The strike was from July 22, 2010 to January 2011.

2011: Since the Federal Government failed to honour its 2009 agreement to adequately fund universities and implement the 70-year retirement age limit for ASUU members, the union again paralysed academic activities nationwide in December 2011. The strike lasted for 59 days and was called off in 2012.

2013: Again, the government’s failure to review retirement age for professors from 65 to 70; approve funding to revitalise the university system; increase budgetary allocations to the education sector by 26 per cent, among other demands, led to another industrial action. The strike was embarked upon on July 1, 2013, and called off on December 17, 2013. It lasted five months and 15 days.

2017: On August 17, 2017, ASUU again declared an indefinite strike over unresolved and contentious issues with the Federal Government. The strike was called off in September.
2018: Due to the Federal Government’s failure to meet its demands, ASUU declared an indefinite nationwide strike. The union announced the strike on November 4, 2018, after their National Executive Council meeting held at the Federal University of Technology, Akure, Ondo State.

2020: March 23, 2020, ASUU embarked on an indefinite strike, the same week President Muhammadu Buhari imposed a lockdown to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The strike lasted nine months.

MEANWHILE, the Federal Government has said that ASUU’s alternative payment platform, UTAS, failed to make provision for tax deduction from lecturers’ salaries.

The Director of Press and Public Relations, Ministry of Education, Ben Bem Gong, said it was only in Nigeria that members of ASUU could do what they do and get away with it.

Gong said a time would come when the Nigerian university system will no longer require the services of the union.

He said: “It is only in a country like Nigeria that ASUU can do what it is doing. Every employer must know its employees. It will get to a time when the university system will not need ASUU.”

While faulting claims by the ASUU leadership that the enforcement of the IPPIS is an infringement on university autonomy, he noted that almost all state governments have been paying lecturers of their universities through their payment system.

Gong explained that out of about 459 Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), which are currently on the IPPIS platform, it was only members of ASUU at the various federal universities that are yet to be enrolled.

The hesitation of the Federal Government to approve a separate salary platform for ASUU stemmed from a possible backlash that is beginning to manifest.

Though both the teaching and non-teaching staff of universities are caught in the web of incoherent implementation of IPPIS, the failure of the four labour unions in the system – ASUU, Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU) and National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) to develop a unified payment system for all university workers has emerged as the main factor responsible for government’s seeming inaction on the matter.

TO halt disruptions of academic calendar in universities, a source at the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment told The Guardian that the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, has put a machinery in motion to call for a meeting between the federal ministries of finance, education and the Salaries, Income and Wage Commission within the week.

The source added: “As at today, the ministry has not received a notice of planned industrial action by ASUU. But that will not be a problem as the minister is a conciliator in disputes. He is for all the parties whenever there is a dispute. His duty is to ensure issues are resolved amicably with the sole aim of ensuring there is industrial harmony in the country. When ASUU notifies the ministry, we will find out where the problem is and move to solve it. We have heard from ASUU through the media, but we have not heard from other parties such as the federal ministries of finance, education, and the Salaries, Income and Wages Commission. So, the ministry is fully ready to listen to all the parties when they come to the negotiation table.”

Presently, ASUU has developed UTAS, both SSANU and NASU have University General Peculiar Payroll Payment System (UGPPPS), while NAAT proposed Tertiary Institutions Integrity Payroll System (TIIPS) as its own payment platform.

Indeed, the General Secretary of NASU, Peters Adeyemi, had warned against using payment platforms developed by another union to pay non-teaching members of staff.

He said: “NASU will not accept any other payment system that is not developed by us. We gave government the benefit of the doubt in the beginning. We told government that our members agreed to be paid using IPPIS system. But few months after that experimentation, it is clear that the system is not ready for the tasks of paying workers in the universities. There were some of our members that received fractions of their salaries for more than three months. The IPPIS has brought more confusion than solution. We agreed with government that if IPPIS was meant to promote transparency and curb corruption in the system, then we were ready to embrace. IPPIS managers also made presentations to us and assured us the system was ready. Obviously, that is not the correct state of things as we later found out.”

On another hand, the Federal Government has also not disclosed if the proposed payment system developed by the unions had been endorsed by the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA).

But the threat of another round of strike is a sad reminder of how government may have relegated education to the lowest rung of the ladder in terms of importance, to the detriment of the much-desired human capital development of the country.

This year, budgetary vote to education fell far below the UNESCO recommended 26 per cent allocation. In fact, there have been reported rise in crimes due to juvenile delinquency, which the students are exposed to because of incessant strikes.

Stakeholders opine that government must resolve the lingering issues once and for all to save the country from further embarrassment.

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