ASUU and Federal Government funding quagmire
The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) have been embroiled in recurring conflict about funding and autonomy of Nigerian public universities.
Established in 1978 as the successor to the Nigerian Association of University Teachers, founded in 1965, ASUU has been consistent on the need to deliver functional and quality education to Nigerian citizens as a social obligation of governments at all levels.
ASUU has also been firm in defending the rights of workers to collective bargaining on wages and conditions of service for the effective functioning of the Nigerian University system. In pursuit of this principle, ASUU has been experiencing stiff resistance from governments over the years- at its crescendo under military regimes – resulting in proscription and de-proscription and, in not less than seven major national strikes.
The 1992 ASUU –FGN Agreement was a watershed in the many provisions of the document and, for the first time, in providing for a separate salary structure and allowances for academic staff of universities. The latter was ostensibly to address brain drain in the ranks of the academic staff to foreign countries with better conditions of service.
The Agreement made provision for the establishment of the Education Tax Fund (ETF) which metamorphosed to the Tertiary Education Tax Fund (TETFUND) to complement the government’s funding obligations to the educational sector. A fundamental demand by ASUU in this regard has always been that at least 26% of the national budget should be allocated to education in line with UNESCO’s recommendation. But the reality, over the years, has been budgetary allocations that are much lower, in some cases as low as 5%. In 2012, the allocation to education was 8.43% of the Budget while, for the National Assembly, it was 16%. How can this be justified and what exactly is the business of the National Assembly to warrant this disproportionate allocation?
The decline in fund allocation to the universities has shifted the burden to TETFUND providing funds for capital projects, research and training for all public universities. And there is the argument also that private universities should draw funds from TETFUND. Yet, TETFUND was conceived to be an interventionist agency to fill funding gaps, not a de facto funding agent for the universities as it is now. The Federal government has conveniently kept a blind eye to this fact, preferring to fund personnel cost and running cost that has become increasingly nominal. For some universities the running cost is far below N10 million a month. In the circumstance, the university is constrained, financially faced with the need to provide for building infrastructures and the need to equip them with capital intensive laboratory equipment and workshop tools. Unable to meet these compelling demands, it is not uncommon to see beautiful buildings lacking in the learning facilities. This is the raison d’etre for the periodic strikes by ASUU over the years. It is simply illogical and puerile to anchor the falling standard of University education in Nigeria on frequent strikes by ASUU because it fails to recognize them as a symptom of an unsettled question on university funding.
Despite the increasing number of private universities in Nigeria, now 79, the demand for placement in public universities, particularly the federal ones (43) continues to rise ostensibly because there is no tuition fee save other charges usually about N23,000 a year. In 2016, out of 1,579,027 students who sat for the unified tertiary matriculation examination (UTME), 69.7% applied to federal universities; 27.5% to state universities and less than 1% to private universities. The distribution of applicants clearly reflects the relative institutional cost for education in the universities.
The no-tuition-fee policy of the federal government has merit only to the extent that it facilitates access for students of weak finances. But it lacks merit and is indeed misleading when government fails to provide the aggregate fund required for effective teaching and training of students in the university bearing in mind the per capita cost. In the circumstance, universities deploy mitigating measures to generate revenue which include pre-degree, part-time and distance learning programmes as well as consultancies. But sustaining the teaching programmes is a burden on the limited number of academic staff in the federal universities who, in addition to regular undergraduate programmes must participate in postgraduate programmes. In 2017, the total number of students, undergraduate and postgraduate in all Nigerian universities was 1,962,364 and for academic staff, 61,999 (Nigerian University System Statistical Digest, 2017). Based on the recommended academic staff-student ration of 1:20, the total number of academic staff is inadequate. Further, many of the private universities are grossly under-staffed and they rely on academic staff from public universities in adjunct capacities to provide teaching services. This is a burden which negates academic services across the board. Therefore, the need for more academic staff is evident in all of this.
However, the dilemma is that the personnel cost for federal universities is high, skewed in favour of the non-academic staff whose number is up to three times the number of academic staff in some universities. This is anomalous and is a primal factor in the limited funds available for the primary purpose of teaching and research in the university.
Faced with a paucity of funds, the federal government is reluctant to allow recruitment of more academic staff even when there exist vacancies created by retiring staff and their replacement would not alter the personnel cost. But where permission to recruit is granted, the process is compromised and corrupted by follow-up requests from approving authorities in Abuja who send candidates for employment. All of this is an infraction on university autonomy which is unacceptable to ASUU.
The On-going strike by ASUU is a result of the failure of the government to accept periodic review of agreements earlier reached with the union in light of changing circumstances. Specifically, the 2009 agreement is long overdue for re-negotiation, particularly the need for revitalization of the universities through appropriate funding regime. Admittedly, the government is in a financial quagmire. But this is when the universities should be engaged for a patriotic solution to myriad national problems.
The controversy around the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) is a needless distraction and is convenient for the government to seek to occlude the main issues with it. It is instructive to note that IPPIS is a software of the World Bank procured with the loan in 2004 to the tune of over USD100million to facilitate transparent cashless financial transactions by government agencies (Okonjo-Iweala; Fighting Corruption is Dangerous, 2018). Cognizant of its inadequacies as a payment platform for university operations, ASUU has developed alternate software, the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) as a patriotic and professional duty to address the gaps. In spite of having passed the integrity test, the federal government is not disposed to utilizing the UTAS for inexplicable reasons while insisting on IPPIS and withholding salaries of academic staff for the fifth month running. Where is patriotism in all of this? And what is the proper role of the University if it is not to find solutions to societal problems? How justified is the loan for software that the Nigerian University, as a call to duty, could have developed ab initio? In a world driven by knowledge, it is regrettable that the Nigerian government, over the years, has chosen to relegate the academia in the scheme of things resulting in intellectual apathy, aloofness and reticence.
The need for fundamental governance and institutional reforms in Nigeria cannot be over-emphasized. And not least in this regard is the overarching need for the Nigerian University to be re-tooled and re-defined to play a vital role in national development effort as it is in many countries of the world. In this context, there was a University in Nigeria, pre-and immediate post-independence when its proper role in nation building was recognized. It is against this background that true federalism is imperative in Nigeria as a precondition for activating institutions of governance. At the moment, the intellectual content in Nigeria’s governance system is very low with concomitant ascendance of mediocrities at all levels of government. It is high time that the government recognized that it needs the university and in furtherance of which it must address the issues being canvassed by ASUU.
Professor Eromosele is former deputy vice-chancellor (Academic), Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta.