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ASUU strike and odds against learning

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Nigeria’s education sector, which is supposed to be the major and fastest agent of change and civilization is presently burdened and overwhelmed.

With the nation’s current population of over 195.9 million, 45 per cent of which are below 15 years, there is a huge demand for learning opportunities translating into increased enrolment. This has created challenges in ensuring quality education since resources are spread more thinly, resulting in more than 100 pupils for one teacher as against the UNESCO benchmark of 35 students per teacher and culminating in students learning under trees for lack of classrooms.

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The government has recently defined learning too narrowly in a manner devoid of process and outcome fairness, as shown in the handling/management of the ongoing strike action embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), to kick against government directive on the Integrated Payroll Personnel Information System (IPPIS), press for the revitalisation of universities; renegotiate 2009 agreement and of course push for the Earned Academic Allowances (EAA) of members. The strike, aside from truncating academic calendar, and happening at a time other countries are re-doubling their investments in education, and finding a traditional progressive solution to education as an extremely valuable strategy for solving society’s problems, what is happening in the nation’s education sector under the present administration rings apprehension.

As an illustration, in the 2017 Appropriation Act, N448.01 billion representing 6.0 per cent of the N7.30 trillion budgets was allocated to education. Similarly, the budgetary allocation for education in 2020 is N671.07 billion constituting 6.7%.  Of the N671.07 billion allocated to the Federal Ministry of education, the sum includes the statutory transfer allocated to the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC), which is N111.79 billion. UBEC intervention funds as we know are focused on collaboration with other state actors towards improving access to basic education and reducing Nigeria’s out-of-school children. When compared with 2019, there is however a 44.37% increase in capital expenditure. Yet, a shortfall in the UNESCO’s benchmark.

On ASUU strike, many argue that the present administration should be excused as strike and other rots in the Nigerian education system did not just start today but dates back to 1988 when the union’s officials started a protest over a wage increase which led to the suspension of the union and then reinstated in 1990. Others are of the opinion that it amounts to indiscipline/insubordination on the part of ASUU to be at loggerheads with the government just because its members were directed to enroll in the IPPIS, which the government made compulsory for all civil servants. To the rest, strike action to some extent poses problems to liberal societies.

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In some ways, it involves violence, threatens public order itself, often violates some basic liberal liberties, and appears to involve group rights having priorities over individual ones. Despite this flood of argument, the question may be asked; what prevented the Federal Government from abiding with the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding entered with ASUU since 2019? Why has FG demonstrated a very high level of timidity in implementing such accord and similar ones in the past? Why is FG unwilling to adopt the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) as suggested by ASUU while insisting that ASUU should first migrate to IPPIS before returning to UTAS which the group believes makes no economic sense? Why has it become difficult for the FG to listen to the argument by ASUU that the much orchestrated IPPIS is not in line with the best global practice and capped with the capacity to further reduce the ranking of Nigerian universities?

As the strike rants and raves and the youths continue to stay at the home of which we all understand its negative socioeconomic implications, one point the Federal Government must not fail to remember is that globally; ‘the relationship between employers/employees is always strained, always headed toward conflict. It is a natural conflict built into the system. Unions do not strike on a whim or use the strike to show off their strength. They look at strikes as costly and disturbing, especially for workers and their families. Strikes are called as last resort. And any government that fails to manage this delicate relationship profitably or fails to develop a cordial relationship with the workers becomes an enemy of not just the workers but that of the open society and, such society will sooner than later find itself degenerate into chaos.

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Another important point that the present administration must ponder on to help it understand the need for truce is that lecturers/teachers not only teach errant students, but they also parent them, pamper them wherever that is called for, discipline and guide them, take the worst attitude in them and turn it into something more engaging and productive, yet, they are barely acknowledged by society, let alone giving them their just rewards. Many suffer from depression, psychological trauma, and even suicidal tendency out of a sense of inadequacy at various intervals. They work so hard for so little.

The nation’s educational sector has in the past produced excellent graduates in different fields of human endeavours. The sector needs to be adequately funded; its policies reworked to meet the 21st-century demands and consolidates on the gains of the present, with entrepreneurial programmes/studies integrated from the primary schools to the university levels.

Jerome-Mario Utomi, wrote from Lagos.

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