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The ASUU contradiction

By Abímbólá Olúwafémi Emmanuel
31 December 2020   |   3:33 am
The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) recognize the harm that joining IPPIS could do to Nigerian academia, but they do not seem to recognize the harm that persistent government interference in public higher education does to academia.

Ngige and Ogunyemi at one of their meetings

The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) recognize the harm that joining IPPIS could do to Nigerian academia, but they do not seem to recognize the harm that persistent government interference in public higher education does to academia. This is the heart of what I call the ASUU Contradiction. The inability of a well-meaning organization to see and fight for what is needed to actualize freedom, even though freedom should be its ultimate objective. Right now, ASUU and the federal government are locked in a long-drawn battle over the funding of public education in Nigeria. The members of ASUU have been compelled once again to resort to industrial action in order to enforce demands for better welfare of academic staff and adequate funding of public higher education in Nigeria on the government. The federal government has, in turn, responded with familiar tropes of platitudes that have only resulted in broken and unkept promises in the past.

In this particular instalment of the long-running drama between ASUU and the federal government, there is an added twist known as IPPIS. The federal government has demanded that ASUU join its centralized payment scheme in order to ensure financial probity, accountability and transparency. This demand has been staunchly rejected by ASUU on the ground that joining IPPIS is a threat to the academic freedom and autonomy of their members. For all their laudable intentions, it seems that the introduction of IPPIS into the current dialogue between ASUU and the federal government has exposed a major flaw in ASUU’s vision for public higher education in Nigeria. The flaw is that ASUU seems to be aware of the need to protect intellectual autonomy, but do not seem to know what it would take to actually get it.

First, how did we get here, what is the genesis of the problem? The decline of public higher education didn’t start until the advent of military rule in Nigeria and the centralized way of thinking that came with it. Like it did in other areas of Nigerian society, the military incorporated public tertiary institutions under centralized control, partly because it needed to suppress dissenting opinions and partly for reasons similar to the ones that the government of the day is using to champion IPPIS (i.e financial probity transparency and accountability). To their credit, ASUU have been the only consistent source of opposition to the structural imbalance that has resulted from decades of government interference in public higher education in Nigeria. ASUU’s role as the main source of opposition to government interference in public education started in the late 70s and has continued till this day, as evidenced by the ongoing strike. But while ASUU remain the main source of opposition to government interference in public higher education, ASUU as an organisation have not remained the same.

Compared to their earliest strike which called for the autonomy of universities, today’s ASUU is more concerned with advocating for better welfare for academic staff and adequate funding of public higher education, even if doing this does not put an end to the real source of the problem which is government interference. An explanation for why this is the case may be that ASUU are being pragmatic by focusing on more achievable goals than getting the government to stop meddling in public higher education. This might well be the case. After all, the return of civilian government has not resulted in any substantive change in the way public education is run in Nigeria. Officials of the state still have considerable economic and political influence over the administration of public tertiary institutions in Nigeria. For anyone who is familiar with the experience of living under oppressive regimes, whether military or civilian, the above rhetoric may offer a compelling argument for why ASUU should adapt to the system in order to ensure their own survival and that of their members. But this argument and the tactic of survival that it inspires has a self-sabotaging ring to it. Through advocating for better welfare of their members instead of outright autonomy of public tertiary institutions, ASUU are inadvertently distracting from the real source of their problem or the problem of the Nigerian university system. They inadvertently create the perfect illusion that the real problem of public higher education in Nigeria is poor funding by the government. And if the government makes provision for adequate funding, the glory of the Nigerian university system will be restored. This is a self-sabotaging trope that has become more widespread since the return of civilian government in Nigeria and partly explains the uptick in ASUU strikes post-1999.

Poor funding is a very serious problem for public higher education in Nigeria. Nevertheless, it is equally important to point out that provision of adequate funding will only gloss over, not solve, the real problem which is persistent government interference in the administration of public tertiary institutions in Nigeria. IPPIS is the latest attempt, sadly by a democratically elected government, to further implant itself in the affairs of public tertiary institutions in Nigeria and thankfully the leaders of ASUU have decided to resist it. But ASUU’s resistance of IPPIS is taking place at the same time that they are calling for better welfare of academic staff and better funding of public higher education from the government. There is nothing wrong with these demands in themselves, but if one were to take a hard nosed position in favour of the government in the ongoing dispute with ASUU, one could argue that the government has a right to ensure accountability, transparency and financial probity if it is to remain wholly responsible for academic staff welfare and funding of public higher education. And if IPPIS is an attempt to ensure accountability, transparency and financial probity, then ASUU cannot legitimately reject it. Thus, either ASUU accept IPPIS and all the censorship that is likely to come with it or they forfeit adequate government support (i.e funding, better welfare of academic staff, etc.). This, as the turn of events seem to show, is the current stand of the Muhammadu Buhari led federal government in the ongoing deadlock with ASUU. And it is a very difficult position to invalidate, even if it is currently being deployed to cynical ends in practice.

In order to properly repudiate the government at this point, ASUU must spell out a vision of public higher education in Nigeria that includes full administrative and economic autonomy for public tertiary institutions.

In other words, the focus and priority of their engagement with the government should be about restoring the full autonomy of public tertiary institutions, not funding. Governments (federal and state governments) still have an obligation to make provision for funding. But the goal from here on should be about ensuring that public tertiary institutions become self sufficient and self governing bodies within the state. This will liberate public tertiary institutions and enable each to develop according to its strengths. This is not to say that there is no role for the government in public higher education. Ideally, public tertiary institutions should be major contributors to a collective vision and purpose enacted by a government. But such vision should never, under any condition or circumstance, be imposed on members of a university community. A university community is not only obliged to produce knowledge, it is also obliged to produce knowledge that improves the human condition. The only way to ensure that a university community is not being used for contrary ends is if members of the university community and the university community itself have considerable autonomy to choose what ends to pursue.