The lingering ASUU strike
The strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities has gone on for six solid months. It began on 14 February, this year, and it does not appear there is light flickering at the end of a long dark tunnel. From the decision of the lecturers announced on Monday, it is thenceforth a total showdown with the government. They have reached the point of no return. It began as a warning strike for one month. At the core of ASUU grievances is underfunding of the universities. Underfunding will necessarily trigger rippling effects touching on remuneration as well as maintenance of equipment which are, to all fair-minded people, inadequate, indeed, in some cases embarrassing. When the National Executive Council of ASUU, led by Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, rose from its meeting in Abuja, it accused the government of deceit, saying that contrary to the claim by the government, none of the lecturers’ demands had been met. It denied asking for a whopping N1.1trillion from the government. In his words:
“NEC observed with regret that the Union had experienced a lot of deceit of the highest level in the last five and half years as the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) engaged ASUU in fruitless and unending negotiation without a display of utmost fidelity.
“NEC noted that ASUU and other well-meaning Nigerians have expressed serious disappointment and consternation on the attitude of the government conveyed by the Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu, who had deliberately misinformed the public and reduced the current struggle of ASUU to the payment of withheld salaries, claiming that all other contentious issues had been resolved. For the avoidance of doubts none of the issues that forced our union to resume the suspended strike as listed in the December 2020 FGN-ASUU Memorandum of Action (MoA) has been satisfactorily addressed by the government to date… ASUU struggles are to save Nigerian public universities irrespective of ownership—Federal or State…
“The union confirmed the integrity of the process leading to the agreement reached with government, stating ‘the Briggs Committee has, in a well-publicised newspaper advertorial, confirmed that all the proposals and recommendations it made to ASUU were properly discussed and cleared with their Principal. The Committee also confirmed that throughout the negotiation process, all the relevant government agencies, including National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission; Budget and Finance and Federal Character Commission (FCC) were in attendance.’’ The communiqué then goes on to empathise with the students. Says Prof. Osodeke:
“ASUU NEC noted with pains, its concerns for Nigerian students who are also our wards and foster children and condemned government’s seeming indifference to their plights. The Union empathises with the students, their parents, as well as other stakeholders (including our colleagues who are undertaking their higher degrees) in the universities. ASUU reaffirms its belief in the sanctity of a stable academic system. Were it within our control, our universities would never have been shut for one day!…ASUU strikes are aimed at saving public education, and ensuring that governments (Federal and State) use our common patrimony to support quality university education.”
Although the union says it remains open to negotiations, but would not go back on the “full implementation of the 23rd December, 2020 Memorandum of Action for quick restoration of industrial harmony in Nigeria’s public universities.” Their resolve is also hinged on ensuring “that every qualified Nigerian youth who cannot afford the cost of private university education or foreign studies has unhindered access to quality university education.”
ASUU has gone on strike 16 times in 23 years that is 16 times since 1999 and a cumulative period of three years. There were no lectures for 165 days in 2013 and 2018, for 94 days. Some publications say there is one strike every five years by the Academic Staff Union of Universities. This is frightening, considering its implications on education of the youths, educational standards and overall manpower development in the land.
There is an impasse, yet the nation must move forward remembering that when two elephants fight, it is the grasses that suffer. So, what is the way out? The government says there is no money, it is broke. From the quantum and regularity of borrowings alone and what is required to service the debts we won’t require to summon Aliyu Mai Bornu, first governor of our Central Bank or Clement Isong or Ola Vincent from the Beyond to testify to it that the government is broke. It is certain Bismarck Rewane will agree with them, even if the obscene opulence being displayed in the National Assembly belies this. A situation in which a senator is paid N14 million a month, that is going by Shehu Sani account and a professor earns N450, 000 is anomalous, scandalous and unconscionable. That is even discarding the figure released by Professor Itse Sagay. Hold it, but do not say “I told you”: Apologies to Dipo Ajayi, editor of Lagos Weekend of old and columnist Wole Falodun, the Mr. Wakabout: It is N29 million a month! A majority of the legislators passed through the exalted portals of the citadel of learning where they were taught by senior lecturers and some of the professors on strike. In the words of Professor Wale Omole, a former Vice-Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo, education is the tool for human capital development. If I may add, it helps to facilitate the necessary link with the threshold of higher knowledge, which is above and beyond all knowledge! The higher knowledge that answers all questions of life and existence.
Nigeria is not re-inventing the wheel. Is there anything to learn from other lands and infuse with our own thinking outside the box? How are universities funded in other lands? It is well known that higher educational system is stable in the developed world. In the United Kingdom, for example, the longest strike in British history lasted only one month, from 22 February to 20 March, 2018. According to online publications, it involved 64 universities across Britain. It got 126,000 students signing petitions calling for refund of their fees. It was reported that an estimated 42, 000 university staff took part in it resulting, predictably, in loss of several teaching hours. The one of 2019 lasted only 14 days, called off with the emergence of COVID-19. Even then lectures were held online. Since the major problem is funding; how Nigeria became broke and the economy is run down are a different issue altogether for now, is there any idea Nigeria can borrow from other lands? In Nordic countries, students study for free or almost free. In Norway, for example, education to the university level is completely free. This was a major attraction to the government of South West, Edo and Delta with Chief Obafemi Awolowo as the motivator and driving spirit and his shadows, perhaps, still nudging the states on. In the EU countries with Netherlands as an example, tuitions are highly subsidised by the government to make university education affordable for all students. For other costs such as living expenses, various types of loans are provided at very low repayment rates—spread over several years, in some cases over decades, with a moratorium of about five years after graduation. The core funding—(salaries, maintenance etc) and capital costs for say, infrastructure, are government funded.
In the United States and Canada, most of the funding to universities comes from the state and regional government aid as well as charges derived from property and general taxation. They also charge affordable tuition fees, and all students have access to student specific loans, repayable over several years. It has to be stated that student loans remain a huge problem for students. Household incomes affect the loans. The lesser parents’ joint income is the greater the chance of getting higher loans and vice versa. Parents with dependent students (under age 25) may also qualify for reduction in their yearly income tax referred to as deductibles.
Student grants are offered by the government for students with specific needs or circumstances. The same with grants from charities and trusts. Unlike loans these do not need to be repaid. Grants are generally based on financial needs, poor background, disability etc, it is, therefore, possible to get multiple grants based not only on needs but field of study such as medical related courses and artificial intelligence. In general, universities are funded by both tax payers and students. They meet other heads of university budget through creative thinking. It has been noted in these countries that loan repayment could be problematic. In consideration of the difficulties with the repayment Joe Biden has just announced that his Administration was writing off “certain” student loans. Because of dwindling government funding in recent years, with money from government no more than handouts, the universities themselves have risen to the challenge on their own. They are heavy on research related projects which are monetised and lots of inventions which also bring in tonnes of money. Two: donations and endowments from wealthy individuals as well as foundations pour in. Corporate organisations as well as alumni associations are not left out. There is also competition among universities for foreign students whom they charge higher than the locals.
More and more universities in the West are raising money by entering into commercial agreements with businesses. For instance, it is now quite common for commercial entities to pay several millions for the right to promote or advertise sports fields, jerseys and other apparel or even names on university buildings. Enormous endowment funds are aggregated into investments which rake in great returns on investment (ROI). Universities are getting involved in lucrative business start-ups with most of them creating start-up centres dedicated to raising billions in first round venture capital investments.
On autonomy, there is an article by Greg Wade said to be based on a research paper on running university without interference from the government. It is titled Autonomy: The View from The UK. The article reads in part: “It is clear from the work of European University Association (EUA) on the barometer of higher education autonomy that Britain has one of the most autonomous university systems in Europe and Estonia. So, if the question is how can effective autonomy be ensured, then the answer is simply to become like Britain.”
How then are United Kingdom universities funded and how much part do students play? The United Kingdom reference becomes necessary because Nigerians and Nigerian institutions will want to derive their bearing largely from the examples of Britain. In England, all universities are strongly committed to autonomy and it is encouraged by the government. Universities have freedom to decide the cost of education for international students, the cost of short certificate courses. They also have the autonomy to target student markets most profitable to them. Like the United States and Canada, there are all kinds of facilities also in England to facilitate access to higher education. While parents can opt to pay for the school fees, housing and general upkeep allowance for their children, the Student Finance England Service provides financial support on behalf of the UK government to students who are United Kingdom nationals. Students can apply for tuition fees and living costs. The maximum tuition fee loan is up to 11, 000 pounds sterling a year depending on the choice of courses. The student loan must be paid back and interest is charged from the day the first payment is made. Students with disabilities, however, get extra allowance of up to 25, 575 pounds sterling. There are other financial supports available to students including getting part-time employment, and receiving bursaries or scholarships. In other words, there are two main elements of public spending on higher education—direct funding through councils for teaching and research and student loans for maintenance and fees. Where there are cuts in support for teaching and research, these are balanced out by increases in loans and grants. More recently, the main change has been the shift from maintenance grants to loans.
I have gone this far to see what options our universities can reflect upon and consider for our circumstances. Many of the desirable reforms may have to lead to diversify the streams of funding to even include local governments. This may, however, have to wait until a new Administration is in place from May 2023. The reforms are too late for this administration to take on. The universities compulsorily taken over by the Federal Government in the time of boom will have to be returned to their original owners. This will entail restructuring of the country, politically and fiscally. The Federal universities are too many—far beyond the capacity, indeed, the capability of the Federal Authorities. Funding will then involve local governments through paying for their citizens. Grants and scholarships will have to be returned. The universities will similarly return as was in the old the soothen prize practice of university scholars, go into commercial agreements with corporate organisations and sell research projects to the private sector to generate income for their institutions. There must be prudent management of resources so that the country can live within her means. How wonderful it would all be if the issue of insecurity can be tackled for safety of lives and property and for the flourish of the economy so that nexus between Gown and Town can be reinforced for the good of all. The universities will truly become the “universe in the city” with free inflow of foreign scholars and lecturers and Nigerians themselves would feel free to move in and out in joyful and collaborative swinging.
The opportunity beckoning to the universities lies in 2023. The lecturers themselves should guide the nation with healthy and spirited debates for a new order. They should join in the push for ethical conduct for which our universities were known in the 60s and 70s. There can be no progress in any relationship whatsoever without regard for the Law of Balance. The relationship in this wise is between the lecturers and their students. Thus, ASUU should call off its strike and await a new dispensation. The world is going through a phase. It is the Law of Balance, in essence give and take, that will be crucial in just a few years to come.
Consider, for example, strike ballots will open at UK universities on Tuesday, September 6, only a few days away. University unions will run two ballots, according to reports, one over pay and working conditions and the second over pension cuts. In total 151 universities will be balloted. The ballots, it is reported, will run until October 21 when these will be aggregated. It is reckoned that if the union achieves an overall turn-out of 50 per cent and above and a majority YES votes in a ballot, all universities in that ballot will be hit by strike. It is believed it will represent an unprecedented action in the United Kingdom education sector. Do I need to say more?