Varsity teachers’ salaries are again suspended in Nigeria
Varsity teachers in Nigeria have been denied their salaries for the month of July 2020.
Payment was originally stopped in February 2020, because of the refusal by the teachers through their union, Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, to enrol on the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System, IPPIS. However, the government yielded to public pressure and paid up to June.
Public opinion had been that it was utterly wrong, unreasonable, and insensitive for the government to have stopped salaries in the COVID-19 situation. In its wisdom, the government has again stopped varsity teachers’ salaries. Perhaps, this is the government’s way of celebrating its victory over COVID-19. But the questions that must be asked are: Has the war against COVID-19 been won? Was there any war declared against COVID-19 in the first place in Nigeria? It must be clearly stated that ASUU’s disagreement with the government is far beyond the issue of IPPIS, which is but a recent issue concerning methods of payment of salaries.
ASUU’s major problem had been and remains the blunt refusal of the government to recognise that there is a crisis in the nation’s varsity system. The different angles to the crisis are poor funding of education, inadequate infrastructure and equipment, lack of autonomy, inadequate establishment/understaffing, poor remuneration for varsity teachers, and the refusal by the government to honour and implement, let alone renegotiate agreements freely reached and signed with ASUU. I have been a varsity teacher for 35 years; I can tell that there is no teaching or learning going on today in the real or active sense of the words, teaching and learning. The reasons are simple and straightforward. Apart from the challenges of poor funding and grossly inadequate infrastructure and equipment, teachers are absolutely demoralised and consequently de-motivated as a result of abysmally poor remuneration. The highest-paid professors earn a monthly gross salary of ₦500,000.
The point, indeed, is that the government and the roguish and thieving wielders of political power have little or no interest in education, as can be seen from the scandalously wretched budgetary appropriation for education, usually 6-8% of the annual budget. It must be emphasised that leaders’ concept of leadership in Nigeria is not that of service or progress but self-enrichment.
ASUU may be compelled to enrol on IPPIS, but that will not resolve the crisis in the varsity system. ASUU may even discontinue its principled and patriotic struggle for the survival of public universities, but, doubtless, that would be the last straw that will break the camel’s back.
The choice before ASUU is either to continue with its principled and patriotic struggle, and thereby ensure the survival of public universities, or succumb to government propaganda and blackmail, and thereby enable the government to bury the remains of academia. But as an organisation of intellectuals, ASUU must continue to constructively engage the government on the necessity for the survival of public universities.
ASUU must continue to provide the leading lights. Members of ASUU are not elected members of the legislature or parliament as an organ of government. Indeed, but by virtue of their training, learning, exposure, experience, and global visibility, any government that ignores them and their perceptions does not mean well for itself, the nation, the people and their future.
For, as intellectuals, member of ASUU thinks for the larger society. As aptly noted by one scholar not too long ago, intellectuals are the legislators of the world, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged. And so, because intellectuals cannot stop thinking, they must continue thinking, and thinking not for the mere sake of thinking, but thinking to generate and articulate informed ideas and knowledge for public good and progress. Since some struggle is required for the progress of society, any such struggle is an objective inevitability. Indeed, whatever progress the nation has made in the development of public universities has been achieved through the principled and patriotic struggle of ASUU.
For example, ASUU’s struggle led to the establishment of the Education Tax Fund (ETF), now known as the Tertiary Education Fund (TEDFUND). As an interventionist agency, the Fund has financed the provision of structures such as hostels, auditoria, faculty and departmental buildings, library and laboratory complexes, etc. It has also helped to procure books and journals for libraries and equipment for laboratories.
Because ASUU cannot afford to ignore the role the varsities were established to play in the nation’s development process, the union has continued to draw attention to the critical preconditions without which the varsities cannot effectively play their role as agents of development and progress. For example, university teachers cannot afford to abandon their commitment to university autonomy and academic freedom without which the varsity system will remain tethered and fettered and, so, incapable of effectively playing its role. In the absence of basic facilities for teaching and learning especially in the laboratory-based disciplines, courses such as engineering, medicine, and pharmacy are taught as religion, literature, and philosophy.
I had an encounter with an engineering student at a second-generation university during the 2003 ASUU strike. He was unsparingly critical of ASUU. But when I confronted him with the issue of the state of the laboratories at his university, his answer was: Truly, we do not have good laboratories. One of my teachers would always tell us in class, “attend classes, study your notes and you will excel. Am I not going to be your examiner? I am your teacher!” Besides, students’ living conditions on the campuses are worse than those of lower animals. Then, university staff work in excruciating and agonising poverty, in grovelling and mucous penury. ASUU must continue to strive to achieve enhanced earnings for its members. The government and its ideologues and trumpeters have continued to contend that tuition fees must be introduced if staff earnings are to be enhanced. But ASUU’s position has been that the introduction of tuition fees will ultimately price university education out of the reach of the poor. The argument of the union remains that, the survival of public universities without their commercialisation and the access of the children of the poor to university education is organically inseparable.
It has been the position of the present writer that, that tuition is free does not make varsity education free. Students pay some administrative charges and they are responsible for their accommodation, transportation, feeding, clothing, books, etc. Thus, free tuition cannot properly be said to be free education as students bear the brunt of many other costs and charges. The challenges raised in the preceding paragraphs are challenges that must be patriotically grappled with if public varsities are to survive, if they are to play their role as agents of national development and progress and if they are to become globally competitive.
Over the last three decades, ASUU has consistently drawn the attention of the government to these critical issues. But the government has not shown any serious commitment to resolving the issues. Agreements and memoranda of understanding reached by the government and ASUU are recklessly breached or even repudiated outright by the government. For example, a major agreement signed between ASUU and the military government in 1992 was later repudiated by the government, with the then Minister of Education, Professor Ben Nwabueze, arguing that it was an “imperfect” agreement. Then, during the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan (2010 – 2015) the needs of public varsities were officially put at ₦1.3 trillion. It took an ASUU strike for the Jonathan administration to release ₦200 billion to the universities, and another ASUU strike for the succeeding President Muhammadu Buhari administration to release ₦30 billion. Besides, it took many strike actions for the academic and non-academic staff of public universities to be paid their earned allowances for the period 2009 – 2012. No allowances have been paid for the period, 2013 – 2019.
ASUU has again been on strike for over four months. The union has two straight and clear demands, namely, the full implementation of the 2009 ASUU–Federal Government Agreement and the renegotiation of the agreement as originally provided for. The current situation is a cul-de-sac artificially created by the government. ASUU and the Federal Government have a lot to do to find a lasting solution to the crisis in the nation’s varsity system. Thus the union must continue to engage the government on the challenges of the varsities. But in its engagement with the government, ASUU must be conscious of one critical desideratum: there is a need for the union to embark on empirically-driven public enlightenment on the challenges as the varsities are public institutions. Given the place and role of the varsity system in the development process, the public cannot continue to be distanced from their universities and the problems of the universities. The public should have a say on the type of universities and the type of university education they desire. But for an enlightened public opinion to be formed on the disagreement between ASUU and the government, the issues in, and the facts of the disagreement must be bared and
Dr. Onyekpe, a fellow of the Historical Society of Nigeria, lectures at the Department of History & Strategic Studies, University of Lagos, Akoka.
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