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Abiapoly: Between political plots and fiscal responsibility in state-owned institutions

By Leo Sobechi, Deputy Politics Editor, Abuja
27 August 2022   |   4:02 am
State-owned tertiary institutions in Southeast geopolitical zone have always operated as either laws unto themselves or extension of the government, which disposes them to political conspiracies.

State-owned tertiary institutions in Southeast geopolitical zone have always operated as either laws unto themselves or extension of the government, which disposes them to political conspiracies.

Recently, those two crucial, but unrelated reasons played out in the withdrawal of the accreditation granted to Abia Polytechnic Aba by the National Board for Technical Education (NBTE) should not have elicited much public outcry.

In the first place, being a pre-election year, especially the fact that Governor Okezie Victor Ikpeazu came from the academia, the withdrawal of recognition was made to showcase his lack of excellence in the management of the educational sector.

However, in the general outcry that attended the NBTE’s action, not much attention or public scrutiny was subjected into the management of the polytechnic, which was established to produce much needed middle level manpower in the state.

The polytechnic is situated in Aba. Consequently, given Aba’s place as a notable industrial hub, the withdrawal of accreditation for AbiaPoly therefore tended to cast a shadow on the sincerity of the governor’s well-known advocacy for made-in-Aba products.

Perhaps, recognising the implications of the NBTE’s action, Governor Ikpeazu described it as embarrassing. Apart from pleading for calm and understanding of the people, the Abia State Chief Executive set up a taskforce to resolve the matter.

In a statement, through the Secretary to the State Government, Mr. Chris Ezem, the state government had stated: “The decision of NBTE against the institution is very embarrassing and capable of destabilizing the current peace and harmony existing in the state, as the fate of the students of the institution appears to be jeopardized by the said action.

“It must be placed on record that academic activities have been going on in the institution without interruptions; the teachers and staff of Abiapoly were not on strike and have remained committed to their duties.

“As part of measures to reposition the institution, government hereby announces the immediate dissolution and suspension of the council and management of the institution respectively.

“In line with the foregoing, government has approved the constitution of a 6-man taskforce to restore the accreditation of Abia Poly within 30 days. Members of the taskforce include Prof. Ikechi Mgboji as the Chairman and Mr Stanley Nwankpa, the school Student Union Government (SUG) President as member, among others.”

While the government swung into action to reverse the de-accreditation of the institution, investigation by The Guardian showed that the lead up to the NBTE wielding the big axe manifested many administrative lapses that snowballed into major academic breaches.

For instance, going by the establishment Act setting up Abiapoly, the institution was to generate funds internally through students’ tuition fees and other enterprises.

The institution was, however, not expected to remit any fund to the state government so that by being self-accounting, management could undertake necessary operational interventions, particularly in the areas of payment of salaries and miscellaneous expenditures.

With a student population of 20,000 and fees payable fixed at N53,000, it was projected that the polytechnic raked in N1.10billion every years and the wage bill hovering around N2.16 billion yearly at a monthly rate of N180million.

It was gathered that in the life of the current administration of Governor Ikpeazu, the institution never remitted a single kobo into the government’s coffers in line with the law that set it up. From May 29, 2015, when Governor Ikpeazu mounted the saddle as state chief executive, AbiaPoly had experienced a series of industrial actions.

And, following the instability in the academic calendar of the polytechnic, the student population expectedly dwindled to about 9, 000 with a corresponding shortfall of N500million in accruable tuition fees. The implication of the entire complex mix was that at a staggering monthly wage bill of N105million, its internally generated revenue needed additional infusion of about N1.3billion to pay salaries and wages alone for just one year.

Sources in the polytechnic disclosed that mutual suspicion and distrust, which trailed certain appointments by the preceding administration of Senator Theodore Orji, did not allow the school authority to demonstrate purposeful leadership.

However, it was gathered that within the last seven years, there have been at least three management and council leadership changes aimed at repositioning the polytechnic by injecting fresh managerial ideas.

While the authorities contend that Governor Ikpeazu’s attempt to inject fresh blood in AbiaPoly amounted to too little to late, the measure showed government’s concerns about the situation of the institution.

The staff, however, noted that going by the law establishing AbiaPoly, the state government is expected to support the operations of the school with N90million monthly by way of subventions, which when computed stands at about N1.1billion per annum.

“I can tell you that the law did not mandate the state government to pay the subvention in bulk, because it was flexible in recommending either monthly or yearly grant subject to availability of funds.

“In its 78 months in office, the current Abia State Government led by OVI ought to have given AbiaPoly at least N7.02billion. But, within the period, the government injected N7.1billion. Instead of the anticipated monthly subvention of N90million, Governor Ikpeazu was giving the institution N92million every month,” the source stated.

One issue that the sudden loss of accreditation threw up about AbiaPoly is not only that the state government provided enough funds, but also that the expected subventions did not stall within since May 29, 2015.

Although the authorities claimed that it deployed part of the money into clearing loans and other obligations, the fact that the establishment law did not specify that the monthly subventions must be used only for salaries, does not demand them to account.

It is therefore evident that political coloration took over when the impression was created that the state government failed to discharge its financial obligations to AbiaPoly, especially given that the institution was also deriving revenues from tuition fees and other sources, which it does not remit to the state treasury.

If therefore AbiaPoly in exercise of its autonomy defaulted in paying staff salaries, blame for NBTE’s action of withdrawing the institution’s accreditation show be their burden, unless it was indirectly blaming the state government for not breaching the law setting up the institution.

The Guardian learned that it is the authorities of AbiaPoly that hires and payrolls staff, even as government subvention to the institution was not strictly restricted to payment of salaries and wages. If government has been diligently sending the expected subventions, it then follows that the management of AbiaPoly, which defaulted in payment of salaries that led to the NBTE wielding the big stick, has explanations to give.

It boils down to the issue of appropriate prioritisation, because the institution maintains that it did not flout any law by applying funds from both government subvention and tuition fees to other needs.

NBTE, according to its mandate, is expected to supervise, regulate and oversee educational programmes provided by technical institutions, including secondary schools, polytechnics and mono-technics through an accreditation process.

While the Board does not meddle in staff welfare matters, part of its responsibilities is to ensure that the right calibre of academic staff in relevant departments are employed to meet standards and requisite curricula. The situation in AbiaPoly was peculiar because, instead of withdrawing accreditation for specific programmes as the NBTE is wont to do, the institution was shut down.

That was where political machinations came into play, because there are institutions that have been unable to take off after receiving their operational licences. The claim that the institution’s Engineering faculty lost its accreditation raised doubts, because records in the institution showed that the faculty was essentially accredited in 2022, because NBTE’s review takes place after five years.

Perhaps, it was in a bid to dispel the political mischief that Governor Ikpeazu declared that the mandate of the NBTE does not extend to shutting down an institution on account of labour-related issues, since it is not the National Industrial Court.

Further, the state government made swift moves to restore the accreditation by doling out N450million to assist the institution settle its differences with her academic staff and workers.

Describing the N450million as Salary Support to the Abia State Polytechnic, Aba, the governor directed the polytechnic’s management to immediately pay four months out of the salary arrears owed workers of the institution.

While noting that the institution must be able to properly manage funds available to it, the governor disclosed that the polytechnic handles its their admissions and staff recruitment independently.

He stated: “With this N450milion additional support, the polytechnic has received over N7.5m from this administration and I wonder why the institution is unable to manage their internal financial issues since they collect and retain all manner of fees from their students.”

Speaking when he received a delegation of student leaders from tertiary institutions in the state at the Governor’s Lodge Aba, Governor Ikpeazu, who is the Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP) candidate for Abia South Senatorial District for the 2023 poll, expressed relief that the student leaders rejected overtures to be used as agents of destabilisation.

The governor encouraged the student leaders guard against actions that could negatively affect their academics and future, especially as desperate politicians in the state could want to use them to cause confusion in forthcoming election season.

Recall that the NBTE had, on July 19, 2022, withdrawn the accreditation of the polytechnic due to the institution’s inability to pay staff salaries and allowances for over 30 months.

In a statement by its spokesperson Ms. Fatima Abubakar, NBTE disclosed that AbiaPoly’s accreditation was withdrawn because the polytechnic had not shown any commitment to offset the salary arrears and guarantee regular payment.

But, faulting the NBTE, Governor Ikpeazu pointed out that labour relations were not part of its mandate. However, he noted that although it was not also the responsibility of the state government to pay salaries of the polytechnic workers or those of any other tertiary institutions in the state, his administration will not abandon the polytechnic.

He disclosed that apart from the one-month subvention of N90million that was outstanding from the state government, his administration has paid a total sum of N7.1billion to the polytechnic since he assumed office in 2015.

A stakeholder, Apostle John Kalu, told The Guardian that all that was needed is dispassionate evaluation of the situation in AbiaPoly, stressing, “All hands must be on deck to end frequent industrial actions, grow the students’ population, which in turn will grow internally generated revenue.”

Kalu noted that prolonged shut down of the institution leads to withdrawal of students, adding that all both staff and students hold the key to sustainable stability and growth of AbiaPoly.