“Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends.” Benjamin Disraeli, a former British Prime Minister expressed that sentiment as far back as 1882 but till date, it is still a rule of thumb. The importance of education, specifically higher education, transcends being the most effective medium for hedging the spread of illiteracy. A robust and competitive higher education sector offers the society a great opportunity for innovation, industrial growth, job creation, infrastructural development, increased national income, poverty alleviation, crime reduction, health improvement, and much more. Impliedly, anything that affects the smooth running and efficiency of a nation’s higher education is a rusty clog on the wheel of its progress, and thus, deserves to be permanently nipped in the bud.
Today, it is crystal clear that Nigerian higher education sector is in dire straits. Top of the endemic problems ravaging the sector is the constant industrial action by members of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU)—national union of all academic staff of public universities in Nigeria—and the Federal government. The face-off normally results in abrupt suspension of academic programmes and complete shutting down of schools. Worst is, majority of the institutions of higher learning in Nigeria are public universities (over 85 percent). So, it affects the system on a scale that is both massive and crippling.
Going down the memory lane, ASUU was created in 1978 after the collapse of the then National Association of University Teachers (NAUT), to fight for the welfare of its members and to help salvage and redress critical challenges bedevilling university education in the country. On the refusal of federal government to meet their demands, the union has been resorting to full-blown strike actions as a way of pressing home their requests, no matter the threat and intimidation by the federal government, especially as witnessed during the 1980s industrial actions. In fact, between 1978 and 2020, the union has embarked on a total of 27 strike actions, with some of them leading to the forfeiture of full academic sessions.
Indeed, there is no smoke without fire. The causes of the unending rifts between ASUU-FG’s do not always spring forth suddenly like Jack in the box. Its causes are well known. Undue delay in payment of remuneration/entitlements/allowances for lecturers, the deterioration of working conditions, the inadequacy of facilities, ill-fated policies, Federal government’s penchant for breaching or not honouring agreements it had with the union, has always been the bone of contention.
By and large, the menace has no doubt, culminated into the perennial malaise troubling Nigeria today. Think of mass exodus of the country’s best talents leading to pervasive brain drain; constant churning out of what has been severally described as unemployable graduates; abysmally poor level of Research and Development (R&D); domination of multi-national firms and foreign expatriates in Nigeria’s key industries, widespread poverty; the poor standard of living…to mention but a few.
Against this backdrop, it is imperative to urgently take proactive steps capable of forestalling further face-offs between ASUU and Federal government. Given that, my thoughts are:
With all sense of seriousness and goodwill, the federal government should accord more importance and priority to higher education in Nigeria. First and foremost, it should take bold and creative steps to ensure that our tertiary education is rescued from the festering sore of underfunding. Accordance with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) recommendation, the government should progressively increase education budget annually to 26 percent.
In fact, given the enormous upgrade needed to be done in Nigerian universities in order for it to compete globally, a state of emergency should be declared on the sector and a reasonable bailout fund given to it. If Rwanda can raise its higher institutions from the ashes of war to its current global-reckoning status, Nigeria, the giant of Africa, can also do it. We have the financial wherewithal. The Federal government should put in the required commitment, sincerity, and stewardship. Adequate funding is crucial to solving most of the human, technical and operational challenges members of the academia and students have been complaining over the years.
Furthermore, the flagrant disregard and breach of the agreement by the Federal government must be jettisoned. Each new regime should be committed to upholding every outstanding agreement successive governments had with the union. Where review is needed, appropriate consultation and negotiation should be done. In the same pedestal, the Federal government should grant universities a reasonable level of autonomy, especially on issues patterning to academic policies and programmes. Too much political interference in universities will always result to rancour.
Again, and very importantly, the Federal Government needs to see members of the academia as partners in progress rather than rebels. Frankly speaking, public university lecturers in Nigeria are not well taken care of as compared to their counterparts abroad. It is evident that ASUU never decides to abruptly embark on industrial action. Series of formal or informal techniques such as writing of letters, issuing of communiqués, and warning strike is normally explored before resorting to full-blown industrial actions. The federal government and its stakeholders should always be committed to resolving every dispute early. Similarly, efforts should be made to increase the rate of grant-in-aid and other welfare packages for Nigerian university lecturers as that will aid job satisfaction and productivity.
Finally, let me reaffirm that a vibrant higher education sector is a prerequisite for Nigeria’s liberation from its current desolate state of mass poverty, socio-economic stagnation and deep-seated underdevelopment. If for anything, ASUU’s constant resort to industrial action is an indication of the federal government’s laissez-faire attitude to higher education. Whilst it is understandable that the government is inundated with a galaxy of responsibilities, it must realize that education is the premise upon which every other progress is sustained. Thus, necessary moral, financial, institutional, and political measure should be urgently taken to put an end to incessant industrial action by ASUU members.
Ogbaga Sunday Thomas, a student of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, is interested in Education, Leadership, Social Entrepreneurship and Peace-building. He can be reached via Ogbagasunday3@gmail.com