‘Most of the Nigerian elites enjoyed highly subsidised university education. A situation in which many brilliant but indigent students are not able to pursue university education on account of very high tuition fees is obviously inequitable… We need to fashion out what is the best model for our country in order to reposition the Nigerian university system which is grossly underperforming for sundry reasons’
THE current faceoff between the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) commenced on 14th February 2022 as a rollover strike which has since graduated to a full-blown comprehensive, total and indefinite strike.
I write as an insider in the Nigerian University system and as a Nigerian patriot. As at the time of writing this short article the strike has now entered the 29th week and still counting; it has thereby already acquired the dubious distinction of being the second longest strike in the history of the Nigerian University System, surpassed only by the 2020 strike during the novel corona virus COVID-19 pandemic when the entire world was on a lockdown (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Duration of ASUU National Strike, 1993-2022
Using the 2019 data published by the National Universities Commission (Nigerian University System Statistical Digest), and assuming that all the Federal Universities and one-half of the State Universities are on strike, it can be shown that about 1, 479, 393 undergraduate students and 179,310 postgraduate students are stranded on account of the continued closure of public universities in Nigeria. The grand total is a humungous 1,658,703 students that are so affected by the protracted ASUU strike.
The past in the present
I recently came across a monograph published by the Association of University Teachers (AUT), University of Ibadan, in November 1973 and one could not but observe the striking similarities between the crisis in the University system of that year and its current edition, in spite of the 49 year time lapse. The more things change the more they remain the same. The AUT document chronicled the events that led to the crisis in the University earlier that year which revolved around conditions of service.
Apparently, a review of Condition of Service of University Teachers at University College Ibadan, the only university institution in the country during the pre-independence era was carried out in 1959.
In spite of repeated demands by the University Teachers as from 1964 no review of the conditions of service was undertaken for over a decade. The matter came to a crisis situation in 1972 when lecturers at the University of Ibadan, under the aegis of AUT, threatened to go on strike and there was the real possibility of the 1972/1973 session not commencing by September 1972 as had been the practice since the institution was established some 24 years earlier. The AUT showed understanding and the University was able to proceed with the academic calendar as earlier planned. By this time there were only six Universities in the country namely Ibadan, Nsukka, Lagos, Ahmadu Bello Zaria, Ile-Ife and Benin-City. However later events showed that it was just a matter of postponing the evil day.
The first series of industrial disputes between the National Association of University Teachers (NAUT) and the Federal Military Government began in 1972 and there was a resumption and continuation in April 1973.The university lecturers under the aegis of their national body, NAUT, declared a strike in April 1973. On 19th April of that year the Head of State made a broadcast to the nation in which he charged university teachers with lack of patriotism and ordered them to write letters to their respective Vice-Chancellors accepting government approved fringe benefits in which case they could resume work on 25 April or else to pack out of university accommodation and regard their appointment as terminated. Moreover, the Head of State announced the closure of the University of Ibadan and the University of Lagos until further notice. The genesis of the 1973 strike by the AUT could be easily traced to the fact that the conditions of service of the University teachers were left unreviewed for 14 years (1959 till 1973).
The university teachers chose to go back to work but refused to write any letters to the Vice-Chancellors. In deciding to go back to work the university teachers were more concerned about the future of higher education in the country than in saving their own skin. Nonetheless, subsequent events have shown that an irreversible humiliation and desecration of the glorious era of the Nigeria academia and intelligentsia had begun in earnest.
Fast forward to 2022
As against the six Universities in the country as of 1973 there are now 49 Federal and 57 State Universities to contend with. A major aspect of the current crisis that has led to the closure of most these public universities in Nigeria for some 29 weeks now and still counting is the fact that the 2009 salary scale of University Lecturers has remained static over the past 13 years.
One has spent the past 34 years as a member of the Faculty at the University of Ibadan, a period that is perhaps long enough to know that there is a strong correlation between the take home pay of staff and the ability to recruit and retain new blood Faculty. In the 1980s through to the 1990s it was extremely difficult finding quality staff to employ. That was at a time the Federal Government introduced a Structural Adjustment Programme. Most academic departments in our Universities became empty as many academic staff resigned in droves and emigrated to seek greener pastures in Europe, Middle East, USA, Canada and Southern Africa among other places. As of August 1991, we were only four academic staff left in my Department to teach the ever increasing number of undergraduate and postgraduate students. Needless to say that we were over-worked and underpaid. It is still a miracle that we survived in spite of all the scars. ASUU came up with some ingenious phrase in the form of car stickers to drive the message home ‘My take home pay cannot take me home’ and ‘My boss is a comedian, the wages he pays is a joke’. In fact the wage was not just a joke but a huge joke taken too far. Cultism became the order of the day. Worse still teaching, learning and research facilities became depleted and/or obsolete. The overcrowded students’ hotels were under sub-human conditions. There was a rapid fall in the reputation, prestige and competitiveness of the Nigerian University system. We are yet to recover from the loss of academic ideals.
It’s the economy, stupid
“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase coined by James Carville in 1992, when he was advising Bill Clinton in his successful run for the White House. Some 21 years ago I was Head of the Department of Geology at the University of Ibadan and I hosted a senior colleague of mine from one sister Federal University from the eastern part of the country. In the course of our discussion he informed me that he was going to vote for the incumbent President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, for a second term in office at the then forthcoming 2003 general elections. I tried to find out why he was so much in love with President Obasanjo. His response was spontaneous in coming. He informed me that before May 2000 he was living in penury, unable to meet most of his family obligations. Then from nowhere, without any ASUU strike, salaries of academic staff were increased by about 200%. I could relate with this confession because as a Senior Lecturer then, my monthly take home pay spiked from about Twenty Eight Thousand naira to about Eighty Five Thousand naira effective May 2000. It was, in a manner of speaking, a windfall.
About five years ago I had a private meeting with former President Olusegun Obasanjo and I tried to inquire from him the motivation for his government’s upward review of salaries in May 2000. He informed me that it was based on his personal experience while serving a jail term in Yola Prison. He found out that some of the prison warders who attended to him were earning very meagre salaries in spite of having large families to cater for. So when providence smiled on him to emerge as an elected civilian president in 1999, some 20 years after he had stepped down as a Military Head of State, he deemed it fit to implement an upward review of the minimum wage which led to a highly significant improvement is salaries of public servants. This is highly commendable. The only snag was that no upward review of those salaries was undertaken for a long time subsequently in spite of the high rate of inflation. Meanwhile the price of goods and services is a moving target which defies the law of gravity which states that whatever goes up will come down. It may be noted that if we use a conservative annual rate of inflation of 10%, it follows that there would have been a 100% devaluation in just seven years. In effect the real value of the take home pay of employees would have dropped by at least 50% in seven years!
The current ASUU Strike
An agreement was signed between the Federal Government and ASUU in 2009 which addressed the Conditions of Service, Funding, University Autonomy and Academic Freedom, and Other Matters related to regulations, working environment, etc. It was expected that the issues would be renegotiated after three years. For whatever reasons, there was a delay and the renegotiation eventually commenced in March 2017. with Dr. Wale Babalakin, then Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of the University of Lagos as committee chair. Babalakin resigned after he left as Pro-Chancellor of University of Lagos. After the nine month strike of 2020, the Federal Government replaced him with Professor Emeritus Munzali Jubril. A new agreement was produced in May 2021. All relevant agencies of government apparently participated. The Federal Government refused to sign the agreement. When the current strike started in February 2022, the initial demand of ASUU was for the Federal Government to sign that agreement. The Government Team came back after several weeks to say that they could not sign the Munzali Jubril agreement, and that ASUU should start the negotiations all over again. After a few weeks of objection, ASUU agreed. That birthed the third committee led by Professor Emeritus Nimi Briggs. He has also submitted his report. There is no indication as yet that the Federal Government is eager to sign latest negotiated agreement.
The main issues in the 2022 National Strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities include the following:
Matters arising and searching for a way forward
It has become very obvious that the funding model for higher education in any country is largely a political decision. While in the US (the richest country in the world) students pay hefty tuition fees, in Germany (the richest country with the strongest economy in Europe), Scotland, Finland and Estonia, students attend university free. These are two extremes on the funding model spectrum.
Many students in the US incur huge debts on account of taking a lot of loans while studying to earn a University degree. They are expected to start repaying the debt so long as they earn more than USD125,000 per annum. While the Republican Party is against debt forgiveness, since the party perceives such debt forgiveness as handout the Democrats are in favour of some level of debt forgiveness of up to USD50,000 or even a total forgiveness of such debts. The ideological difference between the two parties is very obvious.
Germany has many highly ranked world class universities and nearly all of them are public institutions funded by the respective 16 Landers (State Governments) in contradistinction to the USA where most of the leading universities are privately owned. Even at that when you probe further you find out that the leading funding agencies in the USA such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NRF) which offer grants to university researchers in the US are owned by the US Government. The Final Year 2022 President’s Budget request for the NIH is $2,213.6 million. On the other hand, the 2022 annual budget of the National Science Foundation is $8.8 billion. In my great country Nigeria we are still debating whether TETFund should support private Universities.
Every politics is local. Most of the Nigerian elites enjoyed highly subsidised university education. A situation in which many brilliant but indigent students are not able to pursue university education on account of very high tuition fees is obviously inequitable.
We need to fashion out what is the best model for our country in order to reposition the Nigerian university system which is grossly underperforming for sundry reasons.
Many stakeholders from all walks of life get in touch with me every now and then to find out when the public universities will re-open so that students could resume classes as if I have the power to decree the institutions opened. I am as frustrated as any other stakeholder and patriot. The anxiety and frustration of students, parents and guardians are quite understandable. Ironically many members of ASUU also double as parents of undergraduate and postgraduate students. Worse still many members of ASUU are themselves research students whose academics and career progression have been put on hold, no thanks to the current strike. To that extent it can never be we versus them. All of us are involved in one way or the other. Students are the lifeblood of a university and the Faculty are there in loco parentis for the students. Anything that delays the students’ graduation is naturally a cause for worry. We hope for the best such that normalcy can return to our public university system before too long.
Recent Crisis in Nigerian Universities: The Case of A.U.T., Ibadan. Association of University Teachers, University of Ibadan 1973. Ibadan: Ororo Publications. 18 pp.
Nigerian University System Statistical Digest, 2019. Abuja: National Universities Commission. 545 pp.
*Prof. Olayinka served as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, 2015-2020.