Journalism in the service of society

ASUU strike: Gainers and losers – 3

“How many of our problems have they been able to solve? Universities and their ilk originated to solve problems; how well have ours fared in that regard? “

THE sore – and sour – point in relations between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Government of Nigeria is the funding of the public university system. ASUU considers the funding made available by the government as paltry and inadequate – and this has been so over the years; indeed, for decades and for time immemorial. Not only the universities or tertiary institutions alone have been thus affected but the entire tiers of the public educational system – primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Year-in, year-out, the funding made available for education has been grossly inadequate, falling far short of the threshold recommended by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In so doing, decay and decadence steadily crept upon the education sector and the evidence has been decrepit infrastructure, poor wages, lack of basic teaching tools and aids such as books, laboratories, modern tools and accessories, among others. Standards have fallen.

Frustration has set in. Our institutions of higher learning are no longer the icons and the toast of the international community that they used to be. Brains have drained from them. The steady inflow of foreign teachers and students that we witnessed in the past has ceased; in its place, the best and brightest of local resources have also voted with their feet, seeking greener pastures elsewhere. The pity of it is that the smaller African and other countries that used to look up to Nigeria are the very places our best brains and students now flee for succour. Education tourism, as this deplorable situation is now called, costs us billions of dollars in foreign exchange every year and the certificates that our children bring from many of such so-called overseas institutions of higher learning are most of the time not worth the paper on which they are printed. While it may be true to a certain extent that the pastures abroad are greener than those at home, the wilful and deliberate discrimination, loss of self-esteem and respect suffered abroad by our people more often than not take a shine off whatever they benefit from these foreign lands.

Visit our institutions of higher learning and cry for our beloved country! Hundreds of students crowd into lecture theatres meant for only 100; many of them peeping into the hall through the window, craning their necks and straining their ears to catch what the lecturer is saying. It is not only in “bush” primary and secondary schools that pupils and students sit on bare floors these days; they do also in our institutions of higher learning! Books and other learning instructions are outdated; laboratories lack equipment, chemicals and reagents. Practicals have become a thing of the past. Little wonder, then, that our students these days “cram and pour” to pass their exams and obtain a meal ticket.

Unfortunately, the “meals” are no longer available because jobs are now scarce to come by. In my own days in the university, few students stayed off-campus and most of them as evidence of status symbol but these days, only few students stay on campus while the majority stay off campus out of necessity. Facilities have not travelled at the same speed as enrolment. Apart from the cut-throat shylock-landlords that fleece students and their parents, the situation in the off-campus hostels I was opportune to visit was an apology, to say the least. In most of them, impressionistic boys and girls lived together face-me-I-face-you. In one of them, I saw half-naked girls and boys smoking hemp in broad daylight on the corridors of their hostel! Are we not breeding monsters if we say these are the leaders of tomorrow? The problem would have been somewhat tolerable if we had no choice; if the resources were not available to provide quality education and a conducive living environment for our students and pay living wages to their teachers.

The tragedy of our situation, however, is that we do have the resources but giving the pride of place to education has not been one of our priorities. Corruption and misplaced priorities have been our bane. The funds wasted on bottomless pits and veritable drain pipes such as the school feeding programme, trader money, fuel subsidy, the presidential fleet, legislooters and governors’ ubiquitous security votes, to mention but a few, are more than enough to give us one of the best educational systems in the whole world. The situation becomes more unbearable when we see our leaders ferry their own children to the best schools abroad – and they return to shove this down our throats with photographs of graduation ceremonies even at a time when our own children were locked out of school due to ASUU/FG intransigence. Our leaders are simply wicked, malicious, senseless and insensitive. They know how to give good and quality education to themselves and their own children but have denied the same to the children of the less privileged.

To be sure, I sought to find out how university education is funded elsewhere. In neighbouring Ghana, Higher education is funded through a combination of government grants, GETFund (like our own TETFund?), development partners, internally-generated revenue, and private sector support. Internally-generated funds include endowments, gifts, tuition, and fees. As higher education expanded in communist China, “funding shifted from a single funding channel that relies solely on the government to various funding channels. Of these, government funding and tuition together provide the largest share of revenue for higher public education”.

In another communist country, Cuba, “education is provided free of charge right from basic to higher education. The Ministry of Higher Education is responsible for providing funding to the higher learning institutions” Brazil adopts a mixed system of public and private funded universities. Public universities can be federally funded or financed by State governments. It is the same as we have here – public and private universities existing side-by-side but in Brazil, “the Federal Government takes primary responsibility for funding and managing postsecondary and tertiary education” In Japan, “all the operating costs of national universities are paid for by the central government through the national budget… To help defray expenses, students frequently work part-time or borrow money through the government-supported Japan Scholarship Association. Assistance also is offered by local governments, non-profit corporations, and other institutions” The United States also has a similar scholarship programme in support of indigent scholars. Recently, President Joe Biden announced he would cancel $10,000 on federal student loan debt for most borrowers, writing off billions of dollars in bad debts in this regard.

So, funding of public tertiary education is a potpourri of government funding, tuition, endowments, loans, scholarships/bursary awards, gifts, and internally-generated revenue by the institutions themselves. In the US, for instance, many of the Ivy League universities make more money from endowments and profits from their inventions than from government subventions. These sources of income are still relatively unknown and or untapped by our universities. For those of them that have newly set up endowments (like my own alma mater, Great Ife did in December 2021 under the leadership of the immediate past VC, Prof. Eyitope Ogunbodede), what they have garnered is still paltry. Some universities in the West are richer than many African countries put together.

We, too, can get there – but not with the way ASUU and the FG are going about it. While we may not expect the government of a rentier capitalist state like Nigeria to provide free and quality education to its citizenry, it should, at least, make commendable budgetary allocation to the sector. If it makes education a priority, it can be done. If it curbs wastages and corruption, resources will be available to find education. If it consistently increases budgetary allocation to the education sector, the rot will be cleared in no time. And a good way to start is to honour its agreement with ASUU by releasing the needed funds to revitalise our institutions of higher learning.

ASUU on its own must begin to look at the other sources of funding – payment of tuition inclusive. I read a statement by Prof. Chike Obi while I was a secondary school student; he said something like: the advanced countries of the world will not respect Africans or accept us as their equals until we begin to make scientific and other contributions to humanity. He said any fool can be a diplomat and babble at the United Nations but it takes something more innate to make as much as a minute contribution to human scientific advancement. What is the contribution of our egg-heads to scientific development here? What have they invented for the industry to develop and make money from?

How many of our problems have they been able to solve? Universities and their ilk originated to solve problems; how well have ours fared in that regard? Another issue ASUU must address is university autonomy. It is better now, unlike in times past when, by fiat, the FG imposed VCs on the universities. Now, the Senate and Council have a large measure of say in the choice of VCs but many academics have become like politicians who lobby, who bribe, who get diabolical just to become VC and who, once there, compromise with the powers-that-be to mismanage the resources of the universities. Few, these days, are upright academics who become VCs! Unfortunately, ASUU cannot wash itself clean of the myriad shenanigans that have turned the Ivory Tower, as the universities are called, upside down. Back from its eight-month-old strike, ASUU – and now CONUA and NAMDA, if they survive beyond the Muhammadu Buhari administration – has a lot of work to do in many very important and critical directions if they must salvage the university system from its mind-boggling deep rot. They must roll up their sleeves and work hard at it. No more strikes! NOW CONCLUDED!

Bolawole can be reached via [email protected] or 0807 552 5533

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