Nigeria’s dangerous universities, politicians and education. By Chidi Amuta

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muhammadu-buhari-reflective3
President Muhammadu Buhari

Dr. Chidi Amuta is Executive Editor of USAfrica magazine (Houston) and USAfricaonline.com

Between the Federal Government and the organized trade union of Nigerian university teachers, ASUU, a familiar dance is about to resume. Few adult Nigerians can remember any length of time in the recent past when ASUU was not on strike. The last stretch coincided with the Covid-19 lockdown, making it harder to know what exactly kept the students marooned at home for so long. If news is the definition of momentous happenings worthy of public attention, I am not sure that anyone will call an ASUU strike or threats thereof news in any serious sense.

If the tradition of irrational obstinacy on both sides prevails as usual, the teachers may resume their paid vacation in the name of strike any time from now. I am not aware that they have lost even a single month’s pay during each of the many decades of their serial strikes. The pattern has become familiar. With each threat of strike, ASUU reactivates a litany of unfulfilled promises and violated agreements on the part of government.

As employers of university teachers in federal and state service, our governments have been less than responsible guarantors of public trust. By any known rules of employer-employee contracts, our public university teachers should have been fired en masse several times over and made to refund salaries received for work not done. Our governments play to the gallery about the arguably unreasonable demands of ASUU without admitting that the government side has been in the habit of reneging on nearly every agreement entered into with ASUU. Responsible governments do not trifle with agreements. But ASUU is dealing with governments led by Nigerian politicians, a unique breed of cavalier creatures.

The persistent blame tossing between the federal government and ASUU is not likely to end soon. It is an unwinnable war for many reasons. The governments may never find enough money to satisfy the ever expanding demands and entitlements of ASUU. Quite disturbingly, ASUU leadership has become something of a perpetual ‘profession’ in itself.  Some otherwise brilliant scholars have found it more profitable to be perpetual ASUU unionists than committed teachers and researchers. Ironically, between the politicians at the ministries of Labour and Education respectively and professional ASUU trade unionist professors,  endless televised negotiation sessions have become national theatre. A curious reversal of roles has taken place in the process. The perennial ASUU chieftains in their opportunistic appeals to public sentiments have been playing politics with the future careers of our students. On their part, the negotiating government officials seem to enjoy the photo opportunities and endless negotiations with ASUU so much that they are beginning to look more like the actual trade unionists themselves.

There is enough luggage of faults and blames on both sides. But government bears the greater burden. Being the employer of academics comes with extra requirements of candor and civility. Asking university teachers to literally queue up for their pay while the federal ministry of finance completes a centralized digitized centralized pay platform is an insult. It undermines the legal autonomy of individual universities.  Ordinarily, it is the bursary department of each university that should administer their respective staff salaries. Holding back arrears of sundry allowances due teachers for whatever reason is autocratic and insensitive. Moreover, habitually reneging on agreements reached with ASUU is reckless and irresponsible.

However, in the process of the perpetual ego ping pong between politicians and ASUU chieftains over the years, certain fundamental questions about our university sector have been raked up. It is only by asking these questions and seeking serious answers to them that we can hope to salvage our university system from the present rot.

Is a university a social service or a business enterprise? Or, better still, is a university teacher an executive in a business venture or a civil servant in a state charity or parastatal? What university tradition, of all existing models, is Nigeria following? Should university education be cost free to parents and students?

Deservedly, academics like all other skilled professionals and workers need to be adequately remunerated. This is even more imperative in a system that limits their options of employment to mostly the universities. Governments that insist on maintaining a regulatory and proprietorship stranglehold on public universities should match their monopolistic clutch by paying the teachers well. Politicians and parents who desire uninterrupted academic calendars and tranquility on the campuses should pocket their ego and stop treating intellectuals like mundane civil servants and glorified houseboys.

The long struggle between ASUU and our governments is rooted in a bit of confusion on both sides about precisely what university tradition Nigeria is following. The assumptions that inform ASUU’s endless labour struggles are rooted in an old Soviet style unitary university model. In that model, the universities belong to the government as public institutions. Higher education is an entitlement of all citizens who qualify. Hardly any fees are charged. University teachers are public servants and are equal irrespective of the depth of their research and the currency of their findings. They progress according to a unified pecking order, not necessarily according to research relevance or significant breakthroughs. A rigid government approved pay structure unites all academics irrespective of the profundity of their scholarship.

Politically, the public is indoctrinated into a certain sense of entitlement that tertiary education is the right of every citizen whether or not they can afford it. The whole approach of ASUU to issues of university funding and tuition fees is founded on this communist model. ASUU trade unionism is an offshoot of the communist era labour internationalism, an ideological remnant of the Cold War.

In this struggle for a utopian communist egalitarianism, ASUU teachers want to compete with politicians for lavish perks but insist on insulating the students from paying sensible fees that would make the public universities sustainable. ASUU unionist teachers and the more naïve students and their parents are stuck in a dead entitlement society culture.

New realities have emerged. Governments have run out of cash to fund higher education and pay the teachers. But government remains reluctant to cede ownership and control. It hands out appointments to university councils to all comers as political patronage. The office of Vice Chancellor has become another chieftaincy title in which extant selection criteria are often subordinated to the whims of powerful political influencers. External influence on the universities from Abuja and the state capitals stretches to contract awards, admissions, promotions, employment and staff tenure.

We are now in a sad place. Infrastructure in public universities have crumbled under the weight of student population explosion. The quality of available teaching manpower has been eroded and diluted by an unplanned expansion in the size of public universities. Dire economic conditions have forced an exodus of high caliber academic staff either abroad or lately to the many new private universities.

Tragically, the low fees and dilapidation in our public universities are yielding vast dividends of wrath. We are confronted with youth armed with cudgels, machetes and even AK 47s at every street corner or highway bend. Sophisticated campus cyber criminals, Yahoo Boys, ritual murderers, an epidemic of rape and suicides, cultists and a flowering of superstition on nearly all our public university campuses. The privileged children that we have sent abroad in the hope that they will return to form a new elite, born in Nigeria but bred and tutored abroad now return home to face the monsters that the hypocrisy and neglect of our elite have bred. On the average, most of Nigeria’s youngest and brightest are staying put in the West, adding to their bank of genius while deepening our development deficits.

Our lip service to modernity now finds a huge mocking bird at the gates of our public universities where there are endless festivals of the cultural traits of the Dark ages.  It is not only the government that has to be blamed on the descent into hell on our public university campuses. ASUU’s prolonged absence from its primary duty posts is a grave disservice to our youth in particular and the nation at large.

There is a way out. As against the persisting Soviet model university system, we are confronted with an alternative system. Since 1985/86, Nigeria has migrated into an imperfect free market system. This reality dictates a different university model which lies somewhere between the United States and the British models. The American model boasts of both private and public institutions. The classic private model is at its best in places like Harvard. For purposes of teaching, learning and research, Harvard boasts of some of the best faculty and facilities. This solid base is supported by a sound business model which ensures the sustainability of the infrastructure and resources required to keep the tradition of excellence running. But those who want to go to Harvard or send their children to study there must ensure that in addition to solid academic credentials, they can afford the hefty tuition and boarding costs.

Today, Harvard has an endowment surplus fund in excess of $53billion dollars; significantly more than Nigeria’s total external reserves as a nation. That fund is managed by a crop of some of the best Wall Street class investment experts. They do what they know how to do best in order to grow the wealth of the university while the academic leadership get on with the work of research, learning and teaching to sustain the tradition of excellence.

Some of America’s most successful public universities thrive on charging modest but sensible fees to ensure sustainability of systems and affordability of access. Their eyes are set on the models of academic excellence set by the Ivy League universities while conscious of their responsibility to a wider catchment population of students.  In both private and public institutions, the US university system lays emphasis on both academic excellence and system sustainability. The university teacher remains a disciple of the long established tradition of pursuit of learning and enlightenment. They are not perpetual trade unionists locked in relentless pitch battles against politicians and government bureaucrats.

Let us face it, the current list of token fees charged in Nigeria’s public universities is laughable. At today’s rates, it costs more to keep a kid in a private urban kindergarten in a term than it costs to keep an undergraduate in a Nigerian public university for a whole year. Similarly, it costs more to keep a teenager in a modest private secondary school in a year than it costs to pay for four years of public university education. We cannot expect to make the top ranks of universities in the world while no one wants to pay for the facilities and personnel required to compete in a world that is surging ahead.

We all appreciate the value of sound uninterrupted education for our children. That is why for the last 25 years, most of us -politicians, ASUU chieftains, senior government officials, big journalists etc. -have sent our university age children to some of the best institutions in the world while closing our eyes to the funding needs and the crying necessity for reform in our public universities at home.

We have been ready to pay an average of $50,000-$75,000 a year for undergraduate courses abroad to keep our children in choice American and European universities. Yet we advocate the retention of paltry token fees sometimes as low as N100,000 per student per annum for undergraduate studies in Nigerian public universities. These schools are now reserved for the children of the less privileged.

Only recently has a middle of the road option emerged. There are now a spiraling number of private universities. The rise of private universities in Nigeria is driven solely and exclusively by a profit motive. Nigerian entrepreneurs have seen the billions of dollars Nigerian parents are spending to send their children abroad and concluded that even a fraction of that amount would support a profitable sector. Nigeria now has a total of 79 private universities as against 43 federal and 48 state universities. Average tuition and accommodation costs in Nigerian private universities are between N1m and N1.5m, far much lower than the $50,000 average in American universities.

There is a disconnect between the current two penny public university and the practical realities of an open market economy and society. The free market means that the labour force being trained by our Soviet style university system will service the needs of a free market where labour and manpower are commodities with price tags. Profit and competition are the key words in this jungle.

Unfortunately, therefore, our public universities need to charge sensible fees to remain competitive and sustainable. Infrastructure needs to be maintained and expanded. Libraries and laboratories need new current stock of books and equipment. Staff need to be motivated to go out and compare notes with their colleagues in the rest of the world so that they can compete and excel. Admittedly, competitive fees and charges will strain the social fabric where poverty remains a limitation to high educational aspirations. The politics of inequality will stroll into education where it should not. But we need to initiate a series of innovations:

  • Indigent students can be helped. Bursaries, scholarships and grants from local, state and federal governments as we had in the 1970s and 80s would come in handy. For federal institutions, grants on the basis of student enrolment would be a more advisable option.
  • The defunct students loans scheme should not be revived to advance loans tied to bonds of service after graduation. Students that study with loans from government should serve the NYSC longer than others. The differential between their NYSC allowance and their market value as young graduates should be calculated as repayments for their students loans.
  • Universities should be encouraged to offer both real time and online degree programmes. The online option should be at a lower cost to ensure that the benefits of higher education reach the highest number of citizens.
  • Nationwide trade unionism among teachers in all public universities should be prohibited by a National Assembly legislation. The work of university teachers in public universities should be re-categorized as strategic national service on the same level as the armed and security services who cannot engage in trade unionism or collective bargaining.
  • Up to 50% of municipal and junior staff jobs in the public universities should be reserved for students who opt to participate in a work/study programme as janitors, cafeteria servers, part time cooks, gardeners, horticulturists, electricians, plumbers and drivers of campus buses.
  • University teachers salary scales should be partially deregulated. Teachers with more relevant research and whose work attract external grants, endowments and funding should earn more than those who do more routine teaching and research.
Nigeria's dangerous universities, politicians and education. By Chidi Amuta
Dr. Chidi Amuta

As a former university teacher and ASUU branch chairman, I have had time to reflect on the crisis in our university system. I have come up with an inconvenient conclusion: both ASUU and the government have been wrong all along.

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