By Iyabo Lawal
Despite pleas by stakeholders and Nigerian students to end the strike, the National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Prof. Abiodun Ogunyemi, in this interview with IYABO LAWAL, insists that schools will remain shut until issues of members’ salaries and revitalisation are settled.
What is the update on the seven-month strike embarked on by university teachers?
Nothing has changed significantly. We have presented our issues. We started with five, and we now have six issues. These are revitalisaton of universities; renegotiation of 2009 agreement; visitation panels to universities; proliferation of universities, particularly by state governments and of course Earned Academic Allowances (EAA) of members.
The starting point is to say that those were outstanding issues from the memorandum of agreement signed with the government on February 7, 2019, which the government has not done anything significant to address. But since then, Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) has been elevated almost over and above these other issues earlier highlighted. Recall that it was as a result of that we engaged the government on developing an alternative to IPPIS; which we have since developed to an advanced stage. We have presented it to the minister of education and members of his team, the Senate President, and to a larger audience in the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation, where all major stakeholders were represented – Ministries of Labour and Unemployment; Education, Office of the Accountant-General itself, Finance and, of course, experts from the Nigeria Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), the body that regulates information technology development in the country.
We have done all those presentations and the general impression was that our alternative, called University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS), is superior to IPPIS. However, because of the need to fulfill the requirement of integrity test, we were expected to follow up on that.
We believed that with all that we have done, the government has no reason to withhold salaries of our members, which in some cases, are five months now, and in some other cases, as many as eight or nine months, including their EAA, salaries and check-off dues of our union. As long as they continue to withhold the salaries of our members, they are not paving way for smooth resolution of the crisis. We are at that point where we need to resolve the issue of mode of payment for what the government owes our members. We feel that some agents of the government could be doing this to escalate the crisis, even though the government has made promises about the five issues we raised, we are yet to see them activated.
With the prolonged strike by ASUU, there are fears that undergraduates may lose one academic year,; are you not bothered by that?
ASUU members have children in the public universities, but we want these children to know that the fight is in their interest. We want them to have the quality of education that some of us had. We can stand our ground, have robust debate about issues and we are rounded.
We keep telling these students that the quality of hostels we had in the 70s and 80s cannot be imagined. We had four students, maximum, at the time in a room, unlike now where you have 12 students or more. We don’t want to continue like that. For laboratories, whereas during our time, a student had a microscope to himself, today, there is no such thing. About four to six persons share one, where they have. The laboratories have no water, and sometimes are without electricity. The libraries don’t have books and we keep pretending that we are promoting 21st Century education. The ICT facilities that should have filled the gap, the government has failed to provide the needed fund. That is why we cannot effectively respond to the challenge of e-learning.
ASUU has been demanding the revitalisation of universities. What are those things required to achieve this objective?
In 2012, when the NEEDS assessment of 16 universities were carried out, after much pressure, the government came out to say that it agreed with N1.3 trillion to be released over a period of six years, starting with the sum of N200 million in 2013. That was the only tranche the government released, which was spread over five years. Since 2017, we have been saying that the government should go back to pay the balance or come up with a new schedule for paying the balance of N1.1 trillion. The best we have got from the government was the release of N25 billion, then N20 billion as a sign of commitment, which does not address the fundamental issues because the spirit behind the MoU of 2013, which the Federal Government signed with ASUU, was the need to massively inject funds into public universities, but there are problems in terms of facilities and human capacities, among others.
It is like treating education, particularly at that level, as an emergency issue. If you take something as an emergency, you would deploy all resources into it as witnessed in the case of COVID-19. By the time we saw the threat of the pandemic in concrete terms, all hands were on deck, and resources were mobilised.
That is the kind of thing we want to see in the education sector, not this tokenism. We are not begging. We are demanding that the government should fix our education because it is the catalyst for development. If you give our children low quality education, you are endangering the future of this country because they would come back into the system to destroy it, not necessarily physically, but intellectually and morally.
Because when you produce students who do not value rules and regulations, in the civil service for instance, who believed that they could cut corners because of the quality of education they have received, then we cannot guarantee the future of our country.
We are saying that in order not to endanger the future of Nigeria, poor education also kills and it is worse than pandemic because if you produce engineers that do not have the prerequisite skills, they would construct bridges that would consume all of us. If you produce doctors that are not well trained, they would forget surgical equipment in people’s bodies during operations. These are the kinds of things we want to prevent.
We need quality environment in our country that would give a competitive education as obtained in other parts of the world. That is the essence of pushing the government to address the issue of revitalisation as an emergency issue and give us a rescheduled plan of how they are going to inject the balance of about N1.1 trillion.
Successive governments have failed to increase budgetary allocations to education despite the UNESCO’s recommendation of 26 per cent. What percentage do you think the government should allocate to the sector to make it address the various gaps and meet current realities?
In November 2017, the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, gave a speech at an inter-ministerial retreat, where he said among the big eight countries, it is only Nigeria that allocates less than 20 per cent to education. Ghana, in the last 10 years, has not been allocating less than 20 per cent. The same thing in South Africa and Egypt. These three countries are where our children are trooping to for higher education, because they know they would get relatively more qualitative education.
Blaming ASUU for education tourism is an alibi; it is an escape route that people are looking for. The question is, have we addressed the problems in our educational system? If we fix our education, if the government keeps to its promises with ASUU and other staff unions, are we going to be having strikes? Why are we blaming citizens?
If you look at countries we called Asian Tigers —Malaysia, Tunisia and Singapore — what has elevated them is their education. In fact, Singapore does not have mineral resources, but their greatest resources are humans. The same thing with Japan.
With our population of 200 million people and 50 per cent youths, what are we doing to empower and give them qualitative education that can make them compete in knowledge economy? The global economy is driven by knowledge, the more we give our youths in the education sector, the greater their ability to compete and develop our country because human resources are the greatest assets of any nation; but it appears we have not come to that realisation. Until we realise that education is the driver of any development, we cannot fully appreciate the need to budget appropriately.
Once we invest in quality higher education, you train quality teachers, they will go down to the lower rung of the educational ladder to dispense knowledge, enhance curriculum and pedagogy. Until we get those things right, and make university education a crowning glory of educational development, we cannot get it right.
It appears strike is the only weapon used by ASUU to get government to listen, why?
There is no time we go on strike that we have not explored other options. If you are saying we should have written letters, sought the intervention of royal fathers and community leaders, religious leaders and the parliament, all those things we do.
We have been to the National Assembly, met with ministers of labour and education, all to no avail. When you do those things and the government does not act, tell me, what do we do? What ASUU believes is that we run a government that thrives on emergency because of our fire brigade orientation. It is only where there is a crisis that the Nigerian government gives attention and that is why each time you talk and consult, nothing comes out. We keep asking but we don’t get. As far as I know, we have conducted our research and come to that conclusion that it appears it is the language of strike the Federal Government understands. We don’t abuse it; we give long rope and do extensive consultations, but it is when all these struggles fail that we decide to embark on a strike.
How true is the claim that ASUU is militant in its approach to issues?
If academics don’t defend the academia, who would defend it? It is cheap blackmail because we have had workers in other sectors who gave up on their system and today, they are experiencing intractable challenges.
Let us look at the examples of primary and secondary schools. Time was in this country when people would say NUT was militant, after some time, they blackmailed them into surrendering, state governors clamped down on them and subdued them. Today, can those of us who went to public primary schools send our children to such schools? Or even public secondary schools? What does that tell us? We need to see a pattern here. If Nigerians don’t support ASUU and allow the union to be conquered as they did for primary and secondary school teachers, we will also have the challenge of resorting to private universities in another five or 10 years and that is what we are trying to prevent.
If Nigerians work with ASUU, we will restore the dignity of public universities, and by so doing, would also work for the restoration of public primary subsector.
Members of the ruling class are already creating an empire for themselves, and I see a situation in which the ruling class deliberately neglects public universities so that private institutions can thrive. If we are not discerning, if we cannot see through their tricks, a time will come that all of us would be paying through our noses to send our children to private universities. Are we going to allow that to happen? That is the challenge for us. If we allow what the ruling class did in the primary and secondary sub-sector to happen in tertiary sub-sector, we would all live to regret it.
We are doing what Nigerians should be doing so that our children would not blame us in the future. If we allow this trend to continue in the next 10 years, there will be no more public institutions.
How can we make the nation’s universities competitive and 21st Century compliant?
We have a document, the NEEDS assessment report of 2012. That is where to start. They have told us what we need to fix our universities in terms of infrastructure, administration and governance to make the institutions work better. If we start from there, we can scale up the process of intervention, recognising that TETFund is doing its little best, but it’s not enough. We can then go into the issue of budgeting.
The government should, however, look into the issue of proliferation of universities. It has not funded the existing ones, but creating new ones.
State governors that cannot manage one university are creating two, three; that is not doing any good because when you establish new universities, you would need more hands, facilities and resources, which the existing ones do not even have. How can you be establishing varsities that you don’t have plans to fund, staff or adequately equip for sustainable growth and development?
We have always said that we have what it takes to back our universities and project into their development, such that we do not just see growth in terms of number, but see growth in terms of quality. That is what we call qualitative development of our educational system.
When you talk of proliferation of universities, you need to consider the teeming applicants who yearly seek admissions but are denied, not because they are not qualified, but there are no facilities for their use?
Let the government expand the facilities in existing universities. There are universities in East Africa that have 300,000 students in different campuses and when you do that, you reduce the need to duplicate efforts. Universities are being turned to what you take back to your constituencies. The last time I went to the National Assembly, we heard that there were over 80 bills proposing new federal universities. Why do you need a university of transportation when you have department of transport management in almost all conventional universities? Why do we need universities of environmental sciences and agriculture when we have faculties of agriculture and environmental sciences in all the conventional universities?
We had to send a proposition to the Senate few weeks back because they were proposing another institution for Delta State, which already had three federal universities. By the time you do that, states will have no choice but to be up in arms demanding theirs. State governors are worse. In Ondo , three governors created three universities in three senatorial districts, but they have failed to adequately meet the basic things. At the end of the day, they would turn to the poor students to charge them fees.