The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) was founded in 1978 as an educational trade union to act as a collective pressure group on behalf of all public universities. This was in the heady days of the 1970’s when trade unions had enormous powers and held governments to ransom. We recall that it was the unions in the United Kingdom that brought down Edward Heath’s government in 1974.
Strikes have been a constant feature of ASUU accounting for about 30 percent of their total existence being lost to strikes which have greatly eroded the value of Nigerian education. A typical Nigerian student spends about six to seven years for a four year course. Most public school students know when they commence their studies but are clueless as to when they will graduate due to no fault of theirs due to the strikes.
No Nigerian public University is among the top one thousand in the world or even among the top twenty in the African continent. These educational institutions have been taken that to the gory days of the Dark ages where ignorance was rife. Intellectualism is on the brink of annihilation as many students simply don’t care about using education as a vehicle for change. How many students have a robust reading culture in Nigeria? How many can engage in an intelligent discourse on critical issues affecting the society and offering solutions for them?
I recall my undergraduate days at the University of Lagos over a decade ago when Nigeria’s leading Business Newspaper, BusinessDay sold its hardcover price to the students for fifty naira. In a class of about two hundred, only three students bought the paper and we were seen as weird for even purchasing it.
The latest strike commenced in March 2020 and lasted for about ten months. As usual it was over unpaid allowances and this time around it was about the 40 billion naira that the government owed the academic community for some years. ASUU also opposed the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System used in settling workers salaries by the FG and instead, developed the University Transparency and Accountability Solution which is currently undergoing test-run by the National Information Technology Development Agency.
The strikes have driven the best brains out of the academia to the comforting arms of North America, Europe and Asia. South Africa is even attracting our academic talents. Literary Critics cum Academic Giants like the late Professor Harry Garuba and Professor Kole Omotosho found succour there.
The second eleven as well as all manner of hustlers have tragically being attracted to the Ivory Tower which has been one of the factors largely responsible for its decline. How many public school academics engage in research? The global pandemic saw academics from the world’s leading universities working in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies to produce a vaccine in record time. Ours were left in the cold as they were busy bargaining with the clueless government for more remuneration for work not done. While other universities all over the globe are engaged in virtual learning so as not to lose any second in the academic calendar, our academics are not even in tune with this new era of learning. How many Nigerian academics in public universities are able to attract grants to their institutions? How many publish their papers in international journals? How many present papers abroad? How many do Sabbatical leave in reputable universities abroad? How many attract foreign students and academics to reflect diversity and inclusiveness? The rot no thanks to the frequent strikes is highly worrisome.
When former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, she accurately read the signs of the times in the world’s transition from the industrial to the information age and responded adequately. She reckoned that the government had no business in running businesses and it would be best left in the hands of the private sector. She did the unthinkable by breaking the back of the unions which once held Number 10 Downing Street to ransom and shifted the British economy from manufacturing to services which has attracted companies into the British Isles from all over the globe.
It is high time that the Nigerian government towed the same line as a gargantuan interventionist measure to rescue our battered universities. It should completely hands off the running of these institutions and transfer them to the hands of private individuals who will better run them. The world’s leading universities are not run by the government. Most of them — Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale etc were founded by religious institutions. The likes of Stanford, Vanderbilt etc were founded by wealthy individuals. They have huge endowment funds sourced via alumni contributions, tuition fees, grants, donations etc which is invested and managed by professional fund managers. These funds run into billions of dollars and are even more than the Gross Domestic Product of some countries. They are totally weaned off government dependence and are not forced to disrupt their academic calendar due to any form of strike.
Quality education anywhere in the world is expensive and the age-long aphorism that ‘If you think education is expensive try ignorance comes to play here.’ The role of the government should be in ensuring that there is the enabling environment for the creation of scholarships, financial aid, students loans which will greatly cushion the effect of the costly tuition fees and ensure that indigent but bright students can have quality education.
Nigerians will recall how chaotic services in the telecommunications sector were in the pre GSM era. It was so bad that former Senate President, David Mark said that telephones were not for the poor when he was the Minister for Communication under the administration of General Ibrahim Badamosi Babagida. Telephone owners lived in fear of the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) who were street tyrants as they disconnected telephone lines at will. Today, NITEL is defunct as they have been pushed out of the market by MTN, Airtel, Globacom and 9Mobile through fierce competition and the superiority of market forces. Their GSM arm, MTEL has long been rendered redundant. That is the beauty of a private sector led and driven economy.
The educational sector can follow suit which will lead to a permanent end to the needless strikes as it is high time that the government totally relinquished the control of the universities to the private sector. It is a huge shame that Nigerian graduates taught in English — our lingua franca are compelled to do The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or IELTS when applying to many schools abroad for their postgraduate studies. The socialist slant of many of our scholars is outdated as it is unsustainable for the government to continue to fund education in the 21st century.
The earlier the country’s educational public policy thrust shifted to a private sector led one, the better for us as a nation. Nigeria should not be left behind as the dynamics has since changed.
Tony Ademiluyi wrote from Lagos.