As you read this the universities in the country would have been shut down for one full month. On November 5, 2018, the Academic Staff of Universities Union, ASUU, embarked on an indefinite strike to press home their demands for increased funding of the institutions and other sundry issues.
Disruption of Academic programmes in universities has become more the norm than exception since 1993 when the varsities were shut down for almost an academic year which the system is yet to recover from as evident in the many batches of the NYSC reflecting the different calendars operated by universities.
The situation in our universities has become so unstable and unpredictable that Nigerians have completely lost faith in it and those who have the means simply send their children abroad, including west coast, or opt for the private varsities. Admission into the public varsities no longer guarantees graduation according to course tenure; it is when you graduate you graduate as either ASUU or NASU or NANS can easily disrupt the system and elongate any academic session.
According ASUU, the current action was a resumption of the one suspended in September last year over government’s failure to fulfill terms of the 2009 Agreement and subsequent Memoranda of Action (MoA). The MoA implementation was to infuse N200 billion yearly into universities to revitalise their facilities.
The strike started when talks between ASUU and the government negotiation team, headed by Dr. Wale Babalakin, broke down. The negotiating team led by Babalakin includes Prof. Olufemi Bamiro, Prof. Nimi Briggs, Mr Lawrence Mgbale and Prof. Munzali Jibrin. Their position is that the Federal Government could not afford to provide the N1 trillion the ASUU is demanding for the university system yearly, that is 26 percent of the budget, as recommended by UNESCO.
“It will difficult for the Federal Government to make available the sum of N1trillion every year to fund University Education, which is equal to 70 per cent of the total capital released for 2017. Currently, government was only able to fund 22.5 per cent of university needs.
The team proposed more scholarships to cover 30 per cent of students; while the 70 per cent, go through loan scheme provided by a proposed Education Bank providing an annual loan of N1 million to students to cover fees and other costs.
But ASUU rejected the idea of the Education Bank as a means to introduce tuition fees into public schools and further pauperise the people. From ASUU’s reaction, it is clear that they are not fighting for improvement in education but are using it to further their own interest. The issue of funding the varsities is so complex and delicate that holding inflexible positions will not produce any positive result.
It does not require a deep knowledge in economics and finance to understand that government cannot fund education adequately anymore. The UNESCO funding guidelines of 26 percent is definitely unattainable in Nigeria in the short and medium term. Government revenue simply cannot sustain it. For ASUU not to see this challenge is a disservice to the system and the country.
The idea of Education Bank funded student loan scheme sounds good but is fraught with several challenges in implementation. The immediate challenge is sustainability. In a country where unemployment rate is almost 20 percent, and standard of living is plunging as a result of the depreciating value of the naira, it will be hard to sustain.
Also the varsities cannot attract private funding to augment government provisions because of their inappropriate curriculum and course contents which have little or no relevance to the main street economy. Varsities are still enthralled in their ideologically and pedagogically obsolete education making their product virtually useless to society and their research unusable by industry.
Simply put, the varsity system needs a complete reform and reorientation to remain relevant to society. First the system should be categorized into two differentiate by the courses they offer. The idea of having the varsities offer the same courses and award the same degrees is unproductive.
Second, the curriculum should be adapted to the need of society and the economy by being more practical and problem solving than just academic; this will make them more useful. Third, the era of free public education is long gone and whatever is being done to sustain it is a lost battle. It is an idea whose time has come and cannot be delayed any further. The issue should be by what percentage and not if it should be introduce.
Finally, the issue of staff welfare and varsity funding should be separated; ASUU is being clever by half by merging them. Separating them makes it easier to address because more often than not, it is the welfare and pecuniary issues that are being pursued in the guise of general interest.
ASUU should realize that times change and we must change with the time; change is the only thing constant in life. The varsity system has a problem; but it is not the only problem affecting the country, though it is a serious and important one. The problem was not created today and the solutions cannot be provided overnight. So the issue demands compromise and creativity.