Fighting ASUU for the Soul of Public Universities

Fighting ASUU for the Soul of Public Universities

Oludayo Tade

After giving the Federal Government of Nigeria 14-month strike notice (December 2020 – February 14, 2021), the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) asked her members to stop teaching to force government to fund public universities and sign a renegotiated agreement. The six months roll-over strike changed to total and indefinite strike on August 29, 2022 when President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) jettisoned collective bargaining and handed over autocratic awards, all of which the promisee is to await its (un)likely inclusion in the 2023 budget by the promiser. Lecturers and public varsities are expected to wait till the end of first quarter of 2023 for the first item to get implemented. This is coming from a government with proven capacity to fail agreements. PMB failed to meet set timelines in the Memoradum of Action (MOA) signed with the Union on December 22, 2020. After the failure, then ASUU president, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi wrote the Chief of Staff to President Buhari on March, 3, 2021 to complain of how the office of Accountant General of the Federation was frustrating the Union. The Union warned that not meeting the MOA may stoke tension and threaten industrial harmony.

How did we get here and do Nigerians care where and how their children are taught? After the Goodluck Jonathan administration conducted the 2012 Needs Assessment which showed the rot in Nigeria’s public universities, federal government resolved to provide funds for the revitalization of the University system for six years totaling 1.3trillion naira. The amount is for revamping the universities and it is managed by university administration, not ASUU as government has been misinforming the public to believe. It was designed to be paid for six years: 2013 (200billion), 2014 (220billion), 2015 (220billion), 2016 (220billion), 2017 (220billion), 2018 (220billion). After the strike, the Jonathan administration released the first tranche of 200billion in 2013. Politics consumed 2014 and Universities got no revitalization funds. Since PMB came in 2015 (seven years), the administration has only released 50billion naira out of 220billion meant for 2014! PMB government claimed it cannot release 220billion once, and agreed with the Union that it should pay 55billion quarterly and end it in a year but this government failed again! The 50 billion that was paid was not even released once and it took strike threats for them to pay. The same government is now saying the balance of 170billion will be included in 2023 budget and implemented around May 2023.

ASUU gave government ample time to act but power intoxication would not let those in the corridors of power behave responsibly. The government which owes lecturers over eight years verified arrears of earned academic allowances is now saying the amount will be put in 2023 budget and will be paid after PMB leaves office in 2023. On this item alone, this government and the current National Assembly promised to put the earned academic allowances in the 2022 budget. They failed to do so.

With regards to the renegotiated agreements, government left democracy and came to the table with autocracy and expected the Union of intellectuals to be bullied into jettisoning collective bargaining. Government awarded salaries that will make a professor who has spent 10 years and above have additional N60,000 to the current miserable salary of a Nigerian professor of ten years and above (N416,000) which is not up to $1000. In 2009 when the agreement being renegotiated was signed, the value of what a professor earned was around $3000. The 2009 agreement detailed how ASUU sacrificed a better African average salary for a lower salary scale (Table II) based on the plea by government that the economy cannot support that competitive salary. The report says that “the Re-negotiation Committee noted that Nigerian University Academics represent the critical mass of scholars in the society, with the potential for transforming it. They, therefore, deserve unique condition of service that would motivate them, like the intellectuals in other parts of the world, to attain greater efficiency and effectiveness in service delivery with regard to teaching, research and community service, and thereby stem the brain drain. In line with this philosophy, the Re-negotiation Committee obtained information relating to the movement of Nigerian Academics to other African countries such as South Africa, Ghana, Botswana as well as developed countries. The figure in Table 1 relevant African average that is, the average remuneration of Academics in selected African Countries with which Nigeria potential or effectively competes for the recruitment of Academic Staff.” It was said that future negotiations of salaries would begin from Table 1. But now, Government is saying no to negotiations. You either take 60,000 or forget it. Even as bad as this autocratic imposition is, its implementation too will be next year after elections. Peace eludes a nation that elevates injustice as norm, it deprives them of development and breeds violence and corruption as a way of life.  

We complain that South African universities are doing better and want our universities to compete with them but we ‘support’ our politicians to fund their children’s education abroad with collective resources but blame ASUU who is fighting for the children of the masses to have access to publicly funded quality education. In Ugandan public varsities (as at 2021), Assistant Lecturer earned $1,631; Senior lecturer ($2,432), Associate Professor ($3,891) and Professor ($4,054) per month respectively. In University of South Africa, Junior lecturer earns (N10, 453, 326 – N17,427,663), Lecturer (N12,547,744-N20,910,248), Senior Lecturer (N16,272,983 – N27,891,819), Associate Professor (N20,224,232 – N32,564,902) and Professor (N22,325,844 – N37,209,741) per annum. This is reviewed periodically with other incentives. If you see a south African scholar in Nigeria universities, the fellow must be on externally funded fellowship. We cannot attract people from Africa with poverty wages we pay let alone those in global north.

I think Nigerians are happy that lecturers in polytechnic and colleges of education earn more than public university lecturers. Despite being poorly remunerated, public university lecturers teach more because not less than 80percent of those writing JAMB yearly prefer university education. Universities (and not polytechnic and colleges of education) are rated and ranked globally. Nigerians who think ASUU is fighting a wrong cause should no longer complain that Nigerian universities rank poorly globally. They should not blame the quality of graduates being churned out because they do not think there is need for revitalization of public universities. They are only interested in their wards passing through universities without the universe in the university passing through them. They should not think students trained in zoo-like conditions will behave like normal humans when they graduate. In fact, when such becomes political office holders, they will see no reason to invest in public education and the consequences will be further erosion of the universe in our universities using the words of renowned poet, Professor Niyi Osundare. Our best will leave as they have been doing and we will infest the ivory towers will politicians!

Professor Niyi Osundare’s valedictory lecture entitled “the Universe in the University: A Scholar-poet’s Look from Inside Out” provides response to those asking for commodification of public universities. According to him, “A University cannot be run like a money-spinning business or corporation and be expected to still retain the soul and sense of Academe. Harassed by budget cuts by a Nigerian government that pays little more than a lip service to education, our university is being forced to look for funds in every which way. While it must be admitted that some departments are in a better position to generate outside funds than others, any attempt to commodify education and commercialize the disciplines can only lead to further undermining of the universe in our university. Time, we realize that a university can never be run as a cost-effective corporation. There are simply certain forms of knowledge that cannot be judged on their market value. (Niyi Osundare, July 26, 2005)”.
I have taken time to provide insight into the ‘futuristic awards’ of the PMB government in relation to ASUU demands and from this, it is apparent that this government has met nothing. The government salvaged Aviation industry with millions of dollars without saying it will be put in 2023 budget. Education is our future. We cannot afford further decay beyond what it is. We cannot joke with the welfare of our lecturers. We won’t advance if we keep electing ‘Londoners’ who don’t believe in the country but poised to milk it. I will end this piece with the words of then opposition spokesman and now Minister of Information and culture, Lai Muhammed whose speeches then have now become ‘talk is cheap’. In 2013 (Daily Post, August 21, 2013), while reacting to ASUU strike, Lai said: “What we are saying is that if the Federal Government would reduce its profligacy and cut waste, there will be enough money to pay teachers in public universities, as well as fund research and upgrade infrastructure in such institutions. Hungry teachers can neither teach well nor carry out research. And poorly-taught students can neither excel nor propel their nation to great heights.”  Now in government, has his government reduced waste and cut profligacy? Has this government upgraded infrastructure and funded cutting edge researches? Is the government not asking lecturers to receive poverty wage and return to teach? Can poorly taught students excel and propel Nigeria development as being championed by this government? Ladies and gentlemen, let us support government to fight ASUU.

Dr Tade, a sociologist writes via [email protected]   

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Fighting ASUU for the Soul of Public Universities

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- Citizen Journalist, public Opinion Analyst Writer and Literary critic