FG, ASUU and precarious university education

PHOTO: bellanaija.com

The relative peace currently prevailing in the country’s public university system appears to be under some serious threat. The frequency of strikes by the various unions, namely the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, and the Joint Action Committee, JAC, comprising the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities, SSANU, the Non-Academic Staff Union, NASU, and the National Association of Academic Technologists, NAAT, have over the years jeopardised the efficient running of the country’s public university education with adverse consequences for quality of its graduates and the regularity of the school calendars among others.

In fact, the system has been known more for the periodic strike actions by the various unions. Currently, the university system is beleaguered by different perspectives on the very critical issue of payment of appropriate tuition fees, which is at the very heart of its survival and contribution to national development.

At the recent National Executive Council (NEC) meeting of ASUU held at the University of Calabar early in August 2018, a retinue of issues that bordered on the implementation of the 2009 Federal Government (FG) / ASUU agreement, its renegotiation, university funding, release of agreed payment of arrears of salary shortfalls among others were discussed. The union, at the meeting expressed shock at the lack of commitment by the Federal Government in relation to the 2017 Memorandum of Action (MOA), which led to the suspension of the 2017 industrial action.

Consequently, ASUU rejected the proposal from government regarding the evaluation of other possible sources of funding university education in Nigeria. Specifically, the union rejected the government’s proposal to charge about N350,000 as tuition fees in Nigeria’s public universities as well as the establishment of an education bank and a student loan scheme. ASUU, in taking this position claims it believes that education is a public good and thus considers the proposal for an education bank and students’ loan scheme a deliberate effort to commercialise public universities and thus “deny the children of poor Nigerians access to university education.” According to ASUU, “education is a right and not a privilege of every Nigerian child,” and thus the tuition scheme is a ploy by the Federal Government to incentivise the establishment of private universities in the country. Following from the ASUU August NEC meeting, various zonal coordinators of the union across the country, from Calabar to Bauchi, Ibadan and elsewhere have been addressing the media on these issues and threatening a mobilisation of members across the country for a strike action.

This is a defining moment for the country. And this newspaper believes that education, the point at issue, in this connection, should not be trifled with. And so, the Federal Government and ASUU should have some constructive engagement with all the stakeholders, especially parents and the organised private sector. They need to understand all the points at issue – to buy in.

In evaluating the unfolding issues regarding public education in Nigeria, it is compelling to bring out some facts on this seemingly contentious issue. First, it should be noted that no government, across the globe owes anybody university education. It is not a public good, as ASUU claims. In actual fact, university education is a luxury good, using the parlance of public sector economics. The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria does not assign any role for government regarding university education.

What is generally considered a right for all citizens is the provision of basic education, which covers the first nine years of education comprising the primary and junior secondary levels. In this regard, ASUU needs to re-educate itself on this basic fact, as it is currently going overboard on this issue. It should check the provisions of the 1999 Constitution in this regard. Must everybody acquire university education? No law says the citizens should be educated up to the university level. There is no need to be fastidious about this thing called university education at the expense of weightier matters at this juncture.

Did Bill Gates, the American multibillionaire and a software guru, acquire university education? There are other more successful giants who are making billions in this age of the big data who are generally regarded as fulfilled. Second, if education has to be well funded, there’s no way the various stakeholders, the unions, students, parents and governments, among others, can run away from payment of reasonable fees. There are variations across disciplines – in the Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences, Medical Sciences and Engineering among others, in determining how much it costs to keep a student in school for one year. Available data suggests that providing university education for the various categories of students far exceed the costs currently being charged. The question then arises as to who pays for the variation in costs? How does ASUU determine the appropriate fees for these various disciplines? Answers to these questions must not be allowed to blow in the wind again.

It can be recalled that the military regimes helped to exacerbate this problem. It was the Murtala Mohammed regime that popularised the concept of free education, at the federal level and the consequences of that action are still bedevilling the system till date. At the moment, federal universities operate as extra-ministerial departments of government with all the encumbrances of unnecessary bureaucracies of the larger public sector, which also add to the costs of public education. One basic fact in life is that people hardly value what they don’t pay for.

Another way out of the public tertiary education quagmire is the entrenchment of university autonomy in its governance. Though this has been implemented, its application is limited in scope, as the universities still depend on government support for their sustenance. No doubt, institutional university autonomy is critical to the efficient running of the universities. Autonomy will give the universities the latitude to do things the way it chooses to achieve results. It will enable Nigerian universities to run the way they are run in places where they are functioning well.

On the issue of education banks, bursaries, scholarships and loans, these are means of catering for brilliant but indigent students to ensure they also acquire tertiary education despite their poor family backgrounds. In other jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom, student loans have repayment periods of up to 30 years, making it quite convenient for indigent students and families. One wonders why ASUU is having problems with that.

ASUU needs to “re-invent itself” and put on a new pair of glasses and thus accept the stark reality that paying of reasonable school fees will help to sustain the system – that is derelict. The luxuries of university education in the 1970s and 1980s cannot be sustained now. The public universities should be free to charge appropriate fees to maintain its operations, with focus placed on tuition fees and not hostel accommodation.

However, since appropriate fees may tend to create elitism, government should be able to bridge the gap for poor members of society given that the current state of the economy for most families may not be able to sustain high fees.

There is the need for a gradual disengagement from the status quo in Nigeria’s public tertiary education system, which simply cannot be sustained. The various stakeholders need to contribute to the entrenchment of quality and stability in the public education system.

In the same vein, governments must be accountable in their management of public resources, to avoid giving the unions the impression of abundance of money in the public coffers and thus exacerbating the instability in the system. Parents also would need to show responsibility in respect of the education of their children and wards in the public universities. Why is it that parents pay so much for primary and secondary education but are shy of paying moderately for tertiary education?

That does not lead to the enhancement of the public good. Nigeria has to determine the kind of universities it wants. The situation has not always been like this. With the growing demand for public resources by other sectors of the economy, it is obvious that the status quo cannot be maintained.

First, government may need to stop opening new public universities. Second, some federal universities may need to be merged with some ceded to state governments and consortia, among others. As a matter of fact, the regional universities of the 1960s and 1970s were doing very well before they were taken over by the Federal Government. Third, government should cut down on wastages through corruption and the high cost of maintaining the bureaucracy. For example, the ratio of academic to non-academic staff needs to be revisited. This does not follow global best practice. There’s the need to drastically reduce the number of the many redundant non-academic staff in the system, as is the case in other jurisdictions where the system is operating efficiently. Fourth, government, on its part, needs to take the education sector more seriously.

For example, earlier in the year, the Federal Government said it would declare a state of emergency in the education sector. To date, this is yet to be done. The actions and inactions of government in relation to honouring agreements, making significant investment in the education sector and placing adequate focus on the sector’s development are part of the factors fuelling the crisis in the sector.

All hands need to be on deck: government, the unions, parents, students and others need to work towards the development of a tertiary education sector. Only quality at that level of education can trigger country and global competiveness we would all be proud of!

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