ASUU: When is the next strike?

“The collapse of education is the collapse of the nation”

From the mid-1980s when most African countries wholeheartedly accepted the Brent Wood Institutions (BWI) prescription of their political and economic diagnosis, the entire continent sank in every human index. The most notable sectors are education, health and human services and or development.

Interestingly, these are the core sectors for any meaningful societal development. Most, if not all, African countries’ education sectors collapsed after BWI diagnosis and prescriptions of the mid-1980s. This was evident in the shabby ghost the continent’s universities and the education sector in general became.

African universities that used to employ the best of the best in the world of academia, and produced students that are the envy of each and every country and multinationals. But all slipped out of these universities as a result of the BWI prescription. The aftermath of this prescription left the continent’s universities with industrial action after industrial action by the academics, non-academic staff, and several students’ unrest all of which were alien to African universities.

Quality standard was the most crumbled area. The universities used to produce world class students, that can go to any Ivory tower not only to compete, but snatch away all available laurels to students. But today’s graduates of African universities are “unemployable” as mildly put by MTN Nigeria, one of the multinationals operating in Nigeria.

A retired Inspector General of Police (IGP) was quoted in one of the Nigerian dailies saying that, there was a time he met an applicant to the Nigeria Police Force, ASP (Assistant Superintendent of Police) recruitment. The applicant had a first class degree in English Language. He asked the applicant to just introduce himself in English, and assured him a slot in the recruitment, but the applicant couldn’t do just that!

The mice and cat game that has been going on between the federal government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, since early 1980s, came to its conclusion under the present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB), with the attempted proscription by the PMB’s administration of the union through the back door.

This is the one last straw that will befall the Nigerian university system and the entire education sector, as the university system is that which produces the needed and necessary manpower for secondary and primary schools, and the university itself. That is the reason the university system is referred to as the system that maintains itself by absorbing what it produces. Thus, if it produces good or bad eggs, it absorbs them! Alas, ordinary Nigerian citizenry don’t care! Why?

The recent order by the Appeal Court that the academic union should go back to class immediately is seen by many people as a victory for the federal government and a loss by the union. While it is not a loss for the union in the long run, it is a loss for ordinary Nigerian citizens and the nation’s ruling class. Right now, most ordinary citizens are more concerned about their children and wards returning to class. But they are not asking the questions of who will be teaching their children in the class, is he or she competent to do that? Is s/he provided with the basic teaching materials? Are the basic and minimum environments for the university in existence? All these and more other questions were not considered by the ordinary Nigerian. All they wanted was for their children to go back to class. They forget that even if their children graduated out of the four walls of a class, what would they be doing after that? Government jobs are not there, the private sector is not in existence, so, where are the jobs?

True, government alone cannot fund education. Thus, the question, why does the government not admitting to this? Why can the government not produce a blueprint to address the issue? Why has the public not been sincere in understanding the burden on government?

Technically, there are more questions than answers. The federal government created all these problems by not agreeing to reform the system at an appropriate time. For example, right now, each and every official from Abuja is talking about fintech (which is the trend globally), climate change, renewable energy, etc., one believes Nigeria wants to be part and parcel of the global village. But refusing to globalise its education system is the main cause of all these problems. The ruling elite believes the country cannot be isolated from the global phenomenon, but intentionally and deliberately isolating the country’s education sector.

The federal government should deliberately empower the polytechnic system. This should be done to address our peculiarities, rather than restricting the nomenclature of polytechnics. For example, the lecturers in polytechnics should have no barrier(s) with their counterparts in the universities. Polytechnics should also not be discriminated against on what programmes they should run.

Polytechnics should run medical, dental, nursing, ophthalmology, accounting, physiology, anatomy, physician assistant, law degrees, at all levels i.e., Bachelor, Master’s, and PhD, etc. These are all specialists which Nigeria is thirsty for, particularly in our rural communities. Thus, our polytechnics running these programmes at Bachelor and Master’s degrees level will have multiplier effects on our rural communities and the country in general. Also, by this, education will be brought closer to the rural communities, as well as helping in addressing our pressing challenges.

For example, the Polytechnic Institute of New York is running a doctorate (PhD) in nursing, medicine (with PhD in nanoscale science or engineering. See link below). The California State Polytechnic is running MS (which we call MSc in Nigeria) in biomedical engineering, ME (Master of Engineering). Tianjin Polytechnic in China is running Bachelor, Master’s, and PhD degrees in most fields.

Democratisation of our educational institutions is overdue. The current system was forced on us by the colonialists. Unfortunately, 62 years after, we cannot figure out that it wasn’t meant to address our peculiarities especially in the 21st century. Our policy makers really have a daunting task on their hands, though the task is simple and easy to do. The biggest problem is the Nigerian culture of our civil and public servants that will truncate anything they believe is a threat to the status quo.

In the process of democratising our education sector, the federal government should maintain only six federal universities, that is one in each geopolitical zone. These universities will be run with multiple campuses, and be more centered on postgraduate studies, i.e., Master’s and PhD degrees. Thus, they will be absorbing students from polytechnics. For example, in the Northwest, ABU will be the main university. BUK and UDUS will be its other campuses. In the Northcentral, University of Ilorin will be the main university, UniJos and FUT Minna, will be the other supporting campuses. In the South-south, University of Port Harcourt will be the main campus, Universities of Calabar and Uyo will be the supporting campuses. With these, the federal government will address the politics of who becomes VC, registrar, bursar etc., as well as saving a lot of running costs. This will also help in revitalising the standard of quality in our degrees and morality, ethics, and decency in our Ivory tower campuses.

We need to be ready and ask ourselves the hard and bitter question of when is the next ASUU strike? The gloomy forecasts of the global economy by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its sister, the World Bank, that the global economy is going to contract i.e., going into recession in 2023, may force ASUU back to strike in 2023. With the current economic situation in the country, government cannot honour an agreement with ASUU. So, one wonders how the government of tomorrow can honour the same agreement, with highly constrained economic conditions globally.

As always, Nigerian politicians are full-time shallow thinkers in the African continent. For over two decades since the coming of this fourth Republic, each president had his share of ASUU strikes, yet no sight of ending this destructive phenomenon. As Ali Dan Sarki said “Karamar Magana ta zama babba.” Meaning, “small issues became bigger.” No wonder the country is in the situation it is today. Because the ruling elite cannot think out of the box, how can the country move forward?

One major problem of our education sector, the university system or tertiary sector in particular, is that of isolating it from the globalisation of tertiary education. Nigeria is always claiming to be the giant of Africa, lots of international universities have study abroad partnerships with various universities in Egypt, Ghana, Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal, Kenya, etc., but no Nigerian university has this kind of partnership with any foreign universities! Why? I think ASUU will be in the best position to provide answer(s) to this question. Even within the African continent and ECOWAS sub-continent, Nigerian universities are not having students’ exchange with other universities. This is not for nothing but for low quality of Nigerian university products, and lack of learning infrastructure. Nigerian universities are the only universities world over that students have to go to the bush to ease themselves! This is both for male and female students. This is how bad Nigerian universities are lacking in basic amenities.

For a proper and lasting solution to industrial action in our education sector, particularly the tertiary sub-sector, all stakeholders must look into decentralisation of TETFUND, rather than the nonsensical institution we are having presently. TETFUND needs to be broken into segments. i.e., primary education, secondary education, tertiary education, manpower development and research and innovations. These should all be independent institutions.

The stakeholders should also think of invoking education tax in Nigeria. A system whereby every adult will be taxed on a yearly basis based on one’s annual personal income. With technology, it will be much easier to collect. For example, it will be easier to collect in collaboration with the telecom service providers in the country. Which means proper integration of NIN, BVN, and telephone numbers, whereby each citizen as well as resident of Nigeria will be entitled to one primary phone number for the rest of s/he life.

Thus, the ASUU vs Federal Government of Nigeria seems to be a booby trap for any incoming government. As the current government is too reluctant in address the matter in its favour (as we are in politicking season), for incoming administration, and for the Nigerian students and their agonised parents. Any candidate that emerges victorious at the 2023 presidential election will be faced with this delicate situation. Ignoring it (the ASUU issue) will be building, and extending a time bomb waiting to explode with the very sitting administration. Thus, what might save the situation is convening a comprehensive education stakeholders’ conference on addressing all our educational problems, not only the ASUU issue. Time will tell.

Abdullahi writes from Dallas, Texas, United States via [email protected]

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