Thursday, 24 November 2016

ASUU, strike and education future


Written by the Editorial Board of the Guardian Newspaper

Education, generally believed to have suffered some reverses in recent years received more bashing recently when the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) embarked on a one-week warning strike, which began on November 16, 2016. With reports of total compliance, academic activities were, therefore, paralysed in most public universities nationwide during the industrial action that ended yesterday.

This is worrisome in a country where strikes by academic and non-academic staff have become part of regular features in educational institutions at all levels. As education is the bedrock of development, the present situation demands an urgent effort by government and all stakeholders to fashion out a solution that will end the disruption to academic calendar all the time.

A few weeks back, students in polytechnics protested attempt to increase some charges. Just prior to the ASUU threat and strike, the non-academic staff union of the Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta (FUAA) directed its members to stay away from their duty posts.

From the nationwide protests of the 1980s till the present face-off, the issues have remained the same. Consistently, students have protested against inadequate accommodation, lack of water and electricity. Besides, they have been rejecting fees of one kind or the other. The academic staff had complained about inadequate teaching facilities, poor remuneration, inadequate lecturers and subsequent over-loading of available faculties. Specifically, ASUU members have been complaining that the 2009 Agreement on their welfare has not been fulfilled by government. Also, the government has not honoured the 2013 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on reforms in the universities and the pledge of N200 billion for infrastructure improvement over a period of five years. Additionally, the ASUU now demands removal of university funding from the Treasury Single Account (TSA) because they cite delays in release of funds on account of bureaucratic process.

Even before the present economic depression in the country, the root of the problems has been the insufficient funding of education resulting in inadequate resources and facilities for teaching and research. Recently, on a radio programme, the vice chancellor of a top federal university explained that the monthly electricity bill for his vast campus is N30 million and another N15 million for the teaching hospital. The institution has an annual subvention of N150 million from the Federal Government but not in one tranche. Electricity is just one item of expenditure. How is the university to meet all its financial obligations, considering that fees are pegged?

How much can the university generate as income from research, consultancy and diploma among other courses that are now under threat? Where would the university administrators find the funds to develop the manpower for the 21st century tertiary education? How will the administrators fund the academic culture of participating in workshops and conferences at home and abroad? Most of the public universities across the nation face the same dilemma.

In considering the feeder source for tertiary institutions,we have federal unity colleges. There are secondary schools of the armed forces. There are public schools under the administration of each state. The public secondary schools are poorly funded, with strict policy of not charging appropriate fees. Across the nation, there are private secondary schools of varying quality. There are some that cater to the children of the very rich; and they charge high fees. For years, educationists have decried the irony of having students from these high-cost secondary schools moving to public universities where they pay minimal fees. The parents of such pupils often opt for private universities or the institutions in other countries, near or far.

A similar pattern obtains with primary education. All across the nation, there is a consistent eyesore of dilapidated buildings where children are taught. Despite the requirements for their responsibility for secondary and primary education, the administrators of the local government areas stand aside, as directives and funding are handed down by the state government, with augmentation of intervention funds from the Federal Government. The latest of such taskforce approach is the Federal Government programme for feeding students in selected schools in each state. As with all such top-down programmes, sustenance is an issue.

What kind of demographics are we creating for the future in which graduates of high cost private universities at home and abroad are to live and work with others who attended public schools in which they learned with poor quality facilities? Are we not creating the disparities that will unavoidably fuel class envy, hatred and violence?

The challenges of funding education in Nigeria are so monumental that government must act fast, lest we should be the last in this age that education quality drives. We must determine the cost of offering functional training to each child at every level of education. We must ask how to find the required funds. As much as the goal of “free education” may be desirable, we must learn from history. When the government of Western Nigeria offered free universal primary education to all in 1955, the population was not as high as it is today.

There must be a stakeholder conference on the matrix of sources for funding education: appropriate fees and a system of scholarships by government, corporate bodies, communities, religious groups and others; such that every eligible student can study. Many eminent Nigerians are beneficiaries of such offers in their student days.

There is, therefore, no doubt that the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) members spoke for the nation when they stated unequivocally that public education should be given the attention it deserves. This is in the interest of the nation’s future and development.

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