By Levi Obijiofor
The yearly contest of strength between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Federal Government is about to get underway. ASUU has already fired a warning shot signalling its intention to commence indefinite strike over failure by government to honour agreements reached with university teachers as far back as 2009. Despite tough talk by ASUU, government officials appear unaffected, unresponsive, and uninterested. It is an insensitive and dangerous way to stoke an industrial relations standoff.
A high level of contempt defines the troubled relationship between the government and university teachers. ASUU said it has been calling on the government to respect the accord that was intended to enhance quality university education but the government has so far slighted ASUU.. Why would a government that signed an agreement seven years ago to end industrial relations disputes with university teachers now behave like the three monkeys that opt to hear nothing, see nothing, and perceive nothing. We have seen this tension before. If things remain the way they are, this indifference by government officials might compel ASUU to drag its members out on a full blown open-ended strike.
From this point of view, it seems the National Universities Commission (NUC) and the Federal Education Ministry do not care much about the consequences of constant disruptions to university education.
ASUU is currently standing on a moral high ground because it has demonstrated many times that it had tried to get the government to respect the agreement it signed with ASUU in 2009. The behaviour of the Federal Government is offensive and that must be deemed an embarrassment. When two parties sign an agreement, it is mandatory that the signatories must respect the spirit and letters of that accord. So far, the government seems to be pretending not to have heard ASUU’s pleas.
When he addressed journalists late last month in Lagos, the Lagos zone coordinator of ASUU, Professor Olusoji Sowande, said the continued breach and non-implementation by government of the terms of an agreement it reached with ASUU in 2009 could very well be the trigger for an indefinite strike by university teachers. The issues have been dragging, he said. Sowande said apart from the government’s non-implementation and violation of many aspects of the agreement, other sore areas that constituted valid grounds for a strike included the non-adherence to the memorandum of understanding (MoU) pertaining to government funding of public universities, the contemptuous breach of the conditions of service of university teachers, and lack of progress in renegotiating the agreement that had lasted seven years.
Sowande said the 2009 accord between ASUU and the government provided for continuing review of the agreement after every three years. He said “the review of the agreement should have been undertaken in 2012 and 2015. The implication is that our union has shown enough patriotism and understanding on this matter in the last four years.” If this is the case, it must be concluded that ASUU members have been unusually patient for too long. It is perhaps for this reason that government has continued to thump its nose at the university teachers.
As an indication of the seriousness with which ASUU viewed the infractions committed by the government, Sowande said: “We are perplexed and disappointed that the federal and state governments are not responding to our consistent appeals for reason to bring about genuine transformation, driven by highly motivated human capital in the education sector… Embarking on strike has never been the favoured choice, given that our members feel and suffer the most during and after every strike. It is unfortunate that the only language government appears to respect and listens to is that of strike… In order to forestall this avoidable crisis, we appeal to all genuinely progressive individuals and groups to prevail on the Nigerian government to arrest a brewing and potentially combustible situation in the Nigerian university system before it degenerate into a serious conflagration. This is an ill-wind that portends negative effects for all.”
I would argue, as I did on previous occasions, that a government that signs an agreement with any organisation is morally and legally bound to abide by the terms and conditions of that accord. It is the hallmark of arrogance, insensitivity, executive conceit, and narrow-mindedness for the government to dishonour the agreement it approved.
For many years, academic activities in the nation’s universities have been disrupted owing to frequent standoff between ASUU and the Federal Government. Many parents have been forced by declining academic standards spawned by uncertainty of academic calendar to send their children overseas to receive what they consider to be the best university education available. These parents believe it is more worthwhile to invest in the education of their children in overseas tertiary education institutions rather than suffer the indignity of watching their children’s academic career tossed into the rubbish bin.
The systematic migration of Nigerian students to overseas universities reflects accurately on the collapse of university education in the country. It also reflects badly on the nation’s image. The quality of university education in Nigeria has been devalued immeasurably. Universities are poorly funded, as are primary and secondary schools. Polytechnics have not fared better. This has impacted adversely on the quality of teaching and research in universities.
The current situation is not surprising. The existing system does not encourage university teachers to undertake research and to publish in top-ranked peer-reviewed international journals. Under-funding of universities has also closed down opportunities that academic staff could have used to attend international and national conferences to exchange ideas, to network, and to expose themselves to emerging issues in the pedagogy of university education. These problems affect not only the quality of teaching and research but also the ability of academic staff to be competitive in the global marketplace of ideas.
The negative impact is all encompassing. Lack of funds does not encourage acquisition of state-of-the-art science laboratory equipment. It also precludes universities from hiring high quality academic and research staff. These problems undermine the integrity of university education, the reputation of public universities, teaching and research excellence, and the international profile of academic staff.
Over the years, the Federal Government, in concert with bumbling state governments, have exchanged angry words with ASUU over the best way to fund and support universities across the country. When public universities are shut down as a result of strike by university teachers, the biggest losers are usually undergraduate and postgraduate students and their parents.
The Federal Government cannot continue to treat with scorn the agreement it reached with ASUU years ago. If the government had been responsible or dependable, ASUU would not have organised a press conference to yell at federal officials, and to alert the nation that the government is being cheeky by abdicating its responsibility to fund universities, to improve decrepit infrastructure, and to resuscitate libraries that are filled with obsolete journals, and books. No one needs to remind a conscientious government to abide by the agreement it signed with ASUU. One lousy argument could be that President Muhammadu Buhari’s government did not sign the 2009 agreement with ASUU and therefore is not obligated to honour that agreement. That would be the most ludicrous argument to propose. Every government is obligated to fulfil the letters of an agreement signed by its predecessor.
If the Federal Government is playing hide-and-seek, it must be a kindergarten kind of game which has not served the interests of anyone — parents, university students, and academic staff of universities.
Everywhere you look, you will find things are not looking good. We have a government that knows best how to recite the melody of change. However, in villages and urban centres, ordinary men and women are buffeted by the deleterious and unbearable impact of an economy that has been in coma for more than a year. The promised change is not flowing through to anyone other than those who hold privileged positions.
President Buhari has told everyone that things will have to get nasty before they probably get better. We have to live in pain for an indefinite period before the economy can turn around for the better. Perhaps one day change will come. The message is that change may not happen overnight but it will happen. When that change finally arrives, it might transform public hospitals from their status as places where people go to die to medical institutions that really look after the sick. The much expected change could also transform our universities and polytechnics into academic centres of excellence. For now, we must live on hope, hope that things will get better, hope that all problems will disappear one day.
The collapse of university education is a national tragedy. Many public universities do not have well equipped libraries, well equipped science laboratories, decent lecture theatres, as well as respectable and well-maintained sporting grounds. While ASUU executives have been fighting for decades to avert the total collapse of university education and to restore the dignity that Nigerian universities lost over the years, the officials have been demonized, harassed, and humiliated. If ASUU executives are the persistent pests they have been made out to be, why is it that they have not been rejected or dumped by university academics they represent?
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