Saving University Education In Nigeria
By Ahmad Sajoh
The six months old ASUU strike has definitely shocked the entire country and created an urgent need for a total paradigm shift in the manner we address issues of university education in Nigeria and even our policy thrust in the education sector. It is indeed simplistic to just trade blames when in reality the truth is that we all share in the blames.
There are a number of issues this writeup will try to address, not necessarily in order of importance but as either fallouts of the lingering strike or absolute imperative for finding a lasting solution to the crisis in our education system.
As the committee of Pro-Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors meet on Tuesday 6th August 2022, these issues and many more should engage their attention and all well-meaning stakeholders in the sector for us to save public university education in Nigeria.
It is important to note that in a country with very little safety nets for the weak and vulnerable, Public Universities are the only available options for children of ordinary citizens to acquire university education. With the current wide gap between the haves and the have-nots in the country, creating conditions that denies ordinary folks access to university education further widens the gap.
This widening gap is further exacerbated by the creation of hegemonies within the polity by the ruling elite. The ruling elite are busy constructing hegemonies where only their children and relatives get the best jobs and or leadership positions.
Under such circumstances, it is indeed totally wrong to create conditions that deny ordinary people access to education. This will further widen the social gap and reinforce the growing hegemony created by the ruling elite.
So, shutting down public universities at this point in time actually serves the purpose of making the privileged acquire more advantages within the social set up and making the less privileged to suffer greater disadvantages. All over the world concerns are being expressed about widening social gaps. One of the best ways to make a society prosperous and bridge this social gap is to expand access to quality education, not to narrow it further.
Nigeria has shown the world that knowledge and talents are sure ingredients for overcoming poverty. Almost all the rags to riches stories of Nigerians have elements that speak to the acquisition of knowledge as core to such success. Nigerian artistes are on top of many charts in the world because most of them are both educated and talented. A number of them are children of ordinary citizens who made great sacrifices to send them to school.
Therefore, closing down public universities for six months is indeed a disservice to all efforts to overcome poverty and close social gaps in the country.
The second subject of discussion is the issue of university autonomy. It appears the university unions have failed to push the vistas of university autonomy beyond the appointment of Vice-Chancellors, Deans and heads of departments. If our universities were indeed autonomous, then all university staff are supposed to be staff of the governing councils, not of government. And it is worth noting that both the academic staff and the other staff are by law represented on the governing councils.
The laws establishing our universities provide for representation on the governing councils by members of the Senate and Congregations of universities. If you add the Vice-Chancellors, Deputy Vice-Chancellors and Registrars you will discover that the staff of the University have a good representation on the councils.
I remember very well when I was a university staff, the government ordered my sack. The Vice-Chancellor refused to do so on account of the fact that I was a staff of the governing council not that of the government. My case was referred to the governing council and a committee of the council exonerated me of offences and I was saved. That, to me, is the beauty of university autonomy, which should go many steps further.
If that be the case, then why are university staff going on strike against the government over salary and welfare?
Another issue that creates bottlenecks in saving university education in Nigeria is the regimentation of our social lives. We crave for what we call “true federalism” but we promote unitary systems all over the place. Otherwise, why will all Nigerian universities operate the same systems?
Why will state universities join a strike occasioned by a dispute between staff of Federal Universities and the Federal Government?
Why will even all public universities in Nigeria operate a unified structure and system?
Why will lecturers even receive the same pay across the country?
Beyond adherence to standard regulatory frameworks, universities should operate innovative systems that distinguish them as autonomous entities.
Since there are differences in course contents, course durations and even admission requirements, why do we insist that pay regimes and welfare packages for all lecturers should be the same?
I believe it is necessary for our universities to be innovative and to do what is done in the world outside the campuses.
University education is meant to ignite intellect and creativity to create wealth. Our universities can be innovative by creating conditions that create centres of excellence in specific fields that can attract quality staff and students from all over the world.
In simple terms, each university should be unique in some specific areas. Parents and students should attend universities as a matter of choice that supports their aspirations not because they have no options.
Let us remember that universities produce graduates who are paid differently in the outside world. So, why put all lecturers on the same pay regime within the university?
Let the pay and welfare packages equally be incentives for higher productivity and excellence in the performance of academic staff.
Let them be reasons why quality faculty members are attracted from other countries. After all, one of the criteria for ranking universities is the diversity of faculty members.
Presently, there is a shortage of university lecturers in Nigeria, thus making it possible for lecturers to move from one university to another taking heavy workloads by working in two or three universities at the same time. This does not give room for both excellence and innovation.
There are minimums allowed for sabbaticals, visiting and external supervisions. But in Nigeria, academic staff go beyond all that. They serve in many universities at the same time.
On the part of the citizens, we have developed a huge sense of entitlement that is totally unsustainable.
How can we continue to demand that university education be subsidised perpetually even for those who can afford to pay for it?
People send their children to expensive primary and secondary schools but demand near free university education.
We send our children to low rated universities in Benin Republic, Togo and Ghana at very exorbitant costs. But in Nigeria, we want subsidy regimes that ensure that fees paid in our universities are ridiculously low and unsustainable. Why can’t we advocate for fair and just fees for quality university education and then institute a safety net for the indigent, weak and vulnerable?
That is a better option than maintaining a policy that literally ridicules university education in Nigeria.
One other issue that hampers the growth of the university system in Nigeria is lack of transparency and accountability in the running of the universities themselves.
Why are the unions in universities not asking for transparent regimes within the
Some mind boggling revelations by visitation panels call to question the honesty of university unions when they call for accountability on the part of the government. The unions are also often silent when students are humiliated by their colleagues.
Graduates of Nigerian universities often end up with very little knowledge, competence or even confidence due mostly to the humiliations they suffer in the hands of lecturers, underhand tactics used by others such as sorting, corruption or harassments and even hate filled approaches.
It is not uncommon to hear university lecturers say “A is for God; B is for me; so the highest you get in my class is C.” Are these practices done on account of low pay or poor welfare packages?
As unions and as stakeholders, why do we condone these practices within Nigerian university campuses?
Staff unions and all stakeholders within the system must address all forms of academic maleficence as necessary ingredients for the survival and greatness of the university system in Nigeria.
Should university lecturers be paid for the period they are on strike?
It depends on what the terms of the agreement should include. Will payment of accumulated salaries result in suspension of all holidays and leave of absence? Will it provide for extra time and make up for lost time? Will it allow the students to gain time lost through accelerated lectures and practicals? Will examinations be marked promptly? Will the senate approve and release results promptly?
These are all questions the lecturers must answer. Failure to do all of that is to ask for salary arrears without providing commensurate work arrears.
Every agreement reached must protect the students. Unfortunately, the students are the pawns on the chessboard of the striking lecturers. They need protection and be the reason any payment will be made, should it be made. Nothing less is acceptable.
Saving the university system in Nigeria requires courage, honesty of purpose and commitment by all concerned.
Government must review its policies. Excessive regimentation has retarded many sectors of our national lives.
We need more freedom to be unique and innovative. Our universities must be competitive world wide.
We need to charge sustainable fees and pay attractive wages.
University administrators must be transparent, accountable and innovative. Lecturers and their university staff must be honest and holistic in approaching issues. Parents must accept responsibility for the education of their children beyond demands for cheap fees. Reasonable safety nets should be provided for the weak, the indigent and the vulnerable. Students must be responsible and responsive. That is the real, the minimum requirement.
Ahmad Sajoh is a former Hon. Commissioner for Information and Strategy in Adamawa state and a public affairs commentator writes from 35 Oran Street, Wuse Zone 1 Abuja.