NO one single sentence can succinctly capture the rot that has progressively emasculated Nigeria’s education sector.
The dysfunction is exemplified in the current strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, which started on July 1 over funding dispute.
The industrial action has grounded activities in federal and state universities, sending undergraduates out of school for almost four months. For a leader who wants to leave a mark, the prolonged ASUU strike should be an opportunity for President Goodluck Jonathan to jump-start a serious discussion about the future of higher education in Nigeria.
Since the government and teachers have failed to agree, an emergency has to be declared so that the problem can be solved holistically.
There are two main issues arising from the Federal Government’s non-implementation of the 2009 agreement between the lecturers and the government that forced them (lecturers) to embark on their “total strike.”
The first is the non-payment of “earned allowances”, or overtime pay. ASUU has a N92 billion figure for this. Out of this, the government, claiming that it would go bankrupt if it had to meet all of ASUU’s demands, has provided N30 billion. ASUU however insists that the money has to be fully paid before lecturers can return to their teaching posts.
Should there be this kind of shameful hubbub in a nation that earned about N11 trillion in revenues in 2012? It shouldn’t if the two parties are focused.
Two, ASUU, seeing the degradation of hostel accommodation, libraries, laboratories and research in Nigerian universities, wants the government to fund infrastructure development with N400 billion. According to Nyesom Wike, the minister supervising the Education Ministry, the government has provided N100 billion, and has added another N100 billion sourced from the Tertiary Education Trust Fund. This leaves a balance of N200 billion, which, again, ASUU insists must be given before it calls off its strike.
But it is a fatal flaw for the lecturers to think that meeting the demands of ASUU will end the rot in the education system, and restore the sector to the halcyon days. No, it won’t. In fact, paying off the lecturers will only paper the deep cracks bedevilling the sector. This is not in the interest of the nation, and is certainly not good for the students and parents who have been calling on the government to end their ordeal. Meeting the lecturers’ demands will only cement the tarnished era producing half-baked, poorly-educated graduates who are not fit for the labour market.
The rot in the university system is deep. To be successful in their research and teaching missions, universities need to be able to take their own decisions, which only organisational, financial, staffing and academic autonomy can guarantee. But Nigerian public universities are run like an extension of a government agency. ASUU says circulars are emanating in most cases from the National Universities Commission, interfering in the day-to-day running of the universities. While governing councils of universities are dissolved at a drop of a hat, vice chancellors are reportedly summoned by SMS to come to Abuja.
Since 1999, when Nigeria returned to civil rule, lecturers have been on strike for a total of “30 months out of 156 months, or 20 per cent of the total time in the past 13 years,” according to TheScoop, an online publication. “This is an equivalent of six semesters or three academic sessions,” the publication added. The worst of the strikes lasted for six months between 2003 and 2004 when lecturers demanded that professors had to retire at the age of 70. But more than this, our whole education structure is in a shambles. From primary to secondary and tertiary levels, education in Nigeria has collapsed. Standards in universities are at historic lows, yet, private universities unjustifiably issue first class degrees to their products.
The problem is that there is so much corruption in the system. Universities not only mismanage the little funds being given to them, they also engage in unwholesome practices such as extortion and examination fraud. With wanton abandonment, they regularly admit more intakes than their carrying capacity, with a school like the University of Ibadan, which can carry only 12,000 students, having 40,000.
How to resolve the problem?
Our universities face a grim choice. First, declare a moratorium in the establishment of new public universities and review the guidelines for private ones.
The present number of 74 federal and state universities is unwieldy and the Federal Government is fooling itself that it can fund its own share.
As a matter of urgency, Abuja has to stop the 12 new federal universities it established with a grant of N1 billion each earlier this year. This is a political joke carried too far as it will worsen the funding crisis. As a nation, we have to come to the painful reality that it is time to declare an emergency in education that will lead to a total overhaul of the system. Infusions of more public money will not clear the rot. Ghana has gone this path before so it should not be seen as a bad proposition.
Academic excellence is the hallmark of university education, but it does not come cheap. Our universities’ overdependence on public funding is not neat enough.
State universities have to be separated from federal ones in the new system since their sources of income are not the same. While the Federal Government collects 52.68 per cent of public income, and states 26.72 per cent, it is unjust to subject the workers on the two platforms to the same reward system.
It should be noted that universities are not simply vocational institutions churning out graduates to meet the needs of the marketplace, and a degree is not merely a meal ticket. A well-educated citizenry is a benefit both to the individual and to the state. Our public universities need huge funds to repair decades of neglect.
Also, it is time to introduce tuition for university education, as painful as it seems. University education is expensive and those who desire it must be ready to pay, since the government cannot fund it wholly. The United Kingdom may raise its university tuition benchmark from £9,000 to £16,000 per session; undergraduates pay heavily in the United States though a level of subsidy and scholarships are provided by the state.
If we must put the knowledge economy at the heart of the nation’s development, the deception that goes with funding of our university education must end. We must set the compass in the right direction. While parasitic bureaucracies like the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board should be scrapped, the NUC, a creation of the military that has over-centralised the system, has to be overhauled
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