Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics President, Mr. Chibuzor Asomugba, in this interview with GBENRO ADEOYE,talks about the seven-month strike that has paralysed the polytechnic education system and how efforts to resolve it have come to nought
Do you feel disappointed that ASUP has been on strike for this long during the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, who was once a lecturer?
I believe that concerned Nigerians are really worried that this very unavoidable rupture has been allowed to deteriorate in the polytechnic sector. The disappointment does not necessarily have to do with the President having been a lecturer at some point, but with the fact that the government which owes the critical stakeholders in the sector the responsibility of providing qualitative education appears insensitive to their plight.
This is the seventh cummulative month of the strike and the aloofness of government to the situation is perplexing.
The Federal Government has said the modalities for the payment of the N20.4bn arrears of the new salary structure are delaying the payment, what are these modalities?
The supervising Minister of Education has talked about modalities which are delaying the release of the fund needed to settle the government’s indebtedness in arrears of the CONTISS 15 salary, but frankly speaking, we do not understand what exactly he means. Up till now, nobody has shown us evidence that such procedures have been initiated as regards the funding we are talking about. Perhaps only the ministry of education will be able to explain what these modalities are.
Why is it taking too long to reach a compromise on the modalities?
If we had a good grasp of these modalities, perhaps we would be able to understand why it is taking too long to reach a compromise, as you put it. Again you have to task the ministry for an explanation on this. As far as we are concerned, the issue of the arrears was supposed to have been concluded in July 2013. What we ought to be concluding now should be the outstanding 10 or so issues in the original list of demands, according to our schedule with the government before the suspension of the strike on July 17, 2013.
If government improves your funding, what are the key areas you plan to focus on?
The verification phase of the Needs Assessment of public polytechnics in Nigeria has just been concluded. The exact funding needs of each polytechnic will emerge with the final report. Principally, though, infrastructure, equipment and deepening personnel capacity will logically demand priority attention from the funding.
But the general public view is that polytechnic lecturers are always fighting for selfish reasons at the expense of their students’ education…
If there is one thing we have tried to prove with the present engagement, it is to correct the misconception that our agitations are usually fuelled by selfish motives. Even a cursory glance at the 13 issues we brought to the discussion table with the government will reveal that our agitation is not about the selfish benefits of our members. We are principally concerned about strengthening the legal and institutional framework of Nigeria’s polytechnics, enchanting the capacity of academic staff and shoring up the integrity of our certificates and graduates. When polytechnics get more funds, ASUP won’t collect the money. If the legal framework of the institutions is made stronger, will it not be to the benefit of the system itself? If the discrimination against polytechnic graduates is addressed, is it not the students that will benefit from it?
Many believe that past agitations have only benefitted the lecturers and that the current situation would not be different.
What the public should understand about ASUP is that the union is not a strike-prone union. This is the only instance when the union has engaged in any agitation lasting this long. Whenever the union had been stirred to agitation, the resultant benefits had been mostly for the system in terms of infrastructure, administration, respect, and of course, welfare. The thing is that the welfare content had always been trumpeted by government and the society because of the capital they make out of it.
The Education Minister, Mr. Nyeson Wike, once accused the union of prolonging the strike by not willing to shift grounds, are you unnecessarily prolonging the strike?
We believe the minister means well in his pronouncements on the strike, which may be in obvious contrast to the understanding of the union. In fairness to him, he joined the fray midway after the former minister had left the scene. Anybody who had been there from the beginning would know that at the outset, there were 13 issues from which government opted to choose four which it could resolve in two weeks. That was as far as ASUP was willing to bend backward and get the strike resolved. It took government six months to address even one of the four issues. Meanwhile, the other seven odd issues are still not addressed.
For instance, the minister said that most of your demands had already been met.
As I pointed out earlier, the minister could make statements based on the brief he had been given. But judge it yourself. Out of 13 issues, only about two can be said to have been addressed reasonably satisfactorily. Now does that by any calculation amount to ‘most?’
What are the contentious issues delaying the resumption of your members?
The issues that have not been addressed include the removal of the labour market dichotomy against polytechnic graduates, the renegotiation of the 2009 FGN/ASUP Agreement, the review of the Federal Polytechnics Act, the release of the White Paper on the Visitation Panel to Federal Polytechnics, the implementation and funding of the CONTISS 15 Salary Structure, the establishment of a National Polytechnics Commission, a comprehensive funding portfolio for Nigeria’s polytechnics, the reversal of the decay in most state polytechnics, etc. As a union which operates on honour, ASUP is still willing to keep its part of the bargain once government fulfils its own obligation.
Why did the union reduce its demands from 13 to four?
The union did not reduce its demands from 13 to four. Indeed it is noteworthy that in the intervening period, some other developments which demand a place in the negotiation have arisen. Let me explain the genesis of this misconception of our demands being reduced to four. When the Joint Committee on Education of the National Assembly intervened in the dispute, it came to a point where all the parties agreed that what was most urgent was to re-open the schools. In order to achieve this, government offered to choose issues it could resolve in the short term and without much complication. In return, ASUP was to suspend the strike while the remaining nine issues would be taken up gradually. While government asked for two weeks to resolve those four issues, ASUP opted to give government one month. While ASUP kept faith with this understanding and promptly suspended the strike on July 17, 2013, government failed to honour its own part of the bargain and did not address any of the selected issues until October 4, 2013 when the union resumed the action.
Why did the union also remove HND/Bsc. dichotomy/discrimination issue from its four key items since the minister said it was a joint decision?
The union did not remove the dichotomy against polytechnic graduates from its list of demands. It is most uncharitable for anyone to even insinuate that. It took the union a long time to come up with its list of demands and the removal of the dichotomy has always been and remains a core demand of the union. Indeed, ASUP is bold enough to say that if other stakeholders in the subsector had taken this matter of dichotomy as seriously and diligently as it has done, the results should have come faster. And as I explained before, the issues that were slated for immediate resolution as of July 2013, were selected by government. We acceded then because we believed we were dealing with an honourable system.
Is strike not an over-used option by lecturers in this country?
Who has overused strike? Tell me, who has overused strike? When was the last time you heard ASUP went on strike? ASUP has no penchant for embarking on strikes, and this should be noted.
Are your members under any threat to resume work?
I do not know of any threats to our members from any quarters to resume work. Undeniably, there have been tremendous pressure on our members to review the strike. This is expected, though.
Is any of your children affected by the strike?
All students of the polytechnics are my children and they are affected by the strike. And, if you must know, it is a very debilitating experience.
Aren’t you worried that some of your students have resorted to crime and other vices because they have been made idle by the strike?
If it is proved, as is readily alleged, that there is a direct correlation between the engagement and a noticeable upsurge in crime and other vices, then that should worry everybody. But then, must government wait for an upsurge in crime before it can take the polytechnic sector seriously? It is an escapist blackmail to relate the strike to any upsurge in crime. After all, the strike is a temporary thing and will soon lapse. We should be looking at the larger picture of the fate of these polytechnic graduates who are faced with not just a bleak future of joblessness, but of a debilitating disdain for their competences in the labour market. We should be bothered that our polytechnics are not funded and equipped to provide the students with marketable, functional skills.
What do you think about employers of labour who complain that most of your graduates are unemployable and that some are even unable to write application letters?
It is not enough to look at the indices of falling education standards and lamely complain. The institutionalised extinction of public education in the country should call all Nigerians to action. It should worry Nigerians. The academics in the tertiary sector are taking action from a particular perspective and all the support they get from the government and the Nigerian populace is criticism and condemnation. Focused democratic economies are placing education at the peak of budgetary considerations. In Nigeria, our policy makers and executors appear not to give a hoot. The rot in the education sector is not a tertiary phenomenon; it starts from the basic to the secondary. If we are going to start producing graduates who can write application letters, we must take a sacrificial look at basic and secondary education in Nigeria. How can we have strong, basic and secondary instruction when scant attention is paid to the colleges of education where the teachers for the basic level are supposed to be produced? There is a systemic rupture which has taken root and deteriorated over time. A radically extensive overhaul is what is required urgently. The strike in the polytechnics at this time is a cry of desperation to stem the tide of producing ‘unemployable’ graduates. We must not sentimentalise it at all.
In other climes, polytechnic education is well respected, but it’s looked down on in Nigeria, particularly in comparison with university education, does this have to do with the quality of your lecturers?
The disdain for polytechnic education in Nigeria has nothing to do with the quality of lecturers in the polytechnics. I can confidently say that the lecturers in polytechnics possess the requisite qualifications to produce graduates at HND and BTech levels. You will be amazed at the depth of academic personnel in our polytechnics. This is despite the programmed brain flight to the university sector which has tended to undermine a consolidation of intellectualism in the subsector.
So what do you think is the cause of the discrimination?
It is rather the consequence of a structured policy and psychological programme profiled in the aggregate mentality of the Nigerian nation. The concept of polytechnic education in Nigeria was at the outset left in the hands of persons who had entrenched biases and empire building agenda in mind. They were mostly university persons who set about their assignment with the mindset of creating a system which must not in any way be made to compare with the university. If they had adopted and adapted global paradigms, they would have been able to fashion a parallel system, an aptitude, skills-based alternative to liberal, theoretical university education.
What is the union doing to tackle the discrimination issue?
ASUP has not wasted any opportunity that came its way to demand a restructuring of the existing system. The present engagement is a culmination of all our frustrations at having been rebuffed on several occasions by government and bureaucracy. We are not deterred, however, knowing that the removal of this dichotomy will be to the overall benefit of the nation.
Are you disappointed that government negotiated with ASUU without meeting the ASUP demands?
Of course, without taking anything away from the authenticity and validity of our sister union, ASUU’s ‘good fortune,’ we are shocked that government would always adopt a divisive approach to resolving issues in the tertiary education sector. ASUU resumed their long suspended strike three months into ASUP’s action, but government has since addressed the present grievances of ASUU, but has chosen to remain impervious to ASUP’s agitation. It is easy to interpret this as part of the grand conspiracy to profile polytechnic education as substandard.
Your demands are similar to those of ASUU, do you have the same challenges?
Without intending to reduce this to an interaction with our respected sister union, ASUU, it stands to reason that the subsectors in the tertiary education sector necessarily share similar structures, and therefore, similar challenges. In the main, yes, we share similar challenges as ASUU. The agitation of both unions is to salvage the deterioration in tertiary education.
Does the union have any reservation with JAMB’s method of conducting UTME?
We do not have disputable differences with JAMB’s present method of conducting the UTME. What we are at variance with is the institutionalisation of discriminatory cut-off marks and admission deadlines.
Do you have a disciplinary committee to deal with lecturers found to be sleeping with or collecting money from students for marks?
ASUP has internal mechanisms entrenched in our constitution for dealing with members found culpable for acts bordering on moral decadence. The principal instruments of sanction though, are the staff manuals and other disciplinary procedures which are statutorily germane to and entrenched in the administration of our polytechnics. ASUP partners very closely with our individual managements to ensure that academic service is delivered in an atmosphere devoid of exploitation, intimidation and harassment of any kind.
Assess the quality of lecturers in Nigerian polytechnics
While we still have a lot of room for improvement, I will say that lecturers in Nigerian polytechnics are duly qualified and capable of producing graduates at the level we are doing presently. Of course, there are challenges of limited spaces for post-graduate training, inadequate number of lecturers, inadequate funding and lack of enabling internal and external environment. Government has put up a commendable initiative in TETFUND which has appreciably addressed some of these challenges. The private sector, especially the industries, should also move up the ladder to meet some of these expectations.
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