When the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, embarked on a national strike on July 1, 2013 due to the refusal of Federal Government to implement the 2009 agreement it signed with the union which had several components, including adequate funding of education sector, Nigerians feared another long winter for their children forced to return home.
Strike by lecturers in public universities has become a normal trend every two years. The nation is accustomed to disrupted academic sessions that at times linger on for about six months.
To have an uninterrupted academic calendar in the university system is abnormal. So the strike factor is usually built into the calendar. An academic programme scheduled for three or four years, could last for seven years.
The blame for this can rightly be placed at the door step of the Federal Government, fond of breaching negotiated agreements reached with ASUU. There is the question of failed leadership, corruption, show of insincerity and lack of commitment to agreements; knowing that any breach would lead to shutting down of the universities by a frustrated union which feels government is unwilling to develop education in the country. The government is yet to understand that any refusal to honour agreement freely signed without duress tantamounts to a breach of contract, actionable in law.
Already, the public university system is in decadence in all ramifications. Most of the over 30 Federal and 36 State universities are in bad condition. Physical infrastructure for teaching and learning are grossly inadequate, dilapidated and over stretched. The laboratories and workshops are obsolete, poor furnishings, poor power and water supply, outdated equipment, crowded hostels and unhygienic living conditions.
Many of the universities don't have video conferencing facility, only a fraction have or use interactive white boards. Many are without public address systems in their lecture rooms, while none of the universities had fully automated library resources.
Apart from all these inadequacies, it has been found in a Federal Ministry of Education Report, that many of the universities are grossly understaffed, relying mainly on part-time and visiting lecturers, with several under-qualified academic staff, lacking effective staff development programmes. Recently, the National Universities Commission (NUC) came out with a directive that all university lecturers must possess Ph. D degrees within a given time or lose their appointments. Only about 43% of academic staff in the university system have doctorate degrees, the remaining 57% don't.
According to the report, there are 37,504 lecturers in public universities, but only 28,128 (about 75%) are engaged on full time basis, the rest 25% are either part-time, visiting, on sabbatical or on contract.
Against this sordid scenario, one can understand the struggle of ASUU to reform and transform public universities to meet with the standards obtainable in other climes.
Our leaders are not ready to embark of this transformation because they are not committed to proper and adequate funding of education of which UNESCO recommended 26% of national budget. But Nigeria allocates less than 10% of her budget to education which is even among the lowest in Africa. Yet this nation can do better.
People in government and politicians are quick to send their children to UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Ukrain, Russia, and even nearby Ghana, Togo, Benin for university education. Because of their ill-gotten wealth, they can patronise expensive private institutions, rather than increase funding to upgrade public schools at home.
Dr. Nasir Fagge, ASUU National President, had explained that the strike was not just to reposition the education sector, particularly the university system, but to salvage our country. He said ASUU was determined to prosecute the strike to its logical conclusion, and that the implementation of the agreement was a cardinal issue that must be accomplished by the union as this would transform the country's university system. Government offered a paltry N100 billion for infrastructure, and N30 billion for earned allowances, a far cry from N87 billion demanded.
On accepting the offer of N30 billion and going back to class while reaching agreement on when the next installments will be paid, Fagge rejected this, saying, "We had made that mistake before whereby only the salary component of the agreement was singled out and so we can not afford to make such a mistake again. Until the whole agreement is fully implemented, we are not going to call off this strike."
Over N500 billion is needed for infrastructure upgrade.
President Goodluck Jonathan and other eminent Nigerians had appealed to ASUU to take the N30 billion offer by government and return to classroom.
The union had demanded for N87 billion (not N92 billion) in extra allowances translated as excess work load, high carriage of students per lecturer, responsibility allowance which included supervision of academic projects for final-year students, Masters, Ph.D theses, course advice, administrative duties as heads of departments, deans of faculties, hall masters, etc.
Because of inadequate staffing, the work load had been heavy with one lecturer to 200, or even 300 students.
Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, in stating the government position had said the money - N92 billion according to her, which ASUU was demanding (but refuted by the union to be actually N87bn) was not only unrealistic, but also not within the reach of the Federal Government.
Her words at a 2-day conference of Commissioners of Finance and Accountants-General of States Ministries of Finance held in Minna, Niger State. "At present, ASUU wants the government to pay N92 billion in extra allowances when resources are not there and when we are working to integrate past increases in pensions. We need to make choices in this country as we are getting to the stage where recurrent expenditures take the bulk of our resources and people get paid but can do no work."
Series of deadlock had characterised meetings between ASUU leaders and the Federal Government Team lead by Governor Suswam of Benue State to resolve the crisis and pave way for lecturers to return back to work.
Mr. James Bidemi, a Senior Management staff in a public university, commended the ASUU action which seemed good and appropriate, but cautioned if the dispute is not resolved, it could destroy university education in the country. He called for state of emergency on education.
"Government should meet at least 50% to 60% of ASUU demand, and people will support government in the appeal for the strike to be called off. It's about an agreement which government was bound to implement and also endeavour to tackle the decaying infrastructure in the university system." A university teacher, in his reaction, wondered why the Minister of Education failed to capture these earned allowances owed to lecturers by the 2009 agreement in the 2013 budget. If they were legislators, the funds will be available.
Meanwhile, the strike is biting hard as students have been roaming the streets, lured into criminality and social vices like prostitution, drug trafficking, kidnapping and political thuggery.
Chief Joshua Nwosu, a businessman with three children in the university now at home blamed bad and insensitive leaders for the horrible condition of the education system."The government just refused to allocate sufficient fund to education despite the abundant financial resources available. Millions of our youths are jobless, yet government is not willing to provide adequate money for educational development. Something drastic must be done to save our education from total collapse. President Jonathan should act fast and be patriotic."