Members of the non-academic staff unions in public universities in the country are currently on strike. Their grouse is that payment of allowances which the Federal Government approved for academics was not extended to them, even though they had entered into a separate agreement with the government. Implementation hiccups seem to have precipitated the current action and some members of the Academic staff union are equally angry with the Federal Government. Indeed, the entire exercise appears to be a Hodgepodge and one of the questions this endless strike throws up is: When will the Nigerian government get it right with the universities?
There are even more questions being asked in the universities and beyond: is it true that the Federal Government dealt directly with Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, and the other unions in data generation? Is it true that some qualified members of staff were excluded in the payments now approved by the Federal Government? Why was the management of universities left out in the process? Who verified the information that the unions gave? Nigeria must, as a nation, always be careful in handling public issues and no government should allow itself to be arm-twisted into illegalities.
It would be recalled that all the unions on university campuses, with the exception of two universities, went on strike over earned allowances sometime in August this year. To end the strike, the Federal Government promised to make a percentage of the accrued earnings available end of October. By November when the monies trickled in, none of the unions was entirely happy. While the non-academics were angry that their members were left out completely, academic staff members complained that it was haphazardly computed for payment. In some cases, whole departments were left out. Also, in some departments, only a few names appeared on the list. Currently, the atmosphere on the campuses is charged. At Obafemi Awolowo University, for example, all three main unions were in accord in rejecting the payment proposal. And the campus has been closed down. Students once again have been left in the lurch, a sad recurring decimal in the national equation on education.
Policy makers need to be reminded that conditions of service and remuneration cannot be the same for all groups of workers in the universities. Each group should have its own peculiarities. The current situation in which all the other unions jump into the bandwagon to ask for monies or payments once ASUU goes on strike is unhealthy. The university is first and foremost a research institute where primary attention should be paid to teaching and research. The support staff units have their peculiarities too and they should be recognised and treated as such.
Sadly, no Nigerian university is currently highly rated in the world ranking of universities. The National Universities Commission (NUC) which ought to ensure that standards are maintained seems to be part of the problem. A whole bureaucracy has been created around the NUC. The regular accreditation exercise has not succeeded in changing the fortunes of the university system. There are still inadequate lecture halls. The wage-structure is appalling with even professors taking home puny pay every month. Research facilities and opportunities are still very low. Funding has remained an issue. The university-owned hostels are in a sad state. None of the federal universities can boast of constant and regular power supply. Internet facilities are still a nightmare in most universities. Conferences are still poorly funded. Indeed, e-facilities which constitute the fulcrum of modern research are still epileptic in the big cosmopolitan universities. They are practically absent in the provinces. Yet, the nation expects its universities to function at maximum capacity and produce excellent graduates that can compete anywhere in the world.
All Nigerian universities should produce research findings that could change the fortunes of the nation. Town and gown, in form of research and development are fundamental to development. Academic curricula in the universities should be vigorously interrogated, upgraded and modernised with a view to making them more relevant to the needs of the times. Nigerian graduates should be able to confront the challenges in the economy by applying knowledge which they had acquired from the university system. Except the universities change approach, they would remain an anecdote in the annals of time.
Already as a vote of no confidence in the universities, parents who can afford it are now sending their children to the United Kingdom, America and other pats of the world for undergraduate degrees. Universities in Ghana are taking students from Nigeria by promising them that their four-year programmes would indeed terminate at the end of the stipulated time. Employers of labour also prefer graduates from foreign universities. Yet each year the unions go on strike over perennial issues. The time has come for the universities and the Federal Government to put their act together and end the shame and travesty that is university education in Nigeria.
Finally, the unions and the federal as well as the state governments should invest in education as the key to the future of manpower production for the country. That most public officers send their kids abroad for education; that they flaunt same to the world; that the governments have refused to increase budgetary provisions and release to the education sector; that the governments allow institutions to remain shut sometimes for three months at a stretch show that education is not considered a priority. The strikes and counter strikes are symptomatic of the nonchalance of governments at all levels. This must stop if the future of Nigeria would not be jeopardized.