On a certain day in 1978 at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), a young 100-level Faculty of Law student 'turned up' for his first tutorial class. They were 10 in number waiting for their lecturer to take them on their first tutorial session.
Shortly after, a young female lecturer showed up, did a headcount and refused to take the tutorials.
She complained bitterly about the number of the class, saying 10 students were rather too large for her to oversee.
Despite the students' entreaties, she refused to take the tutorials that would last through the session until the class was reconstituted.
The Dean of the faculty intervened and pruned the number to seven, while three others were reassigned to another lecturer returning from sabbatical.
The female lecturer who stuck to her guns until she got the number of students she could manage is the late Prof. Jadesola Akande, the first Nigerian female professor of law who went on to become the Vice Chancellor of the Lagos State University (LASU), while the fresh university student awed by the lecturer's stance is Dr. Wale Babalakin SAN, the Pro-Chancellor of UNILAG.
Babalakin, as chairman of the implementation committee of the Federal Government/Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and Non-Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (NASU), and head of the negotiating team with the unions, is saddled with the intractable task of at the moment, resolving the industrial disputes, end the ASUU strike and restore the glory days of Nigerian universities.
As the ASUU strike stretches into its third week over an impasse between the union and the Federal Government, students, who are the ultimate victims, continue to sit at home at the detriment of their academic pursuits.
The National President of ASUU, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, had said the strike is total and indefinite following the non-implementation of the 2009 agreement and memorandum of understanding (MoU) of 2017.
Ogunyemi said the Federal Government is yet to begin any dialogue with the union over the ongoing strike, just as ASUU has placed a memorandum before the government on how universities can be funded.
"For the minister, we have memorandum placed before them, but nobody is talking about the items there except to say that they cannot meet the union's demand because of the oil prices.
We have submitted the report of a joint committee to the minister; on how to generate funds to address the outstanding balance of N1.3 trillion. It is like the minister is not addressing issues raised and the recommendation in the report," he said.
However, the negotiating team inaugurated by the federal government, while positing a way forward from the incessant strike actions, also prevailed on the union to return to the negotiating table for a permanent resolution of the underlying issues based on verifiable data and not postulations.
According to the chairman of the team, Babalakin, the negotiation team remains committed to finding permanent resolution of the recurrent industrial disputes that have stunted the progress of the Nigerian University System for decades.
At a recent briefing in Lagos, he tackled some of the burning issues raised by ASUU, as well as gave insight into the solutions proffered by the negotiating team, which consists Babalakin; former Vice Chancellor, University of Ibadan, now Pro Chancellor, Tai Solarin University of Education, Prof. Olufemi Bamiro; former Vice Chancellor, University of Port Harcourt, now Pro Chancellor, Federal University of Lokoja, Prof. Nimi Briggs; former Executive Secretary, National Universities Commission (NUC), now Pro Chancellor, Federal University Lafia, Prof. Munzali Jubril; and Pro Chancellor, Federal University of Birnin Kebbi, Lawrence Ngbale.
The briefing also addressed the misinformation by ASUU Zonal Coordinator for Bauchi, Prof. Lawan Abubakar, who alleged that the committee has proposed N500,000 tuition fee, as well as that of ASUU Zonal Coordinator in Ibadan, Dr. Ade Adejumo, who pegged it at N350,000.
Babalakin said aside from the fact that their committee has no power to impose fees on students, they are at a loss regarding the source of the said figures. "Our position as a team is that Nigerians deserve and should have quality education.
This must not be compromised as a result of inadequate funding which has been the situation in the last 30 years.
"We also believe that no Nigerian should be deprived of university education because of his/her financial circumstance. This position is consistent with that of the government of President Muhammadu Buhari. Going by the figures provided by ASUU, Nigeria requires over two trillion naira per annum to fund university education.
"This figure exceeds in value the total amount of money available for all capital projects in Nigeria including health, infrastructure, security and others. No doubt that if the money were available for university education as ASUU has insisted it is, the government will have no difficulty in spending it on university education. However as it is, government cannot ignore all other areas of expenditure that require funding," he stated.
Funding of universities has been the bane at the root cause of government and staff unions' disputes.
Based on ASUU's study, the NUC has estimated that the cost of training a Nigerian undergraduate per annum is the sum of $3,364. Applying a very conservative rate of N300 to $1, this comes to approximately N1 million, per annum, per student.
As at 2013, there were 761,000 students in Nigerian universities. The figures for 2018 are not yet available but it is estimated to be one million, which means the university system will require N1 trillion a year to fund undergraduate education alone at N1 million per student.
On present allocation to various universities, The Guardian gathered that government manages to pay the salaries and sometimes, basic overheads of federal universities.
For example, the University of Lagos budget allocation for personnel cost for 2017 was N12.9 billion.
The actual amount received till date is N10 billion. The university also received less than N150 million for its capital projects and overheads.
With a student population of 50,000 and applying the cost provided by NUC, UNILAG requires at least N50 billion to achieve full accreditation of its courses.
In effect, the university received a paltry 20 per cent of the funds required to run the university adequately.
For several years, allocations to education have been nowhere near the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recommended minimum of 26 per cent.
In the 2018 Federal Government budget, education got a total of N541.47 billion (recurrent N439.26 billion and capital N102.21 billion) representing about six per cent of the total budget size of N9.12 trillion.
However, Prof. Peter Okebukola, former Executive Secretary, National University Commission (NUC), has said the acclaimed 26 per cent UNESCO funding benchmark was nothing but a myth after many years of ASUU and allied unions agitating for its implementation.
Okebukola disclosed this recently during the 8th convocation and honorary award of doctorate degree of Caleb University, Imota, Lagos State.
Okebukola said: "There is nothing like 26 per cent UNESCO benchmark anywhere, it is just a myth. In 2001, I was the Executive Secretary of NUC and I started hearing this 26 per cent UNESCO benchmark and wondered where it was coming from because I have been consulting for UNESCO.
I went to the Director General of UNESCO during a conference in 2001 and asked about the 26 per cent, but he also wondered which 26 per cent I was talking about.
"The acclaimed benchmark had become so popular even among the elite because when you keep telling lies every day it becomes like truth. The acclaimed benchmark was made popular because it came from a union in the education system and the public were also quoting it. When it comes to issues of funding, UNESCO does not usually peg any percentage. UNESCO just advises countries to examine the decay in their education system and invest to address the need, which can be more or less than 26 per cent."
Corroborating Okebukola, Babalakin said the UNESCO benchmark is a false narrative that has been bandied for years with no document to back up the claim. "We should not be fixated about percentage but a needs-based budgeting.
In a developing economy, how do you expect a government that has N2 trillion to spend on all sectors spend it on education alone.
"That is where we differ from ASUU. ASUU believes that the funding for Nigerian universities must come from the government alone and the national treasury. We believe government must increase funding of education to the extent it can afford and the remaining money should come from student loan scheme and an education bank. The team is of the opinion that if the choice is between free education and quality education at the tertiary level, we prefer the latter."
Also, the negotiation committee noted that funding is not the only problem of the university system. They stayed that most of the previous negotiations have proceeded on the basis that the critical problem of university education is funding.
Babalakin said: "While we admit that funding is a very serious problem, we are unable to concede to the proposition that increase in funding will necessarily increase the productivity of the universities.
In our view if we increase funding without adjusting the structural defects in the system, we will not have an enduring solution to the problems of university education in Nigeria.
"The list of issues to be addressed are quite extensive, however we will seek to identify the most salient ones. Universities cannot function properly as large bureaucracies; rather they must be run as institutions designed to promote scholarship in an intellectually competitive environment and not a bureaucracy.
"One of the solutions touted by the implementation committee is the creation of institutions that will be self-regulated. These institutions would be driven by Key Performance Indicators (KIPs) to be supervised by the NUC, to harness the potential within various universities and make them compete with each other in the academic sphere.
"University Councils must be constituted in a manner that councils can provide the leadership it requires. In present day Nigeria, universities must be led by persons who have a serious commitment to the university system and not those who are mainly representatives of the ruling party.
"In addition, the leadership of the federal universities should reflect the geographical diversity of Nigeria. Our position is that out of the five principal officers of the university who occupy the positions of vice chancellor, deputy vice chancellor, registrar, bursar and librarian, not more than three of these positions should be held by persons from the same geographic zone."