In what appears to be an endless strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), reprieve may soon come the way of students of federal universities and polytechnics if current dialogue between both bodies achieve desired result. For about six months now, students of Nigerian universities have been out of classes.
Frustrations of ASUU grew to misgivings and mistrust of the government with which it signed an agreement way back in 2009. ASUU therefore slammed the doors of the lecture halls for what it called "total and indefinite strike". Since then, parents and students have been left counting days which melt into weeks and developed to months while those involved in ending the industrial action dilly-dally within the same cycle of deadlocked meetings.
We view the whole altercation as needless as the issues at stake are in no way ambiguous. What the lecturers' union demand from the government is for it to honour its own promises made in 2009 for improved funding of the university system and working condition of the lecturers.
Though the government has now devised means of strategically disowning the 2009 agreement signed between its representatives and ASUU, it should be reminded that government is an institution and not persons.
Change of administration should not be an excuse to renege on binding commitments made by the government especially that relating to a critical area like education.
The Federal Government met several of the union's demands including the right of the university academic staff to collective bargaining. There were further strikes in 1994 and 1996 to protest against the dismissal of 49 University of Ilorin lecturers in late 1993 by General Sani Abacha. Further strikes were called by ASUU between 1999 and 2020. In all, ASUU has gone on strike 19 times within 33 years.
Underfunding of the education sector, over the years, has had collateral effect on the country. Our universities, hitherto exemplary centres of excellence that attracted academics from far and near, have now become grotesque carcasses of their former selves.
In a shameful development, Nigerians from lower and upper classes fall over themselves to leave the shores of the country for studies. A report released last year put the figure of what Nigeria loose
to overseas studies at N1.5 trillion per annum. It could be higher. Embarrassingly, countries like Ghana, Uganda, Togo, et cetera - that were hitherto considered far below Nigeria in all respect, have now turned to be our saving graces to educate our people.
Ghana alone is estimated to be benefitting from about N160 billion from hundreds of Nigerians trooping to pursue university education there.
But the trouble this time is the alleged imposition of the Inte- grated Personnel Payroll Information System, IPPIS. Though the government has given the go-ahead for the universities to re-open nationwide, ASUU is adamant that its members will not return to the classrooms until pending issues are resolved.
It insists that since the government's implementation of the IPPIS, payment to its members have been haphazard and inconsistent, as lecturers are owed a backlog of salaries.
It also said that the government has refused to remit five months' dues of the union to its purse. The government has, however, debun- ked this claim as the minister of state for education, Chukwueme- kaNwajiuba, claimed that all lecturers have been migrated to the IPPIS and salaries paid up to date. Only recently, Chris Ngige, Minister of Labour, had told the nation that he was optimistic that the lec- turers would call off the strike as the government has concluded arrangements to meet their demands but the lecturers say otherwise.
While those who should act to better the system of education send off their children to choice universities around the world, the result at home is a further nose-diving of what remains of quality in the universities. Recently, a committee headed by erstwhile Executive Secretary of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund, which conducted a need assessment of universities, came up with a report that unearthed the odious rot in the system.
The report, which was commissioned by the government itself, bared it all on the appalling condition of the universities both in human and infrastructural terms. While the teacher-student ratio stands on the average at the embarrassing figure of 1:100, basic teaching tools in laboratories, workshops and libraries were discovered to be either grossly inadequate or nonexistent.
In most, if not all, universities students have no adequate boarding facilities while some defecate in the open, due to absence or inadequacy of toilet facilities.
These same students, according to the report, take lectures in jam packed lecture halls and theatres. The consequence of this neglect of the education system is the soaring number of half-baked graduates coming out from these institutions.
Though the teachers could not be absolved of blame in this, it is, however, only fair to expect a good result when the condition for good performance is set.
This round of strike is another sad reminder of how this government has relegated education to the lowest rung of its ladder, to the detriment of the much desired human capital development for the country.
While money is being spent on frivolous and self-satisfying ventures that would have no benefit to the average citizen, edu- cation is being left to suffer with only occasional handouts in the name of budget, which is also rarely implemented to the latter.
This year, budgetary vote to education falls far below the UNESCO recommended 26 percent allocation. Across the country, there is resounding outcry on the government to urgently do something to end this impasse. In fact, there have been reported rise in crimes due to juvenile delinquency, which the students are exposed to because of the strike.
How to resolve these lingering issues is what the government should endeavor to address, once and for all, to save the country from further embarrassment.
The future is inexorably tied to education. This newspaper has repeatedly noted that only nations that do not want to develop would toy with proper education of its people, especially in this age of disruptive technologies that drive innovation and development.