Abuja and Lagos — The Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, has said the federal government is currently exploring private sector partnership to fund tertiary education.
According to him, such a venture is borne out of the current reality that the federal government cannot sustain the funding of the institutions alone.
He also faulted the recommendations by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) on how to fund the universities, describing them as not implementable.
Ngige, while featuring on ARISE NEWS Channel, the broadcast arm of THISDAY Newspapers on Sunday evening, said in keeping with economic realities, the federal government has decided to search for alternative sources of funding from the private sector in order to meet the requirements of public tertiary education system.
Ngige, who spoke against the background of the lingering dispute between the ASUU and the federal government over the provision of revitalisation funds for federal universities, said that a NEEDS assessment committee had been formed to recommend to government ways of sourcing funds from the private sector.
"The federal government alone cannot sustain the tertiary education or even the education system in Nigeria. Do not also forget that education is in the concurrent list. So, we agreed with ASUU to put up a NEEDS assessment committee, which they are members. That committee has come up with suggestions on possible sources of funding for the universities but when they were presented to government, they were found not to be implementable," he said.
Ngige said one of the recommended sources of funding universities, as recommended by ASUU, was the Value Added Tax (VAT) but explained that 85 per cent of the revenue goes to the states, leaving only 15 per cent for the federal government.
The minister said ASUU also suggested stamp duty proceeds should be used to fund the universities, adding that the proposal isn't feasible as only the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) can collect stamp duty.
"So, these two funding sources suggested by ASUU could not be pushed through by the ministry. So, the NEEDS committee is now working on another validation of other sources, targeting the private sector," he said.
He also urged ASUU to accept the federal government's offer and call off its eight-month industrial action.
Ngige said since the federal government had met almost all the demands made by the union, there was no point in the union sustaining the strike.
The minister urged ASUU to hasten consultations with its members in order to return to the negotiation table before Friday.
"I feel that even this offer is one of the best they have ever gotten since I started conciliation with them. I do not see why they should not accept it. Everything they asked for has been granted. I don't think they should say the offer is not good.
"But I told them before they left that asking the nation and the students to wait from Friday to Friday is unfair, they should come back to us by Tuesday. They have done that before when we negotiated with the Senate president. The offer was made on a Thursday and they came back to us on a Tuesday.
"So, that's what I expect them to do this time around. If they do so, the nation will appreciate them and regard them as patriotic citizens of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. I expect them to get back to me much earlier than Friday," the minister said.
Ngige blamed the nation's economic downturn for the inability of the federal government to meet its part of the renegotiated agreement with ASUU.
Ngige justified the federal government's move to renegotiate the agreement with ASUU, saying that by "the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) collective bargaining principle, an agreement is negotiated based on the capacity to pay."
The minister said the government is genuinely concerned about the funding of the university system and that's why it mandated the NEEDS committee to recommend how to stem proliferation of universities in the country so as to maintain quality and global standards.
On the accusation by ASUU that he is rather becoming a conspirator rather than conciliator, Ngige said he is more patriotic and nationalistic than even the ASUU president and his members.
"I have three biological children in public schools and those 15 I put on scholarship are also here in the country. So I am a very big stakeholder in the tertiary public education sector.
"So, when ASUU says that politicians have taken their children abroad and they don't care, Chris Ngige cares because my children are here in public tertiary schools system even though two of them have dual American - Nigerian citizenship and can afford to study in America. So, ASUU cannot accuse me of not being nationalistic enough. So, let ASUU president not call me a conspirator because I am more patriotic and nationalistic than even himself and his members," he said.
Ngige also gave more insight into the proposals made to ASUU at their last meeting.
He explained that part of the proposals made to ASUU is that the federal government is ready to provide N40 billion for payment of earned allowances to all university workers and N25 billion as revitalisation fund to improve infrastructure.
Ngige said the federal government also asked ASUU as an alternative to accepting the provision of N35 billion as earned allowances and so as to jack up money for revitalisation fund to N30 billion.
The minister also spoke about the proposals put forward by the government to resolve the controversy over salary payment platform for the university lecturers.
He said that the government has agreed to pay striking lecturers the withheld salaries for February to June.
He, however, added that problem arose over how the payment will be done since the affected lecturers are not registered on IPPIS.
Ngige said the government agreed to seek approval for a waiver from higher authority to enable the lecturers to be paid using the same method that was applied when the president ordered payment of University workers' salary earlier this year
On the stage of evaluation of the ASUU's alternative payment platform, the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS), Ngige said the software is still undergoing integrity test at the Nigeria Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA)
"I am not a scientist; I am not a guru, I will only rely on what experts in Nigeria Information and Technology Development Agency, (NITDA) tell me and the same way they will write to ASUU, the Federal Ministry of Education and the Accountant General of the Federation. We have an AGF who does not speak with the media and a minister of finance that is very busy with managing the country's economy and talking to our creditors and bilateral partners. So, as a conciliator, it is me that will say what the situation is with government, " Ngige stated.