FGN-ASUU Face-off: Matters Arising
Leonard Karshima Shilgba and Etumudon Ndidi Asien
It is a well-known fact that the Federal and State governments in Nigeria have been having running battles with Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). The running battles have led to incessant strikes and closure of public universities in Nigeria. It is also well-known that the problem has almost defied logic and reason, remaining intractable even as there are always “pending agreements” between ASUU and the Federal Government, which ASUU claims are broken by the latter. The problem of recurring ASUU strikes seemed to have escalated during the military era, when it was thought that the military was trying to muzzle all opposing democratic forces in the country. In those days, Nigerian students also, in their face-off with military governments, forced the unfortunate closure of universities (there were no or very few state universities, and no private universities until 1999). The alternating belligerence of ASUU and Student Unions of Nigerian universities frequently precipitated the loss of many academic sessions due to the shut-down of the institutions. Eventually, the role of Student Unions in this unfortunate ritual diminished, but ASUU became the sole instigator of the regular closure of universities. Both the Federal Government and ASUU have maintained adversarial, entrenched positions over the years in their face-off even in post-military times. The parties have almost always refused to budge until very painful damage has been inflicted on students, the entire university system, and the whole nation, partially resulting in the plummeting global ranking of Nigerian universities.
ASUU leadership, in the past, when smartly guided by cerebral minds such as Professors Assisi Asobie, Attahiru Jega, and Eskor Toyo (to mention just a few), achieved much good for the university system and the nation, one of such achievements being the present tertiary education funding system, the TETFUND (Tertiary Education Trust Fund). To date, this remains an indubitable testimony to the intellectual fecundity of ASUU. The implied membership composition of ASUU should suggest that its actions produce solutions to national problems, encourage accountability and performance among university faculty and leadership, and support student evaluation of faculty members, which would no doubt rid the university system of people whose presence in the public universities has only caused shame and erosion of decency and standards.
The conjecture that the perennial ASUU strike is a carry-over from the military era could be plausible, considering the oft belligerent tone of ASUU press releases and communiques. For instance, in our university, Federal University Otuoke (FUO) (which is yet under “observation” for ASUU membership), in response to a call for a “Special meeting of Senate” on Thursday, August 17, 2017, to consider students’ examination results, the branch ASUU leadership sent out a directive, herein cited verbatim: “In line with our resolution and ASUU directive, NO FUO Lecturer should engage in any meeting or Academic activity.” We must remind both the public and Federal Government that not every lecturer of Nigerian public universities is a member of ASUU. Membership of Trade Unions in Nigeria, by the Trade Union Act, is voluntary and optional. ASUU, therefore, ought not to give directives to “lecturers”, but rather to its members, who have voluntarily joined the union, and have, in writing, given permission for deduction of check-off dues from their salaries. At least, that is what the Trade Union Act says. The Federal Government should, accordingly, take steps to protect lecturers of its universities who are not ASUU members. The FG, through the National Universities Commission (NUC), should obtain the list of registered members of ASUU in all federal universities for the purpose of determining lecturers that are on strike. In a democracy, it is required that decisions are not taken on behalf of people who are not given the opportunity of choice.
Negotiations between ASUU and FG should not be on issues that are either mutually exclusive or which are not related to lecturers’ conditions of service contained in their letters of employment. If the FG fails to pay lecturers their lawful salaries and allowances, that is wrong, and should be addressed. We are concerned, however, that ASUU now demands, among other things, that the FG fund “Staff Schools.” In ASUU’s strike Bulletin dated August 12, 2017, those “key outstanding issues” are listed:
Does it make sense that supposedly brilliant university dons would expect the Federal Government to fund their “Staff Schools”, which not every Federal University has, and which are not considered in the various Acts establishing those universities? This should not be a reason for the closure of all public universities in Nigeria. Lecturers should send their children to schools of their choice, as many of us do, and not insist on the FG subsidizing the education of their children at the primary or (and) secondary school level (s) in those “Staff Schools”, while at the same time subsiding university education in the Federal Universities. By the way, if FG gives in and funds those “Staff Schools”, would other lecturers, whose Federal Universities don’t own “Staff Schools”, be paid “Children Education” allowances? We are against this discriminatory demand by ASUU.
Nigerian University Pension Management Committee (NUPEMCO) idea should be a legislative agenda that ASUU could lobby the Nigerian legislature for. Reasoned persuasion is a tool that ASUU should master in their interaction with Nigerian senators and congress-men and –women. It is intellectually impeachable for ASUU to declare strike action on this apparently legislative matter. We counsel ASUU to sponsor this issue to the Nigerian legislature in form of a bill.
On non-implementation of the provisions of the 2014 Pension Reform Act for retired professors, we posit that ASUU has no legal standing to withdraw its lawful services to both their students and their universities for a matter affecting retired professors. At the same time, we call on the FG to implement the provisions of all extant laws. At least, respect for laws is a hallmark of a democratic government.
“Revitalization” of public universities (implementation of Needs Assessment Report) is very nebulous in meaning. At the moment, funding is not the prominent problem facing public universities in Nigeria. No one can fill a basket with water. Nigeria’s public universities reek of sleaze. Billions of naira are annually paid out to public universities from TETFUND. Has ASUU enquired into the application of those funds? ASUU members abuse those funds. Recently, a federal government committee was composed to investigate the expenditure of take-off grants for the twelve federal universities that were established in 2011. At one of those universities, we learned, the committee was given a list of chemistry laboratory equipment that were supposedly purchased with TETFUND grants. We were informed that a former department chair compelled the current head of department to give a list that she had prepared instead. Tens of millions of naira were given to her, we were told, to purchase those equipment. Either some were not bought or inferior ones were. She is a member of ASUU Caretaker committee of her university. Does ASUU care to enquire into this? University leaders in some of the public universities work in cahoots with some ASUU leaders to steal or waste public funds meant for improving teaching, learning and research in Nigerian public universities.
We understand that the Federal Government, in order to improve the remuneration of lecturers, is asking for performance-determined compensation, which ASUU objects to; very curious, isn’t it? We also learned that the FG does not “trust” federal tertiary institutions, and so has asked all of their staff members to be enrolled in the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System (IPPIS), and ASUU is against this. Is ASUU encouraging transparency and accountability or something else? Here is a problem the Federal Government is trying to solve: Lecturer 1 is a full-time staff of Federal University A. He is also an adjunct faculty in Federal University B, where his friend is a faculty dean or department chair. In addition, he gets a sabbatical leave to Federal University C. The Federal Government pays Lecturer 1 for working in all three universities. He doesn’t attend classes regularly at Federal University B, where he is an adjunct. His friend shields and indulges him, while students suffer. Meanwhile, many qualified Nigerians seek, unsuccessfully, to be employed at those universities. Those morally depraved senior university fellows keep them out in order to make illicit gains at the expense of the students. IPPIS will help to solve this problem. The FG should pay one salary, and universities would be required to source for funds and pay their adjunct and sabbatical staff. The FG would save billions of naira, and can pay enhanced faculty wages, including Earned Academic Allowances (EAA).
At our university, against Governing Council’s instructions, more than forty adjunct lecturers and professors were hired by the Vice Chancellor in the 2016/207 academic session, while many Nigerians had applied between October and December last year for various teaching positions. Some of them hardly attended classes. ASUU must purge itself of bad eggs who masquerade as “comrades”.
Can we really take ASUU serious when it says it is fighting in the interest of Nigerian students? What can ASUU make of the fact that its members are exploiting and extorting from Nigerian students, whom it claims to be fighting for? What has ASUU as a body done about its members’ sexual harassment of students in Nigerian Universities? What is ASUU doing about the forceful sale of pirated, plagiarised books, plagiarised and cloned research articles, and “hand-outs” by its members? For instance, on March 30, 2017, the Vice-chancellor of a Federal University was given a list of his lecturers (including the book titles, prices, authors, course codes) who sold “books” by duress to 100-level students of his university. Until now the Vice Chancellor has not as much as instituted an investigation!
What has ASUU done about the financial recklessness of its members who happen to be Vice-Chancellors of public Universities in Nigeria? What has ASUU National done about its branches that are alienating academics who question the undemocratic processes and credentials of their leadership? What has ASUU done to call its branches to order, where lecturers are removed from their academic/administrative leadership positions (at the inducement of ASUU leaders) in Universities because they are “not members of ASUU”? Why has ASUU not asked itself why its members have become more of education merchants than academicians and educationists that they ought to be? What has ASUU done to stop its members from writing projects for final-year students, and collecting money from them? What has ASUU done to stop its members from promoting secret cults and evil fraternities in Nigerian Universities?
What has ASUU done to stop all manner of corruption among its fold? Why have some ASUU Executive members and leaders suddenly become contractors in the Universities, where they are employed? Can ASUU account for the funds that the Federal Government has released to their universities in the past, which their members embezzled? Will the leadership of ASUU be willing to have the FG subject their EXCO members’ personal accounts in various banks to public scrutiny? Why is it that the recent ASUU leaders in Nigerian Universities have become tyrannical and despotic in their dealings with their members? Should ASUU demand what it is not giving?
ASUU should not be seen as a shield or shelter for brazen illegality and impunity in public universities in Nigeria. ASUU is asking for “academic freedom” in Nigerian Universities. What is ASUU’s understanding or definition of academic freedom? Does that mean freedom for its members to commit the unwholesome practices enumerated above?
ASUU is also asking for academic autonomy in public universities in Nigeria. ASUU must realize that there is nowhere in the world where universities are autonomous and the government solely funds their programs and processes. ASUU must appreciate that the government cannot abdicate its responsibilities and oversight functions in the country, whether in the education sector or anywhere else, otherwise confusion would set in. There must be some measure of regulation, monitoring and control of what happens in the education sector in Nigeria, including in universities. If ASUU and public universities believe that they should be autonomous, then they should fund their operations themselves. ASUU continues to miss this very important point, unfortunately.
In order to recover its lost glory and integrity, ASUU should interrogate the caliber of its leadership first, and put its house in order before casting the government in bad light. ASUU must redeem its battered image first before fighting for the interest of Nigerian students. ASUU’s posturing in the name of Nigerian students and the education system in Nigeria is dubious. ASUU is part of the problem in Nigerian public University!
The Federal Government should take the following steps in order to curb the perennial ASUU-FG friction:
First, the Federal Government should quickly outline processes and requirements for private universities in Nigeria to access TETFUND for the public service they offer to Nigerian students and people. For instance, the FG should request for the annual operating costs of each private university, request reduction of all fees charged by a certain percentage, and then provide funding at proportionate rate. This would undoubtedly increase enrolment into private universities, many of which struggle to fill the NUC-maximum allowed student population of 5,000. Thereafter, the National Universities Commission (NUC) should raise the 5,000-student population ceiling.
Secondly, the FG should request lecturers that want to continue working in Federal Universities to get back to work and sign an “affirmation form” to work, except when their salaries and allowances are withheld. Of course, workers who work in spite of owed salaries ought to be investigated for the source of funds they use to commute to work.
Thirdly, FG must implement the IPPIS for all federal tertiary education institutions right away, and use this period of strike to capture bio-metric data of staff within a specified duration. Staff who refuse, neglect, and fail to offer themselves for bio-metric data capturing should be considered as having resigned from federal service.
Fourthly, lecturers should be given the opportunity to negotiate individual contracts based on performance (which should include student evaluation and citation of published scholarly works).
Finally, we call on the Federal Government to consider reviewing the processes and procedures for recruitment of Vice Chancellors of Universities in order to give international outlook to it for quality. Furthermore, we request for improved theory and practice of quality assurance (The FG should consider for implementation the ideas captured in “Re-Engineering Nigeria’s Education Sector” by Leonard Shilgba).