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Path to tread in ASUU-FG impasse – Punch

By The Citizen

Academic activities in the country's public universities were frozen for one week when the Academic Staff Union of Universities embarked yet again on a warning strike, which ended on Tuesday. The implementation of a 2009 agreement that seeks to improve the condition of our universities is the crux of the matter. A deeper rupture of the new academic session is a frightening possibility if pragmatism does not take the centre stage.

The Senate had brokered two meetings that ended in a deadlock. According to the Chairman, Senate Committee on Tertiary Education, Jibrin Barau, lack of consensus on the liquidation of arrears of 'earned allowances,' staunched progress. The Minister of Labour, Chris Ngige, corroborated this on Wednesday after the Federal Executive Council meeting when he said that the Federal Government had no money to pay the N284 billion arrears, as the economy was on the cliff.  Government has acceded to seven out of eight demands of ASUU.  The times we are in demand that a common ground be reached, not doggedness, by all concerned.

The President of ASUU, Biodun Ogunyemi, nevertheless, was right when he said the insincerity of government in the past brought the country to this sorry pass. Indeed, our universities have been denuded of their essence, manifest in an unjustifiable high level of infrastructural decay: ill-equipped libraries and laboratories; shortage of classrooms; lack of resources for research; dearth of skilled manpower and mismanagement of available resources. As a result, many of our best academics have been migrating to Europe, the United States and Asia since the 1990s.

Such is the foundation for the 2009 Federal Government-ASUU agreement. Under the pact, government was expected to inject N1.5 trillion between 2009 and 2011, while each state university was billed to get N3.68 million per student in the then 24 of such institutions, over a three-year period. Now, there are 44 of such state-owned schools. Other demands are: improved salary structure, university autonomy and academic freedom; increase from 65 to 70 years retirement age for professors, among others.

But the FG has been anything but serious with the pact. By 2012, when the agreement was due for a review, only the consolidated salary structure had been implemented; a breach that pushed ASUU to embark on another strike, which lasted from July 1 to December 17, 2013. The academic session was completely lost in the process. Earlier, a 2012 Universities Needs Assessment Report, conducted by the government, had confirmed a shortfall of 34,000 PhD holders in the universities, a deficiency which invariably raised the issue of standards or quality of output.

Further engagements produced the 2013 FG-ASUU Memorandum of Understanding that also involved funding the system to the tune of N1.3 trillion between 2014 and 2018, with at least N200 billion per annum. However, the FG is in arrears of N660 billion to fund needs assessment revitalisation in the last quarter of 2016.

Amidst this turmoil, another MoU beckons. But the sad reality is that FG's account is in the red. Its allocation in October was just N120.3 billion; yet it has a monthly wage bill of N145 billion. It is a stark reality that nudged President Mohammadu Buhari to present to the National Assembly a request for an approval to borrow almost $30 billion from foreign creditors, which the lawmakers are critical of. For this reason, some observers argue that ASUU's legitimate demand is being made at a wrong time.  Besides, ASUU's struggle is not for the 40 federal universities alone; the 44 state-owned universities are inclusive, and their case is even worse. With 33 states incapable of paying workers salaries, according to the latest statistics from BudgetIT (a civic organisation), any optimism of cheery news in these state institutions will be unfounded.

However, this delicate situation calls for compromise and reason for the two parties to end the imbroglio. Truth be told, ASUU's past leadership failed its members by failing to strike while the iron was hot. With oil price averaging $100 per barrel between 2010 and mid July 2014, during which Nigeria made about $300 billion from crude oil sales, according to Tim Okon, a former Executive Director of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Abuja had no reason not to have implemented the agreement.

Government's crass irresponsibility with its perfunctory funding of universities, whether at the federal or state levels, makes nonsense of the argument in favour of setting up more universities. Quality teaching, research, citation of published works and international outlook - all criteria upon which universities are globally ranked, are abysmally low here. These lacunae are why, even in Africa, they are not reckoned with.

Therefore, it will make sense to place more emphasis on quality rather than on the number of universities for the sake of increasing access to university education. The choice of the latter has reduced the worth of our degrees; and led to the milling of unemployable graduates.  This was not the path travelled by Britain, America, Japan, France, Germany and others, which have achieved greatness through science, technology and innovation.

Make no mistake about it; funding inadequacy is not the only problem confronting our universities. Maladministration by vice-chancellors and university councils is as much a malaise, if not more. Reports of how funds are recklessly used, uncompleted projects litter campuses and students admitted in excess of carrying capacities are common in our universities.

If universities now grovel before the government for autonomy and academic freedom - the very soul of their existence - it exemplifies how degenerate they have become here.