ASUU, We Need New Strategies,By Ayisha Osori

ayisha-osori 600Here is a country with great priorities: legislators are amongst the highest paid in the world while the entire spend on education continues to wallow at less than 9% of the annual budget.

I confess: the current strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) failed to register on my worry-o-meter, that detector of things going/gone bad in Nigeria. I remained blissfully unconcerned even after headlines and Twitter feeds about the strike bumped into me while surfing the news. Then one morning I accidentally caught a program where members of ASUU and National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) were discussing the strike. It struck me as I listened that I could still be in the 90s – nothing had changed in the rhetoric of ASUU, NANS or the government since my days as a student. All the pain of being caught by these parties who did not seem to care about my future came flooding back. I also understood with clarity that my position on the strikes then was extremely selfish – it was linked to me graduating and getting on with my life. It explains why the strike failed to register. I am not in school and don’t have children of university age.
Maybe this selfish short-term perspective of the key parties in the cycle of strikes is a huge obstacle to finding lasting solutions to the education problem?
Here’s what we know: 129 tertiary institutions with 36 federal universities, one in each state to satisfy federal character, severely underfunded and none of which are ranked amongst the top 500 in the world. Quality continues to deteriorate faster than potatoes in an airtight bag and in 2012 alone Nigerians reportedly spent $500 million dollars sending their children to schools as close as Ghana and as far as Malaysia.
In 2009, ASUU and the FG agreed that 9 interventions would help: (1) funds to revitalize Nigerian universities (2) FG assistance to state universities (3) a Pension Management Committee (4) progressive increase in annual education budget to 26% (5) earned allowances (6) extending retirement age to 70 (7) reinstatement of prematurely dissolved Governing Councils (8) transfer of FG landed property to universities and (9) setting up of research development council & provision of research equipment to laboratories.
The response of the FG is typically short term and expected. The administration that negotiated in 2009 probably wanted ASUU off their backs and made promises they did not intend to keep. This current administration wants to do the same thing; postpone things.
In light of the evidence that under the current political system no FGN will substantially improve on education, it is time to ask ASUU to consider other options to realize their responsibilities to students and Nigerians. The problem with education is not 100% the fault of the FGN.
ASUU must come to equity with clean hands. God knows expecting equity from dealings with the Nigerian government is something of an oxymoron but there is still something to be said for doing things the right way. Admittedly, the incentives for academia are low especially when a professor needs to work for 200 years to earn what a Nigerian Senator earns in a year but instead of being angry there are two practical options lecturers can take. The first is to decide to be proper teachers and groom and inspire millions of Nigerians to help change the education system. This entails engaging, not dictating. The second is keeping the corruption in the political system out of the universities. Instead of speaking up strongly against the madness of one federal university in each state, our professors are more concerned with increased probabilities of being Vice Chancellor. Instead of denouncing the practice where key administrative positions and/or admissions are preserved for indigenes, our lecturers have accepted the practice. How can they be surprised that the FG won’t treat them with honour when there is no honour within the universities and we haven’t even dwelt on the sexploitation of students and the commercialization of admissions, grades, handouts and degrees?
ASUU needs to get creative about internal revenue – raising fees is not the panacea. Parking fees, consulting fees from think tanks within strategic departments, endowments from alumni, publications etc. are all avenues for universities to raise revenue for their development. With a little innovation, some space and the talent of Nigerians for creativity particularly around music, art, fiction and fashion, the universities are sitting on a gold mine.
As for students, sadly, the focus is also short term: to finish being at the receiving end of an exploitative system. But if students don’t realize that sacrifices are needed so that siblings and future children don’t have to suffer too, then the cycle continues. Students need to bury the belief that cheap education is a birthright. The argument of ASUU (and probably NANS) that increased fees exclude millions from ‘quality education’ is hysterically funny. This position needs to be revisited particularly with what we know about the quality of graduates and the poor global ranking of our schools, particularly in the sciences. There are unexplored benefits to increasing fees: more cash to invest in infrastructure and R&D, more attentive students and parents (check out parents at PTA meetings of private schools) and it would arguably make the universities more independent from the FG. What ASUU should be demanding is a loan scheme for students of tertiary institutions. Let Nigerians who gain admission into schools take low interest loans from the FG or their SGs and pay back these loans over years. That way we get quality education, employers have the right incentives to hire and invest thus creating a cycle of increased employment and value for everyone.
Like everything else that is wrong in Nigeria that could be so easily set right, the problem with education and ASUU is connected to our dysfunctional political institutions. Nigerians must realize that we cannot fix education before we fix our politics. Short-term solutions which don’t look at the context in which we operate and which seek to provide instant gratification to the parties involved will not succeed. The sooner ASUU, students and Nigerians realize this and change strategy the better for us all.

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