By Ahmadu Shehu, PhD
Once again, there is a total blackout in Nigerian public universities. Last week, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the umbrella Union of academics working in Nigerian public universities, declared a one-month warning strike to remind the government of their promises signed just a year or two ago.
It has been decades since the rift between ASUU and the Federal Government of Nigeria took the lives and progress of Nigerian students to ransom without a foreseeable end to the debacle.
ASUU was a child of necessity born out of the precarious situation Nigerian lecturers found themselves in the 70s under the various military juntas bent on killing the tertiary education in Nigeria as they did basic education.
Thanks to radical scholars and the rise of socialism as an alternative economic and political ideology to capitalism the government prefers, ASUU got a deep ideological rooting. It also gets a wide acceptance among diverse social domains of the Nigerian society, who, like ASUU, were disenfranchised by and dissatisfied with the tyranny of successive regimes.
The confrontations between ASUU and the military junta of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha made the association a front-wheel of social activism in Africa and gave it a legitimate voice that is believed to stand for the masses not just on education but also human rights and socioeconomic advancement.
Over the decades, ASUU became very wealthy and stubbornly anti-establishment, which had assisted in its success against the government and lost popularity among Nigerians. But, these are topics for another day.
While there are physical successes credited to ASUU struggles, the incessant strikes have killed many, delayed millions and subverted trillions of aspirations, destinies and successes of millions of Nigerians. Thus, one of the emergencies facing Nigerian university education today is this endless and worthless rift between ASUU and the Federal Government.
A serious-minded government in Nigeria should have education as a priority. Any education policy that does not consider the solution to this rift is not comprehensive enough and may not solve the quagmire of education in Nigeria.
How do we end this decades-old problem that has defied most solutions? Some people have advocated for the privatisation of Nigerian universities to have a purely money-driven university system reminiscent of the US-style, where citizens have to pay through their noses to acquire tertiary education.
An opposite idea is one the one ASUU pursues. It is a totally free, accessible, and one hundred per cent public university education where all willing and qualified citizens can enrol and acquire tertiary education in fields of their choices and mental capabilities.
ASUU’s idea is noble and ideal of a functional socialist society where education is an inalienable right of citizens. However, the situation in Nigeria and our economic ideology doesn’t allow for either of these ideas to work. It is why ASUU and the government have been going around the same hole of self-deceit and conscious pretence.
To provide a lasting solution to this endless crisis that have killed our education and our economy, I believe that privatisation is not the right solution, just as a costless education is not. We’re not America that the insensitive capitalists admire without reason nor the defunct Soviet Union that ASUU loves to imitate. These approaches do not fit our realities.
The alternative is for the government to collect and allocate special taxes to fund education. Again, we can see the models in Western and Central Europe, even in Asia, where citizens pay special taxes to fund education. In this regime, a specific percentage of all taxations will be allocated to education, and citizens will access this service which has been paid for in a different way, supposedly free of charge.
Then, all federal universities shall submit and defend their budgets at the national assembly, effectively giving universities financial autonomy and removing them from the shackles of the ministry of education and, by extension, the cumbersome nature of mainstream Nigerian civil service.
That means that each university will be an independent government entity responsible for 100% of its affairs without recourse to other government agencies. This equally requires that we abolish bottlenecks such as Tetfund or limit their capacity to specific funds. The ministry of education will only be a regulatory body in collaboration with the National Universities Commission (NUC).
That way, the university management can be charged with the responsibilities of funds generation and management to the extent that lecturers no longer need ASUU as an association as all employees of a given university are totally within the purview of the university that employs them. The Federal Government doesn’t need to deal with the basic needs of university academics, such as salary and allowances.
In this model, academics take up their jobs knowing that their remuneration and social welfare are subject to their immediate employers, which is the university management. In turn, they submit their budgets yearly to the national budget and planning office, which will be debated and approved by the national assembly. Whatever they get is their own cup of tea.
That effectively means that ASUU as an association will cease to exist because each of its members will be totally and absolutely under the purview of their immediate employers – their home universities. There won’t be the federal government to fight. The common enemy will be gone, and there won’t be the basis for a national strike because each is on their own.
This, as simple as it is in words, is a herculean task that cannot be easy to achieve. It requires a huge political will, legislative and administrative changes.
No matter how long it takes, making universities entirely independent and autonomous while subjecting them to the same accountability measures prevalent on other government agencies is the surest, if not the only way to achieve a stable, qualitative and functional university system.
That way, there won’t be ASUU talk more of strikes, and the quality and quantity of education will be solely a responsibility of the universities and, therefore, the academics.
Dr Ahmadu Shehu writes from Kaduna and can be reached via email@example.com.