ASUU agrees to suspend strike if…

The Academic Staff Union of Universities dampened the hopes of students and their parents last week by extending its three months old strike by another 12 weeks. ASUU president, Emmanuel Osodeke, said this was to give the government more time “to satisfactorily resolve all the outstanding issues.” The Federal Government has been grossly mishandling the crisis, fielding incompetent, arrogant ministers, and treating the education sector with disdain. It has to act quickly to end the impasse, fulfil its obligations and persuade the dons resume work immediately.

Only a callous national leadership would sleep soundly or immerse itself in politicking while the tertiary education system is shuttered. The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), should personally take charge; summon the leadership of ASUU and other stakeholders and resolve the crisis immediately.

The meeting between ASUU and the government team tentatively fixed for Monday should have one overriding agenda, namely; how to get lecturers back to the classrooms immediately. The crisis has lingered for too long; defeating four presidents in succession. The main bone of contention is the government’s refusal to fulfil the terms of an agreement with ASUU. There is no escape route; agreements are binding and government means continuity.

Buhari’s appeal last week to ASUU to call off the strike in the interest of the students is not enough. The crisis requires his hands-on management. On Thursday, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors raised concerns that the strike would also delay the 2022 admission processes. With half of one academic session already lost to the strike, uncertainty prevails.

Osodeke said meetings with the government’s negotiation team had not resolved the longstanding FG/ASUU agreement of 2009, and the 2020 Memorandum of Action within the additional eight-week roll-over strike period declared on March 14, 2022.

The strike followed the government’s failure to implement the 2020 MoA, deployment of the University Transparency and Accountability Solution for the payment of salaries and allowances, release of Earned Academic Allowances for lecturers, improved welfare and academic autonomy, among others. These are all germane to the development of tertiary institutions, yet the Federal Government continues to display insensitivity to the plight of the universities, the staff, but especially of students.

Buhari should immediately remove the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, from the negotiating team. Mercifully, the equally inept Minister of State for Education, Emeka Nwajiuba, has just resigned. They talked down at the dons; made provocative, insensitive statements, sometimes resorting to outright insults. The Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, has not impressed either.

Government negotiators had said UTAS, in place of government’s Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System, was fraught with lapses based on the report presented by the National Information Technology Development Agency. ASUU has rejected this.

But this is a side issue. The government’s refusal to release the funds promised for lecturers and the restocking of federal universities is the crux. Nwajiuba has declared that the government does not have the funds to pay its promised N200 billion yearly to revitalise public universities. The government must find the funds. It should do this by cutting luxuries and waste elsewhere.

It is a question of priorities. Education should attract the necessary funding. But insensitive as ever, political leaders are frequently photographed celebrating the matriculation or graduation of their own children in foreign universities. A few opt for local high-priced private universities. Apparently, they have lost faith in Nigeria’s public education system. It is a reflection of the country’s poor leadership that though they are entrusted with the power to transform the sector, they refuse to do so.

For long, many, including this newspaper, had urged ASUU to adopt alternative strategies beyond the destructive strike option. While the dons should not give up on this, their persistent rebuttal that they are dealing with deaf and uncaring leadership has now won them wide sympathy. Students and parents/guardians that once deplored ASUU’s frequent strikes are now staging peaceful protests across the country condemning the government’s irresponsibility. They should not relent.

The government must honour its agreements, pay lecturers’ EAA and revitalise the deplorable tertiary education sector. According to the Centre for World University Rankings’ 2022 report, no Nigerian university is on the list of the world’s top 1,000 universities. The University of Ibadan was ranked 1,172; the University of Nigeria placed 1,775. But Cairo University, Egypt, was ranked 531; the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, 629. Nigerian universities suffer from underfunding, and are under-equipped in material and human resources. Frequent shutdowns and subsequent rushed teaching and examinations also lower standards.

ASUU’s demands include reviewing the proliferation of universities. Since the Ninth National Assembly was inaugurated in 2019, about 186 bills have been initiated for the establishment of new universities. The government and the NASS should stop the irrational creation of higher institutions. Everywhere, it takes years of preparation and planning to establish one; but Nigeria’s flippant politicians whimsically create universities, polytechnics and colleges of education. They “upgrade” colleges to universities “with immediate effect.” This is primitive and counter-productive.

Nigeria should commit more resources to the upgrade of public universities. Its behaviour is hurting the youth. A new policy enacted by the United Kingdom, ‘High Potential Individual Visa’, would now exclude Nigerian graduates from qualifying to apply for jobs in the UK based on the requirement that graduates applying must be from the universities in the top 50 global rankings, reports GOV.UK.

The Federal Government should therefore fund the universities appropriately and pay commensurate wages to the lecturers. It should agree with the union and faithfully implement a phased release of the revitalisation fund. The government can look beyond the normal annual budgeting appropriation process to raise money for this purpose. It should go the extra mile as it does for security funding.

If offered a concrete plan of phased funds release, ASUU should in the interest of the students, the system and the country, suspend its action and return to the classrooms. Students, parents, civil society and every other stakeholder should press ahead unrelentingly to pressure the government to act responsibly.

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