The National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, Prof Biodun Ogunyemi, speaks with OLALEYE ALUKO about government’s plan to reopen schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing university lecturers’ strike over the implementation of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System, among other issues
After about three months’ closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Government has asked terminal classes to resume on August 4. By extension, universities may be considered for reopening in the coming months. Why has ASUU said such a step is suicidal?
It is very simple. The Federal Government has set out some conditions; decontamination of schools- educational institutions in general, provision of hand-washing facilities, hand sanitisers, face masks, and space for social and physical distancing. The question is: How many of these conditions have been met or are being met? And I can illustrate with a practical example. Before they opened the airports now, we saw top-ranking government officials, ministers, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, members of the Presidential Task Force and National Committee on COVID-19 moving round to inspect those facilities. They were ensuring that the conditions they spelt out for the aviation industry were being met, at least using two airports as test cases. I ask anybody that says we are ready to reopen schools to tell me; how many of the schools have been decontaminated? How many of the schools have running water or which can provide hand sanitisers on a sustainable basis? How many of the schools have facilities for social distancing? Even if they say they are bringing in pupils in batches to create room for social distancing, what about these other conditions? I don’t know if anybody can tell me any of the schools that the government is decontaminating now. And in this rainy season, if you move round, schools are already filled with bushes and you want students to go back because they want to do revision? Apart from COVID-19, there are reptiles everywhere. Nobody is talking like we are cleaning schools, we are decontaminating schools. What is wrong with arranging for that? Let us see the government in action that they are taking steps. That is as far as schools are concerned. We cannot even talk about universities because our universities are in a terrible state of disrepair and what COVID-19 has done is to expose our hypocrisy. Every year, they say that the government has prioritised education and they have voted certain amounts to address the rot in the system, but we don’t see the effects on our schools. Look at a university where you are supposed to have the highest concentration of researchers and facilities for research. But when COVID-19 broke out, they turned to our campuses but the institutions did not have molecular laboratories, even in the schools of medicine and in our teaching hospitals. There are no concentrated oxygen facilities and ventilators. And that was when they had to talk about an emergency fund for the health sector and that is what they are trying to use now to improve the facilities in the health sector. And the question I have been asking now is that; what does it cost Nigeria to use this opportunity to also address the emergency in the education sector? For me, we have two emergencies on our hands – the health and education sectors. If we think we can address the problems in the health sector without addressing the problems in the education sector, they will come back to haunt us. And it is already haunting us. If you say that education is on the concurrent list, what is the framework for implementing the conditions that you set out? That is the question I ask. For instance, they had a framework for implementing the National Homegrown School Feeding Programme and that was why they took food to children at home even during the lockdown as they are saying. I don’t want to comment on whether that was effective or not. But in what direction are they moving to reopen schools? Even if you are bringing 10 pupils to a school (a school that has become bushy and harbours all kinds of creatures), what steps are you taking to clean up the schools? When we were in primary school in the 1960s and 1970s, we had hand-washing bowls and buckets for running water. How many schools have such? We are now at a time when the government no longer provides running costs for schools?
But the government has said that some schools have the facilities you are talking about…
It is unfortunate that when the policymakers talk about schools, they think about elite schools only. But we have both elite and mass primary and secondary schools. So this is what we are asking them. What structures have you put in place from federal to state to local levels to reopen schools? They are saying that state governments should ensure this and that; but what framework for monitoring do they have in place? What understanding have they reached with them and what roles have the Federal Government spelt out for the states and local governments? That is what we don’t see happening in some places where they take the lives of their citizens very seriously.
Where does the reopening of universities leave ASUU’s ongoing strike action which is now about five months old?
That one is another matter entirely. Part of the conditions for reopening of universities is (for the government) to ensure that the issues on the table before them are satisfactorily resolved. We have that clear. We are available to meet them at any time to ensure that we engage one another and we resolve the issues that are outstanding. These are from our Memorandum of Action of February 2019. So, we have made the minimum conditions available to them and we believe that they will engage the issues at the appropriate time.
What stage has the negotiation between ASUU and the Federal Government reached, considering the fact that ASUU has rejected the online/virtual meeting option occasioned by COVID-19 lockdown?
But is there any basis for online meetings again? You have lifted the ban on stay-at-home and there is now a way for us to meet, even if we are more than 20. Wearing of face masks is done by everybody and everyone moves around with hand sanitisers. So, what is the big deal about online meetings? There is no big deal in it.
Some Nigerians have become worried after ASUU said that university lecturers were not ready for virtual teaching and do not have such skills. Is ASUU saying that our lecturers cannot cope with cotemporary developments?
No, I think that is an exaggeration. What we are saying is that we are moving from one level of e-learning to a more technical phase. There are two phases or definitions of e-learning. One, there is asynchronous e-learning where students surf the Internet and get materials online. We all recognise that students use the Internet, do online chats, download books and materials, use electronic mails, and they relate to those materials at their pace. It is asynchronous because it does not involve direct interactions or a classroom-like relationship with their teachers. On this phase, lecturers have been relating 10 years or more. It is not new. For many of us who have worked in the universities for more than 20 or 30 years, we know that at some point in our career, we even stopped reading handwritten materials and all assignments are sent by e-mails and through e-mails, you can determine whether your students meet your deadline or not. Many lecturers also read their materials electronically and correct their students. So, we have been doing that interface which is self-paced and self-developed. But if you talk about a higher level of e-learning which is both pedagogy and technology, and which is the synchronous e-learning, this aspect is technical. There is nowhere it was introduced, that sensitisation, reorientation and training were not carried out. In some universities abroad, they will first commission people for research, assess the infrastructure, capacity and come out with the model of the package they want to use. Let me say that the popular information out there is that anybody can teach. That concept is wrong. I also challenge anyone to go and look at the current policy on education that says that anyone who must teach in universities must have a professional qualification and training in teaching and learning – that is pedagogy.
Building on ASUU’s resistance against the IPPIS, you recently said that your union rejects the appointments and promotion done under the platform. Why are you against a step that looks like progress?
Information reaching us states that with the connivance of the IPPIS Office, some vice-chancellors, while we are presently on strike, are busy recruiting new hands without following the due process. And sometime in the future, nobody will challenge us that when they were bringing in people without requisite professional qualifications, you looked the other way; and that is why we are putting it on record. We are saying that if any lecturer is recruited without being taken through the due process, such will be rejected by ASUU. We reject such appointments and so the IPPIS Office, because they are busy or they want to prove a point that they enlisted new staff, and are encouraging people who may not have the requisite qualification to come and enlist for university jobs. They are capturing their data and making it conditional for them to enlist on IPPIS before they can collect their letters of appointment.
You can go and check it out. We have our evidence each time we talk. Why will anybody bring in a lecturer into a department when the Head of Department and the Dean are on strike? These people did not attend the required interviews and screenings? This is because the IPPIS Office is also feeding the universities and they have a rub-my-back-I-scratch-your-hand arrangement; they are now colluding to bring into the system people that may not have the requisite requirements to teach. Let nobody tell ASUU in the future that we looked the other way when people who have no business in the university system were brought into the system. That is why we are shouting out loud and clear.
Under the IPPIS, there have been agitations by ASUU and other tertiary institution unions over salaries and shortages in payments, are you teaming up to address these issues affecting your members?
We have made our position clear on policies and we have also gone ahead to prove and defend this stand. That is what we have done so far in the IPPIS case. Our position was informed by knowledge and research. We were so confident that even those (unions) who probably were deceived into the IPPIS would at some point see reason with us. This will show the government that the game of deceit, as well as the divide-and-rule it is playing on the IPPIS, will not last for too long. What we are concentrating on now is to come up with our own alternative – University Transparency and Accountability Solution. And we welcome other unions on board because we are not just developing it for ourselves, but for the entire university system and that is the way it should go. We don’t talk because we don’t want to lord it over anybody. We believe that knowledge should rule our country and we should do away with sentiments. IPPIS has no place in the university system and we have challenged the government to tell us any other country in the world where IPPIS is operational. This is because universities are universal cities of learning. They are universal communities of learning. They are communities of scholars and students. So, we are conscious of our role and place in history and we are ready to play that role if only to prove a point that we know our onions. People may attack us as they have been doing or mount campaigns against ASUU but the truth will come out and catch up with all of us.
Earlier in June, ASUU complained about the laying off of contract lecturers by the Federal Government across some universities; has the union opened any negotiation with the government on this issue?
We still oppose the laying off of contract staff, whose services we dearly need in our system. This is because it is like cutting your nose to spite your face. You cannot say because you want to eliminate corruption, you now come up with a platform – some software that does not have room for contract staff and visiting academics. You therefore now want to dispose with the experience and skills of those the system dearly needs. We are getting information that some universities are already confronting the IPPIS Office on this. But until we see the result that they have recalled the contract lecturers, we will not relent in our agitations.
ASUU also stated that the 160 cut-off mark approved in June by the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board and stakeholders was too low and an attempt to please private universities. What do you make of this position?
The way we see it is that JAMB and other agencies may want to bend backwards to ensure that they keep the private universities in business. This is because if public universities are working really, you will not see any student choosing private universities. So, we see it really as connivance of the elite class. As a result of their interests and sympathy for private universities, they will want to bend backwards to accommodate such institutions. Whereas, we have many public universities that are still insisting on standards, we have evidence that many private universities in order to stay aloof do not encourage lecturers to say any student has failed any course. And when you do that, you compromise standards. So we are saying that we would start to compromise standards from the point of entry if we operate like that (accepting 160 as cut-off mark). I am not saying that there are not some few good students who will get into private universities. But we need to maintain the standards. Until the last three years, I am sure we were taking about 180 as cut-off mark. If suddenly, we are moving to 160 to keep private universities in business, we may as well slip to 120 or 100 at a later time. This is because the situation in this country is moving from bad to worse and you also find that the children of the elites are those you find mostly in the private universities. Some people will say, don’t we have lecturers now taking their children to private universities too? But the truth is that the government is surreptitiously doing to the universities, what they did to public primary and secondary schools. The government neglected the public primary and secondary schools until it came to a time when the teachers could no longer send their children to those schools where they were teaching. But it was not like that in the 1970s and up to the 1980s. But unfortunately, this is the current trend.
The latest ranking of universities globally in 2020 leaves only two Nigerian universities in the world’s best 2000. Some Nigerians are worried that ASUU is blaming the Federal Government instead of sharing in the blame, concerning the quality of our lecturers’ researches and other parameters. What do you say to this?
ASUU cannot share in the blame because we have been playing our own role by telling the government and by telling Nigerians that we don’t have what it takes to do competitive and cutting-edge researches. To carry out cutting edge researches that can compete in the committee of universities, you need to have state-of-the-art facilities. Many of the facilities we used to conduct researches in our universities quickly go into oblivion. That is, they become obsolete in no time. And I tell you that there are some areas in science, like nuclear researches where before you publish a paper, you have to tell them where your laboratory is or the equipment you used was manufactured and when. So, they say that new product or facility used for research within that field should not be more than five years; otherwise, they are obsolete. So, we have universities where we are using facilities passed down to us from Europe and where they have been used for 10 years or more. They bring them to us – in fact, we even have tokunbo (second hand) equipment in our laboratories. So when you have such, do you think you have any edge? Look at the molecular laboratories; are they not for some people to conduct researches?
But how many universities have them? When COVID-19 broke out, people are now doing researches on COVID-19 because that is the trending issue. How many Nigerian scholars can compete? Some people have left the universities without entering molecular laboratories – maybe just to do theories or practical. And that is why I keep saying that the COVID-19 pandemic actually exposed the emptiness of our teaching hospitals and university laboratories. So, there should have been a synergy between researches in science and technology. These are the things they profile for universities. But we don’t have facilities for cutting-edge researches for God’s sake. This is why we talk about the revitalisation of Nigerian universities. It is about self-renewal and self-generation. And so, we easily run into obsoleteness. There was a time we were there among the top 1000. Now, we are among the top 2000. I pray we don’t go to 3000 or 5000 where we were about 10 years ago before ASUU started to fight. We have competent and capable researchers and scholars if we are given a supportive environment for research and meaningful learning. We don’t have that environment yet and that is why ASUU is going on strike. We are lonely in the forest and crying day and night. Nigerians don’t see our point but it is only when these rankings come out that they say, ASUU, what are you doing? But we have foretold this decay for so long. The government is not funding existing universities and they are creating new ones. The resources are getting slimmer and this is where our problem comes from. The government establishes universities but they don’t have any plan to fund and develop them. It is very sad