By Olabisi Deji-Folutile
If only Nigerians are fully aware of the damage being done to the nation’s tertiary education sector, especially its universities, with this impasse in negotiations between the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities, perhaps there would have been a concerted approach to resolving the problem.
Right now, Nigerian public universities are in a very delicate shape and require a careful handling so that they don’t crumble into pieces. In fact, this current stalemate may usher in the total demise of our public university system if nothing is done, and urgently too. For those that can still remember the grace to grass history of our public primary school system, it started exactly like this. The public primary school system ran averagely well until the early 1990s when incessant strikes by teachers to protest being paid by local governments, signalled its death knell. Of course, state governments later found a way around the problem as they opened an account jointly controlled by states and local governments for teachers’ salaries, but the solution came rather too late. The very foundation for the development of sound primary education system as laid down by the Ashby recommendations of 1960 had been totally destroyed while these incessant strikes lasted.
Now, primary school teachers’ salaries are removed and put into a special account before allocation from the federation account is disbursed to the LGs. That is why there seems to be a semblance of sanity in our public primary schools now. Never mind that constitutionally, the local governments are empowered to run primary schools. But any attempt to implement this provision of the law to the letter will lead to another wave of agitation. One can hardly blame the teachers. The local governments have been highly irresponsible; they never met their obligations to the teachers in terms of salary and other welfare packages.
Nevertheless, Nigeria’s lack of commitment to the development and preservation of its primary school system led to the emergence of mushroom private primary schools that we see all around us today. The private sector has taken over the responsibility of providing basic primary education to Nigerian children. Unfortunately, since many of these school owners cannot hire trained teachers, they make do with what they can afford. So, we end up compromising the quality of education that Nigeria’s future leaders should be having right from the primary school level. This nation may never recover from this terrible damage done to its children.
As it is, getting sound education at the primary and secondary school level has become the preserve of the children of the rich. And since every good parent would like to leave an inheritance for their children, they also struggle to get money anyhow and by any means to fulfil this desire. That’s why you can hardly get anything done in Nigeria without being forced to pay a bribe. These people need all the money they can get to fix their children in good schools. Am I justifying graft? not at all! The point being made is that people are desperate to raise money via illegal means because there is no responsible government in charge. Citizens whose governments provide basic amenities and access to good health, education and housing are likely to be less desperate. As we speak, public school teachers are being owed in many states; the learning environment in many public schools is nothing to write home about; teachers’ commitment and dedication to duty is zero in many instances. Yet, our leaders are not ashamed to tell us that they value sound education.
Now, the big problem is that unlike primary and secondary education that could easily be provided by private enterprises even if substandard, private university education cannot be provided by just anybody. The cost of running private universities is huge; hence many Nigerians may never smell the four walls of a university if we allow these public universities to die. For example, one of the criteria for establishing a private university, according to the National Universities Commission, is bank guarantee of funds to the tune of N200m from a reputable bank and a minimum land area of 100 hectares. Not only that, sponsors are expected to put in place the required infrastructures including access roads, power, water, laboratories, workshops, libraries etc, not to now talk of assembling the faculty that must include senior lecturers and professors and all of that. How many private businesses can afford to do that? And for those who are able to scale the NUC 14-step to starting a university, how many are sure of getting candidates to enrol and for how long are they going to wait to start getting the money required to run the university effectively, embark on research, etc.? How many Nigerians would be able to send their children to such universities? Aside faith-based universities in Nigeria which naturally enjoy patronage from members, a lot of private universities set up by individuals are really struggling. Where are the students? Not so many parents can afford to send their children there.
If we allow our public universities to die like the public primary and secondary schools, some private institutions may be forced to lower their quality in order to make the cost affordable. Imagine a nation with substandard primary, secondary and university education! Some private universities are probably doing that now. We are gradually getting to the point of collapsed public universities. I shuddered at the sight of pictures circulated in the social media of toilet facilities at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. The condition was terrible! If the public university system totally crumbles, good private universities will become extremely expensive and unaffordable. Mushroom varsities will grow like the mushroom primary and secondary schools that are everywhere now. Is this what Nigerians want?
Without education, this nation is doomed. In fact, we are where we are today because many of our so-called leaders had dysfunctional education. Imagine someone getting admission to a unity school with a score of 7 over 300; getting university admission with less than 150 over 400 and getting employed above other better qualified people all in the name of federal character and quota system. These are the people taking critical decisions on behalf of the rest of us and we are still wondering why the country is in a mess. The truth is good governance is predicated on sound leadership. And any nation that thinks that leadership positions should be the preserve of some people born to rule will end up being ruled by nonentities.
In countries where things work, leaders are groomed. These leaders are not just educated, they schooled in the best of schools. The first female chancellor of Germany and one of the architects of the European Union, Angela Merkel, studied Physics at the University of Leipzig, earning a doctorate degree; President Donald Trump of the US attended Fordham University for two years and got a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. President of Finland, Sauli Vainamo Niinisto, is a lawyer by profession, Boris Johnson is a product of both Eton College, often described as “the chief nurse of England’s statesmen,” having educated 20 prime ministers; and Balliol College, Oxford. I can go on and on. None of these leaders had questionable certificates and their academic qualifications were never subjects of controversy. No wonder, they approach governance with a sense of purpose and deliver quality services. People can only give what they have.
If there are truly lovers of education in this country, this is the time to speak in unison and demand an end to the impasse between ASUU and the Federal Government. I am afraid that if we all keep quiet, this situation will continue and the university system will crumble totally. If the pronouncements by the national body of ASUU are anything to go by, the union is not likely to call off its seven-month strike unless government attends to its requests, chief among which is the reversal of the Integrated Payment Platform System (IPPS) and implementation of past agreements on funding and enhanced salaries. And if I can read this administration correctly, I doubt if it is going to bend over backward to meet ASUU’s demands. Looking at its antecedents, this government appears deaf and dumb. Is there anything that Nigerians spoke against that has ever been reversed by this administration? Nigerians complained about hike in fuel price and what they got in return was further increase; there are general complaints about poor living condition, high cost of food items and so many other things, has anything changed? This government has consistently displayed contempt, impunity and disdain for the concerns, fears and the will of the Nigerian people.
If ASUU remains adamant and the Federal government sticks to its guns, is this how we will all watch until these public institutions totally collapse? I pity Nigerian youths. The only thing they are probably enjoying in Nigeria today is this free university education, although I don’t know how sustainable this can be if we are really serious about good university education. But that is a topic for another day. For now, suffice it to say that we keep what we have before it slips away. No one needs a soothsayer to predict what will become of Nigeria in another decade if we allow these universities to die. It’s time for whoever cares about the present and future of this country to call on both ASUU and the Federal Government to sheathe their sword. Both parties should reach a workable agreement for the sake of Nigeria’s future. This impasse is becoming too expensive to ignore.