By Olabisi Deji-Folutile
I am eager to see how the current impasse between the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) will be resolved. Will government adopt the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) as being proposed by the academic body or stick to its own Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System (IPPIS) which it has said is fraud-proof? Or will ASUU eventually change its mind on IPPIS and agree to its use? After all, the Federal Government has been paying lecturers through the platform for some months now despite the union’s opposition to its adoption. As it is, there is no solution yet in sight. Rather, the issue seems to be getting more complicated.
Just on Tuesday, ASUU said its UTAS was ready for integrity test. Its president, Prof Biodun Ogunyemi, said the union had demonstrated the software to Nigeria’s education minister, Adamu Adamu, and other senior management staff of the ministry, including the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC). The union also insisted that it would not go back to work unless government drops IPPIS for UTAS. Right now, ASUU seems to be the only body talking about the payment system. Government seems to have moved on though the minister of state for education, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, said last week that government would try to resolve issues around ASUU strike before reopening schools.
Should government accept to use UTAS as a condition for the lecturers to go back to work, it means it could have agreed to give it a trial before now and the strike could have been averted in the first instance. If it is the other way round too, that is, ASUU shifting ground and going with the Federal Government IPPIS, it also means that the union could have taken that decision before now and continued its negotiation on other issues with government without necessarily embarking on this long strike. Whichever way it goes, students have been at the receiving end and they have suffered the repercussion of the impasse. The painful thing is that both the government and the lecturers have been unable to fully utilise the opportunities provided by COVID-19 to take learning to another level. And the students have also been deprived of the chance of going through the learning curve that e-learning platforms would have provided.
The Federal Government may not agree with this, but the narrative out there is that government is deliberately capitalising on ASUU strike to shirk its responsibility of providing funds towards developing e-learning platforms in its institutions. In fact, some have argued that the reason why the Federal Government is yet to talk about the reopening of tertiary institutions is because it knows that even if schools reopen, ASUU may still continue with its strike-a situation that may exacerbate the pressure on it to address the union’s demands. Somehow, that argument sounds plausible. After all, it is easier to hide under a pandemic to keep schools shut than negotiating with a union that is hell-bent on having its way. The lecturers have also been accused of having phobia for technology, hence their decision to wait till a convenient time to go back to their chalk and blackboard. I don’t share this view. As a matter of fact, I am a doctoral student in one of Nigeria’s public universities and my lecturers have been fantastic. Despite school shutdown, we have done some of our defences via zoom. And despite a few challenges, the outcome has been great!
Anyway the good news is, there is a limit to which government can keep students at home all in the name of COVID-19. Already, the National Association of University Students (NAUS), National Association of Polytechnic Students ( NAPS) and the National Association of Nigerian Colleges of Education (NANCE) have threatened to shut down the economy if government refuses to reopen their institutions. When students begin to show signs of tiredness and restiveness, government should know that it is time to do something.
At a rally to protest against the continued closure of tertiary institutions in the country in Abuja on Wednesday, Senate President, National Association of Polytechnic Students, Oghale Emeka Rex, said there was no longer basis for the closure of schools more so when markets and worship centres have been reopened with international flights billed to resume later this month.
The student rep accused the Federal Government of playing with the future of Nigerian students, noting that many students have been victimised sexually and others murdered due to school closure. He is right. In Oyo State alone, three female students were raped and killed within two weeks in Akinyele Local Government of the state during this school shutdown. A student of Oke -Ogun Polytechnic in Saki, Oyo State, Grace Oshiagwu, was raped and killed in Ibadan, Baraka Bello, a student of the Department of Science Laboratory Technology (SLT), Federal College of Animal Health and Production, Moor Plantation, Ibadan, was also raped and killed. Same for 29-year-old woman, Azeezat Somuyiwa, a pregnant postgraduate student of the University of Ibadan. Before then, a 100-level student of the University of Benin, Uwaila Omozuwa, was raped and killed inside a branch of the Redeemed Christian Church of God where she had gone to read. Other students have also reportedly died since March. Some may argue that these students could have died anyway, the most important thing is that they all died while schools were shut.
Rex’s counterpart and NANCE President, Mahmud Abubakar, also asked Nigeria’s Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, to announce the date for school resumption. According to him, students are more open to the deadly coronavirus at home than they are on campus. He notes that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Similarly, NAPS President, Sunday Asuku, said it “is disheartening, appalling and unethical knowing that our government doesn’t place priority on education. We all know that COVID-19 is real, but extremely blown out of proportion in Nigeria.
“Our institutions have been placed under lock and key for good six months with the claim of preventing the spread of COVID-19 on campuses. As much as we appreciate the government for the acclaimed love, we condemn in totality the continued closure of our institutions. We understand that COVID-19 couldn’t halt the electoral process in Edo and Ondo states. We are tired of guidelines; reopen our schools now.”
Now that students are beginning to be in control of their destinies, I doubt if government can keep locking them down for too long. At this point, both the Federal Government and ASUU may just have to put an end to the impasse between them and allow our universities to come back to life again. By the way, the Non Academic Staff of Universities is also threatening to go on strike over the same IPPIS, government should move before this happens. These perennial strikes aren’t good for the image of our higher institutions at all. How do you market an institution that has not done any form of teaching for six months in a nine-month academic calendar to any foreign student? Yet we need a good mix of foreign students and faculty among others to improve on our global academic rankings. It is high time we started becoming intentional in the way we manage our institutions.
It is unfortunate that the Nigerian government has missed an important chance of converting the challenges posed by COVID-19 to opportunities at least in its public higher institutions. This is sad. Learning can never be the same again globally. Schools are not likely to return to pre-COVID-19 era. It would have been good if Nigeria’s tertiary institutions had been allowed to fall and rise in their adaptation of technology to learning. It should also have been a good opportunity for government to show its commitment towards improving the nation’s tertiary education. But alas, it never happened. To be honest, the performance of those in charge of Nigeria’s education sector in this pandemic has been abysmally low.
Olabisi Deji-Folutile is the Editor-in-Chief of Franktalknow.com and member, Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org