Cover Story

An Unending Asuu Strike

Perhaps one should be wondering how thunder strikes relate to ASUU strikes. A refresher course in physical geography will suffice. Thunder and lightning go hand in hand, so it would be expedient for one to be reminded of how lightning occurs which is then followed by the loud clap one hears in the sky as well as the occasional rumblings that are heard in the atmosphere. Lightning is extremely hot; a flash can heat the air around it to five times the temperature of the sun’s surface. This heat causes the surrounding air to rapidly expand and vibrate and this creates the pealing thunder we hear immediately after seeing a lightning flash. This ensuing battle between the cloud and the ground can be likened to the one that exists between the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). The Federal Government is the cloud that sends the lightning to the ground, while ASUU who is the ground in this case retaliates by sending the lightning through the same channel back to the clouds. The Nigerian undergraduates and postgraduates hear the loud report and try to stay above the fray in order to avoid the electrocution or death of their higher education pursuits.

Formed in 1978 as a successor to the Nigerian Association of University Teachers which was formed in 1965, the Academic Staff Union of Universities became the umbrella body covering academic staff in all the Federal and State Universities in the country. The first national strike organised by the Union was in 1988 which was aimed at obtaining fair wages and university autonomy. This led to the proscription of the Union on August 7, 1988. In 1990, they were recalled and again banned on August 23 1992. By September 3 1992 an agreement was reached, between the union and the government, which met several of its demands, including the right of workers to collective bargaining. The union organised further strikes in 1994 and 1996 in protest against the removal of staff by the Abacha regime. The return to democracy in 1999 witnessed a union that continued to be fervent in demanding the rights of university workers against opposition by the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo.

In July 2002, the issue woven around the financial mismanagement at the University of Ilorin, followed by the petition of the national president at that time to the Independent and Corrupt Practices Commission to investigate the members of staff who were involved in the act. 2007 witnessed another three-month strike. Then, in 2008, the union held two ‘one-week’ warning strikes to press demands which included an improved salary scheme and reinstatement of 49 lecturers who were dismissed some years earlier. In June 2009, ASUU struck again, ordering its members in federal and state universities nationwide to proceed on an indefinite strike over disagreements with the federal government on some unsettled agreements that had taken place about two and half years earlier. After three months of strikes, the union and other staff unions signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government and called off the industrial action. On July 1, 2013 ASUU, struck once more, this time with a strike that lasted five months and fifteen days and was called off on December 16 2013. ASUU’s reason for embarking on the strike centered largely on funding and revitalisation of Nigerian public universities, as well as unpaid allowances in arrears of N92 Billion. 2017 and 2018 also had its fair share of the ASUU strike. It bordered again on demands and disagreements. By March this year, ASUU went on strike due to the government’s refusal to negotiate the 2009 agreement. Recently, the National President of the union, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi stated that universities in the country would not open until the federal government honoured the agreement it struck with the union.

The (in)action of the government and the resultant reaction by ASUU appears to be centred more on a battle of wits, a clash of egos and some little bits of sabotage by the government and some members of the union. Once again, this has to be explicated as clearly as possible. Anyone who has followed ASUU’s industrial actions judiciously will realise that compared to other Trade Unions, they are better in the art and science of negotiation. Even industrial actions that were organised by the Nigerian Labour Congress during the Comrade days of Adams Oshiomhole did not achieve the kind of outcomes that ASUU strikes have had. Their resilience and perseverance even in the face of the withdrawal of their wages is commendable. Beyond this, their fraternity with the media, their level of education and the other perks they rightfully enjoy from their research works, books and patents, gives them some level of influence and social capital that earns them other benefits including extra income. Also, unlike the government that only seeks the media for public relations or damage control purposes, the academics that make up the body called ASUU are constantly in the face of the public through media interviews, town hall meetings and social media. Between the government and ASUU, the calls for resumption of negotiations have been done by ASUU. The likely reason for this may be the government’s unwillingness to negotiate or implement agreements as is the case with the 2009 agreement that has lingered for over ten years.

It is must be noted however, that ASUUs internal politics has also affected it capacity to obtain its demands from the government. When the union embarked on a nationwide strike on November 5 2018, the University of Ilorin and Obafemi Awolowo University did not join the action on the grounds that they were not officially informed by the union. In OAU, there were talks of division in the OAU Chapter of ASUU which led to the creation of factions. This went on despite the plea by the ASUU Chairman OAU Chapter, Adeola Egbedokun that they should join the strike. More so, the demand for the exclusion from the Treasury Single Account on the grounds of autonomy falls under the murky waters of ASUU’s politics. While one must agree that budgetary allocations to the education sector are extremely low, Nigerian Federal and State Universities have not shown that they can manage funds effectively. Part of ASUU’s condition for calling off its strikes has been the exclusion of its internally generated revenue from the Treasury Single Account. For a union that constantly lambasts the government for its failure to fund public universities, ASUU should instigate universities in Nigeria to give proper account of funds allotted to them through the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND). Many Nigerians can still remember the fiasco that ensued between the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the University of Ilorin over alleged N2 billion fraud. According to the petition filed against the institution, there were cases of pension fraud, unremitted deductions, extortion from students, contract inflation as well as unlawful payments to ex-principal officers of the university.

In 2017, the management of Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH), Ogbomoso was found to be operating 97 different bank accounts and HMOs. It was reported then that for about five years, the institution had received a cumulative N13.7 billion which it failed to remit into the TSA. Within the same period, the management of the prestigious University of Ibadan (UI) was alleged to have declined auditing its account between 2010 and 2015. It was reported that the amount of funds unaccounted for by the management of the institution was so convoluted that external auditors were at a loss. What these instances point to is that our universities should put their houses in order before approaching the government to make demands. They have not been accountable enough to be entrusted with financial or administrative autonomy. While the agenda of the 2009 agreement is all-together noble, there are so many knotty issues revolving around their fiscal policies.

Whether the strikes are for wages and allowances or the provision of adequate infrastructure for Nigerian universities, ASUU must convince the government that it has been able to manage the little that has been given to it over the years. An institution that refuses to be audited lacks the moral ground to embark on strikes on the basis of poor funding. Strikes and Protests are generally about what the government has not done, hence, little is said about what was done. This brings us to the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund). TETFund was established as Education Trust Fund by Act No.7 of 1993 and amended by Act No.40 of 1998 which was repealed and replaced with Tertiary Education Trust Fund Act 2011. This intervention agency was set up to provide supplementary support to all public tertiary institutions with the main objective of using funding alongside project management for the rehabilitation, restoration and consolidation of Tertiary Education in Nigeria. The fund’s main source of income is the 2% education tax paid from the accessible profit of companies registered in Nigeria. This tax is collected by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) on behalf of the fund. While much may not be known about the fund’s management of funds, the fact remains that there are federal and state universities that have benefited from TETFund at one point or the other as reflected in their website.

At a time when Student Protests are treated with kid gloves, one can only wonder if ASUU is not simply getting a taste of its medicine. Recently in August this year, the National Association of University Students (NAUS) and students from Polytechnics and Colleges of Education held nationwide protests demanding the immediate reopening of campuses in Nigeria. The aggrieved students stated that the continued closure of their schools reflected the insensitivity of the leadership to education. The leadership could either be the government or the leadership of ASUU. Without doubt the government has its faults but ASUU needs to look inwards and reflect on ways of bringing Nigerian universities up to the standard of foreign universities. In the United Kingdom, most public universities raise funds from a wide range of sources which include donations from alumni, philanthropists, foundations and the government. A website called Universities UK confirmed that only about a quarter of the income that universities receive comes directly from government sources. Is it not possible for Nigerian Universities to access grants from foundations that fund research? Is it not possible to create a system whereby alumni of these universities can make willful donations? In a country where people can raise $9,000 for reality TV, it is certain that if ASUU mandates its members to be transparent in their management of funds, the public will be willing to lend them a helping hand. ASUU might want to borrow a leaf from how successful NGOs are run. One of the main requirements for getting funds from donor lies in their accountability.

ASUU should begin to organise symposia and workshops on ways of generating internal revenue because world class institutions are not entirely reliant on their government for funding. The union has continued to adopt strikes as the main method for compelling the government to fund universities and it is obvious that it is not sustainable. They may need to devise other strategies as strikes are definitely not producing the desired results. Sometime last year, the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) generated electricity from waste. This was done in a bid to make the university self-sufficient and stop it from going cap in hand to the federal government for funds for research, wages or allowances. Like UNN, Nigerian Universities must begin to use their intellectual prowess for the benefit of the universities they serve. What is preventing the Faculties of Agriculture from having Farms where individuals and organisations can purchase fresh food items? Who says that the various departments of film, music and theatre arts cannot build studios that can compete with the ones in Hollywood? These are some of the questions that the union should begin to ask its members.

Read Also: ASUU Warns: We May Return To The Trenches If ….

Universities should begin to develop different ways of funding their operations through endowment funds, these are funds generated by donations from the public. These accumulated funds are then invested into real estate or stocks. This is the case in the United States where 97 universities have an asset base of over $1 billion. For any of these solutions to work, Nigerian universities must improve its corporate governance and transparency as this will boost the confidence of donors and investors to look towards their direction. The University of Lagos is known for its campus shuttle, a transport system operated within the university that generates internal revenue for the University. In addition, universities are now coming up with radio stations that are run mainly by teachers and students of Mass Communication. All these are instances of ventures that can generate IGR. However, caution must be taken to ensure that the three cardinal goals of teaching, research and community service are not left out in the management of these ventures.

The analogy of thunder and lightning, made earlier, was used to address the impasse between ASUU and the federal government. Now architects and builders are aware of something called the lightning rod. The lightning rod is a metal rod mounted on structures in order to protect the structure from lightning strike. In other words, ASUU should begin to gravitate towards being more self-sufficient and protecting themselves from the capricious stance of the government after they leave the negotiating table. The federal government had in the past, suggested alternative financing arrangements like private sector financing, student loan schemes and the creation of an education bank. ASUU resisted the idea of the education bank on the ground that it would make students perpetually indebted. They may need to give the idea of an education bank a rethink, and work out realistic repayment plans that can make it sustainable.

In developed nations like the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, student loans are used to help students get adequate funding for their education. Some of the academics in ASUU were beneficiaries of scholarships and grants, if Nigerian students cannot be given scholarships, they can at least be given loans. Students are the underlying fulcrum on which most of their demands rest on, so they should seriously look into this. There is a popular saying that one cannot keep doing the same thing and expect to get a different result. The 2009 agreement and the attendant issues that come with it has become a tug of war between ASUU and the federal government and it appears that both parties are not willing to reach some form of compromise anytime soon. No university that wants to succeed in all ramifications will look to the government for the greater part of its funding. The Nigerian government is presently in no state to fully fund Nigerian Universities especially at a time when the economy is trying to recover from the effects of the pandemic.     

Jude Nwabuokei

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