By Makut Simon Macham
Recently, when the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Plateau State University, Bokkos Chapter, declared a strike just when students were preparing to resume after spending months at home due to the national ASUU strike, many parents, students and concerned citizens were taken aback by this unfortunate development.
Of course, the lecturers had their grievances which informed their decision to embark on the strike action as enunciated by the Chairman of ASUU in the institution, Dr. Bentse Pamson who briefed newsmen in Jos.
The lecturers, according to Pamson, were unhappy over the high level of insecurity within the university environment, which has resulted in threats to lives and properties of staff and students. Other complaints include, delay in the reconstitution of the Governing Council; lack of payment of earned academic allowances totalling over N215 million; under-funding of the institution with only a monthly subvention of about N90m which is grossly inadequate as against about N200 million it expects; inadequate manpower, as well as lack of funds for training and capacity building.
Perhaps, one of the reasons given for the strike which has generated so many comments was when the ASUU Chairman said, “For instance, if you come to the University, you will not discover any capital project being funded by the State Government except the ones being undertaken under TetFund. This is totally strange and unacceptable”.
For many, particularly those who are looking for reasons to crucify the Plateau State Government under the leadership of Governor Simon Lalong for non-performance, this accusation has been exploited to its limits.
However, for those who want to be objective, to look beyond political sentiments, the assertion by ASUU was not only unfortunate, but disingenuous.
The Governor, who was personally at the University to inspect ongoing and completed projects, was equally surprised by the position of the lecturers and expressed his disappointment during interactions with the Management of the institution.
Lalong who has always conceded to the right of labour unions to seek better welfare for their members, said some of the concerns raised by the ASUU such as the appointment of a Governing Council for the Institution, and the need for more funding and enhanced security for the institution were not out of place, and in fact already being addressed. What he could not come to terms with was why the lecturers will embark on strike simply because TetFund is carrying out many projects in the school.
Some of the projects inspected by the Governor during the visit include the new Senate Building, Faculties of Law, Environmental Sciences, Health Sciences, Social Sciences, Advancement and Linkages building, Staff offices and classroom complex, e-Library and assorted volumes of books in the central library building, 600- capacity lecture theatre, School of Postgraduate Studies building complex, University Health Centre building and medical equipment, street light project, wire fencing of female hostel and PLASU Security System/ CCTV cameras project, sports complex, amongst others.
While interacting with the University management, the Governor said, “I am very happy with the tremendous transformation of the University, which is as a result of the joint partnership between the State and Federal Governments through TetFund.
“However, I am at a loss as to what the ASUU is imputing or wants to achieve by insinuating that the State Government has not executed projects at the Plateau State University. This is preposterous and difficult to understand. How can you say the proprietor of a University does not have any capital projects in it? “
He also said “it is very unfortunate for people to play politics with everything including education. I was part of the founding fathers of this institution when I was Speaker. Everyone including members of PLASU-ASUU will remember that when I came into office as Governor, the University was shut down and they were not going to work. We did everything possible to reopen the school and today, it has blossomed and is fast growing. It has been described as a success by those who oversee tertiary education in the country considering that it started on a virgin site without inheriting any infrastructure like some of its counterparts in some States.
It is therefore very sad and untrue for this insinuation to come from people who should know better. This is nothing but pure mischief. Are lecturers in PLASU unhappy that the school is getting TetFund intervention? Which State will reject such assistance, when the Governments at all levels including the Federal Government which directly oversees TetFund are crying over lack of funds due to COVID-19 and the economic recession?”
The Governor went down memory lane to remind the lecturers about the status of the Plateau State University before his coming into office in 2015. It is common knowledge that before the advent of the Lalong Rescue Administration, the University was in a state of coma, having been neglected for years by the immediate past administration of Governor David Jang, for reasons many citizens of the State are yet to be fathom.
Many have not forgotten how students who were already offered admission into the various courses of the university at different levels, and had started lectures, were stranded and had to start scampering all over the place to seek admissions into other Universities. Accreditation of courses was therefore not obtained as ongoing processes were aborted and abandoned, while the lecturers and other staff were idle and redundant.
But with the coming of the Lalong administration, the vision of the founding fathers of PLASU was revived with full vigour and determination. Lalong, who was Speaker of the Plateau State House of Assembly when the idea was conceived and did everything possible to pass the law establishing the University, vowed never to allow this dream suffocate again under his watch as Governor.
Apart from the fact that the Plateau State Government over time has invested huge sums of money to develop classroom infrastructure, offices, laboratories, hostels and staff housing in the University, the Lalong administration has since coming into office carried out various projects such as the construction of roads and street lights within the University campus to facilitate smooth academic activities. This is in addition to releasing about 300 million naira which facilitated the accreditation of 14 programmes in the University.
It is to the credit of Governor Lalong that the first ever Convocation Ceremony of the University was held in 2017 because of his concerted efforts in reviving the institution. Because of COVID-19, the 3rd, 4th & 5th combined Convocation Ceremony of the University was held virtually in August 2020 to enable the graduands participate in the NYSC.
In addition, through concerted efforts, three new faculties have been approved including Law, Health Sciences and Environmental Science with the fourth, Agriculture soon to be introduced. While the State Government also approved funds for the remodeling of multi-purpose hall to serve as Law Auditorium, work on the construction of Teaching Hospital for the new faculty of health sciences is ongoing in Shendam, all funded by the State Government.
To hear ASUU bemoan the fact that TetFund is executing many projects in the institution, and advance it as one of the reasons for its strike, has indeed surprised many. The fact that the State Governor has been able to use his influence and goodwill to lobby and attract TetFund projects, including the Special High Impact Intervention Projects which can only go to six Universities in the country annually should call for commendation, not condemnation.
What difference does it really make if the structures are constructed by TetFund, State Government, Corporate Organisations, Donor agencies, Parent Teacher Association, or even Community Development Associations? If one may ask further, besides the primary objective of pursuing and protecting welfare issues of members, in modern times of constructive unionism, unions are seen as part of the progressives engaged in advocacy, lobbying and attracting partnership, infrastructural developments etc, in their domains for the common good. How much of this have we seen in a young and fledgling institution like PLASU? After all, ASUU has severally been credited for being the brain behind the establishment of TetFund to do exactly what it is doing at the Plateau State University. What then is the fuss about? Or, will the students refuse to sit in the facilities to learn or will the lecturers and non-teaching staff suffer losses when they sit in the offices to work?
Even if the TetFund changes its mind later, it is unfathomable that they will uproot the structures and take them to other States or to a federal facility. There is certainly no justification for the hue and cry that this allegation has generated. Indeed, it is a storm in a tea cup which, to concerned citizens, is politically meant to ridicule the State Government and paint it in bad light.
Gladly enough, this does not seem to have been achieved despite the twisting of facts by political interests that have latched on it to make a feast in the social media.
Members of the public may not be aware that since Plateau State started implementing the Treasury Single Account, Tertiary Institutions including PLASU have been exempted from the scheme as they retain 100 percent of their internally generated revenue to fund their activities. This does not happen with Federal Universities who adhere strictly to the TSA system. Despite this, the State Government gives monthly subvention to the University as well as pays all its staff salaries and emoluments promptly and up to date.
At a time when the State treasury is suffering from lack of funds as a result of massive drop in IGR and Federal Allocation, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no point in vilifying the Government for some of the shortcomings as enumerated by PLASU-ASUU, who are very well aware of other commitments of the Government, such as the implementation of the new minimum wage which has started in Plateau State, among other things. Simply put, in the face of concerned parents, the public and stakeholders, the timing and some reasons advanced for the strike action are not strategic enough to attract public sympathy at all.
The good news is that Governor Lalong, who is labour friendly, and has a listening ear with unequalled passion for education. He does not want students to suffer any longer. He has set up a 7-man committee to address the issue raised by the PLASU-ASUU with a view to resolving them. Already, consultations have commenced and there is every hope that they will resolve the matters sooner than later.
While that is going on, the Governor is unrepentant about attracting more TetFund projects to the University, as he insists that the State Government is entitled to draw from the TetFund just like other States, Federal Universities, Polytechnics, Colleges of Education and other institutions. After all, TetFund monies belong to the Federal and State Governments, being commonwealth funds in form of tax on every Nigerian citizen from North, South, East and West, aggregated in a common pool and shared equitably.
While appreciating PLASU-ASUU’s patriotic zeal, as bastion of intellectualism in the ivory tower, this is perhaps the best moment for deeper reflection and exercise of restraint in criticism, in order to set the right examples that will not erode subsequent goodwill from the State, in its future quest for more intervention by well-meaning entities such as TetFund.
Governor Lalong remains determined not to rest until PLASU attains its potentials and glory, which is very much on course and all hands, including the unions, must be on deck.
Makut Simon Macham, Ph.D., is the Director of Press and Public Affairs to the Governor of Plateau State.