In starting this series on the crisis of tertiary education in Nigeria against the background of the ongoing Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) strike, I was determined not to deride university lecturers who make enormous sacrifices under impossible conditions. I have many friends in our universities and am aware that the highest paid Professor in Nigeria (on Level 7, Step 10) earns just about N420,000 per month. Even if you use the self-deceiving official exchange rate, it fetches less than $1000! With such a ridiculous reward system in a sector as critical as tertiary education, I can understand the frustration and anger of university lecturers. But they are not well served by ASUU whose leadership on Tuesday extended the strike indefinitely.

It is unfortunate that intellectuals whose primary job is to produce thinkers for the society cannot even offer decent ideas on how to resolve their own crisis. That then explains why strikes seem to be an annual festival on the university calendar. Yet, what we need is a conversation on sustainable ways to fund tertiary education in Nigeria. The basic problem, as former Vice Chancellor of Federal University Otuoke, Professor Bolaji Aluko, told me in a chat during the week, “is the lack of trust between contending parties, and an unwillingness to do basic and realistic arithmetic of income and expenditure around student fees, staff salaries, operating and capital expenses as well as between innovative revenue streams and accountable expenditures”. All these, according to Aluko, are compounded by “a lack of clarity about the status of university workers – whether they are government or council employees.”

That precisely is the problem with ASUU. Last Thursday, ASUU President, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke, featured on ‘The Morning Show,’ on ARISE News Channels, a THISDAY sister broadcast station. Following the session, I received a message from a former Vice Chancellor of a first-generation university who wrote: “Did you watch the ASUU President on ARISE, dismissing state universities as quacks because they didn’t join the strike? That’s the quality of the people leading the union.” He attached the video clip for me to watch. “So, don’t cite those examples as they are irrelevant,” Osodeke retorted angrily to suggestions about universities that are not on strike. “Is University of Ibadan on strike? Is University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) on strike? Is Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) on strike? Is Bayero University Kano (BUK) on strike? Is Maiduguri University on strike and the University of Lagos? Let’s talk about real universities, not those quacks.” Even when the moderator, Dr Reuben Abati gave Osodeke a tacit escape route, the ASUU president merely doubled down on his hubris. “Yes, they are quacks, go and check,” he said pompously before claiming the next day that he was “misquoted” when his colleagues descended on him. But it is easy to understand Osodeke’s mindset.

In a desperate proposition last week, the National Parent-Teacher Association of Nigeria (NAPTAN) requested a meeting with the federal government. “We are proposing a sum of N10, 000 per parent every session that will be directly paid to the universities. That will be our own contribution apart from other statutory payments in making more funds available to the universities,” NAPTAN’s Public Relations Officer, Ademola Ekundayo said. But Osodeke was dismissive of that idea too. “I think what this association should be doing is to tell the government to perform its function. They should put pressure on the government to use Nigerians’ money to fund education as it is done in other countries” he said before adding, “We can’t be calling ourselves the giant of Africa and we are the worst in education. You see students from Nigeria going to Ghana, Benin Republic, Togo, and other small countries to study but nobody from these countries is coming to Nigeria to study.”

I am not sure Osodeke has bothered to find out how much Ghanaian, Togolese, and Beninois undergraduates pay for university education in their countries before making a comparison lacking in rigour. A paper in the International Journal of Research Studies in Education written by Phinihas Acheampong and Jimmy Jaston Kayande of Beijing Normal University, China, reached a conclusion that tertiary education is more a privilege than a right in Ghana. This, according to the duo, “stems from the fact that high cost of higher education has rendered most economically disadvantaged students (to be) incapable of accessing university education” in the country.

I challenge Osodeke to conduct rudimentary research on tertiary education across Africa. He will realise not only how unsustainable the current Nigerian model is but also the damage ASUU strikes have wrought in the past 23 years. In 1999, ASUU was on strike for 150 days; in 2001, the strike lasted 90 days and in 2002, the campuses were closed for14 days. In 2003, ASUU was on strike for 180 days while in 2005 and 2006, the campuses were shut for 14 and three days respectively. The 2007 strike lasted 90 days, that of 2008, seven days and in 2009, the campuses were shut for 120 days. In 2010, ASUU was on strike for 150 days, in 2011 for 59 days and in 2013 for 150 days. In 2014, 2015 and 2016, there was peace on the campuses, but ASUU resumed its strike in 2017 for 30 days while it lasted 90 days in 2018. Their longest strike to date lasted 270 days in 2020 though it also coincided with Covid-19 restrictions. By tomorrow, the current one will mark its 200th day. When you tally the numbers, we are cumulatively looking at a situation in which ASUU has been on strike for about five calendar years between 1999 and now!

While I do not exonerate the federal government that has consistently failed to honour agreements it willingly entered into with ASUU, the point being missed in this conversation is that funding tertiary education takes more than paying the salaries of lecturers. As miserable as that may be at the moment. We need to improve the environment: Functional libraries and laboratories, up to date journals, access to technology, research grants, travel expenses etc. This would require that we expand the pool from which we source funding and such discussions cannot be resolved by a cheap resort to ‘Aluta continua.’

You hear it all the time on the street that ‘Nigeria is a rich country’, a statement that is not backed by any empirical evidence. That is also the underlining argument of ASUU. Yet, by whatever metrix one uses, Nigeria is a poor country, essentially because of our population. In 2020, Nigeria’s share in the global gross domestic product adjusted for purchasing power parity (which is used to measure both the economic growth and living standards in any country) amounted to approximately 0.81 percent. But when it comes to The Other Room, Nigeria is the gold standard. Using data from the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) World Factbook, Pratap Vardin, an Indian full-stack data science engineer, recently came up with a graphic of countries the next 1000 babies will statistically be born into based on population and birth rates by 2022 estimates. With 57 of those babies expected in Nigeria, it means we will account for about six per cent of children born into the world who will then battle for less than one percent of global resources!

Last Friday, the United Kingdom Mail newspaper carried a report that the number of Nigerian students coming to Britain had risen by 686% in three years to a record high of 65,929, with our country becoming the third largest foreign student group in the UK, after India and China. “While home student fees capped at £9,250, international ones now pay £24,000,” according to the report which exclude feeding, accommodation and other expenses stated. That gives us £1.582 billion which approximates to over a trillion Naira just to train less than 70,000 students. Even the amount of £9,250 paid by each UK student which exceeds N6 million per annum offers us a picture of how expensive education is. But by appealing to the mob that the only problem with Nigeria is corruption and that we have the resources for free education at all levels, ASUU has shut down the conversation we need to have.

There are several avenues that universities can explore to source funds for their operations. They include donations, endowments, professional chairs, gifts, grants, and consultancy services. And for indigent students in this same country, there are records of loans scheme, work study programmes, scholarship schemes, bursaries, grants etc. on our campuses before the oil boom that led us to where we are today. These are things that can be revived if only ASUU will allow all stakeholders to meaningfully engage in finding solutions that will untangle our universities from federal bureaucracy and confer on them real autonomy.

Let me make it clear here. I do not excuse the waste, lack of accountability and irresponsibility that define governance in Nigeria. But the reality of our situation is that we can no longer afford tuition-free university education because the challenge goes beyond payment of salaries. At the weekend, Prof Hamman Tukur Sa’ad whose intervention formed the basis of my last week column ( sent me a brief by a Mr Leonard Karshima Shilgba whom he described as the 1992 best graduating student in the Department of Mathematics at ABU Zaria. Using data sourced from his alma mater, Shilgaba said from the N22.57 billion allocated to ABU last year, 92 percent went for personnel expenditure of about 1,400 academic staff and 5,000 supporting staff. ABU, he stated, has a student population of 35,000 (for both degree and pre-degree programmes).

According to Sa’ad, that “these universities exist only to pay salaries and overhead when 92% of the budget goes to useless expenditure”, makes no sense. “By any standard you are not expected to have more supporting staff than academic staff. However, government is responsible for this distortion. They insist on funding salaries only and directly too.” ASUU, Sa’ad further argues, “Is involved in a fight with government instead of sitting down internally in the Universities to come up with solutions to their in-house problems. They want one size that fits all, when the bane of Nigeria is over centralisation of administration and decision making. ASUU is also a culprit in this case. Imagine a union that takes a percentage of members’ income and passes 60% to the centre, as if there is nothing to be done locally. One of the consequences of this centralisation is that even local problems are nationalised and become issues for closing down the whole system.”

There are many pertinent questions that require interrogation if we are to resolve this problem. Why should ASUU be negotiating with the federal government on behalf of state universities? Why are students paying less in universities than in primary and secondary schools? Why is the federal government still paying salary of lecturers directly when each university is supposed to run independently with autonomous powers? In his Monday blog on the influential American Council on Foreign Relations where he is currently a Senior Fellow for African Studies, Ebenezer Obadare (who taught at Ife before moving to American universities) posed more questions: “How can ASUU insist on ‘autonomy’ and at the same time maintain that the federal government pick up the tab for the running of the universities? Why should university faculty spread across 36 states be paid the same salaries even though they teach different things and live and work in different social circumstances? And why should a single union be the one to negotiate on their behalf?”

As someone from a poor background who may not have had a university education if it were not tuition-free, I admit this is not an easy conversation for me. But times have changed. Our population and the number of students (at all levels) has exploded amid dwindling resources. Therefore, to resolve the perpetual financial crisis in the university system so that we can attract quality academic staff, provide necessary teaching aids, and ensure conducive learning environment for students, we must examine alternative sources of funding. That is the only way our graduates can compete globally in the knowledge world. But even when many students may not be able to pay a commensurate school fee, the universities need not be shut against them.

Apparently having seen that President Muhammadu Buhari is now outsourcing responsibility to the administration that will come after him (with removal of subsidy scheduled to take off in June 2023 after he will have left office), ASUU has also decided to wait for his successor before any dialogue on the strike. I plead for a truce. The two sides must consider the plight of our frustrated students, bury their egos and come to an agreement on how to reopen the campuses. The federal government must also understand that proscribing ASUU as being suggested in some quarters is a military tactic that will backfire. What is required at this stage is leadership. The president and his Education Minister, Adamu Adamu, both of whom mouthed all the right platitudes on this issue when they were in the opposition should take ownership of the process. They must find a way to put an end to this destructive strike.

However, even after we resolve the current ASUU crisis, the federal government must also return to the path of responsibility. Over the years, our political leaders have turned public universities into ‘constituency projects’ to be sited in their villages. That is how we arrived at this sorry pass. Just recently, the National Assembly proposed to create additional 26 federal universities, 33 federal colleges of education and four polytechnics when we cannot adequately fund existing ones. To compound the problem, it is now a status symbol for governors, ministers and other top public officials at both the federal and the states to attend the offshore graduation ceremonies of their children, with the pictures splashed in our newspapers. In as much as nobody can decree where parents choose to educate their children, leaders must be sensitive to public mood.

I was at the 70th birthday ceremony cum public launching of the Kukah Centre last night in Abuja and there was hardly any speaker that didn’t make reference to the ASUU strike in their interventions. Incidentally, aside President Goodluck Jonathan and many governors, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential candidate, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu and his running mate, Alhaji Kashim Shettima were also in attendance. After sharing his experience of a marathon meeting he once had with ASUU leadership along with some of his ministers, President Jonathan urged the current administration to quickly resolve the crisis. I hope we can make the crisis of tertiary education in Nigeria one of the major campaign issues for the 2023 general election.

All said, I concede that so many things will have to change in the way we run our country. And it must start with the federal government increasing budgetary allocation to education, especially to aid research in our universities. The same thing should happen in the 36 states. But ASUU must also collaborate with the enlightened voice of the public to find solutions to the funding of these institutions so that lecturers can also be paid reasonable wages. While solutions must include student support facilities such as loans, grants and scholarship on the basis of merit and need, the reality of the Nigerian condition today is that we can no longer afford tuition-free public university education.


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