PARTIALLY crippled by a three-month industrial action by public university lecturers, Nigeria’s tertiary education system is now in danger of a near-total paralysis. The road to disaster opened a week ago when the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics gave the Federal Government a two-week ultimatum to address its grievances or face an indefinite strike by polytechnic lecturers. Based on the Federal Government’s disgraceful incompetence in handling the Academic Staff Union of Universities strike, there is a high probability that the planned total ASUP strike might soon be a bitter reality.
Already, ASUP’s two-week warning strike has paralysed the polytechnic system, especially in federal institutions. A few state government-owned polytechnics have joined in the strike. With leaders of the different arms of government concentrating morbidly on the 2023 electioneering and neglecting other matters, ASUP might well carry out its threat. The president of ASUP, Anderson Ezeibe, accused the government of reneging on the agreements between the two parties to revitalise the system. This is a notorious habit of successive Nigerian governments.
If the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), and his officials fail to sort out ASUP, this will be cataclysmic for Nigeria’s wobbly tertiary education system because ASUU threw it into disarray when it commenced its own strike last February. Already, the joint staggered strike by the Non-Academic Staff Union and Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities is in its third month. The regime should avoid simultaneous ASUP, NASU, SSANU and ASUU strikes at all costs.
Undoubtedly, ASUP has legitimate grievances against the government. After a three-month industrial action centred essentially on the payment of arrears on the minimum wage and the revitalisation of polytechnics in 2021, the Buhari regime signed a memorandum of action with the union. Government was to release N15 billion as part of the deal. It has not honoured the bargain.
ASUP says the backlog is now N19 billion because it was not serviced as agreed. Ezeibe said, “We call the attention of the Nigerian government and the public to the level of irresponsibility being displayed by agencies of government and functionaries of government in these agencies on our issues. What we are seeing is a clear absence of commitment by the government.” The government is prevaricating and provoking another prolonged strike.
The ASUP mess encapsulates graphically the wider structural malaise in Nigeria’s education system. It is linked also to the warped political system, one in which the Federal Government assumes the role of ‘big brother’ as opposed to operating a truly devolved (federal) system. Although it is clearly unable to fund tertiary education properly, the Federal Government regularly establishes more polytechnics, universities and colleges of education based on politics.
While it could not fund the 28 polytechnics in its care as of 2016, between then and 2019, it created three new polytechnics in Ile-Oluji (Ondo), Kaltungo (Gombe) and Daura (Katsina). The Buhari regime set up six new polytechnics in 2021 alone. This turns rationality on its head. It has a ready partner in the National Assembly, where lawmakers elevate politics above else.
This trend greatly undermines the system, especially in terms of manpower and funding. It leads to frequent disruptions to the academic calendar and degrades quality.
Like his predecessors, Buhari has failed woefully in education, especially at the tertiary level. On his appalling watch, mushroom universities and polytechnics are being established like confetti at a wedding. Incredibly, the President appropriated a medical science university to the Federal Government during his recent state visit to Ebonyi State. He approved specialised universities for the military arms which the incumbent Service Chiefs at that time promptly sited in their hometowns. Transport universities have been established in Buhari’s hometown in Daura, and the then transportation minister’s base in Rivers State. Buhari and NASS do not think of the financial implications or source of funding for these grandiose projects.
Belatedly, the government started paying the arrears of the minimum wage to both the ASUP and ASUU members last week. While this is expedient, it might not be enough to keep the unions out of the classrooms. According to ASUP, government needs to honour other key areas in the MoA, and not only the payment of the 10-month minimum wage differential.
In an era of knowledge-based economy, government must comprehensively rework its policies on the polytechnic system. It should engineer polytechnic education to meet distinct needs in the economy; polytechnic education should not be emasculated for other areas of tertiary education.
At every turn, the Buhari regime claims that government has no money to service its MoAs with ASUP and ASUU. This is a hard sell because the crisis coincides with the growing ostentation and allegations of grand corruption in government in which billions of naira and properties are being mentioned. To many, this means that if education is Nigeria’s priority, it can fund it accordingly. In the ASUU agreement, the government agreed to fund the revitalisation of public universities with N200 billion annually. That price is not too high for the government to pay.
For Nigeria to redeem the future of its young citizens, education should be a top priority. This is the case in Germany, Europe’s largest economy. There, education is free from primary to secondary levels for all German citizens. By law, all German citizens must be in school between the ages of six and 15. Tuition is free at the tertiary level. Needy students receive a financial support of €650 per month for four to five years at the tertiary level. An attempt by six of the 16 states to introduce €500 per semester tuition in 2012 was later abrogated due to protests.
This is an enduring lesson for Nigeria’s local, state and federal governments to enable them address the ugly phenomenon of the out-of-school children figure estimated at 10 to 16.5 million, the highest globally. In the meantime, the government must honour its agreements with unions.
The Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, has been singularly ineffective, often missing in action during the unending crises in the sector. Buhari should drop him now and appoint a capable replacement.
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