Is there anybody who does not know that there is trouble in Nigeria? As an elder, I cannot pretend I do not know what is happening to higher education in our country. As a retired professor, I am a stakeholder in higher education in Nigeria. Having studied at the University of Ibadan, and for higher degrees studied in Canada, Britain, Germany and France, and taught in a Canadian and a West Indian university as well as the universities of Ibadan, Jos, Lagos and Maiduguri and in the Redeemers University, and served as Director of the National Universities Commission in Ottawa and Washington and was a member of council in four universities in Nigeria before becoming a pro-chancellor and chairman of council of a state university, with all modesty, I know a little about universities worldwide.
This is why I am writing this article. It is extremely difficult for any retired professor not to be emotionally involved in the plight of university staff in Nigeria and particularly in the condition of academia generally.
Let me say right away that the current industrial action of the Nigerian universities has gone on for too long and would have more than destroyed the university system by the time it is called off. This could not have been foreseen by ASUU. But this is the reality. Strikes in the universities began in the 1973/74 session and has been a yearly occurrence since then. It seems to me that ASUU has played into the hands of its enemies, so to say, because very few governments that I know would have allowed the current strike to go on for this long without doing something about it.
I know, of course, that these are trying times for this government. It is faced with the problems of insecurity, collapsed economy and corruption; and each of these problems is capable of tearing the country into pieces. There is also the problem of over administration, too many states and too many local governments all guzzling disproportionate share of the national revenue. There is also the issue of over centralisation and concentration of too much power in the centre. The government is at the same time facing the demands of workers for better salaries in the face of rising inflation and wholesale devaluation of the national currency.
The fact is that these problems are intricately interwoven. Without corruption and insecurity, and with the right structure of government, the economy would not be in the dire condition it finds itself. Our country must undergo a complete overhaul of the economy to recover enough for the government to meet its responsibilities. Our country is not mobilised for production and productivity. We all rely on collecting commissions on oil and gas exports and our people, apart from the salaried ones, do not pay taxes, and our country is almost unique in this respect.
This is why we do not have a government that responds to the wishes of the people because it can exist while ignoring the people because it does not depend on their taxes. Whatever it, therefore, collects it can afford to dissipate and share it with whichever sector of the economy that is critical to its survival. That is why the security sector is favoured above the social sector of health and education.
If my people in ASUU will understand this, they will have a different strategy than going on strike every year and expecting different reactions from the government. This is the height of madness. What ASUU should now be fighting for is university autonomy, which the law has, in fact, granted. ASUU should take governments, both federal and state, to court over university autonomy.
Once university autonomy is granted, each university should cost what it will take to educate students across all disciplines in the universities in a differentiated school fees and come up with the economic cost. The government should then grant annually whatever it says it can afford while parents of students would have to come up with the remainder of the cost. Not all parents will be able to pay the economic cost of their children’s education. Such parents would have to be assisted by the federal, state and local governments scholarship awards. Churches and Mosques as well as NGOs, corporate bodies and individuals would also come in knowing that whatever assistance they provide will be tax deductible for those of them who pay taxes.
This will lead to differentiated payments of fees and salaries by each university. Each university will develop unique characters rather than the homogenised national, or is it federal character, that we currently have. For example, the universities of Lagos, Ibadan, Ahmadu Bello, Bayero, Obafemi Awolowo, Port Harcourt and Nsukka, because of their reputation and location, may be able to generate revenues that will make them pay their staff better salaries than the current poor national remuneration.
Governments at all levels must stop meddling in university administration. Some state governors that are not providing adequate funding for state universities are in the habit of announcing over the radio that their universities must not charge more than N50,000 per student per year when the actual cost of their programmes range from N500,000 to N1,000,000. The federal government also imposes arbitrary ceiling on fees for accommodation and tuition leading to poverty of accommodation and tuition not fit for human beings with the result that foreign students no longer come to Nigerian universities while young Nigerians flock to universities in neighbouring countries of Niger, Benin, Togo and Ghana, some of which are specifically established for Nigerians and, in some cases, by Nigerian business men and women!
A properly funded university system where the universities are allowed to generate their own revenues through fees, grants, innovation and copyrights will free them from the deadweight of government control. Economic fees may also put an end to irresponsible fathering of children that they cannot support by men and this may indirectly curb the galloping rise in our population.
A government that cannot fund existing universities finds it easy to announce new universities of “medicine” “transportation “”Navy,’’ “ Airforce, ‘’ “ Police “and “Army” etc. One former president during an after-dinner speech announced the establishment of eleven new universities with a grant of one billion take off budget!
The cost of higher education can be moderated if, instead of establishing new universities, the current ones are expanded thus saving administrative costs of paying tens of vice chancellors, registrars, bursars and so on.
My advice, therefore, to ASUU is to find a better way than embarking on strikes to fight a just cause. It should go to court to enforce university autonomy, and it should then raise revenue the way it must and allow the government to come up with whatever it says it can afford to grant the universities without any right to fix salaries and school fees. This is what university autonomy is all about.
If the universities can improve and fix their dilapidated infrastructure and dilute the local staff with distinguished academic staff, perhaps people on sabbatical leave from the international academic system, foreign university students paying hard currencies will come as it was in my days as a student at the University of Ibadan.
Universities, after gaining back their autonomy, can approach both Nigerian banks and the AFRICAN DEVELOPMENT BANK, and the WORLD BANK, for loans and grants to improve their physical, laboratory, teaching and research infrastructures. If their programmes are well packaged, foreign governments’ grants will find their ways into the universities rather than into the bottomless pockets of the corrupt bureaucracy of government.
ASUU should pick up the gauntlet thrown at it by the government and methodically rise up to the occasion. Results will not be immediate and instantaneous but this is the way to go to put an end to this unending and degrading regime of annual strikes.
By Professor Jide Osuntokun