The Academic Staff Union (ASUU) has been on strike since 4th November 2018 and efforts to resolve the issue are yet to bear fruit. ASUU strikes have become part of Nigeria’s national strife and trauma. Enormous working days are lost regularly due to the strikes. The numbers of days lost under the Forth Republic are staggering: 1999 – 150, 2001 – 90, 2002 – 14, 2003 – 180, 2005 – 3, 2006 – 7, 2007 – 90, 2008 – 7, 2009 – 120, 2010 – 157, 2011 – 190, 2013 – 150, 2016 -7, 2017 – 35, 2018-2019 – 81 days so far. The Nigerian university system is in serious crisis and the way to regeneration must be sought, not just for the university system but for the entire educational arena.
I read with nostalgia a lecture entitled “Salvaging Nigerian Universities”, by one of Nigeria’s most senior academics, Ladipo Adamolekun. He regretted the serious decline in the quality of universities and reminisced about his days as a student of the world-class university of Ibadan in the 1960s. He recalled the three qualities that made the university great; they had quality teachers, an enabling environment for learning and international competitiveness. He however warned that we must not take the decline of universities in isolation. All other strategic elite institutions in the country including the civil services, the judiciary and the military have suffered similar decline. It is indeed completely true that Nigeria is suffering from a generalised and dramatic decline of the quality of its institutions and the current crisis affecting the system of higher education cannot be understood in isolation.
I was a student in Ahmadu Bello University in the 1970s and during our time, the universities were still quality institutions even if they had by then lost the “world-class” label. On graduation I joined the faculty of the university and within a few years, became an active member and later a leader of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), out trade union. The ASUU of our time, the 1980s, was committed to sustaining the quality education we found but alas, we won many battles but appeared to have lost the war.
The easy part of the story of the university system is declining finances, which made it difficult for the universities to recruit and above all to retain quality staff, engage in research and provide a conducive atmosphere for learning and research. The more complex story relates to the corruption of Nigeria society in general, which created a mentality of looting and wanton exploitation in whatever situation people find themselves. ASUU was also unable to retain focus on the struggle for academic freedom and university autonomy and transformed into a more classic union seeking to protect the interests of its members alone and to some extent lost sight of the essentials – students, teaching and research.
Yesterday, we held a research workshop on the university system, inequality and the public good. The economic crisis of the 1980s and the policy response adopted in the form of the structural adjustment programme precipitated the crisis, which was essentially a reflection of the failure of the developmental project of the Nigerian State. The initiative of the founding fathers of the Nation to consider education is an important value the country owes to its children was lost. This was in response to the problem of enrolment. Expansion of the student population created a crisis in State capacity to cope with the requirements of increased funding. What was even more profound however was the entry of globally influenced, market driven policies towards higher education that restricted the perceptions of the benefits of higher education to its economic benefits and framed the quality and effectiveness of institutions within these parameters. Specifically, the forces of globalization represented by the Bretton Woods institutions pushed for a radical approach that devalued higher education in particular in countries where the economic performance levels, they believed, did not justify high levels of investment.
In terms of the political economy, the most important transformation that occurred was rising inequality which led to the exit of elite children from public education thereby creating a sharp class divide between the quality of education in the public university system. Over the last forty years, university academics, trade unions and students have organized effectively to challenge the attempt by the State to withdraw from its commitment to funding public education. The upper echelons of the elite have responded by exiting their children from the arena of public education and in their management of public expenditure have diverted funds away from the sector.
Nigeria today has a total of 169 universities. The distribution is 43 owned by the federal government, which have a student intake of 1.25 million. State governments have 47, the latest one being Zamfara State University. The sector with the largest number of universities is the private one with 79 universities. Most of the 79 private universities in the country are faith-based institutions but a few are owned by foundations and individuals. The 79 private universities in the country however have only 5.6% of student intake while the 90 public universities take the burden of over 95% of our students.
Nigeria has a population of 200 million and the university student population is 2 million making just one percent of the population. There is however a huge number of young students seeking admission to universities and not getting it. According to the Executive Secretary of the National University Commission, Rasheed Abubakar, over a five-year period, from 2012 to 2017, over 7.8 million young Nigerians applied to be admitted to Nigerian universities but only a little over 1.5 million were actually offered admission. This meant that only 19% of applicants to universities over the last five years gained admission, leaving nearly 81% or 6.3 million young persons’ angry that they were qualified for admission but did not get it. The ASUU case for increased financial resources for the university system is a legitimate one.
The problem of academic corruption as one of the most serious challenges facing the university system. There are multiple problems around academic malpractices and sexual harassment affecting the system, which ASUU must take the leadership of addressing. Meanwhile, we should all be aware that the Nigerian Constitution (Article 18) defines education as a public good that the State has an obligation to provide to citizens in a free and equitable manner. We said in our Constitution that we shall do it so let’s at least try hard to do it.
The prognosis of the ASUU struggles is always the same. After a long strike, government is forced to sign and to commit to full implementation, ASUU will go back to work and receive arrears for the months of work that its members did not do. Government will however renege on its promise to fully implement the agreement. It will take ASUU two more years of massive mobilisation to get lecturers back on strike and the cycle continues. This must stop. I interviewed Mallam Adamu Adamu, the Minister of Education and his assessment is that: “ASUU is a very, very positive force… Perhaps I should call them the conscience of education. Even if there is the will on the part of government to do good, sometimes it would require the academic staff union to push it, to insist. This is not a blanket endorsement of whatever ASUU is doing but in this respect, I think they are a force for good.” If ASUU cannot do business with him, they cannot do it with anyone else.
The Nigerian State has abdicated its responsibility for the development of the children of the masses and created a situation social mobility has been cut out for the children of the poor. Income inequality has grown considerably and the upper classes have taken their children out of public education, thereby abandoning the sector to the poor. The result is that the Nigerian State has provoked a class struggle in which poorly educated youth and the lumpen classes have resorted to violence in a vicious class struggle that is consuming the country in sectarian violence, insurgency, militancy and rural banditry.
For three decades – 1950 to 1980, education was an instrument for promoting hope and social mobility for the children of the masses. That was how the inextricable linkage between higher education and the public good developed. Since 1980 however, rising income inequality and the expansion of young people in search of what Nigerians called the golden fleece has created a new dynamic. The elite abandoned the financing of public education and took their children to private schools inside and outside the country. In this context, the struggle for re-establishing the linkage between higher education and the public good has become the pathway for rebuilding a State that can provide prosperity, welfare and security of ALL its citizens.