University education: The chickens have come home to roost

Sat Aug 6th, 2022 - Abuja (FCT)

President Muhammadu Buhari recently gave a 2-weeks ultimatum, which has since expired, for the negotiating parties to resolve the Federal Government-ASUU imbroglio. Some of us who had been in the educational sector long enough and had witnessed the aberrations knew it was a tall order and more fittingly, an impossible condition. This is not because the matter cannot be resolved in less than two weeks but because it was clearly discernible that the parties involved and other stakeholders in university education have not been telling ourselves the bitter truth. The closest to uprightness was the statement by the Honourable Minister of Labour that the Federal Government does not have the funds to meet its obligations in the agreement signed with the Unions, and that the country is broke. How else can one explain a 2009 agreement that is still begging for implementation in 2022? What is the assurance that a follow-up agreement in 2022 will be implemented before another 13 years (2035), if the prevailing conditions remain unaltered?

I struggled within me in deciding whether to send my modest suggestions covertly to the major parties involved or put it in the public domain. I have however come to the conclusion that it will serve greater public good with the latter approach since virtually all Nigerians are stakeholders. The unwary public has the right to know what is responsible for this seemingly intractable challenge, the ultimate solution and what should be their role in resolving the issues. It is embarrassing that the current ASUU strike which began on 14th February, 2022 has again been “rolled over” for another 4 weeks. Other staff Unions on our campuses (SSANU, NASU and NAAT) have not fared better. The last ASUU strike in 2020 lasted for nine months and from all indications, the current strike may last longer. Must we continue this way? Is incessant strike the solution to the decadence in the educational system? Have the strikes been effective or of any overall benefit to the stakeholders? The answer to all these questions is ambiguous and clearly dependent on the side to which the individual belongs.

ASUU embarked on the current strike to press home its demands for; the renegotiation of the ASUU/FGN 2009 agreement, deployment of UTAS to replace IPPIS, release of the reports of Visitation panels to federal universities, funding for revitalization of public universities, earned academic allowances, poor funding of State Universities and promotion arrears. I have not been privileged to read the Nimi Briggs Report but snippets in the newspapers and other information outlets indicate that a major part of the report is increment in salary. Nigerian lecturers are now the poorest paid in Africa and it is obvious that such a system can never retain the best. We know from the Minister of Labour, Employment and Productivity, Dr. Chris Ngige, that the Nimi Briggs Committee proposed “109 to 185 per cent increase in the University wage structure”, and that “the Federal Government will incur an additional N560 billion as salaries alone”. The Minister has opined that negotiating with ASUU without simultaneously doing so with other university-based unions only delays the strike as it would not achieve a quick resolution of the issues. The Minister at several fora has also declared that Nigeria is broke (saying the obvious!) and that the Federal Government does not have the funds to meet its obligations in the agreement signed with the Unions. He has therefore called for renegotiation of the terms of the Agreement with ASUU, in the effort to end the ongoing strike by University staff.

If we continue this way, the negotiations are unlikely to record any significant achievement. Emeritus Professor Nimi Briggs (Pro-Chancellor, Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike Ikwo), chairing the current negotiating Panel and other members of the panel are reputable and highly revered individuals with very deep insight of university education. They have over the years proven their devotion and total commitment to the growth and development of higher education in the country. However, the fact remains that they have to work within the ambit of their terms of reference. The Committee inaugurated on March 7, 2022 had three months to conclude the renegotiation of the 2009 FGN/ASUU agreement and, as expected, it submitted its report on schedule. However, the efforts of the 7-member renegotiating team now appear to be inadequate in resolving the present impasse, reopening our universities and keeping our campuses functional. It will be necessary to know the suggestions proffered by the Renegotiating Committee on how the Federal Government would source the funds to meet the proposed salary increase.

Another major grouse of ASUU and the other staff Unions with the Federal Government is the introduction of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS). The IPPIS is domiciled in the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation (OAGF). The IPPIS project, which commenced in 2007, centralises the payment of salaries and wages directly to the bank accounts of all federal government employees in Nigeria. It is one of the major issues that led to the 9-month strike by the ASUU in 2020, and the follow-up industrial actions by SSANU and NASU early in 2021. The challenges of IPPIS are enormous for all stakeholders and especially for the Universities. Due to the peculiarities of the Universities, there are major challenges with the use of IPPIS. Most of these are, to all extent and purposes, human problems. The scheme has become an albatross bedeviling the tertiary education system in the country, and further undermining the autonomy earlier enjoyed by the Universities. Interestingly, while the Unions are agitating, University administrators are lukewarm about the use of IPPIS because it has shifted the heat and agitations on salaries and wages from the campuses to Abuja. Instead of ASUU insisting on the use of University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS), and the Joint Action Committee of the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU) and the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) marketing the University Peculiar Payroll Payment System (U3PS), relocating and shedding the control of IPPIS for Federal Universities to the National Universities Commission (NUC) will be a fair compromise. My opinion!

The peculiarities of the University system (such as sabbatical leave, appointment of expatriate staff and other practices necessary to internationalize and make a university world-class can then be continuously built into the IPPIS software domiciled in NUC. It could ideally be referred to as IPPIS-U. I do not expect ASUU to agree with this suggestion just as I also would not expect the Federal Government to concur. This is because ASUU is known to fight “until the last man” for a just cause and on the part of the Federal Government, egos of those who have maintained the “IPPIS or nothing” stance may be bruised. However, for the sake of the system and to bring some stability to our universities it appears to me to be the best solution and gladiators must at this point sheath their swords. The unending expectation of a positive outcome from the integrity test by the National Information Technology and Development Agency (NITDA) for both UTAS and U3PS should be a source of worry to all Nigerians. We have had enough of IPPIS politics! No software, no matter how robust, would eliminate the negative factors identified with IPPIS, particularly if some of the operators are attuned to selfish and dishonest pursuits, and offenders are not severely and promptly punished. The very best financial accountability software in the world can always be compromised but such occurrences are minimized where and when there are active deterrents.

It is time for the stakeholders in the education sector to now come to “reason together” and stop acting in silos and fiefdoms. Government must declare an emergency in the education sector and all critical stakeholders must now dialogue, and come to amicable and reasonable solution. Truth be told, this is not the time for negotiations spanning months, it smirks of insincerity or failure to grasp the enormity of the problem. While not ignoring the letter and spirit of the Trade Dispute Act on resolution of industrial actions, I will propose that the Government conveys an expanded assembly of critical stakeholders, and not just the Ministries and the Unions, to deliberate and take critical decisions that will move the education sector forward, and ensure that our students, who have been at home for five months, resume immediately. The meeting should have representatives of; the core Ministries (Education, Labour, Finance, and Science and Technology), the staff Unions (ASUU, SSANU, NASU and NAAT), the students, National Salaries and Wages Commission, Head of Service of the Federation, Accountant-General of the Federation, and the Tertiary Education Committees of the Senate and House of Representatives. The Federal Ministry of Education/National Universities Commission should coordinate the meetings which ideally should be chaired by the Minister of Education. If discussions at such a forum is open and sincere, it will be possible to chart a new course for University education in the country and forestall any future strikes and closure of our higher institutions. We all know the truth but, we must now allow the truth to set us free.

A quick background information on the current financial contribution of students in our Federal Universities will shed some light on the insincerity pervading the system. Allow me to use Obafemi Awolowo University as an example. The students still pay N90, with N2,500 maintenance fees, per session for accommodation even in situations where the session extends beyond 12 months. The N90 is the same amount I paid as a student in the same University in the 1970s. The cost of the receipt issued for the payment is probably more than the amount paid and it would have been more “economical” for the university if offered free! The charging of “fees” is not supported by the Federal Government but in OAU, undergraduate student pay ‘’Departmental charges” of N5,000 per session for Arts, N10,000 for Sciences, Social Sciences, Technology and Law, and N15,000 for Medicine and other courses in the Health Sciences. These charges were fixed over 20 years ago and the uproar that followed has ensured that it remained the same.

OAU with a student population of about 25,000 runs an annual Personnel budget of approximately N10 billion. This in essence means N400,000 per student per session will double the personnel budget. Of course, it will be ridiculous to expect that all students must pay the same amount of fees. It may mean payments of between N200,000 and N600,000 per student per session depending on the course. This is nowhere near the N900,000 to N3,000,000 per session that students pay in most private universities today. Students would be charged based on the standard staff-student ratio and the number of lectures per course, with a standard fee fixed for each lecture. A personal experience would suffice. I was in a University in South Africa, as Visiting Professor, in 2002 and the Department could not deliver a lecture because it fell on a Public holiday that was never envisaged. It was the last week of formal lectures, just before the examinations, and the department had to negotiate with the students to find a suitable time. The students had to be persuaded that the lecture would be beneficial to them and really worth sacrificing their revision time. It was strange to me that lecturers had to plead with students for a lecture to be delivered. My host then explained to me that failure to give the lecture would mean a refund by the Department to the students but that, to him was not the problem. The real challenge was that the next set of students would reject that lecture because it would be deemed as inconsequential and unnecessary, if an earlier set could graduate without it. In Nigeria of today, such a lecture would never be given and it would be rationalized. If students pay for lectures, no matter how minimal, they can boldly and justifiably exercise their right to quality delivery and regularity of the session.

Many would ask, if fees are introduced, what would happen to those who cannot afford the fees? Between 10 and 20 per cent of the fees collected (an estimated one to two billion Naira for OAU) should be set aside for partial or full scholarships to indigent students. While many may want to falsify and lower their status in order to qualify, two or three key criteria such as primary and secondary schools attended (fee-paying or non-fee-paying), loss of parents etc. would easily differentiate indigent students.

As Vice-Chancellor for five years (2017 to 2022), the incarceration of University administration on the issue of fees was quite distressing to me. Even when the students are willing to contribute financially, the staff Unions led by ASUU had always been against the introduction of fees. The Federal Government also insist that the annual appropriation budget had taken care of all necessary expenditure and that 25% of any income generated must even be remitted to the Federal government. In 2020, the National Assembly passed a resolution that Universities should refund Acceptance fees (N20,000 per newly admitted student for OAU). It became a big issue and the University had to refund, even when we had a 9-month extension to the session due to ASUU strike, and the financial situation of the Federal institutions were highly precarious. Also, in October 2019, the University of Maiduguri introduced a modest increment in their charges and were forced to revert to the old charges by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In ordering the University of Maiduguri to suspend the plan to raise the fees imposed, the House of Representatives concluded “Irrespective of the justification that may have informed the decision, either to address operational and managerial realities of the school, such decision is ill-timed, given the desire by the Federal Government, the Borno State Government and well-meaning Nigerians to tackle the educational needs of Borno State and its environs.” A better approach, instead of the outright reversal of the charges, would have been to set up a special fund for Scholarships and Bursaries, for those who may not be able to afford the increment, due to the plight of the people in the North-East. Unfortunately, the prevailing situation in the region in 2019 has now spread to other parts of the country. The University of Benin announced a similar increase in some charges in September 2021 which also had to be reversed. These occurrences are worrisome and confirmatory of our desire in post-oil boom era to have everything for free, including university education.

Some have argued that education is a right and not a privilege, and that funding of education as stipulated in the Nigerian constitution is the responsibility of government and not parents. Must we allow the demise of our public primary and secondary schools, which we have all witnessed, to occur in our public universities? It is deceitful to expect that University education in today’s Nigeria will continue to be free. The evidence and situation on ground does not support such a grandiose illusion. There are currently 217 universities in the country of which only 49 are federal, 57 state, and majority 111 are private. If the Federal universities would survive, we must be sincere enough to admit our prostration and be courageous to take far-reaching decisions. It is possible with the support of all and sundry. We must always remember that strong connections have been established between rising criminality and idle youths. It is dangerous for the country to continue to nurture university students that are wasting away at home, without the slightest idea of a possible date of resumption. We must not forget that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”. All involved must resolve to end this strike and rapidly chart a better course for the future of university education in the country. I come in peace!

Eyitope Ogunbodede, Professor of Preventive and Community Dentistry & Immediate past Vice-Chancellor (2017-2022), Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.




source: Tribune