Readers of my columns – ON THE LORD’S DAY in the SUNDAY Tribune and TREASURES in the New Telegraph newspaper on Wednesdays and also online – will recall that I was strident in my criticism of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in their recent eight-month strike not because the strike action was not justified but because of what I considered as their hare-brained approach to a very important issue that could make or mar not just ASUU and their students but the university system itself and the country’s entire education system. Up against a deaf-and dumb, he-that-is-down-needs-fears-
no-fall, inept, corrupt, clueless, insensitive Muhammadu Buhari administration, I had felt ASUU and its leaders ought to have been more imaginative, creative and circumspect in the way they handled a King Nero like Buhari. Just like Nero fiddled while Rome burned, Buhari picked his teeth while Nigeria skidded towards the edge of the precipice. Buhari was the typical proverbial I-don’t-care who has nothing doing and nowhere going but will not allow those who will to do so. You need brain and not brawn to handle such a fellow; unfortunately, ASUU demonstrated little of that. ASUU’s good cause, thus, was reduced to bragging rights between them and Buhari; the one who carries a pot of oil on his head foolishly began to contest the right of way with another who carries a pot of sand. I am sure you know the end result!
If ASUU got anything out of that strike, I am certain its loss dwarfed it. To start with, ASUU went into battle with a divided house, having been polarised or fractionalised into ASUU, CONUA (Congress of Nigerian University Academics) and NAMDA (National Association of Medical and Dental Academics). All three factions/fractions profess to be “academics” but how “academic” are academics who could not understand the age-old truism that “United we stand; divided we fall”! When they chant the “Aluta” anthem of “Solidarity forever”, does it not sound hollow in their heart? Dogs don’t eat dogs is what I hear them say but our academics’ birds eat one another’s intestines and injury to one is no longer injury to all! That was the pitiable state in which the egg-heads went to war with a two-star Army general and two-time Head of State and Commander-in-Chief. Any surprise that Buhari made a mince-meat of them? But for the then Speaker of the House of Representatives now Chief of Staff to President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Mr. Femi Gbajabiamila, whose intervention, though largely a deceit, gave ASUU leaders a face-saving exit, only God knows how the battle of two unequally matched foes would have ended.
What was lost to that strike was monumental. The time lost on all sides can never be regained; the neck-breaking speed with which ASUU members have rushed their students ostensibly to regain lost ground can only result in producing half-baked graduates. Parents lost money. Many developed high blood pressure and even died. Students died due to road carnage on the way home and or back to school. Lecturers who were denied their salaries for months on end suffered irreparable damage to their health and or economic well-being. Campuses were littered with obituaries. Many sold properties to keep body and soul together in the hope that they would recover lost ground when salary arrears are eventually paid but that, for many, is yet to materialise. Car owners now have to make do with foot-wagons. The economy of host communities that relies heavily on student patronage took a beating. Unable to pay back loans and harassed by shylock creditors, some committed suicide. ASUU and its members lost face. The Nigerian university system was exposed to opprobrium before the international community. What university system is this that can keep its doors shut for eight uninterrupted months, and lecturers and researchers that can be off work for such a long period? Serious university systems elsewhere must have marvelled at the kind of university system we run here! But is that not why we are Nigerians, noted for notoriety – and, interestingly, flashes of ingenuity – everywhere!
May affliction not rise a second time! But to be forewarned is to be forearmed! We must, from a very safe distance, take heed of that menacingly protruding branch of a tree if we will avoid it piercing us in the eye. In the last few weeks ASUU has had cause to complain twice about policies that, ordinarily, should enjoy their blessing, meaning that their head must have been shaved behind their back. That is a sure recipe for disaster; if not now, then, certainly in the near future. The first is the Student Loan (Access to Higher Education) Bill, which President Tinubu signed into law. Criticisms have trailed the Law, one of which is that it is a scantily-concealed commercialisation of education, the type that led to the Ali Must Go student crisis of 1978 during the Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo military junta. With the proviso that only those whose parents earn less than N500,000 per annum can assess the loan, even a minimum wage earner (N30,000 per month/N360,000 per annum) will not qualify once Tinubu honours his promise to review salaries to cushion the deleterious effects of fuel subsidy removal. And if, as envisaged, the loan is a precursor to institutions of higher learning’s liberty to freely fix school fees, then, ASUU will be right that we are about to witness the pricing of education beyond the reach of the poor.
To make matters worse is the fact that the loan covers only tuition! What of accommodation, where university hostels are grossly inadequate and the majority of students live off-campus at the mercy of shylock landlords? What of feeding where subsidized university cafeterias have been abolished and cost of living have shot right through the roof? This is not to talk of the cost of books and other learning aids! Then, if we must ask, the private university students excluded from this loan: are they not Nigerians and will the Nigerian system not benefit from the knowledge and skill they are studying to acquire? Or is it the assumption that anyone with a child in a private university is capable? Many go there because there is a lack of carrying capacity in federal and state universities. Besides, the government will have to amend the relevant sections of the 1999 Constitution before tuition fees can be charged in federal institutions of higher learning. The student loan law is, therefore, good intention but work in progress, to put it mildly.
Another issue that ASUU is at loggerheads with, with the National Universities Commission (NUC), is the new curriculum benchmark unfurled days ago by the commission. ASUU has described 70 percent of the new curriculum as an imposition by NUC. If ASUU members, and not the NUC staff, are the ones to teach the new curriculum, then, this is a serious matter. As in the Student Loan Act, this may be another shaving of a person’s head behind his back, which MKO Abiola of blessed memory seriously counselled us against. But beyond the two festering issues mentioned above, the crisis in the education sector demands that an emergency be declared in that very important sector of our national life. Interestingly, apart from the Student Loan Act, which we can say is addressed at youths for the obvious reason of the #ENDSARSNOW back-lash, Tinubu is yet to make any profound statement or announce any policy targeted directly at the education sector. Maybe he is still consulting!
I suggest, then, that the president adds the following to his list: One: Put the last ASUU strike behind us by paying the lecturers their withheld salary as an act of magnanimity and for peace to reign. Two: Implement the MOU entered into with ASUU by the Federal Government. Three: Draw up a Marshall Plan for our institutions of higher learning that will, first, arrest and then holistically address the rot and decadence in every facet of the system in areas such as inadequate and rotten hostel accommodation; inadequate lecture theatres, accommodation and office space for lecturers and staff; obsolete libraries, laboratories, and other teaching/learning aids; inadequate and inappropriate staffing; increase in the carrying capacity of the institutions so that the multitude of admission seekers can be accommodated; and a review of the curriculum that makes education relevant to our needs as individuals and as a nation. At JAMB’s (Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board) yearly policy meeting on admissions into tertiary institutions, the deficiencies that stunt the growth of our education system stick out like a sore thumb. The philosophy and pedagogy of education here needs a thorough and radical rethink.
Addressing leaders of NANS (National Association of Nigerian Students) who complained that they were not represented on the Student Loan board, President Tinubu told them it was because they were always fractionalised. ASUU, CONUA and NAMDA should learn a lesson from that and take heed before it becomes their turn. ASUU leaders should climb down from their high horse and CONUA and NAMDA should shred the worthless pieces of paper that Buhari’s Chris Ngige decorated them with and return “home”. In unity lies their strength!
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Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of its Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-chief, BOLAWOLE was also the Managing Director/ Editor-in-chief of THE WESTERNER newsmagazine. He writes the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune and TREASURES column in New Telegraph newspaper on Wednesdays. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.