Vice-President Dr Jonathan Goodluck has lent his voice to growing demand that Nigerian academics should retire at the age of 70 rather than the current 65 years.
Goodluck, formerly a science lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt, has advocated retirement age reform as a way of retaining experienced academics at universities that are facing acute staff shortages. The Academic Staff Union of Universities has included a retirement age clause in its list of demands for academics at the negotiating table with government.
In a recent article in Nigeria's leading tabloid The Guardian, Sunday Saanu, a professor at the University of Ibadan, made a strong case for pegging the retirement age of lecturers at 70. Saanu said Nigeria had 95 universities - 27 federally controlled, 34 state-owned at the regional level, and 34 private universities - running close on 3,000 programmes with an academic staff strength of around 28,000 and student enrolment of about 1.1 million.
He said this translated nationally into a student-to-staff ratio of nearly 40:1. State universities had the worst ratio - 59:1. "The bad news from this statistical information is that Nigeria is in shortfall of about 8,000 academic staff to cater for our tertiary education."
As the country's universities battle to solve the problem of lack of teachers, the next generation of scholars is quitting for more lucrative jobs in the private sector, especially the oil and gas industries, banks and telecommunications. These young people are abandoning postgraduate programmes, the recruitment pool for vacant academic jobs, for greener pastures.
Academic shortages also affect the postgraduate programmes as the number of supervisors dries up. For example, said Saanu, the premier University of Ibadan had more than 300 professors able to supervise postgraduate students but 100 would retire in the next five years:
"Their retirement will deplete the production of PhD-holders. And reduction in the PhD production level is coming at the time we are saying that only a PhD-holder can teach in our universities. What a paradox!"
University of Ibadan Vice-Chancellor Professor Olufemi Bamiro supports the campaign to raise the retirement age clause for lecturers. He said academics improved as they aged, as a result of "cumulative experience".
At recent meetings with tertiary education leaders, Goodluck fully supported the retirement age campaign. At one gathering, he instructed Education Minister Dr Sam Egwu, also an educationist, to initiate a process of reviewing retirement age as soon as possible.
In an editorial titled "Profs as old wine" The Nation, a daily tabloid in Nigeria's economic capital Lagos, supported Goodluck's call. The paper lamented that over the years highly respected professors had been forced to retire at a time when their experience and expertise were most needed.
One point raised in the editorial was that in developed countries, many professors did not retire because the brain never tired. It cited as an example an American professor who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry at the age of 83. The longer a professor remained in a university, the greater the opportunity for academic achievement and the more PhDs he or she could produce.
An official of the National University Commission, or NUC, said several Nigerian lecturers who left the country during the 1980s and '90s to work in Europe or America had inquired about the possibility of returning to take up teaching and research jobs back home.
"An upward review of the retirement age for university teachers would certainly encourage those teachers to return home. We need their experience," declared the official, who did not want to be named.
Reviewing the retirement age is one of the issues canvassed by the negotiating team of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, or ASUU, which is currently negotiating with the government for better conditions of service for its members. Sources close to the negotiating teams revealed union and government had agreed on the issue.
"This upward review of the retirement age will, hopefully, be an integral part of the final package endorsed by government," declared Wale Akintade, an ASUU negotiator.
Closely related issues are the availability of teaching and research infrastructure and improved conditions of service for academics. While raising the retirement age would be welcome, said Mercy Ibrahim, a postgraduate student at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, "it is equally essential that professors have well-equipped laboratories and modern teaching equipment so their further stay in the university can be justified".
But lecturers have called for caution on the issue of improving salaries. The economic and financial crises affecting the world, including Nigeria, did not favour pay increases, said Cletus Obang, a lecturer at University of Uyo in the oil-producing state of Akwa Ibom.
"The situation calls for sacrifice. Salary review should be suspended for now, until the crisis abates. University teachers have demonstrated in the recent past that they are willing to give up some of their privileges when the entire economy is in crisis," Obang commented.
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