Striking academics have once again shut down Nigeria's public universities, and students have been sent home. Leaders of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, or ASUU, have accused the federal and regional governments of deliberately failing to execute a memorandum of understanding on funding, salaries and conditions signed two years ago.
Academics are concerned that the non-implementation by government, especially of funding and of retirement age clauses enshrined in the agreement, will affect the stability, growth and infrastructure development of campuses.
If these issues are not quickly resolved, the indefinite strike in public universities may assume a political dimension. Already, lecturers have declared support for labour unions that are mobilising strike action against the imminent removal of a fuel subsidy.
Many students and parents had hoped that a one-week warning strike embarked on by the ASUU last month would jolt the government to getting back to the negotiating table with lecturers. Unfortunately, the negotiations broke down.
Private universities have continued operating but most public universities have been shut down by academics also angered by the government unilaterally dissolving an implementation monitoring committee made up of university leaders, university-based unions and government officials.
According to the president of the union, Professor Ukachukwu Awuzie, the committee is strategic to the execution of the 2009 ASUU-federal government agreement. The sacking of this forum for dialogue showed that "the government is insincere and is manifestly unwilling to genuinely implement the agreement it freely entered into with ASUU.
"The government has abandoned the main tenet of industrial democracy - that all agreements freely entered into must be honoured," declared the ASUU president.
The union, in a public enlightenment campaign, highlighted major areas of the 2009 deal that the government is yet to honour: funding, including minimum annual budgetary allocations to public universities and federal assistance to state universities; review of a law that impinges on university autonomy; a separate salary structure for academic staff; earned allowances to entitled academics; and pensions for academics and the compulsory retirement age.
"Only the monthly salary aspect of the agreement has been implemented so far. This is unacceptable to our union. The main goal of the agreement was the revitalisation of the university system and not the increment in salaries," Awuzie lamented.
The ASUU has urged students, parents, labour and civil society organisations and individuals to prevail on the federal government to honour the 2009 agreement in the national interest.
Since the strike began there have been two feeble government reactions.
First, Minister of Education Ruqayyatu Ahmed Rufai appealed to lecturers to suspend their strike "in the general interest of students".
Second, Secretary of the Federal Government Puis Anyim summoned ASUU leaders for talks. According to sources, the talks broke down because Anyim insisted that academics call off their strike as a precondition for serious negotiation. The union leaders refused.
Sources said that the government might not be keen to implement the entire agreement because it does not want to invest part of its resources in satisfying lecturer aspirations.
"The government has pressing challenges, especially in the area of security where it is channelling most of its funds. Moreover the government is careful not to allocate huge sums of money to tertiary education in view of the fact that there is an atmosphere of uncertainty in the world's economic and financial circles," said an official who did not want to be named.
"We need to be careful in the way we spend. Next year is unpredictable."
Regarding university funding, the government is reportedly toying with the idea of asking universities to increase tuition fees to help fund higher education. But many vice-chancellors are against such a move because fees is a politically volatile issue.
The National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) has warned that it will "vehemently" oppose an increase. Spokesperson Ronke Ade advised the government to implement, without delay, the section on funding in the ASUU-federal government agreement.
She said the agreement identified several funding sources, to wit: a minimum of 20% of the government's annual budget to be allocated to education; at least 50% of the 20% to be allocated to universities; the return of the education trust fund to its original concept as a higher education fund; funding from the Petroleum Technology Development Fund; transfer of landed properties to universities as contained in 1992 and 2001 agreements; patronage of university services; and funds from alumni associations and private sector contributions.
"If only graft and greed can be curtailed among the political class and among bureaucrats including the university authorities, funding university education on the basis of the funding clause in the ASUU-federal government agreement is feasible and realisable," affirmed Dan Chika, a member of the NANS executive.
The government is making surreptitious moves to break solidarity among the striking lecturers. One anticipated action is the quick passage through the national assembly of legislation to raise the voluntary retirement age of professors to 70. Within government circles, it is believed that this could divide academics into junior and senior ranks.
It is too early to say if such moves will dampen the fighting spirit of university teachers.
Meanwhile, articles in the Nigerian media have questioned the efficiency of strikes as a viable option of academics. The daily tabloid Vanguard argued in an editorial: "Genuine as its case may be, ASUU knows that strikes don't work." It suggested a more strategic engagement of the authorities and political class as an alternative to strikes "that affect those ASUU is fighting minimally - and hurt the poor maximally".
Please, I urge the federal government to take the poor into consideration by meeting the needs of the ASUU because I certainly know they should unless they want we, the poor, to suffer.
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