A strike by public university staff over funding and salary issues is set to continue and campuses will remain closed after a second round of negotiations between the Nigerian government and the union broke down.
The Academic Staff Union of Universities, or ASUU, has recently been joined in the indefinite strike, announced on 13 August, by the three non-academic staff unions in public universities, which include the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities, National Association of Academic Technologists and the Non-Academic Staff Union.
Under the umbrella of a Joint Action Committee, they resolved that their members would embark on an immediate indefinite strike as long as the government refused to find solutions to their grievances, which include, amongst other things: non-payment of earned allowances; lack of good governance; poor funding as against UNESCO recommendations; inadequate infrastructure in universities; abandoned projects; and shortfalls in the payment of salaries.
In November last year, ASUU embarked on a one-day warning strike to alert the Nigerian government to the need to implement the various agreements aimed at addressing inadequate teaching and research infrastructure in public universities.
Minister of Education Mallam Adamu Adamu met with ASUU leaders and secured a grace period of six months, up until the end of May 2017. The union resumed the strike after the government failed to honour its pledges within the agreed timeframe.
Three weeks ago, the ASUU national executive committee, made up of elected officials from branches of public universities, decided to conduct a referendum calling for suggestions on how to ensure that the Nigerian government finds solutions to the problems confronting the universities.
Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, ASUU president, told a press conference that the referendum became necessary because of the failure of Adamu to propose concrete solutions to union demands.
“We wrote several reminders. No response. He did not even acknowledge our reminders,” he said.
Among the union’s demands, presented by leaders attending the national executive committee meeting, was the resolution of problems associated with the introduction of a Treasury Single Account.
The Treasury Single Account software was introduced by President Muhammadu Buhari’s regime as a method for receiving and disbursing government funds. However, the system did not take cognisance of the financial peculiarities of universities, including salaries, endowments, grants, scholarships, sabbaticals, etc. Consequently, the union argues that the Treasury Single Account, in its present form, is a handicap for universities to have access to their funds.
The union also claims that the system underpays all academic staff by about 20%.
Another demand is the payment of earned academic allowances for extra teaching and research work. According to the union, the government has only paid a fraction of these allowances.
Another demand relates to the retirement emoluments of professors. The union is arguing that, just like the generals in the army, professors should be entitled to full pay after retirement.
In addition, the union is calling for the establishment of a Nigerian Universities Pension Management Company, solely geared towards the management of university staff pensions, like the one created for the Nigerian armed forces.
The union is also objecting to the government’s failure to respect and fund the past memoranda of understanding signed in 2009 and 2013, which were aimed at improving teaching and research infrastructure in universities, as reflected in the recent reduction of the federal government allocation for universities from 11% in 2015 to 8% in 2016.
Fuelling the unhappiness of academic staff are their perceptions of unrestrained spending on the part of Nigeria’s political class.
A recent editorial in the local Guardian newspaper entitled “Legislators' exotic cars amidst cash crunch”, which has inflamed existing unhappiness among academic staff, said: “Granted that these lawmakers are entitled to the largesse apportioned to them, it needs to be asked whether, at this critical time of economic misfortune, the purchase of a car worth 17 million naira [US$47,000] as official vehicle per legislator makes any sense.
"How can this stand in the context of a spiralling downturn in the economy? …The symbolism portrayed by this gesture is one of brutal insensitivity.”
Reports from the campuses indicate that there is massive compliance of teachers to the strike. This is despite the fact that Labour Minister Dr Chris Ngige declared the strike illegal and unconstitutional after the first meeting between the ASUU negotiating team and the federal government led by Ngige ended in a deadlock.
At the time, the minister argued that the government had paid teachers a huge chunk of earned financial allowances for extra teaching and research.
Dr Deji Omole, chairman of the University of Ibadan ASUU chapter, said the union was more interested in enduring legacies which would reposition public education in the country, over which the present government had been silent.
ASUU President Ogunyemi urged members to disregard the comment of the labour minister that the strike is “illegal”.
“Our national struggle to revitalise the Nigerian university system is comprehensive and total. Remain resolute and steadfast,” he said.
Debates over the funding of university education are as old as the university system itself and generally coincide with ASUU’s push for an improvement in teaching and research conditions.
Professor Debo Adeyewa, vice-chancellor of Redeemer's University, Ede, Osun State, said: “The issues have remained the same. The problem of poor funding, infrastructure, allowances, among others, are really disturbing issues,” he said.
Adeyewa called on the government to “speak out” about its inability to effectively manage public institutions. “Even if it cannot fund the university system by 26%, it should at least provide 20% of the funding.
"There should be more autonomy for the tertiary education system … There is no complete autonomy without financial autonomy. Education is expensive anywhere in the world. And there is cost to everything. So when the federal government increases its funding to the university, then it should take care of indigent students who are brilliant, invite stakeholders and parents and state what they can do and how they want partners to come in.”
Rebecca Imolewa, a consultant on higher education, called on the government – and other African governments – to give priority to education and vocational training in the allocation of annual budgets. “The strike by ASUU should be seen as an attempt at forcing the Nigerian government to provide funding for higher education. And it should be supported,” she said.
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