NIGERIA: Call for trade unions in private universities

Private universities began to be established in Nigeria about a decade ago. They have refused to permit trade unionism among students and staff, allowing only loose associations with very strict guidelines. But there is a growing call for unions to be able to operate in private higher education, to promote democratic governance. Opponents are preparing to resist such a move.

Adams Oshiomole, Executive Governor of Edo State in southern Nigeria, recently stressed the need to allow staff and students in private universities to engage in trade unionism.

"We cannot have democracy at the top if we don't begin at the bottom. Unionism sharpens the mind of students and staff," he declared at convocation at the private Benson Idahosa University in Benin City, capital of Edo State.

This is the first time a highly placed political figure has championed the need for unionism to be allowed in private higher education. But according to observers, Oshiomole's pro-labour stance was no surprise. As immediate past-president of the Nigeria Labour Congress, he has never hidden his displeasure at the absence of unionism in some private organisations.

The Academic Staff Union of Universities supported Oshiomole's call. A member of the union's national executive council, Isah Ibrahim, said its leaders had held meetings with vice-chancellors and registrars at private universities on the matter. But they had remained resistant to unions.

"One of their main reasons is that the presence of unionised students and staff will lead to incessant strikes and disruptions of teaching and research. Trade unionism is a fundamental right and everybody must enjoy this right," he said.

Parents associations of private tertiary institutions are vehemently opposed to allowing unions on campuses. They have argued that public universities do not respect the academic calendar because of incessant strikes, and they do not want private institutions similarly disrupted.

Isaac Jonathan, an executive of an oil company, said his daughter had been attending a public university for the past six years, trying to complete a three-year course. "She is yet to graduate because of strikes by the unions. She is frustrated and unhappy," he said.

Last year's five-month industrial action by university-based unions persuaded another parent, Christiana Lawani, to send two of her children to a private university. Also, she said, some student unions in public universities "have been taken over by members of various cults who are not interested in academic programmes. They are responsible for violent confrontation on campuses. I cannot allow my children to come under the influence of cultism".

Many wealthy parents have become worried about interrupted learning and violence in public universities and have opted to enroll their children in the private sector.

But all is not well in private universities.

Enlightened parents are worried about alleged religious indoctrination in some institutions, where students are not exposed to balanced views on all religions.

Another problem is absence of freedom of expression. Authorities in these institutions have taken advantage of the absence unionism to discourage freedom of expression. In some cases teachers and students who challenge 'theocratic' indoctrination have been dismissed. In public universities, unions have a culture of ensuring freedom of expression is guaranteed.

"This is the problem with some private universities funded by religious organisations. Students are not exposed to divergent world views," said Akin Babadele, a postgraduate student in philosophy at the University of Ibadan.