Students flood informal sector during lecturer strike

Lecturers in public universities in Nigeria have been on strike for the past eight weeks. But students have not been twiddling their thumbs at home. Not sure when studies will resume, many have been busy trying their hands at ‘odd jobs’ or receiving alternative training.

Before the strike, lecturers advised students that there is a need to add value to their degrees by learning other skills, because there is no longer any guarantee that they will gain formal employment after graduation in either the public or private sector.

The students listened – and the strike has revealed their potential. The adage that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ has turned out to be relevant here.

Obtaining computer skills

Many students – across all disciplines, and in cities and towns – have been registering at private computer centres for training. They understand that computer literacy is indispensable in the workplace. Computers, like mobile phones, have invaded all spheres of life in Nigeria.

“In my mosque, the chief Imam pleaded with my colleagues in the same department to set up and run computers inside a small library near the mosque, for children in neighbouring Koranic schools,” said Salem Abdulkadir, a student of Arabic and Islamic studies at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria.

“He was convinced that children must know how to use computers to increase their Islamic faith. We all took up the challenge. We registered in a computer centre. We intend to use our computer knowledge to assist these children. We would not have had the opportunity if the strike has not closed our campuses.”

Abdulkadir added: “Students are in support of the strike because our teachers are fighting for improved teaching and research infrastructure. If students have access to computers, we won’t have to patronise private computer centres.”

As the strike continued, lecturers in engineering faculties in public universities sent messages to students to register – urgently – at private computer centres, in order to learn how to use computers for technical design and drawing.

The academics are aware that students have theoretical knowledge of technical design but lack competence in using computers for this purpose.

“We are grateful to our lecturers for this importance piece of advice,” said Christiana Nwafor, an engineering student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in eastern Nigeria, adding that most of her student colleagues had registered at computer schools. “Even if we want to set up our own businesses, we must know to manipulate the computer.”

Bukola Akindele, an engineering student at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife in western Nigeria, also said he and fellow students were training at a centre. While they were not computer novices, their knowledge was not deep enough – and they are aiming to eventually set up a computerised workshop to repair cars and trucks.

At a public seminar, the manager of a multinational vehicle company in Nigeria told the engineering students that the biggest challenge facing transport companies was a dearth of mechanics trained in the use of computers.

After graduation and compulsory national service, Akindele revealed, he and colleagues aim to sign up for apprenticeships in car companies to further improve their knowledge of using computers in mechanical workshops, before setting up their own workshops.

“The vast majority of Nigeria’s mechanics are not computer literate. They were trained when vehicles were not computerised. And they are getting older, about to retire. We must take over from them by making use of new technical realities. We shall succeed,” he declared.

Interest in commerce

Commerce is another area of interest for students. For instance, those who study the French language are crossing Nigeria’s borders to buy goods and resell them back home to targeted customers.

This is an interesting phenomenon. All third-year students in French departments attend a compulsory one-year academic programme either in the Nigeria French Language Village at Badagry, near the border with Benin, or in language schools in West African francophone countries.

While there, they compare prices of items such as clothes, shoes and gold in the host country. The students have discovered that they can make profits by buying products and then selling them in Nigeria.

“The strike has given my colleagues and myself an opportunity to go across the border, and buy and bring back goods to resell in Nigeria. We are making good money. With our knowledge of French we are able to undertake commercial transactions,” said Beatrice Akpan, who is studying French at the University of Uyo.

“Some of us will continue with this commerce after graduation.”

Most students confessed that they never realised a stay in a francophone country would open their eyes and minds to commerce. They have been schooled to believe that the study of French is a straight avenue to working in the diplomatic service or in French companies.

But with unemployment high for graduates, they are recognising that there are many roads and diverse opportunities leading to jobs.

Nigeria’s movie industry, called ‘Nollywood’, has been bombarded by students looking for training and experience. Nollywood is the third biggest film industry in the world after America’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood, with assets and investments estimated at US$2 billion. Students have been flocking to film companies in Lagos, Enugu, Calabar and Abuja.

“We come from universities all over the country to these film sites to watch and learn. We are all excited at mixing with Nigeria’s film stars and directors. Most of us are in a hurry to graduate and join the Nollywood industry,” said Kikelomo Ajayi, a student of theatre arts at the University of Calabar in Niger Delta.

Fish-farming businesses have also been accepting students as apprentices. They are taught how to grow and nurture fingerlings. Fish farming is a lucrative business in Lagos and Abuja.

Lecturers in fishery departments in public universities, who usually send students to these organisations for practical training, did not hesitate to recommend that students further their training during the strike.

But students want to get back to class

Despite the willingness of students to work, they are unhappy that the central and regional governments are not acceding to the demands of striking lecturers. They hope the industrial action will end soon.

“Nigeria has immense resources to develop universities in tune with the demands of this century,” said Rashidat Ibrahim, a member of the National Association of Nigerian students.

“The government should meet the fundamental demands of the teachers so that the doors of classrooms and laboratories can be opened for studies.”