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Shameful condition of Nigerian universities



Shameful Condition Of Nigerian Universities
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Immediately the leadership of the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU) declared a seven-day nationwide warning strike last Monday, March 18, 2024, my mind went to my two daughters in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). One is in her final year and has just a few days to bid goodbye to the school she has spent about six years for a five-year programme. The other one is still in her second year and is looking forward to going into her third year next month. The strike affected this one as she still has three computer-based tests to write. So, she has to wait for extra seven days to continue with her exams.

In a way, I felt happy that the disruption this time was short. I have been praying that, at least, the one in her final year should be allowed to graduate and face other aspects of life. Many parents are in my shoes. Any time we hear that the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) or SSANU and NASU are on strike, we feel uncomfortable.

The reason is not far-fetched. Strike means shutting down the school system for as long as it pleases the strikers. Students are forced to go home. Many of them get frustrated while at home because there is little or nothing to keep them engaged. Vulnerable females among them become susceptible to rape and other forms of abuse. Some of the males join criminal gangs. Most parents usually find it difficult trying to control these students at this period. During the eight-months long strike in 2022, my daughter contemplated relocating abroad to continue her studies. She actually applied to some schools in the United States. I had a tough time persuading her to exercise patience; telling her that the strike would soon be over.

There are other consequences of these incessant strikes and closures of our higher institutions. One, our universities are not well rated anymore, especially in some foreign countries. Due to the strikes, students are rushed through their academic work whenever schools resume. Some of the students come out half-baked. This is why most parents who have the financial power send their children to private or foreign universities.

Two, some frustrated lecturers have left the Nigerian university system for greener pastures abroad. This has led to shortage of lecturers in these universities. Do you blame them? The monthly salary of a professor is nothing to write home about. This professor cannot afford the luxury of buying a clean second-hand car, not to talk of a brand new one. While he manages his life with his meagre salary, many political office-holders flaunt their ill-gotten wealth in his face. Nigerian federal lawmakers, for instance, took home brand new sport utility vehicles (SUVs) soon after they were inaugurated as lawmakers last year. On a regular basis, they assault our sensibilities with allegations of budget padding, constituency project fraud and sundry fund-guzzling endeavours.

The executive and legislative arms of government are not left out. Oftentimes, the President and some of his aides and family members embark on money-guzzling foreign tours that yield little or no benefit to the country. They map out billions of naira to renovate official residences of some public office-holders when library and laboratory facilities in our tertiary institutions need such funds more.

In 2018, I had cause to visit and write about the rot in UNN, my alma mater. Titled ‘UNN and rot in Nigerian universities’, and published in the Daily Sun edition of August 20, 2018, I expressed shock that most of the infrastructures in the school had become an eyesore. Almost all the hostels that existed in our days over 30 years ago were either no more or greatly dilapidated. For instance, windstorm had blown off part of the roof of Eni Njoku hostel. The great Zik’s Flats, Mbanefo hostel and many others were a shadow of themselves. Giant weeds and reptiles had taken over these abandoned halls of residence. Kwame Nkrumah hall had a heap of refuse behind it.

Part of the problem was that the population of students greatly outnumbered the available infrastructure. I gathered then that in almost all the departments, over 200 students struggled for space in a classroom meant for about 60 people. I guess the situation is still the same today. Simply put, these public universities are grossly underfunded.

Essentially, this is partly what the varsity unions are fighting against. ASUU wants a renegotiation of its members’ conditions of service and payment of arrears of allowances. It wants better infrastructure, modern libraries and functional, well equipped laboratories. It wants the government to adequately fund the universities and replace Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System (IPPIS) with University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS). On their part, NASU and SSANU are not happy that the government failed to implement a Memorandum of Understanding and a Memorandum of Action reportedly signed in October 2020 and in February 2021 respectively. They went on strike in 2022 together with ASUU. The government of ex-President Muhammadu Buhari invoked ‘no work, no pay’ policy then against them.

Last October, President Bola Tinubu approved payment of four out of eight months withheld salaries for the workers. But while ASUU members recently got their own, members of SSANU and NASU were not paid. This prompted the seven-day warning strike they embarked upon last Monday. The strike, which grounded activities in many public universities, ended midnight of Sunday, March 24. SSANU and NASU have threatened further action if their demand for payment of their withheld salaries is not met.

It is unfortunate that successive governments have continued to play hide-and-seek with these unions. Since 2009 when ASUU, for instance, entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Government, it has been a story of promise-and-fail. Government promised to renegotiate the conditions of service of academic staff, including a separate salary structure to be called ‘Consolidated University Academic Salary Structure’. It has not done so. It promised to inject N1.3 trillion for the revitalization of public universities in six tranches starting from 2013. It paid N200 billion in 2013 and was supposed to pay N220 billion each year for the five subsequent years. But it has failed to do so. In the heat of the strike in 2022, the Federal Government claimed it had also paid N92 billion to cover earned allowances and revitalization funds to federal universities.

Almost on a yearly basis, ASUU will have one reason or the other to go on strike. In 2020, it embarked on a long strike that halted activities in the universities for one full academic year. In 2022, it embarked on a similar long debilitating strike that crippled activities in our universities for eight months.

A responsible government should not have allowed this to happen. Education and health are the two most important sectors in any sane country. These sectors are supposed to get the largest chunk of the national budget, at least 15 per cent. But Nigeria does not pretend to be a sane country. Hence, each of these two sectors gets an average of five to seven per cent of the annual budget. We prefer to waste money on things that will benefit a tiny clique of the ruling cum political class. Where then will our help come from?

Our help appears to be in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth! Since human government has failed us, most Nigerians have placed all their hopes in God. You often hear them say, “Only God will save this country!” For me, this is a defeatist attitude. God has given us the power to conquer our environment. We cannot just be docile and expect God to come down and fight our human battles. Nigerians should demand accountability from their leaders. They should demand that certain anomalies be put right if we must grow as a nation. They should never be tired of standing up for their rights and putting government on their toes. If every individual puts in as little as five per cent in the struggle for a better nation, Nigeria will not be where it is today. Obviously, it will be tough. But as unionists will say, Aluta Continua!

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