ON Thursday, the Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime’s representatives met with the leadership of the Academic Staff Union of Universities in a bid to end the over six months strike by the university lecturers. Early in the week, ASUU had a meeting with the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan and the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige. It is yet to be seen whether this flurry of activities will end the prolonged face-off between the government and ASUU over the enrolment of university teachers on the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System for salary payment.
The Buhari regime’s slipshod approach towards the ASUU strike is absolutely worrying. A responsive and responsible government would have seized the window of the forced holiday offered by the COVID-19 pandemic to end the strike long before now. There had been resistance by ASUU to the introduction of the IPPIS into the university system. But the Federal Government continually insisted that the payment system was for transparency and neither intended to trample upon university autonomy nor designed to subsume the university into the civil service. But the union insisted that the system would harm the universities. ASUU President, Biodun Ogunyemi, said, “We challenge them to tell us anywhere in the world where IPPIS is implemented in the universities. IPPIS will shut the door against foreign scholars, contract officers and researchers that we need most dearly. We are opening new universities every day. Ask them how many competent scholars they have in the pool. They have to poach from existing universities.”
In fairness to ASUU, it has since developed and offered an alternative payment system, the University Transparency Account System, which it said would equally meet the transparency and accountability requirements of the IPPIS. But after a series of mutually destructive name-calling and blackmail, both parties appear ready for constructive dialogue. The regime says it will subject UTAS to an integrity test and consider its adoption for the university system.
“UTAS is a home-grown software. It is what we call local content that Mr President is encouraging. It will be considered by the government,” Ngige said.
This is a welcome development, though belated. The union had embarked on a strike to protest against the IPPIS and non-implementation of the 2019 agreement it entered into with the Federal Government on March 23.
If the truce falls in place, there is absolutely nothing to gloat over because the paths are still laden with mines. Toyin Falola, a renowned historian and professor of African Studies, says, “University education is a system on its own. Running it is beyond just the payment of salaries or the remuneration of staff or payment of other arrears and allowances. When the university system is reduced to these routine issues, politics will creep into the education system.”
And that is just it. Against the N1.3 trillion agreed to be injected into the universities over five years beginning from 2009, only a fraction of that sum was released. This sad reality should oblige all sides to this seemingly perennial pastime to undertake some soul-searching.
The crisis plaguing the university system goes beyond any payment platform. The entire system is putrefying: libraries, laboratories, hostel accommodation and lecture halls are in the worst form of degradation. Electricity and water facilities are epileptic in most universities, in some others, non-existent, forcing students to occasionally spill into the streets in violent demonstrations. All over the place, our campuses are brimming with an explosion in student population, many of whom were enrolled by corrupt university administrators into courses the National Universities Commission did not approve.
The deep corruption in the system should concern ASUU as well. Much of the little funds that go into the system are stolen. In the course of the face-off, the government claimed “the fraud in the universities is amazing and you will be shocked. ICPC did a system check recently, and it was so shocking. In fact, the worst two organisations they mentioned are the Teaching Hospitals and our universities.” In 2018, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project claimed that there were allegations of corruption in several federal universities relating to the unfair allocation of grades; contract inflation; truncation of staff’s salary on the payroll; employment of unqualified staff; certificate scandal; examination malpractice; sexual harassment; and issuance of results for expelled students to graduate.
Strikes elongate academic calendars and the current one is likely to further damage tertiary education already sullied by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Federal Government has apparently not done well in handling issues related to ASUU’s grievances. It should re-examine what it has done and adjust accordingly. Also, it ought to find a lasting solution to the warning strike by the Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities and the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities over what they termed issues related to Earned Allowances and being short-changed in the sharing formula of the N23 billion released to the four unions in the university system by the Federal Government.
As the ASUU strike persists, the students are despondently the worst victims. They may be pushed into frustration, depression and crime. Nothing should be too precious to sacrifice in ending the strike and forestalling any unpleasant effects arising from it on the helpless students. The students are weary, principally by being at home for about seven months due to the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the ASUU strike subsumed by the lockdown resumed amid the Federal Government’s directive that educational institutions should resume on October 12, 2020.
Seventy-four UK varsities considered 14-day strike action between February and March 2020, when they were faced with disputes on sustainability of the Universities Superannuation Scheme, rising costs for members and on casualisation of education and increasing staff workloads, according to the University and College Union.
Tagged the biggest ‘UK’s university strikes,’ after a two-day strike in 2016 and another eight-day industrial action by 60 universities last December, the two-week walkouts were carefully planned and not spontaneous or extended. The UCU warned of further strike if its demands were not met. It is something ASUU should take a cue from despite the yawning gap in leadership between both countries.
Strikes are disruptive and destructive, especially to students. The union must rethink its strategy. The sustained use of strike is alarmingly routine and clearly not achieving the desired goals.-