Asuu The winner and still champion....

Time was when the promise of “Free Education for All by the Year 2000”, “Free Medical Care for All by the Year 2000” and “Free Housing for All by the Year 2000” rang in the ears of people, warming the hearts of all. Security, the first responsibility of government, was a given, needing no specific mention. These promises were easily believable because governance then had a purpose, thereby giving people hope. Evidence was in the programmes laid out regularly as part of National Development Plans, committing Government of the day to certain goals and objectives.

Today, it is the groans and plaints of those in power that “Government alone cannot fund Security, Education, Healthcare, Infrastructure” or whatever that overwhelm the hearing of Nigerians. Even more irritating are the grand announcements that follow: Government needs “$25 trillion to fund Infrastructure” or “N2 trillion is needed to fund university education yearly”, and so on. As if Rome was built in a day.

These musings were aroused by the latest bout, the nth time rematch between the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) on the issue of funding university education. As has been the case since 2000, ASUU is calling out government over agreements hastily signed and promises carelessly given by previous administrations over this vexed issue.

Today, as before, the winner and still champion…ASUU. Unless this time around government develops spine and hold the line against extravagant demands in the face of obvious truths.

ASUU’s rise to power began when it persuaded the Shagari administration to remove university teachers’ pay from the Salary Grade Level System introduced under the Udoji Commission on the Reform of the Public Service for all public-sector employees less than a decade earlier. This success has since bred similar demands and equal outcomes – there’s there is thus CONHESS, CONMESS, CONJUSS, CONLESS, etc, in addition to the USS.

Then it was the campaign for “university autonomy,” followed by recognition of “the excess workload” occasioned by the over-admission of students. Favourable consideration of this fact brought about the institution of payment of what is called Earned Academic Allowance; euphemism for overtime payment. Originally limited to academic staff, this payment now covers virtually all university workers, which in some situations may exceed regular salaries.

Under the current dispensation universities have become loosened from the moorings of the National Universities Commission. University authorities now do as they wish, one of the consequences of this state of laissez faire is the presence of uncompleted projects across university campuses. New courses get introduced against the background of the dearth of lecturers across the whole university system, while those on the ground shuttle between many universities – moonlighting? – to lecture, to the detriment of students in their primary institutions.

Problems in higher education in the country and the perennial tussle between the federal government and ASUU are so deep that a new beginning is required. The federal government should declare force majeuere on all commitments previously entered into and negotiate new terms and conditions with ASUU. Accrued benefits from previous periods should however be settled. Government must wrest back control of the universities, even as autonomy in teaching and research is guaranteed. Students admission and population should depend on available infrastructure and faculty – there should be a cap for each institution as well as programmes for the continuous training and development of the latter.

With regard to the current strike by ASUU, government must apply the “No Work No Pay rule.” It’s the law of the land and of common sense. In other climes unions prepare “strike funds” before going on strike. It’s spurious argument that lecturers engage in research even if they abstain from teaching. To re-phrase a famous dictum: university can endure with the absence of research but cannot endure without teaching.

It’s crunch time for government and ASUU. The two sides must negotiate on the basis of current realities and their responsibilities for the future of higher education in the country.

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