By joining their university counterparts to stay away from work, the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP)’s strike last week can only lead to grinding the wheel of public higher education to a complete halt. It is not the first time of total blackout of tertiary education in protest against poor funding and deterioration, but none has perhaps stoked youths’ provocation more than the current action is instigating. Youths are losing it on the streets with social tension brewing. Their lecturers too are tired of protesting to an intransigent government that does not care a hoot about education quality. The dilemma, therefore, warrants more pragmatic solutions across the board, to salvage what is left of higher education, rather than insipid insistence on who is right. Of course, government is forever guilty of failing to honour its agreement with the teachers.
It is most disheartening that in this 21st Century that is exclusively governed by the knowledge enterprise where young people are globally busy with blockbuster technological innovations, an army of Nigerian youths are on the streets disrupting traffic flow to draw attention to the plight of their lecturers and institutions. Since February this year, university lectures have been on indefinite warning strike to protest against the government’s infidelity in its 2020 agreement to better the lot of the academic community. The narrative is not any different among the polytechnic lecturers that have begun two-week warning strike to register their displeasure with the government’s failure to keep to the funding agreements they reached almost a year ago. Non-academic staff unions also have their grudges with the government and it bothers on poor funding too. Curiously, these have always been the case since 1999, with public universities observing over 1500 days of strike in 22 years – an equivalent of 20 per cent of each academic year!
Indeed, frustrated lecturers and their disenchanted students are eligible to protest the near-collapse of the educational setting and its near-worthless global ratings. Today, well-off families seeking quality education must look beyond public schools. Depending on how deep the pocket is, their wards will go to either private institutions (which rely on public school lecturers occupying adjunct chairs) or overseas institutions where knowledge and duration are guaranteed. Nigerian students that gained admission into private and foreign schools in 2019 are graduating this summer. Their counterparts in Nigerian public schools are stuck in year-two and uncertain of when they will finish.
Clearly, the situation is lamentable and pent up anger of students justified. Already, pockets of road blockages have been staged on highways in Ondo, Edo, Oyo and Ogun last week alone. On Wednesday, soldiers fired shots in Ondo to disperse students of Federal University of Technology, Akure; Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba Akoko, and the Olusegun Agagu University of Technology, Okitipupa that had embarked on days of peaceful protest against strike actions. In the pandemonium that ensued, a fatal outcome could have escalated the tension beyond expectation.
But can the society put up with another mass protest of the #EndSARS magnitude? Is the Nigerian State prepared for another mass protest that is waiting to be hijacked by millions of poor and angry masses? National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) has in fact threatened to disrupt off-season elections in Osun, Ekiti and the 2023 general elections unless the educational impasse is resolved. They have seen that the ruling elite are more interested in winning the next election than being bothered by the collapse of education. But for how long will the country continue to live on the edge of civil unrest despite all indicators showing red?
Nigeria needs not fall apart before it gains a major foothold on its problems. It can pull back from the brink if all stakeholders embrace a paradigm shift. First, ASUU and its sister unions should begin to weigh the strike options carefully, and not push their luck too far. Amid boredom and starvation, a lot of lecturers are tired of industrial action as a bargaining chip before the grossly insensitive administration and irresponsible political elite at the helm of affairs. Truth is that not too many of these tenured office-holders are dependent on the public institutions to feel the pains of its poor funding, months of lockdown, and further deterioration of the system. On that consciousness is the need for more strategic approaches and alliance with the larger labour unions to collectively salvage education as a whole. Education, just like the health sector, is too sensitive for routine pause-and-play to press home its demands. As a common fate that befalls all, it is not out of place for the entire Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) or its more impactful arms like the NUPENG or PENGASSAN to demand a better deal for education of Nigerian masses. An injury to one should be an injury to all.
Second is to, while not discouraging genuine aspiration for higher education, collectively emphasize more advocacy of a society that works for all. Indeed, education is the bedrock of development but Nigeria must retool it for efficiency. Nigeria should be able to debunk the dysfunctional model where basic education is less accessible, sometimes more expensive than higher education. In other places, the emphasis is on free and compulsory basic education, as the fundamental learning that provides students with literacy, numeracy and critical thinking skills to prepare everyone for their places in the society. Ideally, higher education is reserved for a fraction that wants to further in learning and research, and equally ready to pay for it because it is expensive. Here, the government has been subsidising higher education as a cover-up for its failure to create a society that has employment opportunities for the majority that have had basic education. Clearly, that warped model is not sustainable and no amount of subsidy can lift the institution from insolvency or become competitive with world-class institutions.
Sequel to the fore, the tertiary education system should leverage more autonomy. It means that each institution should be able to govern its own affairs independently as the traditional global standard worldwide. Though Nigeria has since 2003 been paying lip service to granting such academic freedom to universities, the analog mindset is yet to wean off centralised control keys like the Nigerian University Commission (NUC), the President or Governor as the Visitor, integration of academics into the civil service structure, equal salary arrangement, the vexatious single payment platform called IPPIS, and also the government-controlled examination board that could award admissions based on discretion than merit! Largely, these are bureaucratic stonewalling that is alien to a true federal system, functional higher education and a progressive state. Ideally, an autonomous institution should be able to rule its affairs, decide on its own programmes and researches based on needs of its community, admit students according to its capacity and bill them accordingly, market its products and fund self without a behemoth federal or state government slowing it down and incentivising its inefficiency.
Important too is the role of vocational and technical education in a country like Nigeria. With millions of youths out of jobs and critical skills in short supply, Nigeria needs to emphasis more on skills acquisition than university education for its youths. It is most irresponsible of state governors to keep closing down vocational centres and converting polytechnics and colleges to universities in a society that needs more skill-sets than researchers.
Indeed, it is a shame that public education has been bastardised and students have been pushed to the wall. The Buhari-administration and handlers of education have clearly shown insincerity to the all-important currency of sustainable development; and the National Assembly has never bothered them with accountability. Yet, the onus is on the general public to keep demanding a better deal for education and Nigerian youths before it is too late.