THEWILL EDITORIAL: Nigeria’s Public University System In Limbo

SAN FRANCISCO, November 23, (THEWILL) – There seems to be a deliberate attempt to finally cripple the public university system in Nigeria. The shocking deadlock in the talks to finally end the eight-month-old strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is a pointer to this.

At a time Nigerians were expecting the ASUU strike to be called off to enable students return to school, a no-deal verdict that was recently announced completely dashed all hopes of a resolution of the crisis between the university teachers and the Federal Government.

A fresh meeting last week where the government agreed to exempt university teachers from the contentious Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) and promised more cash to teachers could convince ASUU to return to work.

Just like when two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. Now, public university students have been told to better go for holiday to catch some fun or look for skills to learn as there may be no hope of resolving the crisis any time soon. What a tragedy for a nation to be toying with the lives and future of its youth!

The issue came up again at the budget defense session last Wednesday at the Senate with the Minister of Labour and Productivity, Chris Ngige, still talking tough that university lecturers have no right under the law to be demanding autonomy when the Federal Government still pays their salaries.

“They said that university autonomy is being eroded by IPPIS. Autonomy cannot work when the government is paying the lecturers. It can work only when the governing council generates its resources to pay workers,” Ngige, who was defending the budget proposals of his Ministry had told the Senate committee.

Sadly, it was the same Ngige who confirmed last month that the government was looking at the payment system the university lecturers came up with after rejecting IPPIS.

“We are subjecting the University Transparency Account System (UTAS) to an integrity test today in the office of the Accountant General of the Federation, with the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning in attendance. We will not mind accepting it if we see it as more robust because it is more of local content,” Ngige was quoted as saying after a meeting with ASUU officials early last month.

On his recent outburst at the Senate budget defense session, the Minister was, however, countered by ASUU President, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, who has always insisted that university lecturers are not civil servants and should not be subjected to IPPIS. Maintaining that the Nigerian law has always provided for the autonomy of the universities, Ogunyemi wondered how Ngige was trying to turn the law on the head.

According to the ASUU President, “It appears the minister is not aware that there is a law on autonomy and if there is a law in existence that defines what autonomy means with respect to university governance, I don’t think any minister can arbitrarily annul the law.

“If the minister is not pleased, he will have to work with the law until the law is changed. We have the University Miscellaneous Provision Amendment Act of 2003, which was gazetted as Autonomy Law in 2007.

“That law is still subsisting. What that law says is that governing councils will manage the personnel, information and payroll. If universities are empowered to do that, what that law expects is that the government should make funds available to the universities to handle their personnel.”

Ogunyemi slammed the government further, saying: “Because of the meddlesome roles the government has been playing over the years; which is a military hangover, it appears, as it is today, they do not want to let go.”

He stressed that “in other climes, what government does is to release subventions to universities as provided for in their budget,” as he insisted that

“ASUU is not asking for too much. That is the way to go. That is the way to define autonomy. If you say universities should start generating their funds and you have not empowered them, how will they generate the funds?”

We want to agree with ASUU and well-meaning Nigerians that the state of public universities in Nigeria wouldn’t have been this bad if the Federal Government had honoured the N1.3 trillion agreement on revitalisation it reached with ASUU during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan.

But rather than do the needful and honour the agreement, the present administration is still shifting blames, even after five years, forgetting the fact that government is a continuum. It is most unfortunate that while ASUU is asking for N110 billion for university revitalisation, the Federal Government is offering a paltry N20 billion, which the union has rejected.

It has become glaring now that the government was just playing games with the negotiations with the university lecturers. Apparently satisfied that a little bit of sanity has been restored after the anxiety of the EndSARS protest, the Federal Government appeared to be going back to sleep again.

Despite all the assurances given when the latest round of negotiations brokered by Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, started, Ngige and his counterpart at the Education Ministry, Adamu Adamu, are still not bothered that university students are just about to lose a whole year to government’s insincerity and insensitivity. The political class also appears unperturbed that the lecturers have not been paid their salaries for months. Yet, they expect the teachers to go back to the classes on empty stomachs!

THEWILL considers this an act of wickedness and the highest level of insensitivity to the plight of the teachers and the students. It is totally unacceptable that politicians who have failed totally in governance would be playing games with the destiny of students of public universities whose parents are already suffering from the mess the country has been thrown into by the political class.

We also condemn ongoing plans to infiltrate the ranks of ASUU by encouraging breakaway factions all in a bid to force the lecturers to go back to classes without resolving the contending issues. The influence of politics in the university system has already done enough damage and any attempt to further infiltrate the system would spell doom for the nation’s public university system.