The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) Strike has kept the nation’s universities closed from February 14, 2022, for more than six months and counting. The seemingly endless ASUU strikes have the potential to seriously harm Nigeria’s tertiary education system if they haven’t already.
ASUU has gone on strike nine times in the last 13 years, taking students out of school for periods ranging from one week (2016 warning strike) to nine months in 2020. Aside from the fact that students are taking longer to complete their studies as a result of the strike disruptions, international colleges and countries are claimed to be viewing degrees gained from Nigerian public universities with mistrust, unlike in the past.
This could be owing to the inevitable drop in educational standards caused by the many strikes and subsequent haste to complete the syllabus upon restart. What options do students and parents have? There aren’t too many. Private universities are prohibitively pricey.
The current foreign exchange rates have also pushed overseas universities out of reach for the vast majority of Nigerians. Professor Eyitope Ogunbodede, Norrison Quakers, SAN, Jefferson Uwoghiren, and Kede Aihie investigate the causes and propose potential solutions for ending the ASUU strike and putting measures in place to prevent future recurrence.
Table of Contents
- The ASUU Strike, Competing Issues, and Panacea
- ASUU Complaints
- Solutions and Compromise
- How to End the Prolonged ASUU Strike
- The Root Causes
- Possible Day ASUU Strike Will Be Called-Off
The ASUU Strike, Competing Issues, and Panacea
President Muhammadu Buhari has issued a two-week ultimatum to the negotiation parties to end the Federal Government-ASUU impasse. Some of us who have been in education for a long time and have seen the anomalies recognized it was a difficult order, if not an impossible one. This is not because the issue cannot be fixed in less than two weeks, but because it is evident that the parties engaged, as well as other stakeholders in university education, were not telling ourselves the harsh truth.
The Honourable Minister of Labour stated that the Federal Government does not have the funds to meet its duties under the agreement struck with the Unions and that the country is bankrupt.
How else to explain a 2009 agreement that is still waiting to be implemented in 2022? What guarantees are there that a follow-up agreement in 2022 will be implemented before another 13 years (2035) if current conditions continue unchanged?
I fought internally over whether to communicate my modest proposals surreptitiously to the important players involved or to make them public. However, I have concluded that the latter method will serve the public good better because almost all Nigerians are stakeholders.
The unwary public has a right to know who is to blame for this seemingly intractable problem, what the final solution is, and what their participation should be in fixing the concerns.
The current ASUU strike, which began on February 14, 2022, has been “rolled over” for another four weeks, which is shameful. Other campus staff unions (SSANU, NASU, and NAAT) have fared no better. The previous ASUU strike in 2020 lasted nine months, and all signs are that the current strike will run even longer.
Do we have to keep going this way? Is a never-ending strike the answer to the educational system’s decadence? Have the strikes been effective or beneficial to the stakeholders? All of these questions have unclear answers that are plainly dependent on whose side the individual belongs.
ASUU went on strike to press for the following demands: renegotiation of the ASUU/FGN 2009 agreement, deployment of UTAS to replace IPPIS, the release of Visitation Panel reports to Federal Universities, funding for revitalisation of public universities, earned academic allowances, inadequate funding of State Universities, and promotion arrears.
I have not had the opportunity to read the Nimi Briggs Investigation, but snippets in newspapers and other news sites indicate that wage increases are a key focus of the report. Nigerian teachers are presently among the lowest paid in Africa, and it is clear that such a system would never be able to keep the finest.
According to Dr. Chris Ngige, Minister of Labour, Employment, and Productivity, the Nimi Briggs Committee advocated a “109 to 185% rise in the University wage structure” and that “the Federal Government will incur an additional N560 billion in salary alone.”
The Minister believes that dealing with ASUU without also negotiating with other university-based unions merely extends the strike and does not result in a timely settlement of the concerns. The Minister has also stated in numerous forums that Nigeria is broke (stating the obvious!) and that the Federal Government lacks the funds to meet its duties under the Agreement inked with the Unions. As a result, he has asked for reconsideration of the conditions of the Agreement with ASUU in order to terminate the ongoing University staff strike.
If we continue in this manner, the negotiations are unlikely to yield any meaningful results.
The current negotiating Panel is chaired by Emeritus Professor Nimi Briggs (Pro-Chancellor, Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike Ikwo), and the other members are credible and highly revered individuals with a strong understanding of university education.
They have demonstrated their passion and absolute commitment to the growth and development of higher education in the country over the years. However, the truth remains that they must work within the parameters of their mandate.
The Committee, which was established on March 7, 2022, had three months to complete the renegotiation of the 2009 FGN/ASUU Agreement, and it delivered its report on time.
However, the 7-member renegotiating team’s efforts today appear insufficient in resolving the current impasse, reopening our universities, and keeping our campuses operational. The Renegotiating Committee’s ideas on how the Federal Government will find the finances to fulfill the anticipated pay rise will be required.
Another major grievance of ASUU and other Federal Government Staff Unions is the implementation of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS).
The IPPIS is housed in the Office of the Federation’s Accountant-General (OAGF). The IPPIS programme, which began in 2007, centralizes salary and wage payments directly to the bank accounts of all Federal Government employees in Nigeria. It is one of the key reasons that prompted the ASUU’s 9-month strike in 2020, as well as subsequent industrial actions by SSANU and NASU in early 2021. IPPIS presents huge problems to all parties, particularly universities.
The usage of IPPIS presents significant obstacles due to the idiosyncrasies of the universities. To all intents and purposes, the majority of these are human issues.
The Scheme has become an albatross entangling the country’s postsecondary education system and weakening the autonomy previously enjoyed by universities. While the unions are agitating, university administrators are hesitant about the implementation of IPPIS, owing to the fact that it has transferred the heat and unrest over pay and wages from the campuses to Abuja.
Solutions and Compromise
Instead of ASUU insisting on the use of the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) and the Joint Action Committee of the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU) and the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) promoting the University Peculiar Payroll Payment System (U3PS), relocating and ceding control of IPPIS for Federal Universities to the National Universities Commission (NUC) will be equitable. That is my opinion!
The University system’s idiosyncracies, such as sabbatical leave, the employment of expatriate employees, and other procedures required to internationalize and make a university world-class, can then be constantly added to the NUC-hosted IPPIS software. It should preferably be known as IPPIS-U.
I do not expect ASUU to agree with this proposition, and I do not expect the Federal Government to agree either. This is because ASUU is notorious for fighting “till the last man” for a just cause, and the egos of those who have maintained the “IPPIS or nothing” posture may be bruised on the side of the Federal Government.
However, it appears to me to be the wisest answer for the benefit of the system and to provide some stability to our colleges, and gladiators must now sheath their swords. The ongoing anticipation of a satisfactory outcome from the National Information Technology and Development Agency (NITDA) integrity test for both UTAS and U3PS should be a matter of concern for all Nigerians.
We’ve had enough with IPPIS politics! No program, no matter how strong, would be able to eliminate the negative aspects identified with IPPIS, especially if some of the operators are predisposed to selfish and dishonest behaviour and violators are not harshly and immediately penalized.
Even the strongest financial accountability software in the world can be compromised, but such occurrences are reduced where and when active deterrents are present.
It is now time for stakeholders in the education industry to “think together” and cease operating in silos and fiefdoms. The government must declare an emergency in the education sector, and all key parties must now engage in conversation to reach an equitable and sensible solution. To be honest, this is not the moment for months-long negotiations; it smirks of insincerity or a lack of appreciation of the magnitude of the crisis.
While not disregarding the letter and spirit of the Trade Dispute Act on industrial action resolution, I will propose that the Government convene an expanded assembly of critical stakeholders, not just ministries and unions, to deliberate and make critical decisions that will move the education sector forward and ensure that our students who have been absent for six months return to school immediately.
The meeting should include representatives from the core Ministries (Education, Labour, Finance, and Science and Technology), the staff Unions (ASUU, SSANU, NASU, and NAAT), the students, the National Salaries and Wages Commission, the Federation’s Head of Service, the Federation’s Accountant-General, and the Senate and House of Representatives Tertiary Education Committees.
The sessions should be coordinated by the Federal Ministry of Education/National Universities Commission, and should preferably be headed by the Minister of Education.
If discussions at such a forum are open and serious, it will be feasible to map a new path for university education in the country and avoid future strikes and closures of our higher education institutions. We are all aware of the truth, but we must now allow it to set us free.
A little background on the current financial contribution of students in our Federal Universities will shed some light on the system’s insincerity. As an example, consider Obafemi Awolowo University. Even when the session lasts longer than a year, students continue to pay N90 every session, plus N2,500 in maintenance fees.
The N90 is the same amount I paid in the 1970s as a student at the same university. The cost of the payment receipt is probably greater than the amount paid, and it would have been more “economical” for the institution if supplied for free! The Federal Government does not support the imposition of “fees,” yet at OAU, undergraduate students pay “Departmental charges” of N5,000 per session for Arts, N10,000 for Sciences, Social Sciences, Technology, and Law, and N15,000 for Medicine and other Health Sciences courses. These charges were set almost 20 years ago, and the outrage that ensued assured that they remained unchanged.
OAU, which has over 25,000 students, has an annual personnel budget of about N10 billion. This effectively doubles the personnel budget by N400,000 per student per session. Of course, expecting all students to pay the same amount of tuition is ludicrous.
Depending on the course, it may imply costs ranging from N200,000 to N600,000 per student per session. This is nowhere like the N900,000 to N3 million each session that most private university students pay nowadays. Students would be charged according to the regular staff-student ratio and the number of lectures per course, with a fixed rate for each lecture.
A firsthand account would suffice. In 2002, I was a Visiting Professor at a South African university, and the Department was unable to offer a lecture since it fell on an unanticipated public holiday. It was the last week of official lectures before exams, and the department had to work with the students to find an acceptable time.
The students had to be convinced that the lecture would be valuable to them and well worth the time they would have spent revising. It seemed unusual to me that professors had to beg students to provide a lecture. My host then indicated that failing to deliver the lecture would result in a refund from the Department to the students, but that was not the issue for him.
The true challenge was that the following group of students would reject that lecture since it was judged insignificant and superfluous if the previous group could graduate without it. Such a lesson would never be offered in Nigeria today, and it would be rationalized. If students pay for lectures, no matter how little, they have the right to expect quality delivery and a consistent schedule.
Many people wonder what would happen if fees are implemented: what will happen to those who cannot afford the costs? Amounts ranging from 10% to 20% of fees collected (an estimated N1-2 billion for OAU) should be set aside for partial or full scholarships to deserving students.
While many students may wish to falsify and reduce their position in order to qualify, two or three crucial factors, such as primary and secondary school attendance (fee-paying or non-fee-paying), loss of parents, and so on, would clearly distinguish destitute children.
As Vice-Chancellor for five years (2017-2022), I was deeply troubled by the incarceration of the University administration over the subject of fees. Even when students are eager to contribute monetarily, the staff unions, backed by ASUU, have always opposed the imposition of fees.
The Federal Government also mandates that the annual appropriation budget cover all essential expenditures and that 25% of any profits earned be remitted to the Federal Government.
The National Assembly enacted a resolution in 2020 requiring universities to repay acceptance costs (N20,000 per newly admitted student for OAU). It became a major issue, and the University was forced to reimburse, despite the fact that we had a nine-month extension to the session owing to the ASUU strike, and the financial situation of the Federal institutions was extremely critical.
In addition, in October 2019, the University of Maiduguri raised its fees somewhat but was forced to return to the old fees by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives concluded that “regardless of the justification that may have informed the decision, either to address operational and managerial realities of the school, such a decision is ill-timed, given the desire by the Federal Government, the Borno State Government, and well-meaning Nigerians, to tackle the educational needs of Borno State and its environs.”
Instead of repealing the levies entirely, a preferable solution would have been to establish a special fund for Scholarships and Bursaries for those who may not be able to pay the increase owing to the situation of the people in the North-East. Unfortunately, the current situation in the region has now expanded to other parts of the country in 2019.
In September 2021, the University of Benin announced a similar hike in some fees, which had to be rescinded as well. These instances are disturbing and underscore our desire in the post-oil boom age for everything to be free, including university education.
Some believe that education is a right, not a privilege, and that paying for education is the obligation of the government, not parents, as established in the Nigerian Constitution. Must we allow our public universities to suffer the same fate as our public primary and secondary schools, as we have all witnessed? It is delusory to believe that university education will remain free in today’s Nigeria. The evidence and reality do not sustain such a grandiose delusion.
There are currently 217 universities in the country, with only 49 federal, 57 states, and 111 private institutions. If the Federal colleges are to survive, we must be honest enough to confess our failures and daring enough to make far-reaching judgments. It is doable, with the help of everyone.
We must never forget that strong links have been established between rising criminality and idle youngsters. It is dangerous for the country to continue to cultivate university students who are wasting away at home with no idea when they will return. We must keep in mind that “idle hands are the devil’s handiwork.” All parties involved must commit to stopping the strike and define a new direction for the country’s higher education. I arrive in peace!
Professor Eyitope Ogunbodede, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Vice Chancellor, 2017-2022
How to End the Prolonged ASUU Strike
A detailed look at Nigeria’s difficulties reveals that they never stop. One of these is the incessant strikes in tertiary institutions over the non-implementation of the Agreement reached by the Federal Government with unions in public tertiary institutions, most notably the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU), the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), and the National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT), over adequate funding of public tertiary institutions.
It is surprising that, with the exception of a few state universities, public tertiary institutions in the country have been closed since February 14, 2022, due to the Federal Government’s failure to honor the over two-decade-old Agreement on issues pertaining to funding of public tertiary institutions.
It is even more perplexing that there is a new layer to this, with the assertion that the Federal Government lacks the cash to meet its duties.
The first instrument in the field of the right to education, the Convention Against Discrimination in Education (CADE, 1960), defined education as “all types and levels of education, including access to education, the standard and quality of education, and the conditions under which it is given” in Article 1(2).
It is worth noting that Sections 18(1) and (3) of the 1999 Constitution state: “18(1) The government shall direct its policies toward guaranteeing equitable and appropriate educational opportunities at all levels… (3) The government shall seek to eliminate illiteracy, and to that purpose, the government shall provide, as far as possible, free, obligatory, and universal primary education, free university education, and a free adult literacy program.” The preceding is in acknowledgement of the global and national importance of education.
The Root Causes
Aside from the non-implementation of the Agreement made by the Federal Government with Unions at public tertiary institutions, the introduction of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System has caused dissatisfaction among ASUU members.
Other causes of this protracted crisis can be advanced. When public officials’ children attend school in another country, the educational sector suffers as a result of their lack of commitment.
Another issue is the nature of those elected and appointed to public office, who lack actual leadership qualities to govern Nigerian issues and are less concerned with the children of the poor.
The consequences of the current strike are various. Parents are currently having difficulty keeping their wards gainfully engaged due to inactivity, some of whom have returned home (not to mention others who refuse to return home) from public tertiary institutions. It is worth noting that even their graduates are unemployed or underemployed.
The majority of the pupils impacted are sad, and some have already engaged in heinous behavior. Some public university instructors have left the country to pursue their professions abroad, while a few students from rich backgrounds have opted for private universities or admittance to universities abroad. Families of academics are not forgotten, as their source of income has been diminished. Many people who benefit from firms linked to public tertiary universities are also affected.
The Importance of Quickly Resolving the ASUU Strike
The need to address this threat is pressing. We already have a situation in which eligible students from public tertiary institutions are unable to be mobilized for the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) program, and those wishing to attend Nigerian Law School are similarly stranded.
Overall, the ripple effect on citizens, the economy, the education sector, and the country as a whole will linger for a long time, because our public tertiary institutions are continually competing at the continental and global levels.
As the impasse persists, the typical Nigerian affected by the stalemate in discussions wonders what exactly the dividends of democracy are.
To address the persisting crisis, the federal government must commit to proper school financing. Withholding the wages of disgruntled employees in public tertiary institutions is clearly not the ideal option.
Nigerians must work hard to elect good leaders to represent them; this is the benefit of democracy. Furthermore, public officials must be required by law to enroll their children in public schools.
Stakeholders in public tertiary institutions (ASUU, SSANU, NASU, and NAAT) must conduct an honest assessment of conscience and engage with key government ministries (Finance, Education, Labour, and Science and Technology).
The Federal Government should not insist arrogantly on the renegotiation of the terms of the Agreement with ASUU, because the position of law is captured in the Latin maxim pacta sunt servanda, which means “agreements must be kept.” The sincerity of purpose amongst the parties involved in this deadlock is critical.
A situation in which money is being misdirected, a concerning lack of prioritization of the educational sector, and misappropriation of public funds by public office holders leave much to be desired.
Similarly, there is a need to reassess the use of strikes as the main vehicle for resolving decadence in the educational system; unfortunately, workers in public tertiary institutions have been left with few options due to the Government’s lax attitude toward the educational sector.
Possible Day ASUU Strike Will Be Called-Off
This is because the ruling political party (APC) knows full well that the majority of the voters of the next elections are youths who are obviously students at the tertiary institutions affected by the ASUU strike. The youths who happen to not be behind the APC but instead behind a third force in the person of Mr Peter Obi have registered or gotten their PVCs.
Most of them must have chosen polling units rather close to their houses. Calling off the strike a week or two before elections means students and youths will leave home (their polling units) for school.
This in turn means that most of the youths won’t vote, also considering that insecurity will be high by that time in the country and no one will want to travel back home at such a time.
The ASSU strike is currently a political game. Youths have to know this and prepare beforehand.
The different needs of workers in public tertiary institutions should not be underestimated; unfortunately, economic mismanagement with bad decision-making has negatively impacted all sectors of the economy. As lecturers moan, the judges who should be the arbiter of the Federal Government/Academic Staff Union of Universities’ deadlock also gripe about low pay. This is tragic in and of itself!