The Academic Staff Union of Universities called off their strike over pay and conditions, a few days to February 16, 2019 general elections. The strike commenced on November 4, 2018 and had threatened to run through the elections, creating an own goal for the All Progressives Congress and the re-election of President Muhammadu Buhari into a second term in office.
The terms of the “memorandum of action”, which ASUU and the Federal Government agreed to, was not exactly clear to the public. It was thus not easy to say with certainty whether it would turn out to be another stop-gap measure designed to buy off a dangerous adversary at a sensitive time in the middle of elections, or whether, at last, a lasting solution had been found to this intractable problem of strikes and disruptions in Nigeria’s university education system. The main victims of the strike; the hapless students, will now have to put up with a forced elongation of their duration in school as is the case when such strikes happen.
In Nigeria, it is commonplace for a student on a four year degree programme to find himself still enrolled on the same course, two or three additional years later than scheduled, due to enforced disruptions of the kind just witnessed. The problem we are talking about affects only public (taxpayer-funded) institutions, of course. Private institutions are not affected since ASUU has no licence to operate in them. This column’s best guess is that incessant ASUU strikes in public universities is a major disincentive to enrolling in them and an incentive to opt for private universities instead, where one’s commencement and graduation days are almost set in stone.
There is no denying the fact that public universities in this country used to rank alongside any standard university anywhere in the world. There was massive investment in them, coupled with the dedication and commitment of the academics working in the institutions. The condition of service and studying used to be so congenial that once recruited, an academic would chart a career path for himself until retirement without thinking too much about taking on other odd jobs to supplement his income. We are talking of the giddy heights of public investments in education in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. During this period, you could walk into any of the first generation campuses and see the array of academics and researchers from across the world, milling around and pursuing their varied interests in science, medicine, social science and humanities. Such were the glorious days.
Nowadays, the same institutions are now shells of their former selves. No one takes pride in them anymore, not least, the political class, some of whom have gone on to build rival private universities to deplete interest and erode confidence in the public ones even further. Those who can afford it amongst them send their children to schools in Western countries, namely; UK, USA, Canada, Australia, etc. Others opt for private universities in the country. As a result, public universities in Nigeria have become production factories for half-baked graduates and illiterates unable to justify the qualifications bestowed on them.
You would be forgiven for thinking that it is a little bit unpatriotic to be saying these things out loud this way. It is washing one’s dirty linen in public as it were, except to point out that this is an open secret. Education establishments around the world, who once had huge respect for certificates from Nigeria’s universities now look down on them. We would even argue that not airing this problem in a public forum like this is both unpatriotic and a dereliction of duty. On that note, we do not need to scratch our heads too much to understand the puzzle in the title of this piece. In its robust defence of the strike action, ASUU went on social media and other outlets to alert people to the plight of university employees and institutions in this country. It set out a litany of calamities that have befallen the public institutions in this country over many years, due to official neglect. A little excerpts from their dossier underline, indeed, affirm the choice of title for this week’s column.
According to ASUU’s detailed research into the state of public universities in this country, justifying why ASUU went on strike: “Internet services are non-existent, or epileptic and slow in 99 per cent of Nigerian universities”, “Nigerian universities library resources are outdated and manually operated. Book shelves are homes to rats/cockroaches”, “76 per cent of Nigerian universities use well as source of water, 45 per cent use pit latrine, 67 per cent of students use bush as toilet”, “77 per cent of Nigerian universities can be classified as glorified primary schools. Laboratories are non-existent”, “80 per cent of Nigerian universities are grossly under-staffed”, “78 per cent of Nigerian universities rely heavily on part-time and visiting lecturers”, “88 per cent of Nigerian universities have under-qualified academics”, “90 per cent of Nigerian universities are bottom-heavy, with junior lecturers forming large chunk of the workforce?”, “only 21 per cent of Nigerian universities attract expatriate lecturers, over 80 per cent of Ghanaian universities attract same”, “89 per cent of Nigerian universities employ their own (local ethnic) staff”, “Nigerian university medical students train in the most dangerous environment, some only see medical tools in books”, “80 per cent of published journals by Nigerian academics have no visibility in the international knowledge community”, “laundries and common rooms in many universities have been converted into rooms where students live in open prison style”, “over 1000 students being packed in lecture halls designed for less than 150 students”.
The above highlights are by no means exhaustive, the tale of woes documented by ASUU is much longer; it is stupefying in essence. If you add the nonchalant attitude of the students to their study environment; fiddling attendance, falsifying records and assignments, open and blatant plagiarism, paying for lecturer’s notes (and marks in many cases), indulgence in illicit affairs with lecturers in exchange for marks, one can see how worthless the certificates handed to the students at the end of their endeavours really is. Many graduates from the universities are embarrassing for their ignorance of the most elementary stuff like: who is the current President of Nigeria? Or, how many states comprise the Nigerian federation? Some have been known to confuse Tafawa Balewa (the first Prime Minister of Nigeria) for a folk singer from the north. And Awolowo (the first Premier of the old Western Nigeria) for a traditional ruler from some ancient village in the Western part of Nigeria. Yes, these are products of Nigerian universities!
What is even more embarrassing is that these illiterate products of the universities go on to find very good, high-paying government jobs on a fast track to senior management positions. Many also find similarly high rewarding jobs in the private sector as well. In no time, many even find themselves in political office, wielding power and influence. One only has to pay a little attention to the utterances of some of the elected representatives in State and National Assemblies to make one think and wonder in bewilderment.
There is apparently no penalty for failure in school under our system, as who you know counts more in life than what you actually know. The title of your college degree matters more than its substance. Your ability to drop names to gain access is more important than your ability to read and write. Under the circumstances, where is the incentive for hard work? More importantly, where is the incentive to acquire knowledge? None, it seems. It may be time to privatise all Nigerian universities. What do you think?