By Bola Bolawole
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(Published in the TREASURES column on the back page of the New Telegraph newspaper of Wednesday, 10 August, 2022).
Started on February 14, 2022, the ongoing strike action by the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian University (ASUU) is six months old – and with no end in sight yet! Last week, the union further extended the strike by another four weeks. While ASUU screams “no retreat, no surrender”; the Federal Government insists it has no funds to meet the university teachers’ demands. Yet, the same government had over a billion Naira to gift exotic cars to a foreign country, prompting someone to ask whether Buhari is a Nigerian; to which I promptly replied: Yes, he is a Nigerien!
Again and again, Buhari has demonstrated his preference for his Fulani ethnicity to his Nigerian nationality. But can you blame him: He is only smartly preparing for life after Aso Villa! With his Northern base rapidly falling into the hands of bandits and Boko Haram, Niger Republic where his father reportedly comes from and where his touted cousins are ready to welcome him with open hands is a safe haven that Buhari will run to after life in Nigeria’s Presidential villa! Call it Buhari preparing for his own retirement and you will be right!
So, stop troubling Buhari; our problems are ours to solve or roast in! Prompted by the need to find a solution to the lingering ASUU strike, an insider in the person of Prof. Eyitope Ogunbodede, the immediate past Vice-Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU, Ile-Ife (2017-2022), has offered an insight into how the logjam can be broken and the impasse cleared. As a VC, and one in a university that has had more than its fair share of ASUU strikes, Ogunbodede can be said to have seen it all. His panacea for ending the lingering ASUU strike and restoring peace and stability to our universities deserves our attention. Excerpts:
“President Muhammadu Buhari recently gave a two-week ultimatum, which has since expired, for the negotiating parties to resolve the Federal Government-ASUU imbroglio. It was a tall order and, more fittingly, an impossible condition. This is not because the matter cannot be resolved in less than two weeks but because it was clearly discernible that the parties involved and other stakeholders in university education have not been telling themselves the bitter truth. The closest to uprightness was the statement by the Honourable Minister of Labour that the Federal Government does not have the funds to meet its obligations in the agreement signed with the Unions, and that the country is broke. How else can one explain a 2009 agreement that is still begging for implementation in 2022?
It is embarrassing that the current ASUU strike, which began on 14th February, 2022, has again been “rolled over” for another four weeks! The last ASUU strike in 2020 lasted for nine months and from all indications, the current strike may last even longer! Must we continue this way? ASUU embarked on the current strike to press home its demands for the renegotiation of the ASUU/FGN 2009 agreement, deployment of UTAS to replace IPPIS, release of the reports of Visitation panels to federal universities, funding for revitalization of public universities, earned academic allowances, poor funding of State Universities, and promotion arrears.
I have not been privileged to read the Nimi Briggs Report but snippets in the newspapers and other information outlets indicate that a major part of the report is increment in salary. Nigerian lecturers are now the poorest paid in Africa and it is obvious that such a system can never retain the best. We know from the Minister of Labour, Employment and Productivity that the Briggs Committee proposed “109 to 185 per cent increase in the University wage structure” and that “the Federal Government will incur an additional N560 billion as salaries alone”. The Minister has also reasoned that negotiating with ASUU without simultaneously doing so with other university-based unions would not achieve a quick resolution of the issues. The Minister at several fora has declared that Nigeria is broke and that the Federal Government does not have the funds to meet its obligations in the agreement signed with the Unions.
Inaugurated on March 7, 2022 and given three months to conclude the renegotiation of the 2009 FGN/ASUU agreement, the Briggs committee, as expected, submitted its report on schedule. However, the efforts of the 7-member renegotiating team now appear inadequate in resolving the present impasse, reopening our universities, and keeping our campuses functional. It will be necessary to know the suggestions proffered by the Renegotiating Committee on how the Federal Government would source the funds to meet the proposed salary increase.
Another major grouse of ASUU and the other staff Unions with the Federal Government is the introduction of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS). The IPPIS is domiciled in the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation (OAGF). The IPPIS project, which commenced in 2007, centralises the payment of salaries and wages directly to the bank accounts of all federal government employees in Nigeria. It is one of the major issues that led to the 9-month strike by the ASUU in 2020, and the follow-up industrial actions by SSANU and NASU early in 2021.
The challenges of IPPIS are enormous for all stakeholders and, especially, for the universities. The scheme has become an albatross bedevilling the tertiary education system in the country and further undermining the autonomy earlier enjoyed by the universities. Interestingly, while the unions are agitating, university administrators are lukewarm about the use of IPPIS because it has shifted the heat and agitations on salaries and wages from the campuses to Abuja! Instead of ASUU insisting on the use of 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) marketing the University Peculiar Payroll Payment System (U3PS), relocating and shedding the control of IPPIS for Federal Universities to the National Universities Commission (NUC) will be a fair compromise. My opinion!
The peculiarities of the University system (such as sabbatical leave, appointment of expatriate staff and other practices necessary to internationalize and make a university world-class) can then be continuously built into the IPPIS software domiciled in NUC. It could ideally be referred to as IPPIS-U. We have had enough of IPPIS politics! No software, no matter how robust, would eliminate the negative factors identified with IPPIS, particularly if some of the operators are attuned to selfish and dishonest pursuits, and offenders are not severely and promptly punished.
It is time for the stakeholders in the education sector to now come to “reason together” and stop acting in silos and fiefdoms. Government must declare an emergency in the education sector and all critical stakeholders must now dialogue and come to an amicable and reasonable solution. I propose that the Government convene an expanded assembly of critical stakeholders, and not just the Ministries and the Unions, to deliberate and take critical decisions that will move the education sector forward… If discussion at such a forum is open and sincere, it will be possible to chart a new course for university education in the country and forestall any future strikes and closure of our higher institutions.
Information on the current financial contribution of students in our Federal Universities will shed some light on the insincerity pervading the system. Using Obafemi Awolowo University as an example, the students still pay N90, with N2,500 maintenance fees, per session for accommodation; even in situations where the session extends beyond 12 months! The N90 is the same amount I paid as a student in the same university in the 1970s! The cost of the receipt issued for the payment is probably higher than the amount paid and it would have been more “economical” for the university if accommodation was offered free! The charging of “fees” is not supported by the Federal Government but in 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 courses in the Health Sciences. These charges were fixed over 20 years ago and the uproar that followed has ensured that they remained the same.
OAU with a student population of about 25,000 runs an annual Personnel budget of approximately N10 billion. This, in essence, means that N400,000 per student per session will double the personnel budget. Of course, it will be ridiculous to expect that all students would pay the same amount of fees. It may mean payment of between N200,000 and N600,000 per student per session, depending on the course. This is nowhere near the N900,000 to N3,000,000 per session that students pay in most private universities today…
Many would ask, if fees are introduced, what happens to those who cannot afford the fees? Between 10 and 20 per cent of the fees collected should be set aside for partial or full scholarships to indigent students… As Vice-Chancellor for five years, the incarceration of university administration on the issue of fees was quite distressing to me. Even when the students are willing to contribute financially, the staff Unions led by ASUU have always been against the introduction of fees. The Federal Government also insists that the annual appropriation budget has taken care of all necessary expenditure and that 25% of any income generated must even be remitted to the Federal Government!
Some have argued that education is a right and not a privilege, and that funding of education as stipulated in the Nigerian Constitution is the responsibility of the government and not that of parents. It is, however, deceitful to expect that university education in today’s Nigeria will continue to be free. The evidence and situation on ground does not support such a grandiose illusion. I come in peace!”
Peace, indeed! Peace of the graveyard!
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