Wednesday, February 8, 2017 9:27 am
The relative industrial harmony across Nigerian tertiary institutions appears endangered again with the threat by staffers in Polytechnics for a full-blown strike for indefinite period over unfulfilled promises by the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN).
According to The New Independence Group (NIG), this may come if the government remains unmoved by the three-day warning strike recently embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP).
As contained in the statement, signed by NIG Convener, Profesor Akin Onigbinde, about the same time, the Senior Staff Association of Universities (SSANU), alongside other non-teaching staff across universities embarked on a one-week warning strike. All of this came in quick succession, following the one-week warning strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) late in 2016 to call the attention of the Federal Government and other stakeholders to the non-implementation of agreements reached with it by the Federal Government in 2009 and 2012, as well as the need for a review, as embedded in the body of the two agreements.
NIG goes further:
“While the strike has finally compelled the government to constitute a negotiating team, there are fears that events may play out the way they have done in the past, during which sundry agreements were not addressed until full-blown strikes paralyzed the sector. The threat of industrial actions in the tertiary sector definitely portends serious harm to a sector already endangered as a result of government negligence, dearth of qualified hands and decreasing output quality.
Let us, for the record, call the attention of the public to the number of times that ASUU has been forced to embark on strike over same issue(s) between 1992 and 2016:
(1), in 1992, 10 days, August 23rd-September 3rd
(2), in 1994,6-months,
(4), in 1999-5months
(5), in 2001-3months
(6) in 2002-2weeks
(7) in 2003-6 months, ended in 2004
(8) in 2005-3 days
(9) in 2006- one week
(10) in 2007-3months
(11) in 2008-one week
(12) in 2009-4 months
(13) in 2010-5months and one week
(14) in 2011-3 months, which ended in 2012
(15) in 2013-5months and 3 weeks (July 1st-December 17th)
(16) in 2016-1 week.
“To be certain, the itemized seasons of shutdown of universities were all on strikes called by the unions’ central bodies. It is difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of industrial actions declared by individual universities over local and peculiar disputes with their respective authorities. At least, the country may still recollect the eight-month closure of Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH), an institution being jointly sponsored by the governments of Oyo and Osun states.
While the conflict between academics and successive military regimes, sometimes over the wider direction of the state may be understandable, the resort to strike has continued even under civilian regimes. For instance, Nigeria and ASUU have both changed leadership four times each between 1999 and 2017 as the strike profile above has shown. This then is an indication that something is fundamentally wrong in the bargaining process between ASUU and the government. Were it not so, there should have been a very long break from strikes. It would appear that the character of governments, be they military (1992-1998) or civilian (1999-2016), seems to be the same as the frequency of strikes did not abate, and has indeed escalated under civil administrations, irrespective of the level, as both the states and central governments are culpable in the national tragedy that has imperilled our tertiary level of education.
The main argument of university teachers that necessitated the “warning strike” of November- December 2016 is the contention over honouring the ASUU-FG 2009 agreement. The single Term of Reference of the Committee was to re-negotiate the 2001 FGN/ASUU Agreement and enter into a possible new workable agreement. In the course of discussion, the committee agreed that the items for the re-negotiation were:
(I) To reverse the decay in the university system, in order to reposition it for greater responsibilities in national development;
(ii) To reverse the brain drain, not only by enhancing the remuneration of academic staff, but also by disengaging them from the encumbrances of a unified civil service wage structure;
(iii) To restore Nigerian universities, through immediate, massive and sustained financial intervention; and,
(iv) To ensure genuine university autonomy and academic freedom.
As a fall out of the five months and three weeks strike that ended on 17th December 2013, the Federal Government agreed to a NEEDs Assessment intervention where the FG earmarked N1.3 trillion for universities, to be released in six tranches with the final disbursement in 2018. Apart from the first phase of N220 billion Naira that was released in early 2014, no other has been released so far. It is therefore not surprising that another strike is in the offing.
On their part, the warning strike by the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP), which implied the suspension of academic activities in all public polytechnics across the country between noon of January 30, 2017 and February 6, was hinged on the refusal of the government to implement the NEEDS Assessment report of July 2014. According to reports, the assessment showed that the polytechnics and colleges of education required N652.6 million to address the decay in infrastructure in the institutions; the non-removal of the entry dichotomy between HND and degrees; poor funding of the polytechnics, victimization of union officials; and non-release of check off dues, among others.
That the union issued a one month ultimatum to the Federal Government to draw its attention to the aforementioned issues, among others, on November 14, 2016, without a response, is equally telling on the levity with which citizenry education and welfare are being handled by the government. Evidently, there is a lack of faith in the unions of Nigerian tertiary institutions in government’s willingness to address contentious issues without resorting to industrial actions.
These strikes, unfortunately, exact serious quantifiable and unquantifiable costs. The last major strike by the polytechnic unions lasted for close to a year, with students becoming disoriented and exposed to various vices as they watched their academic development put in hibernation by a dysfunctional society that places little or no premium on the lives of its young ones. It is also safe to say that in all of the 46 months, eight weeks and 13 days of strikes from 1992 to 2016, which is about 4 years out of the 16 years under review, university students must have been negatively affected by the dormancy within the system, and the consequence of spending more than the required number of years to complete their academic programmes.
The man-hour loss, the disconnection in academic flow on both the teachers and the students, are evidently immeasurable in concrete terms. Yet, the Federal Government had to pay the teachers for the dormant period of four years. In all of this, Nigerians are the ultimate losers. It is therefore incumbent on government, which in this circumstance is the employer, to among other things develop strategies that will ensure that negotiations are consummated within a very short time, and that they are implemented in strict compliance with their terms of references.
While the Federal Government is to be commended for constituting the Wale Babalakin team to negotiate on its behalf, the present situation appears most appropriate for the development of a new framework of engagement that signals a fundamental departure from the old, ineffective ways that only bring a moment of respite for the tussling parties ahead of the next showdown. As part of the measures to finding a lasting solution, the Federal Government is advised to place a moratorium on the licensing of universities and polytechnics, as recommended by the Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka decades ago, when the decay in the education system was still nascent; until a governing framework and a guiding philosophy for tertiary education is fashioned out by the relevant stakeholders.
The solutions to be proffered must necessarily include how to ensure that government continues to play its supportive role as a critical stakeholder in the educational sector without impinging on the autonomy needed by the institutions if they must function unfettered as true industries of research, learning and knowledge generation; sustainable capacity development, and the increasing need to make the institutions relevant to national challenges. Of equal importance is the need to reconceptualise access and quality, especially at a time when millions miss out on tertiary education annually owing to limited spaces in the universities and polytechnics. Hitherto, the approach has been to embark on the licensing of private institutions, owned by government officials in and out of service, faith-based organizations and private entrepreneurs. This has only provided limited access to the elite in the upper middle class unable to afford foreign education for their wards. It has equally been matched by gradual decrease in government’s support for public institutions; even as available data shows that many are still being left out.
The New Independence Group (NIG) wishes to note further that the jettisoning of qualitative vocational training is partly responsible for the pressure on the universities and polytechnics. Vocational training colleges ought to be the incubation points for the development of cottage industries that generate decent jobs for thousands without the fear of inferiority that the lack of university degree generates.
What the above points at is the need for a complete overhaul of the arch of post-primary education in the country, in a bid to develop a knowledge-driven, self-reliant economy. This need, therefore, reinforces the call for a moratorium, as well as a possible shutdown of the system for a period in order to reboot it on a strong footing.
Of equal importance is the need to build trust on the part of government, academics and institutions’ administrations as well as mechanisms for managing conflicts without recourse to strikes and shutdowns as is presently the case. And this cannot be achieved by government resort to threats on the career of union members and issuance of prohibitive laws, through which the Federal Government may wish to arm-twist unions and coerce striking staff to submission in the course of breakdown in negotiations. The most functional and result-oriented approach in industrial dispute is to ensure that all sides remain seated at negotiation table to iron out grey areas of contention.
The progress of any nation in the 21st century is dependent significantly on how well it positions its educational sector to respond, mitigate, as well as anticipate challenges, in addition to creatively generating ideas for further growth and development. For as long as Nigeria runs its educational system in fits and starts, its socio-economic development will only continue to stutter. We at NIG urge the Federal Government to demonstrate, for once, a sincere commitment to the reformation of the education sector, especially at the tertiary level, as it commences negotiations with the unions.
In this vein, all stakeholders must be carried along to make the outcome broadly acceptable to the generality of the populace. In the meantime, the NIG urges the unions to be hesitant in unilaterally shutting down the schools (barring an agreement across the different sides for a shutdown preparatory to a new start-off as agreed to by the stakeholders). They are also urged to think out and proffer lasting solutions to the perennial cycle of strikes and restarts for which our institutions have become notorious.”