Thursday, September 14, 2017 10:42 am
By Jide Osuntokun
Many of us in Nigeria and particularly in the education sector have lost count of the number of strikes by university workers. The first strike that I remember vividly because I participated in it was the “industrial action” in 1973 taken against our employers, the federal government which owned the universities of Ibadan and Lagos, and the state governments that were the owners of the university of Nigeria (Nsukka) Ahmadu Bello University and the University of Ife. I was then in the University of Ibadan – Jos Campus. The University of Ibadan under Professor Adeoye Lambo was invited to establish a university college in Jos by Joseph Gomwalk, an alumnus zoology graduate of Ibadan who as police commissioner was the military governor of the then Benue-Plateau State. Stories had it that he approached Ibadan after Ahmadu Bello University for political reasons turned him down. The college was therefore established in 1972 under the energetic and indefatigable Professor Emmanuel Ayandele. University staff then were not highly paid but they earned enough comparable with others in the public sector.
When the strike was called, the Yakubu Gowon government reacted negatively and gave an ultimatum that university staff should either call off the strike or pack out of university accommodation. This was a wakeup call for senior university people who were living comfortably in university accommodation without the thought of owning their own houses. The government’s tough approach did the trick and the strike was called off. The university people learnt a bitter lesson from the experience. Those who had been in service for a long time began to look for land to build their own houses and they set the example for the younger ones to follow. I remember that Governor J.D .Gomwalk gave us plots in the GRA for us to build our homes in Jos. Some paid for the plots of land, but out of short-sightedness, most of us felt we were too young to be thinking of personal houses. Those also were the years of idealism when young people like us despised materialism and primitive accumulation of wealth.
In those days, there was only one union in the university system unlike now when there are as many as seven or more if one includes the various unions in the university teaching hospitals. It will be wonderful if ASUU can just be “Association and Staff Union of Universities “to embrace all the existing unions and every category of staff can enter whatever salary scale approved for the entire university system at its own level. This will take care of academic, administrative, technical, clerical and cleaning staff. With the trend noticeable in private universities and universities in the rest of the world, there will soon be no need of those doing “bullshit” jobs in the universities.” Bullshit “jobs according to London School of Economics anthropologist David Graeber are jobs that add no value to the economy and that can be dispensed with and the people doing them know that their positions are superfluous.
There are many jobs like that in our country including jobs of ambassadors! While on this, my rather sometimes probing ambassador-friend, Dapo Fafowora once cynically challenged me by saying many university people have no skills and wondered what skill I had. I mumbled something about being a teacher, writer, public intellectual and so on. But on reflection my job may not be critical to society as that of garbage collectors! I have just read a book with the title of “Utopia for realists and how we can get there” by a Dutch historian by the name of Rutger Bregman. The book has kept me thinking. He gave a comparative importance of garbage collectors in New York going on strike and after six stinking days, the mayor had to be begging them with huge salaries and pleading with them to save the city from being overrun by rats and stench. He compared it with the case of bankers who went on strike for six months in Ireland while people devised other mechanics of shifting wealth from one to the other!
The point I want to make is that while the job of teaching from primary to tertiary levels of education is very important and should be recognized and adequately compensated, this must be balanced with other critical sectors needing resources. There is no point asking for the moon during a period of economic recession. By the way, I hope this time around, government will consolidate salaries and “earned or unearned allowances” which have been the knotty problem for university administrators in recent times. The second point I want to make is to ask how adequately have we as teachers transmitted to our students the right kind of culture that would be beneficial to our country. Do we impart the right kind of knowledge to our students?. Do we just equip our students for the work place or do we put emphasis on the good of society rather than what is personally beneficial ?Of course there is the eternal argument of the role of parents and society in shaping the character of young people who will grow up to hold leadership positions in our society. Our universities should aspire to be incubators of ideas and centres of patents that could be harnessed to dominate our environment and make our lives better rather than shunning out esoteric researches that are totally irrelevant to the questions of development and societal progress.
I will like to see academics get more involved in debating the future political, structural and economic trajectory of this country instead of just taking care of ourselves alone. There is the debate going on in western societies about the desirability of paying everybody a basic universal income irrespective of whether one was working or not. The present government is doing something like this following on the paradigm established by Kayode Fayemi in Ekiti State where poor elderly women were being paid N5000 per month. Imagine the effect it will have on our country if all unemployed people were given a living basic income monthly. This may sound an outrageous suggestion. But it is being done in some places and we must be thinking of how to adapt it to our clime.
Imagine if all those who want to work and cannot find jobs were each paid N20,000 a month with promise of housing along the line. What this will mean is that we will have to cap the maximum anybody earns in this country. This will mean we will radically reduce salaries and allowances of federal, state and local government officials and their bureaucracies. If all were catered for, we will not need a huge army, police, prisons and many other security organizations. Whatever is saved on these institutions will go into the basic fund from which the income will be paid to the masses of our hungry people. The fact that this sounds idealistic does not mean it cannot be done. There are trials on the universal basic income concept albeit on limited scale going on in Canada, New Zealand and in some places even in the USA.
Before we arrive at this future utopia, I will like to suggest that the universities should be asked to have one union embracing all workers who work in the universities. If the purpose of higher education is teaching, research and public service, then everybody in the university system should work symbiotically with each other. Eventually the supporting staff in the university system will gradually reduce as it has all over the world because of increasing advance in technology. The days of clerks and secretaries are gone or going in many universities. In future, budgets of universities will be solely for research and technical support and the vast administrative paraphernalia in the universities will wither away. Universities will also gradually not be involved in providing municipal services and good universities will be able to generate their own power and provide water for their own use.
Finally our governments must realize that universities are expensive to run and heads of governments must avoid after dinner announcements about opening of new universities without counting the cost. All this glib talk of universities of petroleum, university of transportation, marine university must stop. We should consolidate and possibly merge the ones we have so as to save costs. The government by giving license to all sorts of characters to establish universities has demeaned and devalued the cultural significance of universities. Some of the private universities, especially the sectarian ones and a few others are excellent institutions contributing to shaping the character of the youth while also imparting knowledge to them but some of the existing private universities are caricatures of universities and fraudulent institutions sucking money out of deluded Nigerians looking for easy way out of this rather difficult Nigerian educational environment.
Credit: The Nation