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Losing the education war with strike actions

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By Ike Onyechere

In the past, public universities (and other tertiary institutions) were held in high esteem as reservoirs of knowledge and wisdom and incubators for intellectuals and thinkers who were looked upon to chart new courses, to create new paradigms. From the bowels of tertiary institutions came professors who, from time to time, launch thunders of well-researched revolutionary solutions to social, economic, political and other societal problems. Ideas that transformed societies, institutions, systems, and lives. Lecturers worked and researched hard to be at the cutting edge of knowledge in their fields of study. Institutions were centres of excellence where lecturers served as mentors and role models to students and set examples of zero tolerance for academic dishonesty, examination malpractice, corruption and cultism in words and actions.  Lecturers commanded respect and students flocked to them to drink from their pools of their wisdom! They appreciated their jobs as higher calling for service to God and mankind.

That was in the past. Today, the story of public universities is that of tragic decline, decay, incompetence, inexperience, lack of research, Doctorates for sale and loss of glory. Please don’t just take my word for it. In addition to stories of alarming events in public universities, please Google and read Prof. Steve Okecha’s 2008 ground-shaking book ”The Nigerian University: An Ivory Tower with Neither Ivory nor Tower”; a recent article by Prof. Chinedum Nwajiuba, vice-chancellor, Alex Ekwueme Federal University in Ndufu-Alike, Ebonyi State captioned ”Are Our Public Universities Going the Way of our Public Primary and Secondary Schools?”;  and the Report of Committee on Needs Assessment of Nigerian Public Universities presented to the National Economic Council by Prof. Raquayyatu Ahmed Rufa’I, the then Hon. Minister of Education.

The decline is such that academic and non-academic staff in public educational institutions (primary, secondary and university) no longer wants their children to school in the public institutions in which they work. They prefer to send their children to private institutions.

Nothing exposed the gap between Nigeria’s public and private universities like the current Covid-19 pandemic. Only a few public universities have been able to utilize open and distance learning systems to keep their students engaged during coronavirus pandemic. And only a few of them continued with research and development activities. On the other hand, private universities “have been operating at comparatively higher levels, having lectures online, taking tests and exams, having matriculations and even convocations, organizing webinars” as Prof Nwajiuba observed in his article.

On August 7, some media houses carried the news of report presented by NUC to the effect that a total of 32 universities in the country were carrying out research on solutions to coronavirus in the country. One of the highlights of the report is that the Centre for the Genomics of infectious diseases at the Redeemers University (a private university) served as pioneer Covid-19 testing and screening centre.

It is also noteworthy that The Times Higher Education World ranking of Universities (the best global university ranking system of 1400 universities across 92 countries audited by Price WaterhouseCoopers) ranked Covenant University (private university) the best in Nigeria for 2020 and 401 globally. University of Ibadan is ranked number 2 in Nigeria and 501 globally while University of Lagos ranks number 3 in Nigeria and 801 globally.

Numerous pundits and scholars, including Prof Nwajiuba and Prof Okecha, have attributed a major reason of the decline to incessant strike actions with attendant negative consequences of: shutdowns of universities; disruptions of academic calendars; elongation of duration of courses; little time left for teaching; examinations without adequate preparations; awarding certificates for knowledge, skills and character neither gained nor acquired; low quality human resource base that falls short of learning and character requirements for transformational performance.

To drive the point home, an overview of frequency of strike actions in tertiary institutions is in order using ASUU as an example. Between 1992 and 1999, ASUU went on strike seven times lasting an average of five months per strike. The 1992 strike lasted nine months while the strike of 1993 lasted five months. The strike of 2009 was total and indefinite. The 2013 strike lasted six months, 2016-one week and 2017-one month. The strike of 2018 started on November 4, 2018 and ended February 8, 2019. The 2020 strike started in March is still on. The Daily Trust of August 6, reported that The Joint Action Committee of Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU) and Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSASU) declared strike action effective from the date of resumption of work after lifting the coronavirus lockdown. In effect, public universities will still not function even if the ASUU strike is called off because NASU and SSANU strikes will kick in.  Meanwhile I have not heard of any strike action in private universities.

Many parents (including leaders of education ministries and agencies and academic and non-academic staff of public universities) frustrated by not being sure of graduation periods for their children due to instability of public universities are now increasingly migrating their children away from public universities to private universities, despite the cost. While some public universities have carrying capacity spaces to spare for new students, top-grade private universities are not able to admit all students seeking admissions. Surveys also indicate that private sector employers of labour now prefer to employ graduates of private universities.

The only thing that now prevents parents from sending their children to private universities is money. If and when students loan become available in Nigeria, many public universities may close shop, as I envisage public universities going the way of public primary and secondary schools that are now attended by only the poorest of the poor.

Let us be clear about one thing. Labour unions in the education sector play important roles in the progress and development of education in Nigeria in terms of fighting for resources for transformation of education. Without the role of unions in negotiating Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) and fighting for their implementation, the plight of workers in the public education sector may possibly have been worse.

Yes, education unions have power and responsibility to fight for: making lecturers and teachers the highest paid workers in order to attract and retain the best and brightest; allocation of highest proportion of federal, state and local budgets to education; release of appropriated funds as and when due; implementation of CBAs; implementation of the universities autonomy act to liberate universities from the bureaucratic entanglements of civil service systems; etc.

But the questions and puzzles for education unions to resolve include: how can unions secure, protect and defend the interests of their members without further damaging the public education sector that employs them? Are there alternatives to strike actions as collective bargaining strategy? Will strike actions achieve any meaning impact in the coronavirus and post-coronavirus era of dramatic decline in government revenue?

The post-coronavirus era will be marked by worsening recession and increasing inability of government to fund its financial obligations including funding of CBAs and provision of sufficient grants. It will be an era of conflict escalation as interest groups struggle to get their fair share of available resources. Will strikes achieve anything when and if the government has no money, when sources of government revenue are in decline, when lenders are no longer willing to lend more money? Will education unions just shut down the sector with strike actions in a situation of formal or informal declaration of coronavirus force majeure by the government?

Educationists and their unions are trained to think. And this the time for them to put on their thinking caps.

  • Onyechere, MFR is founding chairman, Exam Ethics Marshals International.

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