Wanted: A President to Solve the ASUU Puzzle

Wanted: A President to Solve the ASUU Puzzle



Prof Emmanuel Osodeke, president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), has a dream: that one day, Nigerian universities will be able to compete with the best in the world; that our universities will attract the best students and best teachers; that students will start trooping to Nigeria from all over the world; that our academics and researchers will be celebrated globally for their contributions to knowledge; that our universities will be competing with the Oxfords and the Harvards; that the N1.6 trillion Nigerian students spend yearly on schooling abroad will be redirected to the Nigerian university system; and that Nigerian universities will become centres of excellence.

Osodeke, at a meeting of the central working committee of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) in Abuja on Wednesday, cut the picture of a passionate and frustrated man who wants nothing but the best for Nigeria. He made key statements that got me excited. In-between the lines, I saw many pointers that can lead to a meaningful discourse on the way forward. Noting that Nigerians spend “at least N1.6 trillion every year as tuition fee to schools outside the country”, the ASUU president lamented that the “humongous amount” could have helped address the crisis in the Nigerian university system as “our education system is fast deteriorating and falling from global standards”.

The professor of soil science said: “Let’s work on the system in such a way that if it works our university can compete with any other university in the world in terms of staff and students. When you go to other universities, even in Benin Republic, you have multiple people from different countries at the university with multiple ideas… No foreign student is coming here. So many of our Nigerian students are moving abroad. A report earlier this year by the Central Bank stated that Nigerians spend N1.6 trillion every year to pay school fees outside. That money could revamp this system if we allow it to work. So those are the major reasons why we are on strike.” Well said.

There are obstacles to actualising his dream. ASUU desires a world-class public university system BUT it has to be funded by government AND must, at the same time, be free of government control. Otherwise, “warning strikes” and “total strikes” will continue until the world comes to an end. They want government to pay the teachers well, pump N200 billion into the universities yearly as well as give universities the “autonomy” to spend the funds and run the system as they like. Meanwhile, striking teachers must be paid their full entitlements. Herein lies the ASUU Puzzle: the notion that strike is always best the way forward. Is this how Nigerian universities will compete with Harvard?

For starters, why are Nigerians willing to “steal, beg or borrow” to spend N1.6 trillion on schooling abroad? There are so many reasons: the stability of the academic calendar, the quality of instruction, the wealth of research resources, the transparent assessment system (devoid of victimisation, sexual harassment and “sorting”), marketability of the certificates and, increasingly, the opportunity to “japa”. I did my first degree in Nigeria and my second in the UK and I know the system that treated me as an irritant and the one that treated me as a human being. Excellent facilities and resources and respect for human dignity by authorities and teachers provide an awesome learning experience.

The just-released ‘Nigeria Market Sentiments & Study Motivations Report 2022’ reveals the top five preferred destinations for outbound Nigerian students as the UK (32.71 per cent), Canada (16.67 per cent), the US (16.54 per cent), Germany (10.60 per cent), and Australia (7.96 per cent). In all these countries, state-owned universities are not solely funded by government. In the UK, for instance, universities are funded through three sources: government, endowments and tuition fees. Government funding is targeted at research, innovation and infrastructure. Endowments, mostly by charities, pay for teaching, research and public services. Significantly, students co-pay for tuition.

Osodeke is worried that Nigerians pay N1.6 trillion on tuition abroad, saying this amount could “revamp this system”. But this is part of the ASUU Puzzle: he did not suggest that our universities should start charging tuition too in order to improve funding. The average tuition fee for foreign students in the UK is about £18,000 per session — roughly N14 million. Home students pay close to £10,000. Compare that with the tuition fee in our federal universities: officially zero kobo. How then can we compete with “any other university in the world” without adequate resources? If we want to get a Rolls-Royce Phantom for the price of Keke Marwa, someone else will have to pick the full bill.

I have used the UK as an example because that is the most popular destination for Nigerians, apparently because of the colonial links and lingual comfort. However, a study of fees and funding in other advanced countries will reveal something similar: that students pay for higher education. Only a dozen wealthy countries do not charge tuition fees for home students. The UK government policy is quite clear: we owe you only free primary and secondary education so that you can have the basics of literacy and numeracy to fit into a modern society — but if you want university education, that is an “extra” and you have to pay part of the cost, mate. This obtains in most rich countries.

So, are we saying the children of the poor should not receive university education? Not in that sense. In the UK, you can apply for a student loan for higher education. It is open to all. You will not start repaying the loan until you have graduated and started earning an income within a defined band. It, therefore, doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor — you can still receive university education. No one is left behind. But you will have to share the cost. The era of government underwiring the entire budgets of public universities is gone in most countries. Economists say wants are limitless but the resources are scarce. You have to prioritise how you will allocate and distribute these resources.

Back home, Nigerians who can afford private universities would rather go for that option. And tuition is not free or cheap. Nigerians go to neighbouring countries for higher education. They pay for it. I know of two sisters who studied medicine — one in Ghana, the other in Nigeria. Tuition is $13,000 per session in Ghana. Tuition in Nigeria is officially zero kobo (not to be confused with the token levies for health, accommodation, etc). The sister in Nigeria started before the one in Ghana, but the one in Ghana finished first. Why? ASUU strikes. There is a correlation between quality of service when you pay and when you don’t pay. Let’s stop fooling ourselves in the name of aluta.

Am I suggesting that tuition fee is the magic wand that will bury strikes, revive our universities and make them compete with Harvard and Oxford? No. That is not my point. Many things have to change. I am not an education expert but I have read a number of insights and proposals by those who know better and I am inclined to agree with them. The starting point is that we need a genuine conversation devoid of ego and emotions. Many of those shouting “aluta” have their children in private or foreign schools. They are not badly affected if the strikes continue forever. The teachers will still get paid. Therefore, we must all be open to an honest conversation on the ASUU Puzzle.

I have synthesised two major ideas from experts on how to create a better education system in Nigeria. One, public universities need autonomy. They cannot be run like ministries. Recruitment and compensation have to be competitive — to attract the best. The governance structure must be in line with modern trends and conform to global best practices. The current clamour for autonomy, it appears, is for government not to look into the finances of the universities, even though it is the one funding them. ASUU also seems to want a payment software that will conceal ghost workers and also help teachers evade tax. Autonomy without accountability should not be the goal.

I believe the key to university autonomy is solid financial footing. The opportunities to be economically viable are there. The opportunities to be competitive are also there. But the current system is so warped and fuzzy that it is difficult to make any progress with it. The system worked in the 1960s and 1970s but state capacity has regressed fundamentally and it would be counter-productive to keep insisting on maintaining the status quo. It is like saying government should be funding NITEL in order to make it compete with Globacom, Airtel and MTN. It is not going to happen. Maybe it will work in Togo but it won’t work in Nigeria. Let’s navigate our realities with sense.

Two, funding for university education must come from different sources: government, endowments, ventures/projects and tuition fees. Government grants should be well targeted: to fund research, infrastructure and scholarships. The current system where almost 100 percent of government funding goes into personnel costs is un-Oxfordlike. Government can calculate how much it costs to train a student and decide to fund a percentage of that. That way, it would be paying for the education of students, not just the salaries of teachers. Government can also set up a student loan scheme but it should be managed by financial institutions to avoid the bureaucratic challenges.

Apart from student loans, there could be other options for the less-privileged, including work-study programmes and scholarships based on needs and merit. This is how it is done elsewhere. The universities themselves must become creative and develop revenue-generation projects, programmes and ideas. Alumni networks are major source of funding for Harvard-like schools, but it takes a lot of work and accountability. I don’t think our universities have any incentives for that when they can be collecting guaranteed allocation from government. A world-class system will help the government, the teachers and, most importantly, the students. Let us begin to think differently.

As we get set to elect another president, one question that every potential candidate should answer is: how would you solve the ASUU Puzzle? An old edition of Sketch went viral recently. The headline was ‘ASUU May Call Off Strike’. That was November 26, 1981! ASUU is always within a five-word radius of “strike”. The “s” in ASUU appears to stand for “strike”. We cannot continue like this. ASUU needs to change approach. If their strike strategy was the ultimate solution, we would not be here today. They have been at it for over 40 years! Let us tell ourselves the home truth, no matter how much it hurts. Thankfully, Osodeke says he has a dream. Let the government and the teachers have an honest conversation — devoid of muscle flexing — and make this lofty dream come true.



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Credit: ThisDay

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