ASUP/FG: Another industrial action looms?

On August 19, 2016, members of Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP) shelved a planned nationwide industrial action to press home for the demands of the union on the intervention of the Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu. CLEMENT IDOKO examines some of these issues in contention.

Agitations by the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP) for better welfare of its members, salary increases, removal of dichotomy between university and polytechnic graduates in job placements and career progression, tackling of infrastructural challenges and adequate funding among others have spanned decades.

Stakeholders have also expressed concern about frequent strikes in the nation’s tertiary institutions leading to distortions of academic calendar and delays in graduation of students who spent in some cases additional one year or more into their programmes. There is also the consensus that for a developing country like Nigeria to move forward, technical education should be given priority attention.

However, in Nigeria both lecturers and students have cried foul that polytechnic education is being relegated to the background. What appears like a pattern is the refusal of successive governments to demonstrate political will to religiously implement whatever agreement entered freely and in sobriety with the union members so as to end their strike embarked on over unmet demands.

It would be recalled that ASUP had in 2014 suspended its about 10-month old strike in deference to the then newly-appointed Minister of Education, Malam Ibrahim Shekarau, who had asked the union to give him three months to address the grievances of the lecturers. When the union leaders saw that there was no genuine attempt to resolve their issues as promised by the Federal Government, in July, 2016, ASUP leadership issued a month ultimatum to the Federal Government over the non-implementation of its agreement and threatened to resume its industrial strike.

President of ASUP, Mr Usman Dutse, said the union was aggrieved that since the suspension of the protracted strike in 2014, the government was yet to address some of the core issues that necessitated the over 10-month industrial action. He highlighted the issues to include the non-implementation of Needs Assessment Report of 2014, non-payment of salaries in many state-owned institutions, delay in the review of the Polytechnic Act and poor funding of polytechnics among other demands.

Other demands of ASUP that have been in contention included issues relating to the migration of the lower cadres on the CONTISS 15 salary scale. Government had approved the migration in 2009 and actually began its implementation for the senior cadres with strong assurances that those of the lower cadres would follow without delay.

ASUP is also averse to the continued appointment of unqualified persons as rectors and provosts of polytechnics, monotechnics and colleges of technologies by some state governments; the refusal of most state governments to implement the approved salary packages (CONPCASS) for their polytechnics, monotechnics and colleges of technologies and the 65 years retirement age even though both state and federal polytechnics are regulated by the National Board for Technical Education (NBTE) and they operate the same scheme of service.

Dutse said because some of these issues have been lingering, ASUP decided to give the current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari enough time when it came on board last year to settle down and address all pending issues. Unfortunately, he said the present administration had showed no concern about the plight of lecturers, whose salaries were being reduced or owed in most federal and state polytechnics.

The lecturers vowed to return to trenches if urgent steps were not taken by the government to address the demands of the union. The ultimatum lapsed August 22, but again the strike was shelved on the prompt intervention of the current Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu, even though most of the grievances of the lecturers were yet to be addressed.

Announcing the suspension of the planned nationwide strike, ASUP Zonal Coordinator for Zone B, Comrade Abdullahi Yelwa, reportedly told newsmen after its 58th Zonal Executive Council (ZEC) meeting at the Kogi State Polytechnic, Lokoja, that the federal government has shown “seriousness” for talks.

He said: “ASUP is only on ‘standby mode’ over the strike action to allow discussion with the government. ASUP will not hesitate in resuming the planned action once it observes lack of commitment in addressing its demands.”

“ASUP’s grievances include non-implementation of the NEEDS Assessment Report 2014, non-payment of salaries in many state-owned polytechnics between two to eight months, shortfalls in personnel allocations to polytechnics as well as unpaid allowances in federal polytechnics since January 2016 and non-release of arrears of promotion.

“Other grouse of ASUP include victimization of union officials, non-release of check-off dues and interference in union activities, non-release of visitation panel reports of federal polytechnics since 2011, delay in the review of the Polytechnic Act and non-commencement of the renegotiation of the ASUP/FGN agreement of 2010 which has been due since 2013,” he said.

ASUP, however, commended the federal government for moves to end the dichotomy that had existed between polytechnic graduates and their university counterparts.

Meanwhile, an ASUP official who spoke to Nigerian Tribune in confidence that though the intervention by the Minister of Education placated the situation. The source said members were adequately informed to be battle-ready for an indefinite strike of the Federal government reneges on any point of its appeal that the ASUP leadership gave consideration.

He said the lecturers were aware and affected by the current economic recession that has affected almost every sphere of the system, so “It would be would foolhardy for us not to listen to what the minister and his people have said.

“We will not hesitate to return to trenches as we have always said if the Federal government derails. They told us about a number of things they are doing and a number of things they planned to do. Of course, a mini-committee was put in place involving the government and ASUP but what we are asking for faithful implementation agreements reached with the union.”

When asked about the timeline given to the government to fulfill the demands of the lecturers, the source who maintained anonymity because he was not the authorised person to speak to the media, said no timeline was given but insisted that ASUP has a National Executive Council meeting that could be called at any time to review issues at stake and take appropriate action.

The Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu, however, expressed the commitment of the current administration to implement all agreements that were mutually agreed to by government and the unions. He said this would endanger greater understanding and minimise the disruption of academic activities and frequent strikes by the unions. Adamu, said it was his desire to build mutual trust between the Federal Ministry of Education and the trade unions through regular consultations and “timely implementation of agreements reached with the unions”.

On improved funding of higher education, the minister said government would continue to increase budgetary allocation to the sector in addition to intervention by the Tertiary Education Trust (TETFund) as well as encouraging higher education institutions to explore other sources of funding. He added that government would also encourage private sector participation in the funding of research and other activities in higher education institutions.

According to him, government would work assiduously towards improving teaching-learning facilities and infrastructure in all the tertiary institutions, polytechnics inclusive, disclosing that the reports of the Needs Assessment commissioned by the government to determine the current and projected infrastructural needs of tertiary sector, are currently receiving the attention of the government.

“Government will vigorously implement the recommendations of the Needs Assessment on the provision of teaching, learning and research equipment and facilities as a step towards improving quality and expanding access to higher education,” he said.

On the removal of dichotomy between the Higher National Diploma (HND) and First Degree obtained from polytechnics and universities respectively, it was gathered that the first discreet attempt was the harmonisation of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation (JAMB) cut-off mark for 2016/2017 admissions in all tertiary institutions in the country, which was set at 180.

Minister of Education, Malam Adamu, actually set the tone for this harmonisation when in his speech delivered at the 2016 Combined Policy Meeting on JAMB admissions, proposed the 180 for all the higher institutions including universities, polytechnics, colleges of education and was adopted by the meeting the minimum benchmark for admissions.

In the past, the cut-off point for universities was 180 while that of polytechnics and colleges oscillated between 140 and 150. Critics of this disparity felt that the Federal Government has ab initio dignified universities over other tertiary institutions. Adamu, was said to have considered that the first attempt remove the dichotomy was to bridge the entry qualification while other issues in terms of academic staff among others are gradually being worked on.