On the 14th day of February 2022, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the umbrella body of the teaching staff of Nigerian public universities, announced a ‘warning’ strike in yet another face-off with the Federal Government. Although this may not be considered as violent as the Aba Women’s Riot of 1929 or as emotion-evoking as the Ochanja Market Fire of October 2019, they all still share some characteristics that could make this evil menace one of the worst thing that ever happened to us as a nation. When one considers the case of countries like Canada and China, it becomes apparent how the right investment in education could rapidly transform a country in unimaginable ways and why our own case should be of special concern to all.
Since ASUU’s first strike in 1988 when it protested against the extremities of the Babangida regime that led to the union being proscribed on August 7, 1988, the incident has been so repeated over the years that it has come to be recognised as a yearly event, a time when academic activities stall and public universities go on forced break. In just the decade 2010–2020, academic strikes were on in Nigeria for a whopping one year and seven months. What may escape the mind in these figures are the covert effects these sporadic events have on the nation’s educational system, even worse its long-term effects on the leaders of tomorrow who are usually the end victims. The big question should be, is it more economical to allow the whole system to degenerate to such critical levels before taking necessary proactive measures? For some strange, unknown reason, it may. But why does it continue to happen? Why does ASUU have to go on an almost-annual strike even when there is a constitutional provision for free and government-funded university education? (Article 18 of the Nigerian Constitution,1999).
The internet, documentaries, and research findings are replete with a uniform reason why ASUU has staunchly embarked on numerous strike actions since its inception in 1978: the failure of the government to fulfill its side of the bargain. But before one draws a line between the villain and the vanquished here, a review of some of the unspeakable consequences of these incessant strikes could help inform our choices. The 2020 pandemic lockdown started with a two-week old ASUU ‘warning’ strike (March 9th – 23rd 2020). In the heat of the lockdown, most educational institutions all over the world switched over to online teaching. This could not be the case even with the apex level of education in Nigeria partly because the union was still on strike. When physical classes resumed again in February 2021, after over 10 months of academic inactivity, most institutions had to compress an academic session that, on the average, lasts for nine months to under five months. Worse still, some higher institutions, like Bayero University Kano, had to cancel a whole academic session to meet up with time. For the group of institutions which decided to carry on with the herculean task of continuing from where they stopped prior to the strike/lockdown, the result was, and still is, heterogeneous academic sessions.
One could imagine the pressure put on individual students and institutions to meet up with academic calendars and stipulated graduation time. Given that these strikes usually affect a fraction of the Nigerian academic environment, mainly public federal universities, it violates the provisions of Article 18(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which states that, “Government shall direct its policy towards ensuring that there are equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels.” In 2022, The University of Ibadan (UI) emerged the highest ranking higher institution in Nigeria, according to Times Higher Education, at the 429th place in the global ranking. Similarly, the University of Pretoria, the fifth-best university in South Africa, emerged 48 places above UI on the same ranking. Using the same metrics, UI fell in the 601st -800th range on global impact while University of Johannesburg, the tenth-best university in South Africa, ranked 92nd. A pertinent question: why should South Africa, with a GDP that is over $130 billion less than ours (World Bank 2020) outshine us in quality of education? The answer lies in the allocation education gets in the national budget in both countries. While Nigeria allocated 7.9 per cent of its national budget in 2022 to education, South Africa allocated 24 per cent. These numerical statistics of ranking are just formal, milder ways of representing the harsh realities of congested lecture halls, abandoned building projects on campus and under-equipped labs plaguing our higher institutions. But where, I think, our greatest concern should lie is in the youth and the spirit of indolence influenced by strikes. Most of them now look forward to, and even earnestly pray for these academic strikes. If we could achieve that level of dilapidation as a nation then we are totally done for. It may not be clear but it appears education is losing the war on the common man.
Maybe you have wondered why the giant of the second most-populous continent, in all its glory, could not set up a robust e-learning system during the COVID-19 pandemic; a reality that put over 39 million youths and children out of school in 2020. Many would argue, and rightly so, that it was because there was neither infrastructure nor trained personnel on ground to carry out that task. But would a nation with 74 per cent of its labour force having acquired advanced education, according to a World Bank 2022 report, look for trained personnel or infrastructure? The truth is bitter. Most of our brightest minds are expending their intellectual energy and earnestly contributing to GDP elsewhere outside the country where conditions are perceived to be better. When they hit a milestone in their career, aside the unctuous social media ‘Naija to the World’ celebrations by people at home, many of these individuals have never seen, or would never again see, home. What are we doing as a country to curb this appalling brain drain? At this point as a nation, I think, we may need to revisit the drawing board to ask ourselves some basic questions.
Given the ASUU-Federal Government continuous entanglement, are students truly being prepared for life outside school or is the sole essence of being in a Nigerian public tertiary institution system just to gain admission, spend half of the year at home, resume again and give a mad dash at memorising tomes of textbooks, pass exams, then graduate and look for job for half a decade? Is it not time to review the educational curriculum? Is it not time to improve teaching/learning conditions? Should students still learn programming languages that have low applicability in this technological age or teachers still draw and teach the innards of a lizard on a whiteboard? Should a professor still remain on the same pay in 2022 as in 2009? Shouldn’t there be a national scholarship scheme to attract foreign postgraduate students to Nigeria like Nigerian postgraduate students are attracted to other, even African, countries? What about student summer internships and undergraduate research? What happened to the promise of increased allocation to education in the national budget?
But government alone would not account for the falling standard of education in Nigeria. ASUU should make sure its fight is thorough by also checking the excesses of some of its members because it would be sheer foolishness to complain of a burst water pipe in the street when one’s room is fast getting flooded. ASUU would not achieve its goal of planting the tree of an ideal educational system when some members are uprooting it from within. Who is it that exploits students and subjects them to unwarranted financial obligations in schools? Who subjects some students to sexual exploitation? Definitely not the government.
We should not be quick to forget that the defining criterion for the awarding of a university degree is character and learning. None should ever be compromised. It is time to join hands as citizens of a participatory democracy to demand the best in the education of our children. There is the unarguable fact about the high potential education has to bridge the gap between developed and developing nations. Such education is an offshoot of a culture of true learning which can only be obtained in an environment, and under conditions, that would accentuate the best in both teacher and student ― and ours is fast disintegrating before our eyes.
Nnamoko is a 300-level student of Electronics and Computer Engineering at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State.
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