A former vice chancellor, Obafemi Awolowo University and current Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council, Ekiti State University, Ado-Ekiti, Professor Bamitale Omole, speaks about the Nigerian leaders and leadership question in Nigeria, funding of universities, among other national issues in this interview by KUNLE ODEREMI.
The general impression is that university education is underfunded in the country, hence the rampant cases of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) embarking strikes. As a former vice chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) and current pro-chancellor and chairman of council of the Ekiti State University, what is your opinion on the issue?
There is no scintilla of doubt that university education in the country is grossly and abysmally underfunded by successive administrations. Let me quickly give you some statistics so that you will not think it’s all about my imagination. In the 2018 budget, education was allocated seven per cent of the total budget; in 2019, it was 7.02 per cent and in the 2020 budget, it was reduced to 6.7 per cent, whereas, in Ghana, a country that is much poorer in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the same period, the allocation for education for three years consecutively was 12 per cent of the total budget.
And to think that the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) average recommendation on education for developing countries is between 15 and 20 per cent. Do you know that Kenya’s budgetary allocation for the education sector in 2019 at $4.95 billion was twice the combined allocation for the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Health and the Presidency? In Nigeria, the budgetary allocation in 2020 for the National Assembly was N128 billion plus another N37 billion for renovation.
Education, in any serious nation, is seen as the bedrock of development. A nation that prioritises the development of human capital via education is a nation on the road to overcoming basic human challenges and vicissitudes of existence. Without education, there will be no innovation; there will be no creativity; science will not develop; technology will be stunted and the whole landscape will be littered with ignoramuses and criminals who are dangerous to themselves and deadly to the society.
Some might say there are other competing sectoral priorities. Yes, but a serious nation must be able to identify and prioritise that one sector that can catalyse and pull other sectors from the bootstraps.
Let me tell you, if not for the incessant interventions, interrogations and interposition of ASUU, with recalcitrant and contumacious governments over the decades, education in Nigeria would have become a museum piece of the dark ages. Most times when ASUU goes on strike, the issue of salary is just an item in the myriad of demands. The central plank of ASUU in all of these is to ensure that government puts necessary infrastructure in place in our universities for teaching and research, building of classrooms, lecture theatres, laboratories, etc.
So, to stymie the rate of academic disruptions occasioned by strikes, government should privilege the option of dialogue and fidelity to the agreement signed with ASUU. If and when it’s becoming difficult to fulfill all the items as agreed, it is then expedient on the government to call for meetings and dialogue with a view to finding ways to resolve grey areas and not all this resort to brinkmanship, bluffing and blustering.
In the light of this, what is your view on the face-off between ASUU and the Federal Government over IPPIS and Pension Fund administration?
I have spent over three decades of my life in the university system and I know where the shoe pinches in the system. I spent my entire life learning the ropes in the system as a researcher, teacher and mentor to many students who, today, are excelling in different walks of life. I was at different times in my career head of department, dean of faculty, member of the university Senate and two-term member of the university governing council before I became vice chancellor.
So, what I’m saying is that I understand the morphology, sociology, mores and the norms of the university topography in toto. IPPIS, as it is designed, is a scheme that is responsible for the payment of salaries and wages directly to government employees’ bank accounts with appropriate deductions and remittances of third party payment. All the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) are on the platform and it is conceived to eliminate ghost workers on the payroll thereby save government billions of naira. It’s been operational since 2007. The trouble with ASUU and IPPIS started, however, in October 2019, when all public sector workers, including ASUU, were directed to register on IPPIS.
All over the world, universities are meant to be mobile, fluid and responsive epicentres for intellectual firmament. In its Latin origin, the university was rightly called universitas magistrorum et scholarium, meaning community of teachers and scholars. They are not civil servants. If I understand the narrative well, ASUU is neither saying that government should not eliminate ghost workers, nor is it encouraging corruption in the university system. What ASUU is saying is that all over the world, universities are known for their flexible personnel recruitment and management.
For example, a professor or lecturer from Harvard or MIT or Oxford, Makerere University, Uganda, University of Bordeaux, France, King’s College, London and so on may want to come on an exchange programme as a visiting faculty to a particular university for a semester, a session, even a month, etc. ASUU is saying that there are peculiarities in the university system as an emporium of scholarship that should make it responsive and receptive to urgent and critical global and national academic demands, given the speed, rate and attrition of the knowledge economy and the mobility of its purveyors in the global intellectual market of the 21st Century.
ASUU is saying that given the rigidity and cumbersome nature of IPPIS, it is not adequate to respond to that demand. This was why ASUU came up with the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) as the alternative to IPPIS. Government has virtually rejected this as ASUU members have been migrated willy-nilly to IPPIS.
I am of the opinion that government should have allowed ASUU to stay on UTAS. After all, the objectives of government and ASUU are coterminous, that is, to weed out ghost workers, save money for government, monitor the inflow and outflow of funds and so on. And for ASUU, the UTAS will allow universities to participate effectively and speedily as credible interlocutors in a global intellectual market and attend to their peculiarities as veritable centres of knowledge. In corollary, is the government saying that in countries where there are plurality of platforms for payment of personnel salaries, emoluments and so on, it is ghosts and phantoms that work in those places? On the issue of pension fund administration, I am aware that it has been resolved with the introduction of the Nigerian University Pension Management Company (NUPEMCO).
The Federal Government, through the minister of education, recently backpedalled on the resumption of schools and threatened that SS3 students would not sit for the WAEC examination. Do you think it is a wise decision to reopen schools at this time, despite the rise in COVID-19 cases across the country?
Since the confirmation of the first index case of COVID-19 in the country on February 27, the virus has proved to be virulent, lethal and deadly. It’s a virus that does not discriminate between the rich and the poor, the young and the old. It kills human beings as if they are chickens. So it is real. I believe the decision by the minister of education to postpone resumption of schools and disallow students from taking WAEC examinations was a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. No doubt, it is always good to err on the side of caution, but the reality is that schools and universities cannot be closed for ever.
The threat by the minister to disallow students from taking the WAEC examinations should be balanced with the diplomatic hoopla and crises that it will cause. Nigeria is just a member of the organisation and as such, any decision should be diplomatically and collectively agreed upon. WAEC is an Anglophone transnational institution comprising Ghana, The Gambia, Sierra-Leone and Liberia. So, any action that Nigeria wants to take must not be unilateral but in tandem with other member-states. I think the Federal Ministry of Education should be doing what the aviation ministry is doing. Give guidelines for reopening of schools and start to test the waters gradually by taping in different categories of students and see how it pans out. We are in an uncharted and giddy terrain.
As the pro-chancellor of the Ekiti State University, what are you putting in place to ensure it moves up the ladder as a university?
As the pro-chancellor and chairman of Council, our job is to set policy direction for the university. The vice chancellor is in charge of the day-to-day running of the university as the chief executive. I know, however, that following our policy guideline for the university, the vice chancellor, a capable and brilliant man with relevant faculty members, is introducing new and relevant courses in the university. For any university to be worth the name, it has to be very good in research, teaching, training and fundraising. Because we are in a fast-changing world of knowledge economy, any university that does not want to atrophy, wither and tail off, should innovate and mount new programmes, new curricula suited for a digital economy, rebrand and explore novel opportunities for funding and thinking without the box.
The age of thinking outside the box is gone because we are in a disruptive economy and virtual world where relevant educational programmes should be tailored towards this new and challenging world. So, for our university, the vice chancellor, in collaboration with the faculties, is introducing courses in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Big Data Analytics, Bioinformatics, Cyber Security, Nanotechnology, Cloud Computing Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality and Mechatronics. Beyond this is that COVID-19 has brought to the fore the need for online delivery of courses and increasing digitalisation of activities in the university environment. That’s where the world is going. We are in a new normal.
What is your view on the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by the federal and state governments so far?
I think the Federal Government missed the ball when the coronvirus pandemic started. It woke up late to start doing the needful by way of preventive measures and mass education. By the time the Federal Government woke up, the virus had become a bridge too far. That’s what we are battling with today. You remember the first index case in Nigeria was an Italian who arrived at Lagos airport on February 27. A day or two after, the Federal Government should have closed all the borders, air, land and sea. Do you know that Nigerian borders were not shut down until March 26? Those were vital four weeks that government should have acted. But as it’s usual of this leviathan and behemoth of a nation, those that should have taken action woke up late. By the time actions were being taken, the cat was already out of the bag.
However, I think now, there is more seriousness on the part of the Federal Government. Ekiti State was very proactive. It immediately shut down its entry points against interstate vehicular movements. And it worked. Today, because of its proactiveness, Ekiti is the least affected state in the South-West.
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