University lecturers’ strike ’ll end if…, ASUU tells FG
By Dayo Adesulu
Amid hopes that the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) teams will meet this week to try to resolve the issues that led to the strike by university lecturers across the country, ASUU President, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, says the implementation of seven issues with timelines was crucial to the resolution of the dispute.
ASUU had shunned a meeting with the government team last week on the grounds that it was still consulting with its members on the contending issues.
In this interview, Ogunyemi believes the industrial action will be called off if the Buhari administration was willing to transform the university system.
According to him, “university education is too important to be treated with levity”.
Please take us through the genesis of the current dispute between ASUU and the Federal Government?
In November 2016, ASUU went on a one-week warning strike. That strike was a culmination of our persistent call on the Federal Government to address issues bordering on how to re-position the Nigerian university system, based on our desire to deal with the rot and decay in the system. We reached some understanding on the issues leading to the warning strike, but government went to sleep after we suspended the strike action. Our advocacy for restoring the dignity of tertiary education, particularly university education, has a long history.
Sure it has a long history
Let me just take you back to 2012, when Federal Government conducted the Needs Assessment of public universities in respect of the level of rot and decay. The report was submitted in July 2012. It documented steps that government must take to concretely revitalize public universities for global reckoning. Broadly speaking, such measures would involve massive injection of funds as well as addressing governance issues. The needs assessment exercise was carried out by a National Committee headed by the present Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, Professor Mahmood Yakoob. When the report was submitted, government was almost going to ignore it. ASUU had to write several letters, hold countless meetings as well as embark on a number of warning strikes to make the Federal Government implement the recommendations of its own Committee. Our agitations for the implementation of that report came to a head with a nationwide strike action from July to December 2013. As part of the process leading to the suspension of the action, government signed a Memorandum of Understanding, MoU, with ASUU on 11th December, 2013.
Was ASUU a part of that National Committee?
Yes, ASUU was fully involved. We had called for government to comprehensively address the problems associated with universities, but government always said our claims were exaggerated. Mind you, there was a 2009 agreement that also had its own history. You know, since 1992, we had always talked of the need to address the issue of brain-drain and make our universities competitive with other universities around the world. Way back in 1992, we started talking about remuneration and welfare issues, because of the exodus of the best and brightest from our universities. That gave rise to the issue of conditions of service. Beyond that,we talked of the issue of funding. We also talked about university autonomy and academic freedom. The last issue we advocated on are categorised as “other matters” and these are associated with the general working and living environment for university academics. These four components were directed at addressing issues affecting the Nigerian university system in order to make it internationally competitive. After initial disputations, the then government negotiated and agreed with us on these four cardinal areas – that was under General Ibrahim Babangida. That agreement was very comprehensive.
So, since 1992, we have had other levels of negotiations – about four or five agreements: 1999, 2001, and then 2009, apart from 1992. These had been going on and it came to a head in 2009, when government was trying to dispute our claims. At that point, we implored the Federal Government to go into the universities and investigate because lecturers were leaving in droves and the state of facilities was on steady decline. In a nutshell, the four areas earlier highlighted could be broadly classified into two: the working environment and motivation for lecturers.
So, in 2012, government did its own assessment…
Yes, they carried out their own investigation into our assertions on the rot and decay in the public universities. The report was by the Committee On Needs Assessment of Nigerian Public Universities, submitted in July, 2012. It had to take another set of agitations for government to pay attention to implementing its own report and that was what led to the 2013 Memorandum of Understanding. You would recall the strike action our members were forced to embark on then in 2013.
So, we can safely narrow the issues to financial and non-financial?
Yes, the financial aspect talks about massive injection of N1.3 trillion to be spread over six years, starting with N200billion, released in 2013 and subsequently, N220billion every year for the next five years. We also have the non-financial aspect of the Needs Assessment Report which deals largely with university governance issues – role of governing councils, university administration, students’ welfare, etc.
You said in 2016, you had a warning strike because government wasn’t listening but government is claiming that there was a panel, headed by Wale Babalakin, in place to discuss these issues.
Since 2013, government has not done anything again on the Needs Assessment Intervention Fund. Apart from the initial release of N200 billion, funds for 2014, no additional kobo for 2015 and 2016 as specified in the MoU of 2013 has been released. We have other issues like withdrawal of funding support for University Staff Schools, non-registration of university-based PFA called NUPEMCO, and guidelines for implementing the provision of the 2014 Pension Reform Act with respect to professors retiring with their salaries. We also have issues of fractional salaries, arrears of earned academic allowances, EAA, and exemption of aspects of university grants that hinder university operations from TSA. These seven issues were among the key elements of the understanding reached at the National Assembly with officials of the relevant MDAs in the wake of our warning strike in November 2016. So they are actionable issues to which we had timelines attached. For instance, government promised to complete a forensic audit on the N30 billion released to address part of the EAA in 2013 within six months. We agreed to that proposal, but eight months after, we are just learning that the promised forensic audit had not be conducted. Again, government said ASUU should await a court judgment on the issue of staff school which was to be delivered on 5th December, 2016. The judgment came in favour of another university-based staff union that took government to court and it was in line with ASUU’s insistence that government could not unilaterally abrogate our agreement in respect of staff school provision as part of welfare package for university staff. Also, for more than seven months, government failed to revert to our 2009 Agreement on this matter.
The Babalakin Renegotiating Committee was set up to address the 2009 FGN/ASUU Agreement in entirety. The ongoing action by our members is not, strictly speaking, about the Babalakin Committee. We do not have any serious problem with the Committee for now. The concern of our members in the ongoing strike action is the implementation of the understanding reached with government in the wake of the 2016 warning strike – those actionable issues with timelines. A key provision in the 2009 Agreement is that it would be renegotiated every three years. Part of our demands in the 2016 warning strike also the renegotiation of the agreement which had been due for review since 2012. Based on the pressure to review the 2009 agreement, government went into the issue of the Needs Assessment, which does not cover the entirety of the agreement of 2009. The Babalakin Committee is now for the 2009 Agreement and we don’t have any problem with the Babalakin Committee for now. We are in talks with that committee.
So, what necessitated this on-going strike?
As I said earlier, our members were forced into the current strike action because government failed to implement the actionable issues on which we reached understanding at the instance of the Senate last year November. You will remember that, last year, we moved to the National Assembly because the Senate President intervened and we brought out all these issues that were pending – payment of fractions of lecturers’ salaries in federal universities and non-release of subvention to state universities by governors; non-release of operational license of NUPEMCO; arrears of EAA; fund for revitalization; withdrawal of funding for staff school; retirement benefits of professors; TSA; and renegotiation of the 2009 Agreement. Government agreed to do certain things which were time bound.
For example, the issue of Earned Academic Allowances. Government said before it could release any additional fund, it would carry out a forensic audit and that would be competed within six months. We said we didn’t have any problem with that. Eight months after, that has not been done. What we are saying today is that there were areas that were actionable based on our understanding of last year for which nothing is being done within the time frames. An issue like paying lecturers a fraction of their salaries was not something to be re-negotiated. When you talk of registration of NUPENCO – our pension fund administrator – that was not something new. We also believe that the need for revitalization of public universities has been settled scientifically by a Committee set up by government itself. Why not follow the negotiated timeline for the release of the revitalization fund? Government started, paid only once and stopped. This is unacceptable.
But some people would argue that N220billion every year in the light of current realities is unrealistic…
The realistic thing we are talking about here is the time that has passed, since 2013. If you cannot do all, there is always provision for review. It’s only going to be fair that for four years we have not insisted on faithful implementation. Look, it is not about funds being available, it is about government seeing education as a priority, that is the issue here. Within this period, government has bailed out the banking sector, power, aviation to the tune of trillions of Naira. If government sees education as a priority issue, it would be given the desired attention by government.
Okay, is ASUU open to negotiations with government on the issues because of the economic situation in the country now?
We have always discussed with government as patriots. We are discussing this now because four years have passed. for instance, we are not insisting that the whole outstanding N825 billion for revitalization fund should be released now. We are open to ideas on what government can do in the immediate, while new plans can be worked out for releasing the balance. Our point, however, is that government cannot repudiate the revitalization fund on the excuse of the so-called economic recession. What we are saying is that government should show commitment by paying, at lease one year, after four years of non-payment.
There’s the notion in town that you have already submitted your new proposals to the federal government that was why you didn’t show up for the follow-up meeting (last week)…
Nothing like new proposal. Please let’s not get it mixed up. What happened was that the Federal Government in their letter of 16th August gave us its new positions on issues that we had reached an understanding on before – last year. And what we said was that now that you have new positions, we needed to go back, as is the practice with ASUU, to all our members to to take inputs from them. We practice bottom-top model of decision-making in ASUU. And that was what we did. We have consulted our members and they have made input into our response on every issue that government put forward. We conveyed this feedback to government vide a letter on 28th August, 2017 as promised at our meeting with them on 17th August. Deliberations were still going on the content of our letter where pressures were coming that we should attend a meeting at the office of the Minister of Labour and Employment. That meeting was premature and the concerned Minister himself later agreed with us on this position.
*Would it be fair to say, as some are saying, that this government met the mess on ground and it could not be directly held responsible for it, without prejudice to the understanding reached last year?
Well, governance is a continuum. Every new government inherits both assets and liabilities. From an objective assessment, I don’t think we can honestly absolve any particular government of blame in respect of their lackadaisical attitude to the matter of education since the return to civilian administration in 1999. Look at the budgetary allocation to education, for instance. Allocation in the last two years of this government hovers between 6% and 7%. Although they will claim that there has been increase naira-wise, this pales to lesser funds when the twin factors of inflationary trends and devaluation of the currency are taken into account. So, we have not seen any radical departure from the past trends of relegating educational financing, particularly the issue of revitalization of public universities, to the background in the reckoning of the Nigeria’s political class.
Can we be privy to some of the new positions of government on some issues?
These are issues under discussion. We don’t want to prejudice the process. The issues will soon be public knowledge, once our discussion on them resume very soon again.
What was the reaction of your members upon discovering that the understanding already reached last year is being reviewed again?
Naturally, our members nationwide were angry. They felt that we were succumbing to pressure and blackmail from government. For them, nothing should be taken away from the minimum promised upon which we stopped short of proceeding on full-blown strike action as from November 2016. Honestly, it was really difficult convincing them the need to take another look at some of the issues. But, certainly, there are issues which are not ‘negotiable’. For instance, there is not to re-negotiate about outstanding arrears of salary fractions or the allowances our members have already earned. Same goes for Staff School, NUPEMCO, entitlements of retired professors, outstanding subventions for State Universities.
What is the way our in the immediate term and what do you think is the long term solution to this crisis?
Government needs to take immediate steps to arrest the crisis in university education with particular reference to the public university system. Diligent implementation of our outlined issues in the ongoing dispute would assist in this respect. The long-term solution, however, is for government to reappraise its understanding of the crisis of education in Nigeria. For rather too long, successive administrations have been relying on prescription of external agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The slogan of these agencies and similar ones has always been less government in social services like education and health. It is religious adherent to this slogan that has almost killed public primary and secondary education sub-sectors in Nigeria. But, for ASUU, our public universities would have also been heading for complete obscurity like the lower levels. What I am saying in essence is that government should declare a state of emergency on Nigerian education for the next five years during which we take complete stock of such issues like the philosophy that should drive public education, curricula being implemented, financing and governance. In other words, we need a complete overhaul of the entire sector in order to make our education drive our development as a country.
ASUU members are also parents, what would you have to tell other parents some of who think ASUU is being self-centred?
University education is too important to be treated with levity. The quality of education our children are receiving in the universities is more important than issuing them worthless paper qualifications. We should all support ASUU to restore the integrity of our children’s degrees to what they used to be in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. And the best way to do this is to prevail on Federal Government to remain focused on revitalizing our universities for quality university education and national development. This is what is being done in some other African countries like Ghana, South Africa and Kenya where Nigerians migrate in search of university education. But you will surprised to know that, in most cases, these African universities rely on seasoned academics who have been frustrated out Nigeria to enhance the quality of the university education.
What is the irreducible minimum your members want from this government?
Operators of this government of “change” should transform Nigeria’s public university system by addressing the welfare needs of academics who constitute the heartbeat of the system. They should also diligently address the needs for facilities, equipment, services and governance as outlined in the 2012 Needs Assessment Report. The starting point for all these is the implementation of the seven issues with time-lines in the current dispute.
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