Seun Osewa, a tech enthusiast gained admission to study electrical engineering at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU). While his education continued to be interrupted by lecturer strikes, students, as well as parents, started getting accustomed to the squabble between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the government.
As students pursue other interests, Osewa whose university had also embarked on the six-month ASUU strike in 2003, used the opportunity to explore the digital options that were available.
Several web forums later, Nairaland, Africa’s largest online forum, launched in 2005. In 2020, the Nairaland forum was ranked the sixth (6th) most visited site in Nigeria by Alexa. And by the end of 2020, ASUU has recorded 52 months of strike in 11 years.
Although it has become all too familiar to students of tertiary education to have their education disrupted, we cannot deny that 2020 came with its uniqueness.
With the impact of the COVID, in an unprecedented move, ASUU embarked on its longest consecutive strike in the last 10 years.
Trouble started on March 23, 2020, for the educational system in Nigeria after ASUU in a move to protest the non-commitment and implementation of the government to the memorandum of agreements signed in 2019, embarked on another strike.
According to the National University Commission’s (2002) report, ASUU has embarked on strike more than twenty-three (23) times since 1992, the first in 1988, 10 years after it was formed.
A Premium Times report shows that December 2020 made it the 51st month that ASUU went on strike in 11 years. In return, the government withheld the salaries of lecturers.
This strike lingered until December 23, 2020, following a decision by its national executive council (NEC) to resume educational activities. However, the government would continue to fix its attention on the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, and palliatives.
In an assumed show of solidarity, this same month, the Minister for Labour and employment, Dr. Chris Ngige assured in an interview with Channels Television not to “give ASUU the opportunity to embark on strike again.”
“I have three biological children that suffered from this imbroglio we find ourselves,” Ngige said. Yet, almost a month later, ASUU and the federal government are still divided over the resumption date of universities in the coronavirus pandemic, and the fulfillment of the agreement.
With the recent developments, and the likes of the University of Ibadan taking a leap further to cancel the 2019/2020 session, Great, a student of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka argues on the grounds of empathy.
“As much as the strike affected us, we should also consider the fact that these lecturers have families and responsibilities they need to take care of with their unpaid salaries.
For every action, there is a cause, and this has a justifiable cause. I believe that their cause is right but as they say, “when two elephants fight, the grass suffers” because that means that our education will be halted.
“I am here to get educated. So if lecturers decide that they will put a halt to my studies and the bigger picture, a halt on my life, it will affect my future and growth. Many of us do not feel like students anymore. We can’t remember the last time we saw a classroom.”
Blaming the government’s “lack of will and insincerity”, Prof Ayo Akinwole, ASUU (University of Ibadan chapter), opines that,
“It is when the government refuses to realise their responsibility, they push the union to the wall that the only option because we cannot be looking at things deteriorating and infrastructures getting dilapidated”.
Arguing further, he noted that it is not unusual to see lecturers use their money to fund some educational activities. “And you see people in government make a mess of the finances of the nation. Every action that the union has embarked upon is to improve the lives of the students. If we don’t get the quality we had as students, what are we going to impact?” he questioned.
The law of diminishing returns?
President Buhari presented the 2021 budget proposal to the National Assembly on October 8, 2020. Out of the proposed N13.08 trillion budgeted for the year, N742.5 billion (5.6%) was earmarked for education in a budget that has passed its second reading. Benchmarked against the 15-20% recommended by UNESCO, it is the lowest allocation since 2011.
Despite the low budgetary allocation for education, the government is accusing the universities of wasting its investments over the years.
Minister of education, Adamu Adamu, said in January 2021 that the government has committed N400 billion to the development of infrastructure in the tertiary institutions through the Tertiary Education Trust Fund.
According to him, the N400 billion is different from the N1.3 trillion the Buhari administration has spent on capital expenditure in the nation’s tertiary institutions. But little or no improvement has been seen of the investments.
With the argument being inconclusive, university lecturers believe that the government cannot be trusted with any sort of agreement.
“It is unfortunate that the government has never seen things from the perspective of the lecturers. Every time the government has acted, it is confrontational. Their first stance is always, ‘it is not possible’” Professor Akinwole said.
“The government owes us allowances of up to 2016. What other unions are owed allowances of 5 years? If those empty promises continue to pile up,.. it is unfortunate that in this country, it is oppressed that the public will continue to hold responsible.”
As this argument lingers, it begs the question: What is the hope of the “great Nigerian students?” This is not the sort of question that they would love to answer but if they do, it’s simply “we move.”
Obviously aware of the vicious cycle in the Nigerian university system, these students have taken their destiny into their hands. Some have seized the opportunity to acquire skills while others have ventured into other areas.
Lekan Banjo, a mass communication student in the University of Lagos (UNILAG) is not bothered about his school reopening and he has decided to switch his focus to expanding a digital marketing start-up he founded in February 2020.
“It is the same old thing – Nothing is changing in Nigeria and I have decided that Nigeria will not waste me away. So, I am building my business (for now) whether school resumes or not I am fine,” Banjo said.
On the same path as Osewa, Great, spent the previous year becoming financially literate and aids people in several investment opportunities including Cryptocurrency. He says that the strike made him think outside the box of going to the university.
However, it is different for many others whose sole concentration is on their academics, particularly students who already envisioned their life journey after school. Many of those plans seem realistic anymore because they are stuck with “Nigeria” in their academic pursuit.
“A lot of us regret putting our children through this,” Mrs. Adokie, whose daughter is a student of the University of Calabar said. “If only the government can do what they are supposed to do. The only thing stopping me now is money. If I had the money, my child would have been long gone from this university.”
A world of imbalance?
While an average Nigerian student in a public university has had about 10 months of his academic career wasted away, their counterparts in other countries have forged ahead, leaving them behind.
For instance, the academic calendar for Babcock University in Ogun State shows that a semester lasts for three months and the duration of a full session is six months. This means that more than a full academic year has been wasted for students in government-owned institutions.
Although many universities have gone digital since the COVID-19 forced a halt on physical gatherings in major countries of the world, some universities, especially the private-owned institutions have been the major beneficiaries of it all.
Timileyin Omilana, a postgraduate student of Pan Atlantic University, Lagos, said the COVID-19 imposed changes have had no effect on their academic timetable since the government shut down of universities and other schools in March 2020.
As public university students watch students in private universities move onto their next session, Great is certain this won’t be the last strike.
“So in a case, this happens, how are they going to ensure that our education will not be put on hold? They should consider making digital adjustments so that it will benefit us and them,” Great suggests.
Akinwole argues that the country’s education sector lacks the required infrastructure to perform optimally especially in a COVID-19 era like this.
“Do we have 24 [hour] electricity? The DisCos disconnected some of our universities’ power supply because the universities owe them,” Akinwole says.
“These schools belong to the federal government. Is the government ready for online learning? Let’s assume that the lecturers use their personal instructives, do we have electricity in our various schools to fund or support online learning? So who bears the cost for a seamless online lecture? The same lecturers that are owed salaries and allowances?” These and more are begging for answers.
The Nigerian governments’ continuous disposition shows that it lacks the capacity to uphold these institutions to effectively function. There can be no progress if education is still treated as it is. Both parties need to acknowledge that the future of the nation lies in their hands and work towards a lasting solution, however hard it is.
Like most things involving the government, there are no simple solutions. The Nigerian government is cash-strapped and can barely fund its budget, ASUU can’t be faulted for insisting to be paid their owed allowances.
The students, perhaps the most important part of the framework, can only watch on as both elephants engage in the frustrating standoff, hoping one of them will cede ground.
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