Between 1999 and 2020, the Academic Staff Union of Nigeria Universities (ASUU) embarked on strike action 15 times; 150 days in 1999, 90 days in 2001, 14 days in 2002, 180 days in 2003, 14 days in 2005, 3 days in 2006, 90 days in 2007, 8 days in 2008,120 days in 2009, 157 days in 2010, 59 days in 2011, 165 days in 2013, 35 days in 2017, 94 days in 2018 and 120 days in 2020. If we add what transpired in 2021 and the one the union embarked on since February 2022, the figure will go up. This, without any doubt, is alarming for an underdeveloped nation whose developmental programmes should be anchored in education.
As an undergraduate over two decades ago, I experienced this unsavoury occurrence which made a four-year programme become a six-year programme. Those who were in school before us were not spared. A student only knows when he gains admission into the public university, but is never certain of when he will finish his programme. Thus, it is difficult for him to plan his life after school. As it is at the individual level, so it is at the national level. Undergraduates in Nigerian universities cannot make projections on how their lives will turn out, whether short or long-term; while the government has no clear-cut plans for graduates in terms of employment. [Getting a] Nigerian university education is more like embarking on a journey to nowhere.
The agreement entered into in 2009 which seems to be the root cause of the ongoing strike action lends credence to not knowing what we want as a country, particularly when it comes to university education. The more the strike lingers the more probing questions keep coming up. Why will the Federal Government enter into an agreement it cannot fulfill? What kind of agreement is this that successive governments have found so intractable to honour, since it was signed? Was the signing political? Why should we play politics with something as crucial as education? If the country’s leadership could not proffer solutions to a recurring challenge such as ASUU strike action over the years, does this not call for concern? Why is it that the leadership of ASUU always resorts to strike action almost all the time? How is it difficult for our cerebral lecturers in the nation’s Ivory Tower to come up with alternative means of resolving crises other than strike actions? Many questions begging for answers. The only thing that keeps coming to my mind is a lack of entrepreneurial leadership. Until and when the national leadership and ASUU begin to think creatively like entrepreneurs, there may not be any solution in sight.
A business-as-usual approach as is currently in operation will not help us as a nation. It is time we changed our model of running the university system – none that requires the government to fully fund university education – we will keep having issues. It is time to give either full or partial autonomy to universities to generate revenue to maintain such institutions. Universities should charge fees that will make the running of their respective institutions sustainable. The idea of charging peanuts and expecting the system to run effectively is an exercise in futility. Government, on the other hand, should give subventions to augment revenue generated by universities and create competitive scholarship schemes which will be accessible to all – the rich, the middle class and the poor. The argument that education used to be free in the past may not be relevant again in the face of our realities today – increase in population size of the country, increased enrolment for university education, the discrimination against other forms of tertiary education, among others. For this reason, today’s realities require new thinking and radical approaches.
Besides autonomy and giving of subventions as well as scholarships, our universities need professors of practice who can couple knowledge to development, not just theoretical professors. Professors who can interact with the industry to solve problems of the society, not just writing academic papers for promotion’s sake. This will be a step in the right direction as revenue generation gravitates towards solutions. Practising what our lecturers preach will motivate students to become solution providers, too. At both the university and national levels, we will have creative and innovative thinkers proffering solutions to the myriad challenges in the country. The resultant effect will be phenomenal. A nation such as ours has problems that require urgent solutions. Our Ivory Towers will then be able to generate enough funds that will make them self-sustaining and self-sufficient, without the leadership running cap-in-hand to the government at all times. There will be so much available that working in the university will become attractive to all and sundry with requisite qualifications.
In essence, the level of thinking that created the current impasse cannot solve it. It demands a different level of thinking entirely. Even if government accedes to the requests of the striking union, the ugly trend will continue. It’s only a matter of ‘when?’ To this end, we need leadership that can innovate both in our universities and at the national level. We need entrepreneurial leadership from both ends (government and the striking union) to have a lasting solution to this incessant strike action. Education is so critical to national development that we cannot continue to treat it with kids’ gloves as we currently do. We cannot continue to live in the past, given today’s realities. The model of running our public universities must change if they will be sustainable and compete favourably in this 21st Century. Enough of this dance of shame that will almost always keep the students out of school whenever government and ASUU are at loggerheads.
Oluyi is a personal development advocate and head, public relations unit, National Centre for Technology Management, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.