The current Academic Staff Union of Universities’ strike, now in its seventh week, is waxing strong than it should be. The strike executed effectively in 2013 until there was a signed Memorandum of Understanding(MOU) between ASUU and the government. Implementation of the MOU started in earnest and gave the hope that it would be a long time before another strike surfaced. The implementation happened to be a one shot affair and the government reneged in its usual characteristic. Had the government continued to fulfil its promise or when in difficulty, called ASUU for dialogue and re-negotiation, we would not be back in the trenches again. In fact, there were warning strikes intermittently to call attention of the government and the public to the outstanding issues. All the warning strikes could achieve were ad hoc interventions by the National Assembly and some concerned public figures. Ad hoc government interventions were not what is required to move education and the nation forward in these circumstances. In fact, it has resulted in the newly emerging abandoned projects now dotting various tertiary institutions’ campuses. Hopefully the strike outcome will rekindle interests these projects.
The political class has never been fair to the education and health sectors and these are the major sectors when reference is made to human capital development. It is not as if the military was better but that is understandable because everything is seen by them within the prism of ‘war’ and, ‘to crush the enemy, is a task that must be done’. If we check the budgetary allocations to education and health under democratic rule, one would realise that these sectors were always worse off than under the military because the politicians would have allocated large proportion of the budget to their functions or operations and debt servicing, leaving small proportion of the budget to other sectors. The actual release of funds for implementation of programmes in the two sectors is usually another tug of war such that there is always a wide gap between budgetary allocation and actual spending. That is why the education sector which is supposed to enjoy unsolicited priority in the current world wide knowledge economy remains a shadow of what it used to be.
Since the beginning of this decade, the allocation to the education sector had remained below 10% of budget allocation except in 2013 when it was 11.49%. In 2004, it was seven per cent which is the same as 2018! The figure for 2012 was 8.4% and 6.1% in 2016 but down to 5.41% in 2017. Actual budget spending is usually much lower, to the detriment of the sector. A cursory look at the 2017 allocation for neighbouring countries in West Africa shows how unserious our federal and state governments are in education matter. Thus, in 2017, the budget allocations show that Ghana allocated 23.1 per cent; Benin Republic, 15.9%; Cape Verde 13.8 per cent and Liberia, the second lowest in the sub-region beside Nigeria was 12.1 per cent. A country where half of the population is illiterate is in a serious trouble, particularly in the future and that is the situation with Nigeria. Recently, the Minister for Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, released statistics that over 60 million Nigerians are illiterates and international statistics continue to put the number of children out of school as between 10 million and 13 million. All these statistics can be regarded as underestimation because even half of those we regard as literates are semi-literate given the expected global standard of education. What is baffling is that these statistics are treated by the political class as trivial issues, probably because they have seen those out-of-school children as the assured source of thugs in their future endeavour. They did not see those children as future Boko Haram terrorists that will cause socio-political instability for the country and for their prized children.
The crops of professors in all Nigerian universities today, (public and private) are products of public-funded institutions. Increasingly, many young Professors are finding it difficult to get international grants or invited to participate in research in international group meetings. This is because the international research communities are not sure of the depth of research being carried out in Nigerian universities. I make bold to say that but for ASUU and the strikes, the tertiary institutions would have gone the way of lower level public schools with empty laboratories and non-existent libraries. Teachers or tutors in public primary and secondary schools, who can be regarded as part of the elites, have lost confidence in their school system and prefer to send their children to private schools. Those public schools are meant for the children of the poor, yet they can boast of the most experienced teaching staff in the pre-tertiary educational system just like academic staff in public tertiary institutions. In different newspapers or even in various audio-visual media, we have seen pupils in public primary schools sitting on the floor to study or studying under trees in the 21st century Nigeria, despite massive financial resources.
Many public secondary schools are not only over-populated but the learning environment cannot motivate any learning or attract new comers. One wonders whether those levels of education still have labour unions, as the once vibrant National Union of Teachers probably now exists for window dressing or just to carry official titles. The children of the leadership are in private schools with cozy environment. A visit to a number of such schools shows that the science students engage in what is euphemistically referred to as ‘theory of practical’. There are no truly practical biology, chemistry and physics. If you check out results of national and international competitions for secondary schools in the last two decades, the prizes are normally won by students from private schools, yet competition for best teachers at that level do come from public schools. What a contradiction? The laboratories are dry, the libraries are full of obsolete, donated books and the buildings contain old dilapidated stock or newly built schools from World Bank loans and/or donation adorned with blackboards in this 21st century!
Environment, facilities and conduct have a way of attracting the uninitiated. I was in the polytechnic in the 70s when I was invited to participate in a workshop at the University of Lagos. The cozy environment, the food, particularly the cafeteria system and the way those undergraduates carried themselves gave me the motivation to discontinue with the diploma programme after the Ordinary National Diploma. The motivation to become an undergraduate grew every day of our stay in UNILAG for the workshop. How do you expect a student-to-be to be motivated to school when they see school pupils sitting on the flow to learn? In fact, how do you expect a student who studied on the floor of a supposed classroom or under a tree to behave in public? It cannot be different from the behaviour of those who are not in school. So, there is no motivation for out-of-school children to aspire to go to school since those in schools are not better off. And, that is the case with our primary and secondary schools.
When the civilian regime of the Second Republic came on board in 1979, it was as if the destruction of the tertiary education system, particularly the university, was an important unwritten part of the agenda. The military had already destroyed the lower levels. For example, there were three shifts per day in Lagos State primary and secondary schools before the civilian government of Alhaji Lateef Jakande rescued the situation between 1979 and 1983. His was one of the few progressive governors of that Republic. Luckily, I had gained admission as a direct entry student and was fully a student union activist when the Second Republic started in 1979. By 1980, those politicians started rationalising how they would fizzle out accommodation or privatise its operations, as “was the case in advanced countries”. The slogan that “government cannot do it alone” grew louder every time and the Federal Government started cutting down on funding education with resultant proliferation of abandoned projects in many universities. By the time I was graduating, I started noticing that students at the lower levels were standing outside lecture halls to receive lectures because while population of students was growing facilities remained static. The first major strike by ASUU in 1982 kept us from graduating for three months. By the time I returned for Master’s programme two years later, the cafeteria system that motivated my going into the university had been destroyed, so also was the entire accommodation services. The claim was that nobody funds such accommodation programme abroad. I later found that the claim was untrue because I was privileged to stay in a public university in the United States where the halls of residence and feeding were highly subsidized!