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Broken government promises to blame for Nigeria university strike

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All 37,504 academic staff of Nigeria’s public universities have been on an indefinite strike since early November. This followed a meeting of the union’s national executive council which ruled that no substantial progress had been made on a range of past agreements between the Academic Staff Union of Universities, which represents academic staff, and the federal government.

Nigeria has 43 federal universities and 47 state universities which all fall under public universities. All academic activities at public universities – teaching, supervision, examination – are on hold, affecting about 1.3 million students. The admission of new students is also being affected.

The vast majority of Nigerians attend a public university. This year, of the 1.6 million students who wrote the final high school exams, 94% picked public universities. This suggests that it would be wise for the Nigerian government to invest in this critical sector, where the interest of the country’s future lies.

Students in most public universities pay less than N50,000 a year. This means that the institutions get very little fee income. As a result, government remains the major funder of universities. But it hasn’t met its obligations even though many institutions face serious infrastructure decay. Most of the public universities generate funds from business ventures. But this isn’t enough to cover costs.

It’s not the first time academic staff have gone on strike. In 2013 they held a six-month strike and in 2017 they had a five-week strike. After the 2017 strike a memorandum of action was signed with Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. The agreement set out what steps would be taken to implement outstanding agreements.

The union called the latest strike because the government still hasn’t met the commitments it made. These include shortfalls in salary payments as well as academic allowances. For its part, the government argues that it can’t meet the demands of striking lecturers to the detriment of the country’s infrastructure, health, and security.

Other outstanding issues are government’s promise to provide funding to revitalise public universities and changes to the University Pension Fund that would enable staff to manage the pension funds themselves.

So what’s behind the recurrent strikes in Nigeria’s educational system? The answer is the seeming lack of the political will by the federal government to honour agreements. What’s also irking academics is that the government isn’t ensuring the environment at universities is conducive to teaching and learning. And that conditions aren’t good enough to attract foreign scholars.

The main factor is that the federal government can’t be trusted to deliver on its promises. For example, the Academic Staff Union of Universities suspended its strike in 2017 on the promise of federal government action within six months. Almost a year later, Buhari’s government continues to drag its feet on fully implementing the agreements.

Issues in revitalisation fund

The issue of insufficient funding of Nigeria’s public universities goes back a long way. In 2012, the federal government constituted a panel to undertake a needs assessment of public universities. The report indicated that universities need N1.3 trillion for a modest revitalisation. The fund was to be paid in tranches over the next five years. But only the Goodluck Jonathan government released N200 billion in 2013.

This underfunding has serious consequences. Infrastructure is decaying. State universities struggle to attract foreign scholars. And Nigerian universities perform poorly in global rankings.

When it comes to salaries, the union has acknowledged that some progress has been made in payment of shortfalls. But in a letter to the Minister of Education a month ago, the union asked the government to pay the outstanding balances.

Other issues are the failure to release an operational license to the Nigerian University Employees Pension Company. The union has only been given approval in principle but cannot hit the ground running without an operational license. It feels the federal government is frustrating it because operating pension fund administrators are friends of government.

Another reason for the strike is the government’s planned re-introduction of the Education Bank which was scrapped in 2001. It was designed to help indigent students access loans to attend universities. The union believes that re-introducing the bank is an attempt to re-introduce tuition fees to public universities.

The government denies this. It argues the Education Bank would only provide loans to students.

Strategic moment

The strike is happening at a strategic time. Nigerians will be going to the polls in February 2019; the incumbent Buhari is seeking re-election.

Nigeria’s public officials tend to pay attention to issues affecting the general populace only during election periods. The hope is that government officials will see education as a vital investment in the future – and commit funds to institutions of higher learning.

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