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Opinion

ASUU strike: Time for ceasefire

A few days ago, the Minister of Education of the Federal Government of Nigeria told the world that the Academic Staff Union of Universities was stalling the conclusion of negotiations to end the strike because of their insistence on being paid for the months they were on strike. After that pronouncement, so many people have said all kinds of things against the academics in the university. They prematurely celebrate the defeat of ASUU as if this is the first time government has said it will not pay withheld salaries.  Some are even rejoicing that ASUU will soon be banned as if it is ASUU that teaches the students. Let me just touch on some aspects of this dispute that I consider very important. I am not speaking for ASUU, though I am a member.

For over six years I have been begging university management to employ more staff for my department because of the serious inadequacy of academic staff and technologists. I am the only full-time professor in the department and we had largely depended on sabbatical, contract and adjunct staff, especially for our postgraduate programmes. The usual answer has been that the Accountant General of the Federation has not yet given clearance for employment of new staff. Then came 2020. My head of department told me that we were in trouble as the Integrated Payroll and Personnel information system had removed all contract, adjunct and sabbatical staff from the payment vouchers and they have all been asked to go. Consequently, we had to close down the Master of Engineering Programmes in Transportation Engineering and also in Water Resources Engineering. The case of Transportation Engineering was the most pathetic. By the time the part-time staff were forcefully disengaged, seven students did not complete their thesis. We had to beg the Vice Chancellor to engage one adjunct professor for six months to complete the supervision of these students up to their final defence. The question was whether the people who decided to ask IPPIS to eliminate this category of staff from the university system knew that so many departments in federal, state and private universities depended on these staff to keep their programmes going. Did the government employ the staff I requested and we still went to employ part-time staff? All this talk of people receiving salaries from many places came out of a grudge against academic staff. If the problem was that some people were teaching in many schools, could the programmers of IPPIS not do it in such a manner that once someone is found doing some work in more than the number of schools approved by government, the person is automatically eliminated from all the vouchers? Why punish the rest of us in departments you have refused to employ full-time staff for? And to think that this IPPIS was never subjected to integrity tests (which eventually failed in many aspects) until ASUU requested it is mind-boggling. My problem is that in an attempt to stop lecturers from earning any income from part-time work, they have destroyed some of our departments. Whose salary should be stopped? Is it my own or that of the person that caused my department to close two postgraduate programmes?  I am still hurting from that experience and very soon MSc in Structural Engineering will also go as I prepare to retire very soon.

The government is very powerful and can use the law when it suits them. When I am hurt by their actions, I should not complain. Let me just go down memory lane. It was in January 2011, when I was serving as Deputy Vice-Chancellor in my university that my attention was drawn to a judgement by the Uyo High Court on a matter brought by one of our students. Most universities carry out final clearance checks for their students in their final years. Sometimes some of them are discovered to have entered with less than five credits in the relevant courses of study and are asked to withdraw without any certificates. The university got away with this practice over many years until some students took us to court. That judgement of 2010 was a landmark one. In summary, the judge said that if anyone should be expelled from the university it was the management that should be expelled. He said that it was the university that gave the student admission and a staff member cleared the student for registration. The bursar collected fees from the student, lecturers taught, set examinations and graded the student. This happened for four good years before the university woke up from sleep to say that the student was not qualified to be registered. The judge ordered the university to give the student his degree and also pay him damages of N200,000 for wasting his time. It was a triumph of justice and equity over judgement. After that judgement, other lawyers retained by the university on similar cases returned the case files and said that the university better look for settlement out of court as other judgements will follow in the same line as the first one delivered. Of course, the University Senate came up with a political solution that saved the day.

Government needs to come up with a political solution to this situation. The main issues for some of us is the payment of withheld salaries and the new salary scale. As a professor on the bar, my salary is N416,000 per month. If government refuses to pay the withheld salaries, I will lose N2.4m. We have been told that government is offering to increase the salary of professors by N60,000 per month. That will take my salary to N476,000 per month. That salary will still put me below an SA to the president at N1m monthly and a senator on N18m monthly [if that is even the correct figure] plus constituency project money. That is not easy to take. It means it will take me 40 months to recover the N2.4m taken by government [and by then I will have retired]. If government agrees to pay a professor N1.2m monthly effective September 2022, I can recover the N2.4million in about three months but it will have a spiral effect on the rest of the national workforce, a luxury for a government that lives on deficit budgeting can ill afford.  On the other hand, if government pays the withheld salaries and then goes into dialogue with ASUU members on the matter of salary increase, it will be easy for many of us to prevail on other ASUU members to sheath their swords, accept a lower salary increase than they would have desired and allow the system to move on. But this will be on condition that government gives undertaking to carry out a comprehensive review of the earnings of political office holders before this year ends. I am not saying that the salaries of political office holders should be cut now. But a new salary scale [to be effective May 29, 2023] should be out for them that eliminates or seriously reduces the contradictions we now experience.

Considering the insults that have been heaped on us, many of us are no longer interested in revitalisation of universities. People like me do not believe in IPPIS or even UTAS. To think that a few people will sit down somewhere in Abuja and manage the payroll of over 100 federal higher institutions is a joke carried too far. The delays, problems and fraud that such an arrangement will bring can only be imagined, considering the recent happenings in the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation.

Government should also do the following: It should stop taking contradictory steps such as starting new universities at a time they say they have no money. If you cannot employ enough lecturers and technologists for me at the University of Uyo, why start a new university of science and technology at Ikot Abasi; government should approve that a minimum of N150,000 per session be paid as tuition fees by all students in federal universities with effect from September 2022. This does not require approval from ASUU. With this, there will be no need for revitalisation funds again. With this, universities like my own that has close to 30,000 students will get additional N3bn per session over what they currently get from the current charges of N50,000 per session. Government should take a hard look at staffing in the universities. There are just too many people in some units. The NUC has provided no template for employment and promotion in the universities. People are mostly promoted based on calendar years with no reference to vacancy. That is why you have departments in which over 80% of the staff are professors and the number of deputy registrars in many universities is very worrisome. I was recently told of a Vice Chancellor of one of the new universities that employed 42 graduate assistants in one department. Government should set up a committee to work out a proposal for funding of higher education. Government should no longer pretend it can fund education alone.

Should government decide to tow a hard line on this matter, it should get ready for a longer strike that may last until May 29, 2023. If registers are brought out for those lecturers who want to return to work, the chances are that we may not get a critical mass of such lecturers to allow the universities to function properly. Some of us are doing adjunct work in some private and state universities. Some have businesses and consultancies that are bringing some money. If the worst comes to the worst, some of us may opt for voluntary retirement and take up contract jobs with state and private universities, while still collecting their pensions [if and when Federal Government will pay].

In summary, let government pay the withheld salaries and let ASUU accept a smaller increase than they would have desired. This strike need not go on any longer.

Professor Uko writes from the Department of Civil Engineering, University of Uyo; 08033098778

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