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Nigeria’s Perilous University System: SOS Mr. President Tinubu, by Prof M.K. Othman

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Nigeria’s Perilous University System: SOS Mr. President Tinubu, by Prof M.K. Othman

Today, public university employees are Nigeria’s most disenchanted, discontented, and embittered workers. The segment of the academic staff housing the teachers is at the bottom of the ladder in this villainous classification. The university lecturers are the crème de la crème of the sane society and deserve special treatment to do their best for societal development. For example, before becoming a professor in a Nigerian university, one must have been among those who passed academic examinations excellently and took the first to fifth position in a class at both primary and secondary school levels. Furthermore, the person must acquire at least three degrees and spend not less than 16 years after first-degree graduation, in addition to having several academic publications and mentorship of students. The eggheads in the university are the intellectual bank for innovative solutions to societal challenges and progress.

As Nigeria experiences brain drain due to shabby treatment of the academic staff, other nations immensely benefit from such losses. The Nigerian lecturers are courted and lured with mouth-watering offers to exploit their intellectual treasures while their home country, Nigeria, treats them with disdain. What a shame! The academic staff who, out of patriotism, remain to work for their fatherland are facing severe hardship in an unfriendly environment, resulting in the deaths of a few out of intense work pressure in the last three years.

Several university lecturers died due to hardship during and after the 2022 industrial action. For example, Dr. Ayo Ojediran of the Faculty of Education, Obafemi Awolowo University, slumped and died in his office in November 2023; the University of Calabar alone lost over 15 teaching staff within the period of the industrial action. On December 8th, 2023, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Jos (UNIJOS), Prof. Tanko Ishaya, reported that over 20 lecturers in specialist fields died due to severe stress from an acute workforce shortage. The university system inches into an abyss of sordidness, which will be dangerous to the nation. No thanks to decades of decadence, gross underfunding, negligence, and emasculation of the university system by the Nigerian leadership from the military to the current democratic dispensation.
Each first- and second-generation university has a catalog of academic staff who dearly paid the supreme price to the ASUU struggle, which was done to emancipate the university system. The struggle was a demand for a change from rots to prosperity, from decay to progress, the kind of progress the country needs to become a great nation, and a well-deserved position we all crave.

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Since suspending the last strike, all the backlogs of academic activities lost have been recovered today. Some students have graduated, while others have been promoted to the higher class. However, the lecturers and other university workers were not paid their withheld salaries months after the presidential announcement of amnesty to pay four months. Neither were they paid the 25 and 35% salary increases willingly offered by the federal government, as announced by the Minister of Education, Prof. Tahir Maman. The government’s failure to pay the arrears of salary and allowances has made the teachers unhappy, making the university campuses intolerable and unconducive for teaching and learning. Can the teachers teach well under the situation? No, because teaching is physical, psychological, and emotional, with interest and passion. If one or more of these traits are lacking, no proper teaching and knowledge impartation will occur. Lecturers must be mentally and fervently stable in a conducive environment to impart knowledge for optimum assimilation. Indeed, decreeing peace in a university system using an industrial court without addressing contending issues is achieving the opposite.

As mentioned several times in this column, university education is the most critical part of education that produces society’s leaders, technocrats, administrators, crème de la crème, and all cadres of personnel who can lift the culture to a height without a ceiling. The nation’s economic, political, and developmental vibrancy depends on the intellectual capacity of its citizens, particularly the leadership. The falling standard of the university system produces half-baked graduates. Engineers who do not know how to engineer, lawyers who are ignorant of the laws, accountants who neither understand checks nor balances, and medical practitioners whose services often send their patients to graves rather than healing. The university system is designed to provide workforce development capable of solving the developmental challenges of a nation.
In July last year, the federal government disbanded the federal universities’ governing council to further strangle the system, making vice-chancellors the only administrators in a purely autocratic system. The dissolution of university councils without following due process is illegal and an aberration of democracy. We thought it was a mistake to be corrected immediately, but it has been over five months. Universities have operated without governing councils, and everyone keeps mute, including the unions and many special advisers to the President and ministers. Nigeria is an epitome of docility, so nobody goes to court to challenge this illegality. By law, governing councils can only be dissolved if they are found guilty of corruption, and the government has the power to appoint the chairman and six other members out of 17-member councils; other members are elected or nominated through internal university processes.

One wonders what itches the government to interfere in the affairs of the universities by dissolving their councils by fiat. A committee system runs universities; the most essential committees are at the council and senate levels. Without the council, these committees cannot be put in place, thereby crippling the university system.

The crux of my piece is to report the precarious state of Nigeria’s university system and send an SOS to Mr. President Bola Ahmed Tinubu to salvage the situation. President Tinubu, the amiable people President, whom Nigerians duly elected against all odds within and without—the case of currency exchange early last year is still fresh in our memory—can save the soul of the university system by holding the olive branch to university workers and directing the immediate release of their withheld salaries to alleviate the harm they were subjected to during their industrial action. Again, FGN owes many years of earned allowances to university workers, for which the government can and should pay a substantial part of the allowances. The offer of 25 and 35 % salary increases made to the different categories of workers and captured in the 2023 budget should also be settled. These actions are within the purview of Mr. President and will pave the way for genuine reconciliation and mind-preparation for the uphill task required to revive the university system. The next step is revisiting the agreements signed between university workers and FGN. The agreements were reached after strenuous, time-consuming, and rock-breaking negotiations. In the event of facing an unimplementable part of the agreement, nothing stops the parties from renegotiating.

In conclusion, both university unions and the FGN have learned bitter lessons from the FGN-ASUU imbroglio; in the future, the unions need to deemphasize strike action and source an alternative that will be effective and efficient in making the government discharge its responsibilities. The government should be sensitive and responsive to the demands of the university workers.
Last note: the Minister of Education, Prof. Tahir Mamman SAN, an erudite scholar, was at one time the Director General of Law School and a Vice Chancellor; thus, he has over three decades of intensive experience in the university system within and outside Nigeria. The minister is thus best suited to counsel and direct the President appropriately in stopping the collapsing university system. Prof. Mamman has to double his effort to change the current scenario. Minister, you are in the center of the storm, and history is watching you. The moment has come to improve the system; you, Sir, have an excellent opportunity. May the Almighty give Mr. President and his ministers the wisdom to do what is needed. Amen.

Professor Othman is the Executive Director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), ABU Zaria.

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