Averting another ASUU strike – By Ogochukwu Isioma

“Communication is the biggest tool mankind has as a potential way of overcoming difficulties. But in most cases, we have it abandoned and embrace travelling the circumference of chaos before coming to access this powerful instrument.” — Grunig, Hunt.

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Recently, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) threatened to embark on strike if the Babalakin-led renegotiation team, negotiating on the part of the Federal Government, was not sacked. ASUU had described the chairman of the renegotiating team as a ‘stumbling block of the negotiation process’ as he sought to introduce tuition fees, which the union considered unacceptable and unconstitutional.

Addressing newsmen at the University of Calabar, ASUU President, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi said the leadership of ASUU could no longer guarantee that its members would continue to work if Wole Babalakin was not replaced. The renegotiation team was set up by the Federal Government following last year’s ASUU strike that was ‘conditionally’ called-off in September.

Last year’s strike was due to pending issues such as the 2009 Collective Bargaining Agreement and 2013 Memorandum of Understanding, which were not properly implemented. These cover the areas of proper funding of universities, unpaid pension to retiring members, complications from the Treasury Single Account (TSA), the perennial issue of university autonomy and the need to renegotiate the 2009 pact. It will be recalled that ASUU had gone on so many strikes since this agreement was reached to protest government’s inability to fulfill them. So far, the government has only managed to implement some aspects of the agreement.

President of the association, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi had, in announcing the “conditional suspension” of the previous strike, said the action was taken after the union gave the Federal Government a deadline of the end of October to fulfil its promises.

Coming barely one year into the new academic session when the universities are just settling down to business, we are apprehensive that if this matter is not amicably resolved we might be in for another long haul of a full-blown strike soon. ASUU and doctors’ strikes are infamous for their obdurate, prolonged stalemates.

There is no other part of the sane world where university workers stop work almost on a yearly basis like Nigeria, mainly because of the unwillingness or inability of successive regimes to sit down and solve the problems of our universities once and for all. This unfeeling attitude of decision makers to the needs of our universities has often been attributed to the fact that most of them educate their children abroad and in expensive local private tertiary institutions where the academic environments are stable and sure.

The ASUU challenge presents an opportunity for the President Muhammadu Buhari administration to prove itself as truly an administration determined to change the ways that past governments mishandled matters (such as agreements and MOU’s with the Labour Unions) by laying these contentious issues to rest conclusively.

Our tertiary education sector is sitting on a time bomb. I don’t think the Federal Government wants ASUU to go on another strike but if this situation is not quickly addressed, then ASUU will very likely go on strike again. We don’t want another strike, however short it may be. The universities and their students are yet to recover from the last one. Exams that should have long been concluded are only being rounded off now. The holiday that is supposed to follow has been shortened. The academic calendar has been disrupted. We can’t afford to have further disruption of our academic calendar.

No one knows how many Nigerian students were involved in accidents and how many died on our bad roads when traveling to and from school at the commencement and cancellation of the last ASUU’s strike. We can’t afford to risk the lives of these students again.

I, therefore, call on the government to use the renegotiation window to dialogue with ASUU leadership on the contentious issues. Methinks that the concerns of ASUU, especially on staff welfare, autonomy and university funding, are genuine. The government must do everything within its powers to ensure that the issue does not lead to a strike. Government should not wait until ASUU goes into another strike before it acts. Therefore, government must expeditiously explore all avenues to ensure that the grey areas in its agreements with ASUU are finally resolved. I urge ASUU to show understanding in its renegotiation with government so that this matter would be laid to rest once and for all. It is sad that the 2009 agreement and the 2013 MoU that the government entered into with ASUU have not been substantially implemented despite the fact that government is a continuum.
I urge government to honour its agreements with the varsity teachers forthwith. I say this because the frequent disruption of academic calendar has not helped in shoring up the standard of our university education. Another strike by ASUU will mean further reduction in the standard of our university education as well as our human development index. Let the government dialogue with ASUU to see areas of the agreements that can now be realistically implemented in view of our declining revenue earnings.
We cannot be a developed society if we don’t pay full attention to our university education. For Nigeria to achieve the anticipated social and economic development, government should stop paying lip-service to university education. Let the Federal and State governments fund their universities adequately.

As I have repeatedly argued on this recurring problem, whatever the issues are, it is important for the federal government and ASUU to find common grounds before the nation’s tertiary institutions are grounded again as a result of another industrial action. Another strike could further damage the credibility of tertiary education in the country. Students in our universities have suffered enough in recent years and this administration should work with ASUU so that our campuses are not again shut down.

The federal government and ASUU has for several years locked in running battles over the implementation of agreements on the funding of the country’s public universities. The consequences have been lengthy industrial strikes by the lecturers with the attendant debilitating effects on educational development in particular and academic pursuits in general.

I believe an early intervention, especially by the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, is important here. Nigeria and Nigerians will be the losers should any untoward action, like another industrial action, is embarked upon by university teachers.

Strikes have contributed significantly to the decline in the quality of graduates of our public universities. The hurried academic calendars, following the end of industrial actions, often allowed little room for serious studies or research. That is why our public universities have continued to go down the ladder of academic ranking, even among their peers in Africa.

The Federal Government and the unions must eschew undue brick-batting and address these issues without disrupting academic activities. Prolonged standoffs are futile, since at the end of the day, both sides will still come to some agreement after great damage has already been done.

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Ogochukwu Isioma, publisher at Campusgist.ng, writes from Benin City. He can be best reached on 07039548930, ogochukwuisioma@gmail.com

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