By Toks Ero
Academic activities have picked up in earnest in our universities with examinations either going on or concluded in some of the institutions. It had been six gruelling months of praying and waiting on the part of students and their parents/guardians on the one hand, and six months of throwing punches and docking by the gladiators – the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, while the strike lasted. Thank God sanity eventually prevailed and it’s all over now. As one national newspaper put it, students and parents alike were beside themselves with joy and jubilation. This is understandable if you consider the economic and social costs of keeping the young men and women idling away at home for such an extended period of time. But should we really heave a sigh of relief?
In fights of this nature where two “elephants” wrestle, the losers are not usually the combatants, but the hapless onlookers or bystanders, the direct victims – the students, their parents/guardians and by extension, Nigeria’s education sector, who in this case are the grass on which the fight takes place – that suffers the backlash each time ASUU declares a trade dispute with her employer – the Federal Government of Nigeria. Arguments and counter-arguments have been presented by both sides. ASUU advocates proper funding of universities, upgrade and maintenance of infrastructure and adequate welfare for lecturers. This I totally and absolutely support. The Federal Government of Nigeria considered the financial implication of the demands of ASUU, especially as it had to do with capital projects and provision of other facilities, as “outrageous”. I honestly do not consider it so. It is doable if our leaders can do away with some of their greed.
It is now common place in our national life to hear of various outrageous amounts of monies being embezzled by holders of public offices. Stealing from our commonwealth has graduated from millions to billions of Naira or even in foreign currencies. Yet, nobody is brought to book with our anti-corruption agencies seemingly in deep slumber. Most times, you even forget they are there because of their discomfiting conspiracy of silence. It is convenient for the Federal Government to dip her hands into our Foreign Reserves and Excess Crude Account when they need to fund corruption but not so to do same for worthy causes that will benefit the citizens of Nigeria. Monies can easily be budgeted and disbursed to fund the obscene opulence in which our rulers revel but same cannot be done to educate those who would lead our country on the path of growth and development.
While the strike may be over, the underlying issues that led to this strike, like other strikes in other sectors, still persist. The bitter truth is that our government does not have and is not committed to a definite and sustainable educational blueprint and this does not apply only to universities or tertiary institutions. It is high time we began to do things appropriately in our beloved country Nigeria. Not too long ago, more federal universities were established at a time existing ones were crying to be rescued from premature death. It is not enough for institutions to be established. There must be a definite plan and commitment as to how these institutions will be maintained to achieve the objectives for which they were set-up.
There should be definite plans as to how the infrastructure in our institutions will be maintained annually to prevent decay while also encouraging expansion. There should be definite plans as to how our lecturers will upgrade their knowledge and skills to meet the demands of imparting knowledge to others in our fast-paced ever-changing world. There should be adequate welfare packages for lecturers to encourage honesty and to be justifiably punished when they engage in conducts that are contrary to the dictates of their profession. There should be definite plans to make sure that graduates are produced in a civil environment.
I have learnt from experience that just being in a certain environment influences ones behavioural conduct either positively or negatively. The hostels our students live in and the classes or corridors where they receive lectures are enough to afflict them with irrational or indecent tendencies and low self-esteem. The environment in which our students are forced to live and learn in does not influence them to be well-groomed ladies and gentlemen; neither does it influence them to be found worthy in learning and character.
It is my hope that the government will honour the agreement reached with ASUU so that these strikes can cease from being a recurring decimal in our academic calendar. I also have my fears about whether the monies released to ASUU would be judiciously utilized and transparently accounted for. On the other hand, ASUU needs to prove to Nigerians in the months ahead that this strike was worth all the blood, emotions and angst that went with it by showing clear, visible and robust commitment commensurate to what it had gotten in the bargain. The onus lies on the federal government and her agencies as well as university unions, academic and non-academic, to ensure that the application of the funds is supervised so they do not end up in some private pockets or bank accounts. But then again, there is a challenge. How can you charge a thief to catch a thief? Corruption is a systemic problem and no sector is free, not even the universities which are also ivory towers of corruption.
In this battle, I see no winners. Every party is a loser. The People Democratic Party-led federal government definitely played into the hands of political opponents by needlessly sustaining the strike action for so long thus giving the impression that it was either clueless or insensitive to the welfare of its youths. The ASUU portrayed itself as self-serving and inconsiderate such that it lost the sympathy of well-meaning Nigerians. But evidently the greatest losers are the students many of whom lost their lives. For the lecturers, it is unfortunate that they had to sacrifice one of their own in the person of Professor Festus Iyayi, a prominent figure in the ASUU/FG negotiating team and former President of the union who died in a ghastly auto crash.
Apart from that, they can only quantify their losses in the extra cash they would have made from extorting monies from their students in form of selling of hand-outs, blocking and preying on final year students who have to pay through their nose to get their projects approved or given their deserved final grades. This is in addition to the lost time in graduating and being enlisted for national service. The wider implication is that quality of graduates is compromised having to be sacrificed on the altar of fast-tracking one academic calendar to commence a new one by lecturers rushing through their scheme of work.
So, while it is a victory for ASUU that it was able to make the federal government bend over backwards to meet all its demands and to extract a strong commitment to fulfil these demands by the agreement that was signed, the lecturers owe the students and their parents quality service in terms of teaching and truly being there for them in loco parentis (in place of parents) because no good parent would deliberately frustrate his/her ward or put clogs in the wheels of their progress as many lecturers do in our universities. It is not just enough to demand from the federal government a conducive teaching and learning environment; the lecturers themselves must similarly create for the students a conducive and stress-free learning environment. All these will work together for the good of our education system, the future of our youths as leaders of tomorrow and of course the development of our country.