The President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, Prof Emmanuel Osodeke, in this interview with FRIDAY OLOKOR, says the union’s age-long battle with the Federal Government, which has seen students being shut out of campuses for long months, is far from over.
ASUU and the Federal Government have continued to battle over some irreconcilable differences. What are the outstanding issues?
Well, if you recall, the issue we are talking about started in 2009 when ASUU and the Federal Government reached an agreement on a number of issues, including the funding of our universities, welfare of our members. We also agreed that our agreement would be reviewed every three years and now this is 12 years after and that agreement has not been reviewed. You should also know that at that time in 2009, our exchange rate was less than N100 per dollar and today it is about N500 per dollar and what that means is that even the salaries of lecturers have reduced by 500 times and nothing has been done.
Our reality is that while Nigerian lecturers go outside the country to teach, no foreigner can come to teach in Nigeria. Any country you go to, you will see a Nigerian lecturing because of the fluidity of the university system in those places, but nobody from outside this country, not even from the Republic of Benin, will want to come and teach in Nigeria because our payment and welfare have been degraded. The situation is that universality is leaving the Nigerian university system. That was one of the major issues we talked about in 2009 that the government refused to implement.
Two, the cost of training one Nigerian student effectively is about N1.2m. But today, we are not anywhere near that. We don’t have the infrastructure, we don’t have the laboratories.
In 2012 when the Federal Government did NEEDS Assessment, all these issues were brought out very clearly and the government agreed with us that over three years, they would devote about N1.3tn to revamp the Nigerian university system. The first tranche was released in 2013 by (former) President Goodluck Jonathan and that was the last time that a major amount has been released. So, what we are talking about is that agreement, all the Memoranda of Action and Memoranda of Understanding that we all signed, including the last one that we reached in December 2019. You are also aware that after our strike, at that time, they agreed to release by January 2020 N30bn as revitalisation fund, but till now that money has not been released.
We have been very patient in the interest of the Nigerian students and the Nigerian populace but government has to work hard to address the issues they agreed to in December 2009.
It appears that the government finds the demands by ASUU too tough to meet. Why is that so?
One, it’s the (lack of) will; two, it is a ploy by government to ensure that you have two classes of Nigerian children–the class of the rich and government officials who go abroad to get quality education, who will come back and occupy their so-called lucrative positions in the Central Bank of Nigeria, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation soon and the children of the ordinary Nigerians who have to attend our universities that are not funded and cannot compete with the children of the rich.
There was a bank that was going to go bankrupt about four years ago. The government gave a bailout of over N1tn to revive that bank owned by private people. But ASUU has quoted that N1.3tn was needed to revamp all Nigerian universities, whether federal or state for the past three years and the government said they don’t have money. Does that make sense? You can bail out just one bank with over N1tn and then the entire universities in Nigerian put together, you can’t put in N1.3tn.
Today, the only problem we have is education; once you kill your education system, your country is gone, which is what we have today. The money they use to award contracts for railways and others is more than what we are asking for. Education is the key and number one. There was a Prime Minister in Britain, who said his number one priority was education, number two was education, number three was education. But for our leaders, education does not seem to matter to them. You know why? Because their children are not in Nigerian universities.
If we can have a law that says that once you are in government or you take a government appointment, your children must school in Nigeria, the system will change.
About two weeks ago, I understand the President of Nigeria–(Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.)–established four new universities. Is there anywhere in the world where you have University of Transportation, does it make sense?
If you want to teach transportation, why don’t you go to an existing university and start a Faculty of Transportation and fund it appropriately? Why establish a University of Transportation, Maritime University, University of Medical Sciences? Where were they in the 70s and 80s when our universities were doing well? What we are saying now is that Nigeria has transformed university to what we refer to as constituency projects not as universities to serve the needs of the people. These are part of our concerns.
How will you respond to critics who believe that ASUU has contributed to the existing problems in the public universities by embarking on so many strikes actions, thereby disrupting academic calendar and making students spend additional years in school and graduate at an age that limits their economic opportunities?
I will give you an example; if ASUU has behaved like other unions, today, we will not have public universities. Today, the other unions in the educational sector gave up at the primary and secondary levels. Today, you don’t have public primary and secondary schools. For the average Nigerian man, their children are not in public primary and secondary schools. A lot of Nigerians have removed their children from there because in many of the states, they are dead because the teachers are not being paid, the schools are not refurbished.
As of today, more than 70 per cent of Nigerian children are in private primary and secondary schools. As I speak to you, only less than five per cent of Nigerian children are in private universities. When we were in school, the minimum UTME score you must have to gain admission was 180/400; today it has gone down to 120 and you know why? They did it to entice people to go to private universities. No public university will accept 120 as UTME score for admission. But even with that, more than 95 per cent of Nigerian students still want to go to public universities and the only reason we are having that is because of ASUU struggle. Any day we surrender, these private universities will hijack our educational system and that will be the end. I will tell you that the implication of this is that most of the degrees you have from those places are fake. Universities in Nigeria today award the highest number of first class honours worldwide.
You mean private universities?
Yes, private universities, where more than 15 per cent of our children will get first class honours, which is extraordinary excellence, not just excellence. Upper Credit is excellence. If you go to universities in the world, less than one per cent will get first class but here in Nigerian universities 15 per cent will get first class. How is it awarded?
Does that not speak to the quality of teaching infrastructure and funding, for instance, in a private university like Covenant University where recently 201 students graduated with first class honours?
People have been hoodwinked by religion. Covenant University graduated 1,000 plus students and 201 of them had first class, which is over 15 per cent. Is that possible in any university in the world, even in the best university in the world? The answer is no!
And why did it happen in Covenant University? It is a question that every Nigerian needs to discuss as a country. The National Assembly should discuss it; the NUC should discuss it because it is a shame on the Nigerian university system that we are churning out first class from universities with very small populations. The University of Ibadan had convocation with more than 15,000 students and less than a 100 had first class; that is a standard university, which today is one of the best universities in the country. Go to ABU in Zaria, UNN, OAU, Ile-Ife, look at what they bring out as first class.
First Class, like I said, is extraordinary excellence and you cannot have 15 per cent of students in one class being extraordinarily excellent.
In those days when we marked WASSCE, when you finished marking, you had to draw a graph to show the scores, that graph would tell you whether the result is correct or not. But today what do you have? More first class than third class, which is a shame and the whole world is laughing at us.
What’s your thought on insecurity in the country as it affects lecturers and students?
We should not even look at a sector but rather insecurity in Nigeria, whether it is academics, journalists, politicians or the ordinary Nigerian on the street, it is the same thing across the board. In all the sectors, there is insecurity in the country it, it is a common problem and we should address it as a common problem. But why are we having it? Because of oppression. Let me give you a typical example. From what we read in the paper, even as espoused by one of the legislators, at the National Assembly, an average senator earns hardship allowance, after all the things they collect, free vehicles, and the rest, they get hardship allowance. But in that same National Assembly, the drivers of those same legislators who do not have access to any free thing, do not have hardship allowance. How do you expect peace? That is the problem we have today. There is this saying that the poor man is angry because he has no food, while the rich man is angry because the poor man is hungry. That is where we are now and we have to address the imbalance in the system to solve the insecurity problem.
There have been reported attacks on institutions like UNIJOS, ABU and UNIMAID. Do you have an estimate of the number of ASUU members who have been killed by gunmen, for instance, in the last one year alone or more?
No, we don’t have such figures. But if you look at the number of lecturers killed, the number of teachers killed, the number of civil servants killed and number of farmers killed, it is the same thing. So, it is not sector-based and we should look at it as a national disaster.
Some people believe that the Act that established TETFUND, should be reviewed to accommodate private universities. Will ASUU back that recommendation?
It is laughable. The private universities today, are they accountable to anybody? Are they not profit-making organisations? Since they are profit-making organisations and they are privately-owned, once you give TETFUND to them, you can be sure that half of that money will not go to the system, it will go into a private pockets. It will be wrong for public funds to be spent on private universities. If you know you cannot run a private university, don’t establish one. For you to establish a private university, you must have had a proposal that will show how you would fund the university over a period of time before you are allowed to found a university.
You cannot use the taxes collected by government to fund a private enterprise. Nigerians should insist that every private university on a yearly basis should give account, should be audited properly and if they make profit, two per cent of that profit should be paid into TETFUND account, instead of the proposition that the private universities should benefit from TETFUND.
As I said earlier, as of today less than five per cent of Nigerian students are in about 109 private universities while more than 95 per cent are in the 87 or so public universities. So when you have 95 per cent in the public universities and less than five per cent in the private universities, why should you give TETFUND to them? Once you try that, in the next four years, you will have 1,000 private universities and their aim is to collect money from TETFUND which we should not allow as a people.
Cases of sexual harassment abound in the university system. It is even said that these days, it is not lecturers who harass students, some female students also wink at lecturers with seductive smiles. Have any of your lecturers been sexually harassed by students?
That a student winks at you or smiles at you, does not mean she is harassing you sexually, I hope you know that. That when you are walking on the street and a lady looks at you and smiles, it does not mean she is harassing you.
But there are seductive smiles and even seductive dressings.
It depends on the person. But there are actually students who are poorly dressed and what many universities have done today is to ensure that when you are poorly dressed, you cannot cross the gate and enter the university premises. That one happens in Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike where I am. Any student who is poorly dressed will not be allowed to enter the campus, you have to go home and dress properly before you can come in. But I agree with you that there are some female students who are looking for favour from lecturers and there are some lecturers who are also trying to seduce students.
What we have done as a union is that when we find such things, such persons pass through the disciplinary process and when the process is well followed, as a union we don’t contest it. But if the disciplinary process is not well followed, we contest it because everybody has the right to defend himself. A number have been dismissed and even jailed in the university for harassing students and as a union, we will not go and fight for such people if the process has been followed religiously and it is proven that the allegation is correct. We also find a situation where students will falsely accuse our colleagues and that is why we insist that the system should be followed religiously and anybody who is found guilty should be disciplined properly, using the university guidelines; that is what we stand for as a union. We will not encourage sexual harassment either from the student to the lecturer or the lecturer to the student. We will ensure that everybody who comes through the university will pass through the process and if it is found that he is worthy in character and in learning, he is given the degree.