They went to laboratories where they found people using kerosene stoves instead of bushing burners to conduct experiments; they found specimens being kept in pure water bottles instead of the appropriate places where such specimens should be kept
PROF. FESTUS IYAYI is a former National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). In this interview, he explains why university teachers nationwide are on strike; saying the action is to compel the Federal Government to implement the agreement it reached with ASUU on funding of universities. Iyayi, currently Head of Dept, Business Administration, University of Benin, insists that the union members are prepared to stay at home for the next three to five years until the right thing is done. Excerpts:
BY GABRIEL ENOGHOLASE, BENIN
ASUU has gone back to the trenches with the Federal Government. Why are you on strike?
The short answer is this: Government believes that Nigeria should continue to be not just a second rate country but a third rate country because the quality of development, the kind of society you have depend on the kind of education that the people have and the quality of education that exists in the country. In 2009, ASUU reached an agreement with government on how to rehabilitate and revitalize the universities. That agreement was a product of three years of negotiation, from 2006 to 2009, and government agreed that it will provide funding for universities to bring them to a level that we can begin to produce graduates that will be recognized worldwide, and our universities can also be classified and rated among the best in the world. People keep talking about universities rating, but no Nigerian university features among the first 1,000 in the world because of the issue of lack of facilities. So, from 2009 to 2012, ASUU waited for the Federal Government to implement that agreement and what government did was to believe and present the argument that what ASUU was looking for was money, and so, they implemented part of the salary component; they did not implement the agreement on funding. As academics, if you pay us N10million a month and we do not have the tools to work with, that money is worthless because we want to be able to conduct research, teach students the latest that is available in the world of knowledge. Those tools were not available and are still not available. So, in 2011, precisely in December, ASUU went on strike to force government to implement the funding part of that agreement. What did the government do? They apprehended the strike in January 2012 and the Secretary to the Federal Government invited the leadership of ASUU for a meeting in his office. We went there, discussed with them on the basis of which on 24 January, 2012, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government under the title, “MEETING OF THE SECRETARY OF THE GOVERNEMNT OF THE FEDERATION WITH THE ACADEMIC STAFF UNION OF UNIVERSITIES “and signed by Prof. Nicholas A. Damachi, Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Education on behalf of the Federal Government. The most important of the items signed was 3.0, that is, “FUNDING REQUIREMENTS FOR UNIVERSITIES”. And this is what the Federal Government said it would do: “Government reaffirms its commitment to the revitalization of Nigerian universities through budgetary and non- budgetary sources of funds; government will immediately stimulate the process with the sum of N100billion and will beef it up to a yearly sum of N400billion in the next three years”. As we speak now, not a Kobo, not an iota of intervention has taken place in the universities. Yet, government itself, in the various studies it has done, said it recognizes the pathetic state of the universities. In order to implement this agreement, government first gave a reason saying, ‘oh, for us to apply the funds, let us first of all identify the areas of priorities to which the funds will be applied’. Government also said, ‘we are not going to give the money to the universities, what we are going to do is to identify the projects, we will them call on government agencies such as the CBN, PTDF, ETF to deliver the projects to the universities that would then be estimated’. So the money is not coming to the universities, government will do the costing and get people to come and do all those things such as the rehabilitation of the laboratories, classrooms and a variety of other things.
Needs assessment committee
Now what should be those things: Government set up a committee called the NEEDS ASSESSMENT COMMITTEE and it went round the universities and what it found was shocking. First, it found that the students – teachers ratio was 1-400 on the average instead of being 1-40. It found out that the classrooms were grossly inadequate and could accommodate only about 30 percent of the number of students that needed to enter those classrooms; they went round and found students standing in their lecture theatres with other students writing on their backs; they found lectures going on under trees in some of the universities; they went to laboratories where they found people using kerosene stoves instead of bushing burners to conduct experiments; they found specimens being kept in pure water bottles instead of the appropriate places where such specimens should be kept. They found chemistry labs without water; they found people doing examinations called theory of practicals and not the practicals and you will imagine what the practical ought to be. And when the report was eventually presented to President Goodluck Jonathan at the Federal Executive Council, we understand that Jonathan said that he was embarrassed and did not know that things were all that bad.
It was on that basis that they said that this money should be spent. As we speak, the money has not been provided, no intervention has taken place and the academics are tired. We negotiated for three years, 2006-2009, we went on strike in December, 2011 and government apprehended that strike; we signed an MoU in January 2012, between then and now, nothing happened. That is why we are on strike. We are saying, ‘look, rehabilitate the universities’. As a reporter, you can go round our classrooms and you will see what our classrooms are like. In this era, it is the quality of knowledge that you acquire that will determine the position you occupy in any part of the world. We did this and government did not do anything. A professor came from Bayelsa State recently to the University of Benin, looking for journals. We went to the library because we have an e-library and he could not do anything there because there was no light for two days in the library. If you go round here now, lecturers have generators in their offices to be able to work, every department has two or three generators to be able to do their work. Is that what a university should be like? If you go to the students’ hostels, they in a sorry state, they live 12 in a room; they are like piggery; they now have what they called short puts, they excrete in polythene bags and throw them through the windows into the fields because there are no toilets. If you come into this building (faculty building), there are no toilets and, if walk round, you will find faeces sometimes in the classrooms because students have no place to use. And it is like that in all other universities.
Enough is enough
Academic staff has said enough is enough, we cannot continue to work under these conditions, especially when government gave commitment in 2012 that this matter would be addressed but up till now nothing had happened. We had several meetings between 2012 and now and they will say ‘next week this one will happen; in two weeks time that one will happen, give us one month, this one will happen’, nothing has happened. And when students leave here, they apply for progammes in the United Kingdom, United States and other countries for their master degrees, PhD or other postgraduate programmes and they are told that they cannot be admitted because their degrees are suspect. Shell here in Nigeria spent millions of dollars re-training graduates, people who made First Class and, when they test them, they found out that they have problems. How can you take an engineer who has not conducted an experiment, all he did is the theory of practical? He does not know how the equipment works? If you want a properly educated student population, you have to provide the facilities. That is what ASUU is on strike. What government has done in the past is to say that we are on strike because of money, now they don’t have that excuse. It is true that part of the agreement we have with the government also talked about academic allowances, but academics are saying that we are not interested in that; we are saying that government should rehabilitate facilities and once they are rehabilitated and they are up to standard, we will come back to work. If you go to our classrooms, we use chalk boards, the situation of the 1960s but people are using multi-media facilities, mark boards where you can download information. That is not available here and government is not interested in that. No country developed without a sound educational system and the foundation is not the primary school incidentally, it is at the university level because it is the university that trains other levels. For instance, if you want to teach in primary school, you need people who attended the Colleges of Education; if you want to be teacher at the Colleges of Education, you must have a degree from the university; so, the university provides the manpower for other levels of education and that is why you must concentrate efforts on the university education. If you don’t do that, other levels of education will suffer and that is what has been happening in Nigeria.
Against this backdrop, of your complaints more private universities are being approved by government. Will this help to solve the problem?
Even the National Universities Commission (NUC), which is licensing private universities, has now drawn attention to the crisis of quality in many of these private universities. You know what government does: We have refineries in Port-Harcourt and Warri; I was just talking with some people recently and they said, oh, Port-Harcourt refinery is in a state where it can refine whatever amount of crude oil sent to it; its plants are all now working,’ but, as at today, government has not send crude oil to it and they cannot process anything because they want to import. Nigeria is the only OPEC member country that sells crude oil to its refineries at the international price? Does that work? It doesn’t work, but they use international price to sell crude oil to refineries, to make it impossible for the refineries to process crude and then they go to Spain and other countries to import refined products.
So, what is happening is that government wants to kill the public universities just as it has killed its own enterprises so that it can invite people to come and buy over the public universities? Unfortunately, it will not work because universities are not like enterprises. In the UK, most of the universities there are public owned; in the US, most of the universities are state owned; the one you hear about, HARVARD, is a private one, but most of the universities in the world are owned by government because education is a social service; the revenue and tax collected by government comes from the people, the commonwealth, that is the fund that is used in funding education. And what the government is doing is to under-fund public universities, give them a bad name and provide an excuse to license private universities many of which borrow lecturers from public sector universities, many of which do not have the equipment which public universities ought to have. And many of the private universities focus on the social sciences, law and arts; they do not go into engineering, medicine or sciences because you need a lot of capital outlay, you need to spend a lot of money building laboratories. I went to Oxford University last year and they showed me a laboratory that was built last year, a huge building where people from different parts of the world went there to conduct experiments. It cost billions of pounds and no private sector person will like to invest such money because the returns on investment cannot be recouped. So, private sector universities are gimmicks by government to say that they are better than the public sector universities, but then, how many people are there how much fees do they pay and how many people in Nigeria can pay the sum of N350,000 and above paid in private universities? Those universities are not meant for the children of ordinary Nigerians and development has to be about the ordinary people, it cannot be about the rich. So, there is no way, not in this century, not the next or in a life time that private universities will become more important than public universities.
So what is The Way Forward?
The way forward is that the ruling elite in Nigeria must be sure of what that want. We have an example; many years ago, Ghanaians were here; they flooded our universities; when the Ghanaians rulers saw what was happening, they took a step back and said, lets us change direction’. They closed down the universities for three years or so, rehabilitated all the facilities in the universities and brought the students and the lecturers back. Now, the CBN Governor Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi disclosed that Nigerians spent about N62billion paying school fees for 75,000 Nigerian students in Ghanaian universities. Our people are in South Africa paying fees there, but who those going there; they are the children of the rich. Ghanaians are in Ghana universities but they are not paying what Nigerians are paying there. So, the way forward is that government makes up its mind that Nigerians must have a place under the sun and that place under the sun can only be guaranteed with a sound university system. It must make up its mind; is it to close down the university system for three years or so, do what should be done and then invite students and lecturers back? For instance, in the University of Benin, you don’t have a foreign student and if you go to other universities in Nigeria, I don’t think there are foreign students. When I came to the University of Benin, I was interviewed by Prof. Smith, a Briton who was the Dean at the time and many people from different parts of the world were here as teachers and students. But, right now, they are not in Nigeria; instead, Nigerians are everywhere. That shows that the system has collapsed. When we went to the National Assembly, Sen. Uche Chukwumerije and his colleagues told us that they were on the knees begging us to recall the students because they are on the streets posing dangers and problems, and we said, it is better for them to be on the streets than on the campus of universities learning ignorance. You cannot teach ignorance to people or half knowledge to the people because they will be more dangerous to the society.
‘Not asking for money for ourselves’
If you have a doctor that is not well trained, and you say ‘go and remove an appendix’, and he goes to remove your heart because he doesn’t know where the appendix is; it is better not to have doctors than the one who will go and remove your heart than the appendix. That is what the Nigerian government wants us to do and the academics in universities are saying no, for once, let us do the right thing; we are prepared to stay at home for between three and five years until these problems are resolved. We are not asking for money, facilities must be provided to make the universities truly what they ought to be. In terms of how to solve the problems in the universities, when the financial crisis broke out in 2007 and banks declared that they were in trouble, government brought out N3trillion to bail out the banks. First, they gave the banks N239billion, another N620billion and N1.725trillion making a total of N3trillion.
Then the aviation sector said that it was in distress, they gave the sector, N500billion and they gave even NOLLYWOOD billions of Naira. These sectors are important, but they are not as important as the fundamental which is the education sector. If you can give the banks N3trillion and all the universities are asking for is about N1.5trillion, the same way in which they sourced the money which they gave to the banks which they are now saying that they should not pay back, they should be able to do more for education. So, nobody should come to us and say that government has no money.
If they can bail the banks with N3trillion, banks owned by the private sector, they cannot tell us they cannot fund the education sector because the World Bank told them that Africans do not need higher education, that what Africans need is middle-level technical education; that is what the Okonjo-Iwealas and Goodluck Jonathan are for. So, let them do what they did in the case of the banks to education and if they do that, the problems will be solved.