Prof Toyin Falola is currently the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, USA. Before relocating abroad, he taught at the University of Ife, Ile-Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). Although he has been abroad for decades, Prof Falola still get concerned about issues of education and policies in Nigeria. In this interview with Olayinka Oyegbile he talks about Covid-19, ASUU strike and the role of private universities in the country’s development.
How is COVID-19 affecting the state of education in Nigeria?
COVID-19 has affected the state of the Nigerian education system, directly and otherwise. Instantly, we can talk about the hiatus in the academic activities in our schools and the effects of this on the students and society. We can also talk about the dragging economic fortunes of the country and the share of the average person in the society bearing the brunt of the enormous burden associated with the pandemic. Privates schools at all levels have suffered a great deal. All private schools need our help and understanding.
There is no denying that the current pandemic has not only so far succeeded in complicating the already porous system operational in our education sector, but it has also shown, in many ways, the limitations of the system and the threat that COVID-19 pose to the society. Already, before the federal government officially shut down schools on the March 9th, 2020, the ongoing crisis between the federal government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) had yet again reached another climax. COVID-19 arrived at a time when the University lecturers were fighting for the soul of the intellectual community of the nation. I contacted some members of the Executive of ASUU in the days preceding March 17th not to embark upon the strike because of the pandemic as it would portray the Union as insensitive to the woes and worries of billions of the world’s population, and lead to the accusation that instead of joining to find a curative and vaccine, they were thinking of their own selfish gains.
I was ignored, but I was neither offended nor worried. I understand their logic—dealing with a government that is regarded as dumb and insensitive. Among the issues of contention was the continued inadequate funding of the education sector, affecting both teaching and research on the one hand and students’ general performance, on the other. COVID-19 came and exacerbated the deterioration of the situation. Not only was the budget allocated for the sector cut, but the children that were supposed to benefit from this were also kept away from the four walls of their school. Simultaneously, the government, in slicing the budget to take care of the COVID-19 reality, ensured that even when these schoolchildren are home, they do not have access to good health. As such, together with the education budget, this year’s budget allocation for health has also been cut, leaving school children neither education nor healthcare.
Then comes our contradictions as a country. As budgets are being cut came the news of unimaginable amounts of money stolen at NDDC and NNPC. And we became inundated with news of the government’s approval of N27 billion for the renovation of the National Assembly complex; the federal government searches for an external loan, the mismanagement of COVID-19 response funds and other malfeasance acts that speak to the irresponsible political culture in our land. ASUU has evidence to point to: there is money, only that it is being mismanaged and misused.
Many parents are now faced with the same challenge of getting their children back to the school-mood while home so they could, at least, refresh their brains on the lessons they took before the lockdown commenced. Remember, some of these children were preparing for their promotion exams, and many at different levels were preparing for their final examinations before the lockdown. Whereas some television and radio programmes have since been organized for school children at the elementary level by various media outlets in Nigeria, and some academic activities have continued on a number of social media platforms, these alternative platforms of conducting academic routine have proven less-effective in Nigeria for various reasons, all of which are almost by default. One thing is clear: the grip of the anti-intellectual culture of the society has so firmly shaped the psyche of our children to the extent that, ironically, they see this terrible period as theirs, because the moment schools resume, it becomes the revivalism of rote learning with its attendant scolding for not being embracing of such model of learning. Education has never been a thing of interest to all students. COVID-19, together with the plethora of distractions on the social and “live” media, provides an incubating coven for this proclivity to grow. For the average student, “Big Brother Naija” is more fun than a boring Chemistry lesson!
Consequently, right to the youngest of these children, those educational programmes are out of their social realities, especially at home. Listening to Bado and Simi is preferable to a Zoom lesson on the laws of gravity. They can’t just relate to staying in front of a TV while a teacher is talking and illustrating those abstract things in the air and on the board as they do in the regular classes. I can tell you that as a University teacher, I can’t teach my students here the same way I will teach a course in Nigeria, as I will lose my students to boredom. COVID-19 has now compounded all that: You can’t attend those boring classes anymore, and at the same time, you can’t avoid the alternatives given to you, while you keep lagging in the ever-growing space of knowledge production, accumulation, and applications.
Upon these, some parents see this as an opportunity for their children to make some money to aid the problems of the family. Thus, many youths are now on roadsides selling facemasks, potable satchel water, or cold drinks! In contrast, children not in this condition and willing to learn are failed by the awareness of these channels, and the opportunity to join, because of a lack of power supply, network connection problems and/or a conducive environment. These are tough challenges of the moment. A minority-few of our students have engaged in several training programmes that prove to be instrumental to their life-long projects. This could be a plus to the system if, after graduation, the skills and experience acquired during the COVID-19 lockdown would be the drivers of the economic independence for these children.
ASUU is still on strike, do you advise them to return to classes?
As far as I am concerned about this issue, the ASUU strike has become similar to a story of an unfortunate motherless baby in an enemy’s territory. Even a better metaphor is that of rape—the federal government is raping ASUU; ASUU is raping the students, and both the government and ASUU are raping the parents. If the word “rape” turns your stomach, replace it with the phrase “short change”! As a result, the society bleeds, and there is anger everywhere.
I am sure the time for the blame game is over. The outcome has been an unmitigated tragedy such that a nation that is struggling to attain productivity and competitiveness will release its youth to the streets for experimental prostitution and drug trafficking. Either both reach negotiated compromises, or one side gives more than the other. The rape must end. The problem is that it is challenging to commit a government to keep the commitment made by a previous one. Thus, a template arrived at by civil servants in the Ministry of Education, not negotiated by politicians, must be the way to go.
On the part of ASUU, the demands and strikes have become repetitive, to the point of saturation and fatigue. The behavior of the government is equally repetitive—agree to some conditions in one year and after that renege on them in the succeeding year. Or how else could one explain that ASUU has been making the same demands from every succeeding government in Nigeria for over two decades? The same ASUU members are aware that the members of the public are not always carried along. Yet, they’ve seen no alternative from the strikes or rethinking the strategy to a different approach that will reduce the burdens on the students and their parents.
The objectives of the strike are not all about personal gains but the overall improvement of the education system. If democracy is working well, it is the representatives of states and local governments that should be doing what ASUU is doing, seeking and approving funding for schools located in their constituencies, championing the cause of good education, promoting higher education, and encouraging first-rate research. No, the politicians are more concerned with egunje egunje, i.e., the spoils of being in power! What is the purpose of a democracy where the politicians cannot fight for the public good?
Both the government and ASUU must reach a set of agreements to terminate the strike. I am not sure that ASUU can ever win the argument that the government and politicians should stop establishing new universities. They won’t listen because, to the typical Nigerian politician, anything that shows some kind of building is an evidence of a success story since no one can see something tangible or anything of tangible “quality” in the cognitive development of students or the growth of their intellect, or, as they might ask, how is anyone going to appreciate the enhancement of the human brain? Spending money on what is on the ground is not to them an achievement but a consolidation of the success of their predecessors, plus an opportunity to explain where all the disappearing public monies are going. Federal and state governments have changed the names of many universities to honour their godfathers. Maybe we can offer them all the streets at the University of Ibadan to appease them. ASUU can fight less on the idea of the Visitation Panels and agree to a certain number per year. The “revitalization fund” can be distributed over time, as well as the Earned Academic Allowances. To those unfamiliar with what I am saying, they are all about agreements dating back to 2009, with a further conversation that led to the 2019 Memorandum of Action. Thus, to people opposed to ASUU, they should know that the Union is fighting over agreements that the government has acceded to and signed to uphold. What became added to it was the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), which ASUU had rejected as far back as 2013.
Today, many of the issues that led to the indefinite strike declared on March 17th have become marginalized by those around the IPPIS, which means that some problems can be isolated and agreed upon so that the schools can open. To this end, I have the following recommendations:
- There must be a renewed commitment to a realizable set of agreements tied to values and funding. Perhaps, there must be a three-year plan of action where all transactions are reviewed and readjusted according to prevailing circumstances and the state of the country’s economy.
- There must be a mandatory annual meeting between ASUU and the government to discuss possible areas of disagreements and meet some urgent demands without closing schools. A serious performance test that ASUU must provide verifiable results to all the stake-holders. One cannot fight for autonomy and does not provide evidence of performance. Autonomy should not be about creating an island of privileges without responsibilities.
- The issue of IPPIS must be resolved before this strike can be called off, or else, the whole months out of school, outside of the COVID-19 effect, would amount to a waste. Now, this is not something that would be peculiar to this current strike action taken by the union. The difference would only be that this time, the cost would be too high on the institutions, especially in the area of autonomy and performance. To ASUU, the IPPIS can turn universities into the civil service. Therefore, while it is important to note that the resumption of ASUU is long overdue, the issue of IPPIS must be resolved speedily for this to take place. Fortunately, the union has provided an alternative to this platform to the government, and we can only hope that reason will prevail in the matter as soon as possible. I suggest that the alternative can be tried and areas of agreement reached. The government should recognize areas of peculiarities to the Universities while ASUU must not be seen as lending its weight behind corrupt practices on campus. Autonomy is to enhance performance not to hide misconduct.
- Since the government has agreed to try the alternative platform created by ASUU—the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS), there should be an agreement to call off the strike pending the determination of the integrity test. Both parties have allocated 18 months to the trials and test. Meanwhile, both parties can agree to suspend IPPIS for the time-being and meet several times in the next 18 months to compare notes and review progress. ASUU has sold UTAS as an efficient, home-grown software that meets the demands of the federal government.
- To make recommendation (2) an empirical reality, and as a long shot, there could be an arbitrating, totally independent, body to monitor activities between ASUU and the federal government. This body, which might be equally funded by both parties, should constitute the channel of communication between the two. It should be charged with the oversight of ensuring that agreements between both parties are kept and not violated by either of the parties.
What is the fate of private Universities?