Poor funding killing tertiary education, not lecturers’ strike – SSANU president

National President of the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities, Muhammed Ibrahim, speaks to DANIEL AYANTOYE on the nation’s tertiary education system, incessant lecturers’ strike among other issues

Some have said Labour Unions like SSANU, ASUU, and others have been known for embarking on strikes without considering other options as a way to show their grievances. Why is this so?

Unions have come to stay; they are part of the system and part of our lives. Unions are there to struggle and maintain a good equilibrium for taking charge of the well-being of its members. If for any reason, somebody is saying unions are prone to strikes, it is because the person is selfish, or the person is not fully educated about what we do and how the system was and how it is today. As I said, Unions have always been there even in the most advanced world. Anybody that wants to cite anything good will say, ‘Go to America, France, UK’. In those countries, unions have always been there, making sure that their members are not shortchanged in terms of provisions of welfare by management or employers, and the well-being in terms of other activities the unions engage in such as cooperatives and other schemes.

National President of the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities, Muhammed Ibrahim, speaks to DANIEL AYANTOYE on the nation’s tertiary education system, incessant lecturers’ strike among other issues

Strike generally is a product of law, and it is a legal activity. It is in line with the International Labour Organisation law. So, the fact that any union goes on strike does not mean they are breaking any law. The only thing is that there are processes and procedures for going on strike. Again, whenever you hear any union going on strike, especially our union, there must have been a breakdown in communications, or our employers may have reneged on agreements that we have signed with them in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding or Memorandum of Action.

So, when they renege in the agreement or when deadlines are not respected, what do you expect us to do? We cannot line them up and start flogging them. The only thing we can do is to withdraw our services until the employer listens. In SSANU, we do not emphasise strikes; we go on strike only when it becomes necessary; when our employers put their knees on our necks and we can’t breathe. We have to push them off and look for air. The idea of saying that unions at the universities, especially SSANU or ASUU, go on strike frivolously is far from the truth and not the case.

But many are of the view that incessant strikes by lecturers have negatively affected the standard of education in public universities in Nigeria. Do you agree with that?

I will not agree with that because it is not always the case. For your information, education is a social service. So, the standard of education is falling because the providers of education don’t provide proper funding. When you don’t fund a system like education properly, you don’t expect to harvest any miracle. When the education system was said to be okay was because it was properly funded. That was when teachers and other workers were trained, lecturers were well paid and their morals high, equipment were available, there was electricity, and our libraries were properly stuck with related books and journals. Hostels were provided, students were comfortable, the clinics were well equipped with drugs, the environment was conducive, security was provided, and our lecture theatres were top-notch with good furniture and other materials. Those are the functions that give you the platform to provide good education or what you now call a high standard. It is not the frequency of strikes or lack of it.

You can stay a whole section without a strike but if things are not there, how do you expect to have quality education? If you fund education properly, everything will be top-notch. There is no public university in Nigeria today that can tell you it enjoys adequate funding whether in terms of running costs or personnel costs. You find yourself in a situation whereby workers will work, and their salaries are delayed or are not paid. You have so many public universities, especially state-owned universities where you have workers who have not been paid for six months and above. So, the morale is low. If you go to their lecture theatre, laboratories, and classrooms, everything is dilapidated. These are what we can say are the reasons why the standard of education is falling. But I can assure you that if the government is serious about providing quality education, they should make available adequate funding.

Are you saying the government is responsible for the fallen standard and delivery of quality education and not the union or lecturers?

Yes, the government is responsible because they call the shots. They employ the workers; they make provisions for the environment to be conducive and they provide equipment and facilities. So, if these things are not there, how will you hold lecturers or unions responsible? As I said, if you see lecturers going on strike, it is because they have been short-changed, and the government has continually shown its inability to respect agreements. Where they have allowances that should be paid or certain things that should be provided and they have agreed with the unions and taken deadlines and such things are not respected, what do you expect? The contribution of strikes to the standard of education is very low; government should be held responsible 100 per cent.

Don’t you think there should be other ways to make demands from the government other than strike threats?

Strikes are normally the last resort. If you see a union like SSANU embarking on strike, it means that other ways that you are alluding to have been exhausted. As I said, discussions and negotiations would have broken down and it would have taken a lot of time on the part of both unions and management to have disagreed before you see us going on strike. So, there will always be other ways but strikes are usually the last weapons that unions use to make their demands met. Only in this part of the country do people see strikes as antagonistic activities to the government. It is legal and will continue to happen all over the world.

The Federal Government said it would grant universities full autonomy in the area of funding. How well do you think this will impact the sector?

Well, we will wait to see what happens. Any university or union will be happy to see that happen, but we need to also understand the difference between full autonomy in terms of resources and funding and full autonomy in terms of operation. If the government is talking about granting universities full autonomy in terms of funding, it shows that the government will continue to discharge its responsibilities of funding personnel and overhead, and the idea that universities are generating IGR, and they should remit the same to the government should be discontinued and jettisoned. All charges the universities collect are service charges, and in some cases, they get additional funding to make those services available to students.

We welcome full autonomy in terms of funding but we also welcome full autonomy with full operations. Universities should be allowed to operate without emasculation. Part of the problem we have today is the continued interference of government agencies in the operations of the university. The office of Head of Service of the Federation brings out all sorts of circular undermining the operations of the universities in terms of employment, promotion, and other things. Universities are universal, and our operations are peculiar. So, we should not be subjected to the core civil service operation because if you want to attract the best brain, you must adopt some flexibility in hiring and firing.

You must have the ability to access funds to make certain services available but where you get clearance from certain government agencies before you employ a lecturer, cleaner, or driver, it becomes a problem because they will tell you to go to the Head of the Service to get your vacancies booked; you go to Federal Character Commission, then to the Budget Office, and to the Accountant General’s office, the National Assembly and get you budget passed just to employ university workers. All these are roadblocks to the effective operations of the universities. So, we look forward to having full autonomy in terms of funding, and beyond that, we will be most delighted to have our Governing Councils allowed to function effectively.

When the government came on board on May 29, they dissolved the Governing Councils of universities whose tenure was four years. It is wrong for the government to dissolve university governing councils because they are tenured, and the moment you do that, you have stampeded the progress of the universities because they will not promote, they will not employ, and they will not be able to address critical issues because the council is the highest decision-making body of universities. So, it should not be a pressing matter where you have to announce and behave like you gave a child something with the right hand and take it back with the left hand.

What is your advice to President Bola Tinubu on the formation of the universities’ Governing Boards?

First, we condemn the incessant dissolution of councils without allowing them to use their full tenure. Meanwhile, if they are to appoint new councils, they should know that university systems are unique, and they should have global standards. The government should only appoint people who know what education is and not appoint politicians as chairmen of governing councils who will be interested only in awarding contracts. Appoint active retired academics and retired university administrators. When such people are approaching an issue, they will be speaking from a point of view of knowledge and not from a point of view of ignorance. Don’t appoint somebody with a diploma or certificate and make him chairman of the council of a university that awards a degree. Those are things that can completely turn the system upside down. So, appointment to the governing council should be based on merit.

Are you in support of those who said the composition of the governing board is enough to handle the affairs of the universities?

The councils are made up of five external members appointed by the Federal Government and a representative of the Ministry of Education. The job of the representative of the Minister of Education is to report to government activities that are happening in such councils. These people appointed are people of integrity, who have what it takes to run the university system even though we may have some reservations about the appointment into the councils because most cases, you will see politicians being appointed to chair governing councils which has become normal. Therefore, the Office of the Head of Service should have nothing to do with the running of the universities. Councils are appointed by the government with clear representation from all stakeholders; they should be allowed to do their work.

A There was concern that vice-chancellors were involved in the mismanagement of TETFUND. Are you not worried that this may also happen if universities are granted full autonomy?

If you understand the operations of TETFUND, vice-chancellors are not in control. What they do is initiate projects and ask for funding from TETFUND. I think that is okay. The most important thing is to ask the important question of what you need in your universities. As long as it falls within the parameters of what the Fund is meant for. The only thing you say is that some VCs over-concentrate on certain areas and neglect other areas within the institution. They always take a special interest in their field. If we have an engineer as a vice-chancellor, you will realise that within his tenure, he will be more interested in acquiring equipment for engineers and neglect other faculties; it is the same thing with others. The system should be more open and transparent, and there should be more stakeholder engagement.

I commend the current Executive Secretary of TETFUND because just last week, we were invited to attend a stakeholders’ meeting and we were encouraged to take an active part in monitoring and evaluation of the projects of the TETFUND. So, the conception of projects in the universities should be more open and vice-chancellors and management should engage with the community for their input. The TETFUND should be encouraged to get the input of union leaders before they approve or fund any project in the institutions. Unions are the last hope of every member of staff in the university as of today.

There have been issues of mismanagement of funds released by TETFUND in the past as well the irregularity in project delivery. What do you think the Tinubu-led government can do to ensure that the agency effectively serves its mandate devoid of such issues?

I have some experience in the monitoring of projects by TETFUND. What happens is that the lack of access to such funds is what delays the execution of such projects. If you have had your allocation and you have not fulfilled the requirement of accessing those funds, the money will still be there until you fulfill it. To stem this tide, university management has to be active. They must also engage in a project that is impactful and not projects that will not be usable in five years.

There have been suggestions for free tertiary education so that the children of the poor can also gain education in tertiary institutions. Do you think Nigeria can afford this considering the current economic realities?

Visit your history book, education has never been free. There is always a way you pay for education, but it can be subsidised since it is a social service. The government should not make the masses part with the little they have to acquire education. So, the idea of increasing fees by tertiary institutions is a battle for survival because the government has deviated from its responsibilities of funding the system properly. There is no institution currently in Nigeria that can boast of using only what they get from the government to pay their bills. Some of them are increasing the fees to help them get enough money to run the system. I don’t support the masses extra money just to make provisions for education, government should take its responsibility seriously. Education, housing, water, and security are things the government can provide to make the populace survive. Education must continue to be social services and subsidy must continue to remain in the system.