I2 years since Nigeria made a return to democracy, its public universities have been shut for a-record 15 times. The 16th one, a one-month warning strike declared on February 14 to press for increased wages, comes barely two years after a nine-month industrial action.
In each case, academic calendars are disrupted, and students and parents frustrated. For the academic student, organized the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, the anger is about lo ages and poor school infrastructure.
‘’Imagine receiving the same salary since 2009 and compare what you received in 2009 with what you are receiving now [and] with the inflation,” asked Foluke Aliyu-Ibrahim, an English lecturer at the University of Ilorin who told Al Jazeera that the government has reneged on several agreements with ASUU. “People don’t understand what we are going through, it is a lot of sacrifices.’’
Obviously, there is a challenge of funding. Nigeria’s subsidy on tuition which began during the oil boom of the 70s, can no longer be sustained, and there is a funding gap to bridge the rising cost of education.
Nigeria currently has about 170 licensed universities; half of those are funded by either the federal or state governments while the rest are owned by private individuals and organizations.
According to BudgIT, a civil society organisation dedicated to fiscal transparency and budget tracking, Nigeria’s federal government allocated 335.4 billion naira ($807.23m) in total to all 44 federal universities last year – a third of the Lagos state budget for the same year.
Depending on their rank, the monthly salaries of lecturers range between 95,000 naira ($228) and 332,000 naira ($800), with 416,000 naira ($1,000) being the maximum pay for a professor. Staff are forced to run businesses on the side to make ends meet, leaving no time to engage in research and development.
With Nigeria experiencing its biggest recession in thirty years, aided by the COVID-19 pandemic and a slump in global oil prices, as well as shouldering the debt obligation of 38 trillion naira ($92.62bn), its highest ever, government’s challenge with tertiary education funding gets more terrifying.
Academics, however, view it differently, accusing the government of reckless spending – and insensitivity.
‘’Why can’t they say they don’t have the money to fund the national assembly, Aso Rock clinics and foreign trips?,asked Emmanuel Osodoke, ASUU’s national president. “Why is it the one that affects the common man that they say they don’t have the money? They have money to fund trips abroad but they don’t have the money to fund education which is the number one priority in any country that is serious, so it does not make any sense.’’
‘’When the government does not believe in the instrumentality of education towards delivering on the objectives of the nation itself, then there is no way they are going to allocate significant funding to higher education,’’ Gideon Olarenwaju, head of Aid for Rural Education Access Initiative, a nonprofit working with under-resourced schools, noted.
With receding government funding, individuals and religious organizations have stepped in to fill the gap, seeking accreditation from the National Universities Commission to build viable alternatives. But the private institutions remain out of the reach of the majority of citizens.
‘’Nigerian universities cannot generate income because you don’t expect a country where more than 70 percent of the country are earning less than 60,000 naira ($145) to pay upwards of one million naira ($2,409) in fees,’’ Esodoke, a professor of soil science at the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, said.
Given the government’s notoriety of not adhering to signed agreements and a seeming unwillingness to meet the union’s demands, Esodoke knew the odds of another indefinite strike are high.
But the deadlock is necessary, the ASUU chief insisted. In 2011, the authorities established Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND), an agency that sources and disburses tax paid by companies domiciled in Nigeria to the tertiary institutions. He claimed that as a product of the struggle and as further proof of the need for a hardline stance in negotiations with Abuja.
Aliyu-Ibrahim, a university lecturer, agrees with the hardline stance, saying: “Strike is the only language the government understands.”