The negative reaction of the General Olusegun Obasanjo administration to the university students’ nationwide protests in April 1978 against the sudden hike in tuition by his administration marked a turning point in the decline in university education in Nigeria. University campuses were quickly occupied by the riot police as students kept chanting Alli Must Go, demanding the resignation of Colonel Ahmadu Alli, then the Education Minister.
The fallout of the strike was monumental. Students were killed. Some lecturers were retrenched. Some vice-chancellors lost their jobs. University Governing Councils and the appointment of vice-chancellors became more and more politicised. The erosion of university autonomy, begun in 1971/72, when similar student protests also led to student deaths, continued unabated. NUNS was later banned, only to metamorphous into the present National Association of Nigerian Students in 1983.
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The Academic Staff Union of Universities was formed later in 1978, as an offshoot of the Nigerian Association of University Teachers, established in 1965. It was realised that the excesses of the military government, the erosion of university autonomy, and the devaluation of higher education were far beyond what students could handle. It became necessary to bring together pockets of Marxist-oriented resistance within various campuses.
ASUU immediately took on two parallel tasks. One was to oppose continued military rule and obnoxious government policies, such as the Structural Adjustment Programme and World Bank loans intended to impose Western practices and ideologies on the Nigerian university system. The other was to fight for university autonomy, adequate funding, improved conditions of service, and adequate attention to education. The rise of ASUU led to a corresponding decrease in nation-wide student protests and the concomitant loss of lives.
Throughout the military era, ASUU met with one of three major responses: (a) Commissions or Visitation Panels were set up, only to have their recommendations either sidelined or used to victimise the striking lecturers and their institutional leaders; (b) indefinite closure of universities and the mass sack of lecturers; or (c) outright proscription of ASUU, as happened in 1988 and 1992. Only partially and sporadically were ASUU’s demands ever met.
The advent of democracy in 1999 was expected to bring about the desired change. Instead, the travails of university education multiplied. As more and more money was made from oil resources, identity politics and self-interest sidelined public interest, while endemic corruption put national development on hold. Infrastructure deteriorated, hitting the universities and prospective employers of labour harder than ever before. Astronomical increases in secondary school graduates created a glut in university admissions. High tuition fees in private schools drove millions of students to the public universities. As a result, more and more students were admitted without complementary increases in funding; staff recruitment; classroom space; library, lab and computer facilities; teaching aids; Internet connectivity; and e-learning resources.
As a result, Nigerian universities lost the competitive edge in the emerging knowledge economy because they could not keep pace with cutting edge research, effective teaching, and efficient graduate supervision. The government’s indigenisation policy prevented the recruitment of expatriate staff, while poor infrastructure and worsening national security severely disrupted exchange programmes with foreign institutions. Ultimately, half-baked graduates and doctoral students are being produced, and Nigerian universities lost their standing in the world rankings of universities.
These are the trends that ASUU has been seeking to reverse since 1978. Unfortunately, the democratic administrations have responded more or less like the military administrations before them. True, agreements and Memoranda of Understanding were signed, but they were hardly implemented. It has been a policy of give-or-promise-them-something so they may go back to work.
Yet, billions of naira are reportedly embezzled or otherwise mismanaged every month; billions are spent on presidential jets and their maintenance; legislators reportedly appropriated over N1trillion in jumbo pay within the last eight years alone; and trillions of Naira have been lost to pipeline vandalism and leakages within the NNPC. This past July alone, government revenues from oil fell by a whopping 42 per cent to N498 billion from N863 billion in June. The government blames the thieves and their foreign customers; but who will blame the government for negligence or for paying over N1trillion in misappropriated subsidy funds? The cumulative effects of this wastage and the concomitant neglect of higher education led the Nigerian elite to spend about $500 million annually to educate their children in European and American universities. This amount, according to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors, represents about 70 per cent of the total allocation to all federal universities in a given year.
Those who have blamed ASUU for the ongoing strike are either unaware of the history and wastage outlined above or chose to ignore them. It also appears that they are unaware of the nature of the 2009 agreement (a consolidation of previous unfulfilled agreements) and the 2012 Memorandum of Understanding that the Federal Government willingly signed with ASUU. Of the nine terms of the 2009 agreement, which included the injection of over N1trillion over four years to revitalise the university system, only two have been implemented to date, namely, the reinstatement of University Governing Councils in the Federal universities and the extension of retirement age for Professors to 70 years.
The sad irony about the Federal Government’s failure to implement the agreement came in 2012 when the report of its Committee on Needs Assessment of Nigerian Public Universities revealed gross infrastructural and manpower deficits as the bane of university education in the country.