By Ikechukwu Odigbo
I work in a private university in Nigeria. From a business point of view, we enjoy it when public schools are on strike. Don’t’ get me wrong. The reason is simple. The more public institutions are unstable, the more parents and students look in our direction for the hope of at least a stable academic calendar. But of course we should all know that public tertiary institutions in Nigeria should not be run the way they are in the 21st century.
Unless something radical happens, which I will outline shortly, public universities will continue to strike because the reasons for the strikes are not even within the government’s power to solve under the circumstance. Therefore, the government cannot solve it, even if it wishes to. You can point at funding, but also in the direction of the revolution in global education sector.
By the same token and for the same reason, the public universities will win the fight in the long run. And what I mean is the fight over the soul of Nigerians who desire quality and sustainable education. The private universities are bringing on board values and strategies that the public universities are not in a position to give like low student-teacher ratio, improved students satisfaction level, modern furnished classrooms, hostels and labs, technology-driven learning, entrepreneurship, innovation etc. This is why I think we in the private university system will win.
But let me quickly put all these in context. The government understands that the education of its citizens is a public good, comparable to roads, security and hospitals. Good enough. So, the government wishes to make education free. Or almost free as it stands today. Parents and guardians of course know that what they pay as tuition fees cannot cover their child’s education in the tertiary institutions. It is not a matter of whether the government wishes to make good education entirely free or subsidized. What matters is whether it can afford to.
Free education for citizens entails that government has the responsibility to build infrastructure, maintain same, pay good wages, fund research, provide teaching and learning facilities etc. If you understand the number of federal and state universities, added to polytechnics and colleges of education, including research institutes littered all over Nigeria, you will see the prohibitive burden the government has taken upon itself unnecessarily.
Already they are having a whole lot of headache meeting the challenge of paying salaries, arguably the lightest of the problems. The federal government devices the integrated payroll system to checkmate the menace of ghost workers and further bloating of the pay-check of tertiary institutions. Sadly, such centralized system of administration means that universities for instance cannot recruit according to peculiar institutional manpower needs. The government wants to save money and reduce spending by all means.
But then, what is the meaning of university autonomy that is being vaunted all over the place, if Vice-Chancellors or University Management cannot hire needed manpower. Today, Nigeria has about the worst student-teacher ratio in the world and of course one of the lowest in remuneration indices. As stated earlier, payment of salaries is the least of the problems facing tertiary education in Nigeria which they are unable to meet at competitive and timely levels. But if they cannot pay salaries as they ought, how then can they carry the more difficult tasks.
Which brings us back to the problem of funding. Why should the government take upon itself the difficult task of free education of its citizens especially at the university levels if it cannot afford it. This is why ASUU is always striking and both the nation, the students and the parents are worse off for it. The ASUU claims the government does not keep its side of the bargain. But can government in reality keep their promise? The minister might just be lobbying to get ASUU back to the class in the meantime thereby postponing the evil day.
The truth is that the government is overburdened and cannot muster to pay improved teachers’ emolument according to the standards demanded by them; or meet other contractual agreements or expectations such as improving the working or living conditions of most universities. Teachers could point to and compare their fate with the luxurious living standards of politicians in general or the National Assembly members in particular. But that’s where it ends. A professor in Nigeria would never be able to earn like a member of the National Assembly or even like a professor in South Africa, if everything remains as it is.
It is easy to guess from the foregoing what my conclusion will be. ASUU should know that Nigeria’s economy, or the education sector as currently designed, cannot carry the upward review of salaries or improvement in the working conditions being demanded by them. The reason is simple: over-dependence on government funds. The load is currently unbearable. The solution might lie in the privatization of tertiary education.
Consider for instance that most tertiary education institutions are understaffed. If we want to meet the ideal global student-teacher ratio or the ideal teaching and non-teaching staff mix, it would mean the recruitment of almost an equal number of teaching and non-teaching staff into the tertiary education institutions. That will mean asking the federal government (and state governments) to double its pay-check when it is struggling with meeting half of this responsibility as it is today.
But should universities be allowed to become truly autonomous, that is, to have the responsibility to break-even or close-shop if they cannot, only then will tertiary education in Nigeria become qualitative and sustainable. If a Vice-Chancellor’s interview includes plans for funding sustainability, many things will change. Which is why I argued that the private universities will eventually win the battle because they are already facing today what the federal and state university will inevitably face tomorrow.
Deregulating Nigerian universities will see more funds flowing into the university system through better priced tuition fees, private sector investments, more efficient facilities management, profitable research, innovation etc. Many private universities in Nigeria are currently groaning simply because the government subsidizes education as public good. But as we can see they are not succeeding. It is not sustainable. Therefore, the sustainable solution is to liberalize tertiary education or at least increase fees to meaningful levels and then grant full autonomy to government universities. Only when this happens can incessant ASUU strikes end. We would then have saved Nigerian tertiary education from incessant ASUU strike and avoidable interruption. Check out the cost of education in the UK or the US and you see that quality education doesn’t come cheap anywhere in the world.
Dr. Ike Odigbo writes from Coal City University, Enugu (firstname.lastname@example.org)