Academics in Nigeria have gone on indefinite strike again, signposting breakdown of negotiation between its union and the Nigerian government over improved funding that could create what the academics have always called “first-rate higher educational institutions, especially universities”. By that, the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU) is taken to mean universities that register powerfully in global ranking exercises.
Although a university’s showing on the league table doesn’t say so much about it, global ranking of universities has emerged as a definitive fad in recent years. There are no less than about six platforms involved in the ranking business now, involving two different UK newspapers – The Times and The Guardian. The criteria in each case is slightly different but the QS ranking, now in its 14th edition, having been launched in 2004, presents snippets of what ASUU might have in mind by first-rate Nigerian universities, considering Nigeria’s aspirational claims.
In the 2018 QS World University Ranking released last June, for instance, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States maintained the first position for the sixth year running. It is followed by Stanford University which is on that position for the second year running, Harvard University which maintained the first position from the 2004/2005 edition till 2009 edition is now pushed to number three while California Institute of Technology, more popularly known as Caltech is number four from fifth position last year. All four are America universities. As if the university ranking exercise is a measure of national power in the modern age, the next four universities are all UK’s: Cambridge University on the fifth position, Oxford University in the sixth, University College London seventh and Imperial College London eight, all four from the UK. Ninth position went to the University of Chicago while Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, also known by its German name ETH came is tenth.
The above list is just the first ten. Over 900 other universities are involved, featuring heavies and tough US universities as Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, Pennsylvania, John Hopkins, University of California at Los Angeles and Berkeley, Duke University, the University of Michigan, among many others.
On the QS ranking are other tough universities (toughness measured by their course outlines/reading list, for example or investment and earnings from research) such as the University of Edinburgh, the University of Toronto, McGill University in Canada, the Australian National University, King’s College London, (another member of the University of London), the one from China that have made the top 25 in the current edition: Tsinghua University. Two other universities from China are strong: Peking and Fudan universities just as two universities from Singapore are bound to displace one or two members of the top Ten soon. These are the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University. The National University of Singapore, (NUS) was in the 22nd position in 2015, 12th in 2016 and 2017 before moving backwards to the 15th position in the current edition.
It is the impressive performance of such universities that makes ASUU’s argument valid because Singapore is just a city state. Although it is not a matter of physical size, world class universities are nothing new to Nigeria either. The battle the University of Ibadan waged on status quo Historiography and won is an epic battle. Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria created its own identity through radical scholarship. Many other Nigerian universities went far in many regards in those days. Today, however, almost none is mentioned in most of the rankings because it would only be a concession to do so based on what is on the ground. Nigeria has not positioned its universities to attract foreign students. That is one of the criteria used. Instead of doing that, they send their children to Ghana. There are very few peer reviewed journals with the stature to be cited outside. Meanwhile, citation is one of the criteria as well as staff/student ratio, all of which would continue to exclude Nigerian public universities. It is difficult to say anything about the private universities yet since some of them have institutional connections outside the country.
In declaring the current strike action, ASUU President, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, said the union had exhausted all avenues to get the government to implement the 2009 Federal Government of Nigeria – Academic Staff Union of Universities Agreement, hence “the total, comprehensive and indefinite strike action from Sunday, August 2017”
The question would be what the agreement is that it has never been successfully re-negotiated and implemented under every Nigerian president since the current phase of the history of ASUU struggle in the early 1990s? How is it possible for any national elite in today’s world to accept this ding-dong for two and half decades at a stretch and the associated level of destruction to its universities without doing something drastic by way of a special budgetary intervention?
ASUU argues for universities that “should, in the shortest time possible, be able to compete with the best in the world”, indicating how it has engaged Federal and state governments since the 1980s to reposition the universities effectively vis-a-vis delivering the mandate of knowledge following the mass departure of seasoned academics to Europe and American universities. It says Nigeria was at par with countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea at its independence in 1960 and that what made the difference was the strategic emphasis on education. They are correct on that as we just saw the Singaporean university on the league table. ASUU particularly spoke to the imperative of revitalising and accelerating the development of the university system if Nigeria is to become a leading economy in the world within a very short time. ASUU, however, claimed in a document that might have been overtaken by events now that “virtually, all the other components that are indispensable for repositioning the Nigerian universities so as to be internationally competitive were neglected”. It was referring to the 2009 Agreement which it said was an adequate framework for lifting the universities from intensive care unit of decay, decay attested to even the government through its own fact finding that was said to have horrified the Federal Executive Council, (FEC).
So, how might Nigeria not feel feel embarrassed about the quality of the universities? To put in another way, how come the first generation of leaders built world class universities only to be succeeded by a set that appears not to appreciate that without functional universities, talking about development is day dreaming?
Four perspectives came out as Intervention discussed this with three different analysts. One of the reasons for the mess is that majority of the parents are not conscious of what universities should do for their children. They are too satisfied that they have a child in the university. What sort of hostel the child lives or what is the nature of the environment and how transformed is the child in terms of critical thinking, they don’t ask. As such, they are only concerned that ASUU has gone on strike and it would delay the graduation of the child when, in fact, they should be the ones doing what ASUU is doing – asking the government to fulfil basic obligation of funding universities. So, the question of university education being the only gift that makes a child to stand on his or her own in life, not money, is lost in much of Nigeria. This, it is argued, is why they send their children to Ghana enmasse, not because they have found that the quality of education there is higher.
Same interviewee adds that as long as the business elements in Nigeria are speculators and merchants, the universities will never get the resources to develop from government. His point is that as long as that ‘class’ members have no industries on ground, they will not have anything to worry about the quality of graduates of Nigerian universities. For the clerks, cashiers and marketers they need for their service industries, they can get those cadres from the polytechnics and poorly trained graduates. So, they would not collectively call government to order because it is a class with nothing at stake. It is contrasted to the situation in industrial societies where any leader toying with the quality of university products will be mobilised against by the industrialists.
Second interviewee says the people in government in Nigeria are so scared of the penalties for any infractions on IMF’s Policy Support Instrument, (PSI) which is the framework underpinning its commitments to whatever is currently the name of Structural Adjustment Programme in Nigeria, (SAP). So, the IMF would say that to give ASUU so, so, so amount of money at a time would cause inflation and the government would change the story. And the ASUU Agreement would come to a standstill. So, it is not that the money is not there but the external power behind Abuja is too powerful. This, it is claimed, is the main reason every regime, since Babangida, has been acting the same towards ASUU requests. Third interviewee who has the advantage of government exposure confirms this, saying that, actually the NNPC, the NCC, PTDF and a few other such government departments could bring out the money ASUU is asking for, there are extra-Nigerian considerations.
It was added that unlike before when there were always certain quiet people in government whose interventions produced positive outcomes, there seem to be no such individuals anymore. But this source claimed the late Umaru Yar’Adua would have solved the problem because, according to him, he cut off formal protocols and had secret meeting with ASUU. “A lot of things happened after the meeting, I can tell you”.
Intervention did not speak with any ASUU leader on this issue but it is common knowledge that when the late Yar’Adua was once dragged to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria by the equally late MD Yusuf, the late president was so devastated by the degree of collapse that he reportedly changed his stance and became more concerned about solving the university crisis. What remains to be confirmed is which of the two events preceded the other although this source seems to have a fairly good recollection of the secret meeting between ASUU and the late president. He says the task of arranging the meeting had to be withdrawn from the governor originally assigned it because the unnamed governor was trying to suggest to him to deal with ASUU. The assignment was subsequently given to a family member who was named.
So, is Nigeria done for in terms of first – rate or world class universities? Hasn’t ASUU got any faults in all these? How and when would all these end? In part two of this special report, we would attempt to answer some of these questions.