Saving South-East universities from imminent collapse

by Joel Nwokeoma

The lingering stand-off between the South-East governors and lecturers of the five state-owned universities in the region over the blatant refusal of the former to implement the agreement which was duly signed by the ASUU/FG negotiating team in October 2009 came to a head last Monday, September 7, when a peaceful protest of the aggrieved lecturers in Enugu was smashed by the police with dogs. That incident alone indicates, somewhat metaphorically, how the various state governments in the South-East perceive the protesting lecturers in particular, and university education in the region as a whole. The affected institutions include Abia State University, Uturu; Anambra State University, Uli; Ebonyi State University, Abakaliki; Enugu State University and Imo State University, Owerri.

A similar protest march by weary students union leaders drawn from the five institutions some weeks earlier in Awka, capital of Anambra State, ended up in a skirmish with anti-riot policemen and stern-looking security operatives.

The lecturers under the auspices of Academic Staff Union of Universities in the South East had embarked on an indefinite strike on Thursday, August 19, and vowed never to return to the classrooms unless the state governments commence full implementation of the signed ASUU/FG Agreement.

The Agreement outlined a negotiated minimum benchmark and standards for the university system in Nigeria which, ASUU said, must be met in order to keep the system internationally competitive. These standards, which are not just about emoluments, are in the funding of facilities for teaching and research, funding of post-graduate studies, upgrading of programmes and remediation of deficiencies. Others include collaborating with industries in the areas of research and development of technology and staff development. State governments that cannot fund their universities to meet the benchmark set up in the Agreement will find that they cannot survive in the system, ASUU stressed.

A communiqué issued by the lecturers, signed on their behalf by the ASUU chairmen in the five universities, lamented that, “It is most shameful that while other geopolitical zones are striving to make their universities excellent, state universities in the South-East are being debased, bastardized and further relegated by narrow ethnic and clannish sentiments.”

The aggrieved lecturers were unequivocal that they had no issues with their respective university managements but that their grievances were premised on the unwillingness of the state governments of the affected institutions to implement a binding mutual agreement.

Interestingly, the governors who are in the eye of the raging storm seemed unperturbed by the position of the unyielding lecturers whom they accused of having “failed to consider the peculiar circumstances of individual states”, whatever that means.

In a communiqué released after a meeting of the Governors’ Forum in Enugu on August 22, the governors exhibited uncommon bellicosity by declaring the zonal union of ASUU as “illegal”, as if its own umbrella body, the South-East Governors’ Forum, is even known and recognised by any law in the country. Worst still, they maintained, and wrongly too, that the agreement between ASUU and the Federal Government “was not binding on state and private universities.”

There is, however, nothing that can be as further from the truth as this claim given that the same governors complied with a subsisting agreement signed in 2008 between the Nigerian Union of Teachers and the FG on a 27.5 per cent salary increase for teachers in the country. Why, one may ask, did they not object to its implementation on the grounds that it was not “binding” on them? Or, when did they suddenly wake up to discriminating against agreements signed between national professional groups and the federal government?

Besides, this flies in the face of ASUU’s position that “there would be no multiplicity of academic standards in the country” because, as ASUU President, Prof Ukachukwu Awuzie, noted, “Nigerian universities cannot be divided into low and higher institutions in the same structure. There should be just one system with one set of minimum standard.” The question that naturally flows from this is: Do the South-East governors want a different system and standard for universities in their states?

The consequences of this needless altercation, obviously sustained by the intransigence of the governors, are both dire and dreadful. Sadly, while it lasts, the students are at the receiving end of what has become another manifestation of poor governance in the region. At the last count, 10 unfortunate students of Anambra State University have been reported dead while traversing from their homes to the campus to ascertain the state of the industrial dispute. This is not even mentioning the anguish of guardians and parents who watch helplessly as the academic careers of their wards and children are being jeopardised.

Another effect of the closure of the universities is that the final year students as well as the law students among them who should have been mobilised for the compulsory National Youth Service Corps scheme and law school respectively will inevitably miss out. This is not saying anything about the dire security implications of having idle and disillusioned students alongside a huge unemployed youth population loitering about in a kidnapping-ridden region especially in the run-up to the forthcoming general elections.

What appears difficult to understand is how it is only the South-East governors, a region which tends to regard education as its main industry, that are constrained in the implementation of the 2009 agreement at a time other state governors, even in regions regarded as educationally disadvantaged, do not see any qualms in doing so. Besides, how come the governors are ever willing to plead with the striking lecturers to “consider the peculiar conditions” of the zone when they themselves have shown little or no considerations at all in their abrasive show of affluence and flamboyance in power?

Suffice it to say that the South-East governors have no reason whatsoever to justify their refusal to implement the agreement if they get their priorities right. What is the sense in attempting to build a model state, as many of them claim, in an environment of palpable ignorance? Which country or state successfully developed while sidelining qualitative university education as the governors are doing? And, for a region that blazed the trail in setting up the first regional university in Nsukka in 1960, this is most unfortunate.

What makes their posture the more tragic is that they have similarly failed to confront anything of note in their respective states for the improvement of the lives of their citizens. You may recall that they had to run to Abuja seeking for federal assistance to deal with the security challenges that bedevilled the region recently claiming they were ill-prepared to do so. Now, if they cannot provide security, by confronting criminals and kidnappers that have turned their states into their haven, as they themselves admitted, cannot provide jobs for their teeming unemployed population, and have also failed to improve the state of infrastructure as well as perform such routine tasks as payment of staff salaries, what do these governors do with the huge resources at their disposal?

Apparently, the crisis of development that has engulfed the South-Eastern part of Nigeria in the last decade is hinged on the poor governance evident in the region. This is exacerbated by an anti-intellectual posture by the leadership that sees education as an expendable commodity, and not as a vehicle for development and social transformation. This is the case because the wrong people are thrown up for leadership positions owing to an atrocious electora

l process that does not express the wishes of the electorate.

The governors obviously owe their people the duty of saving university education in their states from imminent collapse by discarding their unhelpful hardline posture in the implementation of the agreement for better funding of their universities. It is shameful that while a State like Gombe is building a brand new ultra-modern university, Igbo governors can’t even fund those established for them. Their bogus security votes, for one, can be utilised to fund these universities. They should as well explore cutting down the high cost of governance, plug the leakages and waste in their governments to free money for education. Education cannot wait while politicians are having a field day.

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