In this interview with GRACE EDEMA, a professor of English at Rutgers University, New Jersey, United States, Olabode Ibironke, says the Nigerian government’s non-responsiveness to the Academic Staff Union of University’s strike is a dictatorial trait
Are strikes in universities a Nigerian thing alone? What are universities abroad doing differently?
There are strikes, but not on a national scale. In the past month, there have been strikes at Eastern Michigan and American University, Washington DC. The structure in the United States is significantly decentralised. Over-centralisation is the residual result of our history of dictatorships, military and civilian and it fosters a top-down dictatorial culture in governance. Its rigidity creates the potential for constant tension and disruptions. In the case of the US, which is not the best model for public universities, federal and state appropriations fund higher education in addition to tuition and fees, grants, endowments, etc. Private universities also receive government subvention in varying forms and degrees. While in decline, government support constitutes a significant percentage of public universities’ overall revenue source. Once the government sets its budget, negotiations about its implications for the universities occur at the level of the university administration. The government is not in charge of direct talks, nor does it oversee university governance. Where there are unions, university administration and the unions all invested in the education system by virtue of drawing pay cheques from it, and with professional expertise as lifelong educators, are the ones who engage in these discussions. They enter these conversations with the requisite knowledge and full awareness of the stakes.
Urban Institute review reported about 700 teacher strikes in the United States between 2007 and 2019. I participated in pickets as a graduate student. Canada is also experiencing more strikes at some of its universities. The danger of direct negotiations with the government is that political considerations and tactics always come into play and make matters more difficult to resolve. The autonomy of the universities is thus critical to the stability of higher education. We fought hard for our lives not to be directed from London and Paris. The new frontier of decolonisation is for our lives not to be dictated by Abuja or any other capital city, for that matter.
ASUU has been on strike for six months now; what advice do you have for the government in putting an end to strikes in the university system?
I have seen statistics showing that within the last two decades, since the inauguration of the Fourth Republic in 1999, 1,297 days have been lost to strikes. That is about four solid years of lost productivity. The cost-benefit analysis should tell you that years of lost productivity dwarf whatever increment or funding package the government is unwilling to approve. And this is not just ASUU. Sectors of the professional class, the judiciary, and doctors have all been on strike. It is proof that the baseline of our economy is not, strictly speaking, about productivity. The problem with extractive economies is the destruction of productive capacities.
That there have been as many strikes as during military dictatorship proves that we are still in a dictatorship. The President’s distinctive facial expression is that of contempt and impassivity. Being non-responsive to the public is a dictatorial trait. The ‘Oga mentality’ that government ministers display during these negotiations suggests these deadlocks are a test of wills. Voting, protests, and unionisation of workers are equally expressions of democratic culture. Unions are not opposition parties.
What have the ministers of education and labour got to do with negotiating pay raises on behalf of the government without the input of an independent budget office like the Congressional Budget Office that can produce independent, nonpartisan scoring of ASUU’s economic demands and budgetary plans? There is no central command or clearing house overseeing all government expenditures that can provide input and analysis.
I have seen many analyses suggesting raises in tuition as an alternative to government subvention. That would create a society in which only the rich would be able to afford a university education. We are at that stage where government investment in education is pivotal. If the government succeeds in punitively implementing its no-work no-pay policy, it will de-professionalise the professoriate. Professors have no choice but to take up side hustles to pay debts accumulated during the strike. That will further distract and devalue university education. How is that a victory for the government?
What’s your advice to Nigerian lecturers?
ASUU has chosen to negotiate with a lame-duck government. I fear we may not see a resolution to this deadlock until after the next election. The biggest problem confronting ASUU is the de-professionalism of teaching. Many in its ranks took up the job primarily as a livelihood. They now must re-discover the love for knowledge. In addition to the impact one has on the development of young people and society at large, this makes teaching and research worthwhile.
The National Association of Nigerian Students is now a gathering of student politicians who do not consider excellence when choosing their leaders. What’s the implication of choosing mediocre leaders at the helm of affairs of NANS?
The university is the centre of excellence. If products of the university no longer radiate excellence, or are not at their best, that indicates the university education has lost its justification for existence.
The mediocrity of students’ union leadership is a symptom of a more significant problem with the quality of education. It also demonstrates the damage wrought on society by the political class. Nigerian politicians, as public servants, are now the nouveau riche and model of success. Because they are both incompetent and powerful, they present a harmful alternative to the very training in excellence that the university offers young people. Interviews by the students’ national leader make one cringe. It is tragically comical but it is the true reflection of the current state of our society and the immediate future of our political leadership itself.
A lot of Nigerians are traveling to foreign universities for education; what should stakeholders in the system do to make the country’s educational system more competitive and make them stay here to study?
When Sankore University in Timbuktu became the centre of learning for the old sub-Saharan, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern world, it did so through the reputation of its scholars such as Ahmad Bābā. The reputation is the currency of academic scholarship. Intellectual exchange and the dissemination of knowledge is a fundamentally international activity. The country’s educational system must be brought up to international standards to attract scholars from around the world for short and long-term visits.
We focus a lot on the university system, but not the support institutions such as the archives, the foundations that provide research support, and professional associations. These ancillary institutions, essential to higher education, must also be developed to enhance the work and status of our universities.
What’s wrong with the Nigerian educational system?
Education is the first line of human development expected to propel other forms of development. As you know, the Boko Haram problem began as a direct challenge to the kind of education our universities represent. So, a section of our political leadership does not believe in education and cares less about funding it.
What we are providing now is mass education. The federal universities that used to be highly selective are now instruments of mass instruction. You have this elsewhere as well; higher education should instil the love of learning, and not be a mere press for minting degrees and certificates that do not correlate with tangible skills and know-how. In other words, education in the country has little or no practical utility. There are a few industries or leadership and entrepreneurial opportunities for these graduates.
Briefly highlight the way out of these challenges.
Big problems always necessitate a return to the basics. We open the path to solutions by re-engaging the fundamental or first principles. Confronted with the challenges posed by the demands of the industrial revolution for skilled labour and an anti-intellectual American culture, former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln signed the land-grant legislation that gave public universities federal land for sustainable revenue. It was the equivalent of granting universities oil blocs.
Our universities were created to decolonise public service, produce workers that would take over from the colonisers, and advance the march toward modernisation. We must reconnect our universities with the goal of modernising our society as a starting point for renewing their mission. Investing 5 per cent of our GDP, much below the UN recommendation of 20 per cent, is by no means close to the Lincoln model for a society at the cusp of industrialisation. Increased investment in education is not only a way out of the educational challenges but could also be the way out of banditry, terrorism and food insecurity.
How will you describe Nigeria’s contribution to research?
I am a bibliographic editor for the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, and even at its lowest ebb, Nigeria is dominant, in sheer volume, in the bibliographic entries. Given the right environment, Nigeria can and should anchor regional centres for academic programmes.
What should they do uniquely?
Nigeria should be to Sub-Saharan Africa what the United States is to the western world. It should be a leader in research, innovation and culture. That is already happening in the realm of culture. It makes little sense that Europe and the United States are leading in tropical medicine and neglected tropical diseases. These diseases are neglected because they primarily affect low-income populations, and are prevalent in tropical areas that no longer study them. They are increasingly of limited interest to students of infectious diseases in the West and are among the first to be cut as budgets tighten. Ironically, the West is also the major sponsor of much research into our indigenous languages and cultures.