Before we Forget the ASUU-FG Standoff: All Roads Still Lead through the Government

by | Dec 14, 2022 | Policy Blog Post | 0 comments

Adenike Aloba
Adenike Aloba, Dec 2022

In the midst of Nigeria’s many intrigues and the drama playing out on the political scene, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) eight-month-long strike action is a distant memory. However, history will repeat itself, and the signs are there already.

Nigeria’s higher education problems are multifaceted, and the solutions and choices are a complex mix. ASUU’s requests have been consistent;  the union asks the government to improve welfare for academics and provide better funding for tertiary institutions. The IPPIS/UTAS controversy is the most significant variation to their agreement. ASUU maintains that the federal government must pull out of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) and begin to use the University Transparency, Accountability Solution (UTAS) payment platform and the Federal Government (FG) disagrees. To support this cause, ASUU wielded it’s only weapon, strike actions..

Firstly, it is important for us to ensure we do not discount the impact of strike actions; they have been influential in past ASUU-FG deadlocks, and across the world, they have been used to significant effect, albeit with some drawbacks. Strikes are not a relic of the past either; as inflation and energy challenges rock countries of the world, strike actions have resurfaced. So ASUU going on strike is not the problem; the problem is that the strikes do not appear to have the desired effect, as evidenced by the number of days universities have been shut down in the last six years.

ASUUs reasons for a standoff with the government are not wrong in themselves, especially as the government is the primary funder of education in the country. All things considered, particularly reflecting on what political elites and corruption cost the country, one might even call it a righteous cause. Now righteous causes do not input righteousness on its champions, nor does it absolve them of the need to clean house. While ASUU and its members may not be completely innocent with several investigations exposing their maladies, it does not wholly disqualify them from demanding better from the government. 

The core of the many versions of these strikes, five in the last five years lasting between 5 weeks to nine months, is how to fund education sustainably. Many have posited that ASUU might be fighting the wrong battle and that it is unsustainable for the government to fund tertiary institutions. Some have said universities should be self-sufficient, funding their own growth and innovation. Others argue that ASUUs positioning is correct and privatisation of education will only deepen inequalities.

Who Can We Model After?

Across the world, especially in the global north, higher education institutions (HEI) use a combination of funding models. Although public funding has reduced to varying degrees across countries, public/government funding is still a significant chunk of HEI funding models, whether through federal aid, loans, or subsidies. Whatever model is adopted, national governments are still responsible for education worldwide, even if they don’t carry the entire burden of paying for it.

Public Financing/Government Funding

In Europe, many governments still subsidise education, and although there have been criticisms of the system, it has yet to change. European Universities fund these education subsidies with higher taxes, efficient systems and the judicious use of education funding. Among other things, governments must have the infrastructure to collect taxes effectively and efficiently. But that’s not all; they must also hold to the social contract to which both the government and its citizens have implicitly agreed which implies that they would utilise these funds effectively with no looming snake attacks. The Nigerian government is already looking to taxes, a dirty word to most Nigerians, to shore up its revenue holes and enable it to perform its responsibilities, including funding education. Aside from the fact that taxes will have to increase considerably, the government and its institutions, for whom the people have very low trust levels, must collect these taxes and use them accordingly. Again, the government and its functions are critical to making this work.

Raising Tuition Fees

Raising tuition fees is another mix in the models for funding higher education. Most people agree that tuition fees in Nigeria’s public institutions are low, but most will also agree that in a country of 133 million multidimensionally poor and widening wealth inequality, raising tuition fees will only widen the access to education gap between the 1% and the 99%. If tuition increments will be added to the mixed model of funding for Nigerian higher institutions, then broader socio-economic issues responsible for these gaps must be dealt with, and clear pathways that will not completely occlude access to education for the middle to lower income class must be designed. Now, who is responsible for the policies and actions that will improve socioeconomic indicators? Government.

Student Loans

Another funding source for higher education in developed countries are student loans. These are loans financed through the government or through banking systems with a statutory pay back time and sometimes, interest. In Nigeria, some questions must be answered before a loan system can be implemented. First, can the financial institutions, who themselves require subventions from governments to stay afloat carry the weight of tuition fee loans?  Can these institutions, which gave less than 1% of loans to SMEs in seven years, really offer loans to the over 700,000 students who gain admission into higher institutions each year?

Additionally, student loans often need to be guaranteed by a guarantor (typically the government). Is it the same government which takes up large percentages of banks loan portfolio that will guarantee student loans? And is it a fair risk to ask profit focused commercial banks to undertake such loans? Can you imagine a world where Nigeria’s budding online loan sharks are providing tuition loans? Everyone will get the now famous “text message of default” at least once daily.

Even if we assume all the questions above are answered in the affirmative; students are required to pay back their student loans. In the U.S., graduates have just about 6 to 9 months to settle down financially and select an appropriate payment plan to start repayment. This assumes that a graduate would have gotten a job and settled down well enough to begin to pay back student loans in less than a year. How feasible is this proposition in a country with an estimated unemployment rate of 33% and disparaging underemployment rates? We will need to create jobs faster than the current speed of “japa” in Nigeria today if any financial institution hopes to recoup those loans.

Whether the intervention is improving the business environment, strengthening the naira, reducing inflation, increasing exports, dealing with insecurity, or a combination of these, which most experts agree that Nigeria needs, the government is a vital fulcrum on which most of these actions are balanced.

Could Endowments Work?

Education endowments are excellent and appealing, but they assume that there are entities or institutions with the wherewithal, in goodwill and resources, to establish them. To be fair, several private organisations offer many scholarships directly to students. However, some have argued that investments in inane game shows and reality shows far outweigh the investments in education, especially by private organisations. The disparity in prize money between Cowbellpedia, Best Graduating Students of most public universities in Nigeria, and Big Brother Nigeria is the most paraded example of the imbalance. However, the argument is that it is simply a business decision; inanity sells, education does not.

Private wealth has also declined in the last ten years, which in Naija parlance means more and more Nigerians are falling into the “trenches”. Even with an abundance of goodwill, there’s less wealth with which to create long-standing educational endowments. A more conducive business environment might increase private wealth,  and dealing with the highlighted challenges will bolster purchasing power. Companies might worry less about their bottom lines and can then focus on investments with a more extended maturity period, like education. Once again a function of the government.

Conclusion

The basic explanations laid out here are not a postulation of some never-thought-of solution, nor is it about answering the question of who should fund education. Instead, the aspiration is to show that whatever side of the argument you’re on in the Nigerian Government-ASUU standoff, one thing is clear, there is no absolution of the government. No scenario exists in which significant responsibility does not fall on the government of the day.

This piece’s aspiration is that perhaps individuals who provide counsel to both sides, might consider in a different light, the responsibility of both government and the representatives of the managers of higher education in fostering education. That they might come up with a charter that both parties can not only agree to the letter and the spirit of but can live up to.

It may take time to develop the necessary language and nuance for this charter, but it may stave off tomorrow’s standoff and change the course of a future that now appears to be dead set on repeating history.

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Adenike Aloba is the Managing Editor and Program Director of Dataphyte

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Views expressed in this article are those of the author and not the position of the Academy or its other associates.

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