ASUU Is A Problem Of The Nigerian University System By Moses. E. Ochonu Nigerians do not like the truth; they prefer self-comforting narratives. Since doing a short update on the just-declared ASUU strike yesterday, many who are suckers for ASUU’s propaganda have continued to spew the predictable ASUU talking points without much critical reflection on them. My American hosts say that the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. That is what ASUU has been doing in the last 15 years or thereabouts. The golden age of the ASUU struggle ended about 20 years ago. For the past fifteen years or so, the union has been struggling to redefine itself and find a new identity but has ended up simply reinventing the proverbial wheel even when the challenges of today’s university system call for a different toolkit than periodic strikes that worked in the 1980s and 1990s but that are increasingly less productive and are even counterproductive. Here are the problems with ASUU’s lazy, unimaginative resort to strikes every five years.

The current strike is not about a plan by the federal government to introduce fees and student loans. That is just ASUU propaganda, designed to curry sympathy with parents, students, and the general public. If you believe it, you’ll believe anything. The strike, of which ASUU has been warning for at least a year, is about the government’s non-implementation of the revised 2009 agreement — revised because it was renegotiated in 2013 after a prolonged strike. But as with other recent strikes, ASUU leaders said that they’re on strike because of “poor funding,” a vague, misleading, recurring, and overused propaganda in ASUU’s rhetorical repertoire. Much of what they’re fighting for are actually their own benefits (nothing wrong with that, but why not be honest about it?).

But realizing that a public skeptical of their struggle will not support the strike if it is couched strictly in terms of their earlier agreement with the Federal Government or in terms of earned but unpaid allowances, ASUU leaders recycled, as they’ve always done, the hackneyed narrative of poor funding. For additional emotional appeal, they decided to highlight an old, largely discredited federal government proposal — a mere proposal — about the introduction of tuition fees and the establishment of education banks.

ASUU Strikes have become counterproductive in several ways. The government usually waits it out until ASUU is desperate for a deal — any deal — because of financial hardship occasioned by several months of its members going unpaid, and because of pressure from parents and students, who, in recent years, have turned decisively against ASUU, influencing public opinion that now sees ASUU honchos as selfish, money-grabbing activists who do not have the interest of students at heart. Whether this is fair to ASUU or not is not the point. The point, rather, is that a wise, self-reflective, and self-critical body of activists tries not to overplay its hand or lose the support of its constituency or the public. A wise trade or professional union knows when to fight and when not to, and knows when a particular method of struggle has exhausted its effectiveness, its lifespan, and has begun to yield diminishing returns. ASUU’s laziness prevents it from making this realization. As things stand, the government has mastered the game, playing ASUU leaders like a set of drums.

But ASUU leaders are willing participants in the theatre. ASUU people themselves are complicit in the cyclical ritual of strikes, negotiations, agreements, and more strikes. They always willfully enter into agreements that are dubious. The agreements are fantastical, aspirational promissory notes that the federal government cannot realistically deliver because the only way it can do so is either for political office holders to give up their perks or abandon their own political promises and patronage networks and channel the resources previously dedicated to those endeavors to ASUU. That would be political suicide, which political leaders and appointees will not commit. Federal government negotiators know this, as does ASUU. Thus, these agreements and the negotiations that precede them are choreographed rituals meant largely to save face for both sides and to dignify what essentially is a bribe in the form of paid backlogs of “earned allowances” and an agreement to buy another five or so years before resuming the charade once again.

The agreements have thus become little more than documentary testaments to ASUU’s periodic egotistical efforts to reassert its visibility, importance, and ability to flex its power by shutting down universities. That’s why they produce less and less results. Speaking of diminishing returns, apart from the payment of salary backlogs and earned allowances as well as “agreements” on old and new promises — promises that are at best half-fulfilled — what positive outcome have these recent strikes yielded? I use “recent” advisedly because in the early days of ASUU strikes were an effective and hugely successful mechanism for bringing attention and funding to the many problems of the university system.

ASUU’s initial struggle was successful. The system had collapsed and needed to be resuscitated. ASUU strikes in the 1990s, which I fully supported as an undergraduate, succeeded in raising salaries and allowances and attracting massive funding to universities. Today, TETFUND is awash in billions of naira that it disburses to universities for capital projects — the building of lecture halls, labs, hostels, offices, and other physical structures. These are the fruits of ASUU’s initial struggles. From not earning enough to take them home, lecturers began to earn comfortable middleclass salaries. Much of that early gain and the subsequent increases in salaries and allowances in the 2000s consolidated university lectures in the Nigerian Middle Class. I recall seeing bankers, civil servants, and parastatal workers resign to take up appointments with universities in the 2000s. I personally know a couple of people who did so. Part of the attraction was that university lecturers began to out-earn many workers with equivalent degrees and experiences in the public and private sectors.

Inflation may have eroded some of those gains, but the Nigerian lecturer still earns more than civil servants. The starting pay of a lecturer is significantly higher than that of a civil servant. Some professors earn as much as N500,000 monthly, and some teach at multiple institutions and earn twice or trice that. An undergraduate classmate of mine who has served in one of the paramilitary organs of the Nigerian state and has risen through the ranks is contemplating quitting to go into academia after earning a PhD. Why? He would be better paid and he would be better fulfilled, he said.

The point here is that Nigerian lecturers are not poorly paid, certainly not as poorly paid as they want Nigerians to believe. At any rate, since when is the academy a place to get paid? People get into academia for the love of ideas, to live the life of the mind. They don’t go into it to make money. If money is your motivation, you should go to the private sector, run for office in Nigeria, or become a corrupt bureaucrat. You cannot function in the academy, with all its epistemological benefits, and then envy or use corrupt or non-corrupt people in lucrative sectors as references for your own aspirations. I routinely teach undergraduates whose starting salaries eclipse mine. One of the students went to work for Google and her pay package dwarfed mine. Another went on to law school and thereafter got a job with a law firm in Washington DC that paid him more than I earned. This is normal. It’s not just in Nigeria that academics are paid less than people with equivalent pedigrees in non-academic workplaces. Academia has many non-monetary rewards, including flexibility and fulfilment. That makes up for any monetary deficits.

So many strikes have occurred in the last 15 years or so that no one who attended a public university in this period can say they were not affected by at least one. And yet, the fundamental problems of universities — poor instruction, poor research, poor supervision and mentorship, ethical violations, sexual harassment and exploitation of students, and poor intellectual life — have persisted and worsened, discrediting the wisdom and logic of strikes as effective weapons for improving the quality of higher education. Academic standards have fallen drastically even as more money poured into universities for infrastructure and as lecturers and non-academic staff salaries and allowances increased. Nigerian academics have become less internationally competitive, and their products, the students they teach and graduate, have become more shortchanged and less educated, never mind the fact that the number of first class degrees has risen (story for another update). In some ways, then, it seems as though ASUU and the university system became victims of the union’s early success.

This negative correlation between improved funding and deteriorating standards is worrisome but hardly surprising. This is because as ASUU struggled to get the government to invest more in infrastructure and compensation, the body never asked anything of itself, of its members. All this while, even as TETFUND and other intervention agencies emerged to fund higher education, lecturers remained unaccountable and thus they remained stagnant in their craft and even regressed. They didn’t have to give anything or improve their attitude, mindset, or approach to their jobs in return for all the gains and benefits they reaped from their struggle.

As a result, poor teaching continued; lecturers continued to skip classes even as their personal economies significantly improved and some of them even became caught up in extracurricular pecuniary and career pursuits outside the university; poor or non-existent supervision and mentorship of postgraduate students continued; lecturers continued to teach from outdated, dog-eared lecture notes from the 1970s; lecturers continued to publish poorly researched papers or not to publish at all; lecturers, in fact, began to game the new NUC publications metrics by patronizing pay-to-publish predatory journals in India and Pakistan, and by self-publishing, and by publishing in incestuous venues such as departmental journals, making mockery of the academic research process; sexual harassment of students continued; monetary demands on students continued; and more catastrophically, plagiarism became the unspoken norm among Nigerian academics.

Improved access to online journals and resources, enabled in part by increased funding of universities (the very thing they claimed to desire and which ostensibly their struggle was about), ironically made lecturers lazy, causing them to simply copy or reproduce without attribution, steal and pass off entire works, or unethically appropriate works published by others elsewhere. If plagiarism has surged among undergraduate and graduate students, it is because their lecturers themselves either do not know the ethos of academic citation and plagiarism avoidance or are too lazy to care. In this way, bad habits are transmitted from teachers to students, perpetuating a cycle of poor ethics and academic fraud.

As infrastructure and compensation improved in Nigerian universities, Vice Chancellors transformed into tin-gods requiring adulation, submission, and absolute loyalty rather than acting as catalysts for academic agendas and reform. VCs, with the active connivance of university boards, became contractors and receivers of kickbacks on contracts, hence the obsession with building physical structures, leading to the neglect of academic and research standards. Buoyed by power and the control of ever-growing federal monetary allocations, Vice Chancellors could distribute patronage and largesse as they wished. More distressingly, VCs, like political leaders in the larger governmental system, realized that they could give out jobs and began to recruit incompetent, unqualified people who had no business in the academy, into lecturing positions. Today’s poor graduates are partly attributable to the influx of these incompetent recruits into the academy. You cannot impart what you yourself do not know. To obtain anything based on scholarly productivity and commitment to pedagogy and research became impossible. Only those who sucked up to VCs were rewarded. Merit, hard work, and ethical discipline left the space of the university, replaced by a crass politics of patronage that mirrored the messy, corrupt politics of the larger Nigerian political arena.

I reiterate: all these occurred in the context of much improved conditions — what one might describe as ASUU’s earlier success. The irony is that this success has led to a fixation on the erroneous notion that the problem of university education in Nigeria centers on infrastructure funding and improvement to salaries and allowances, even though universities are not about physical buildings but rather about what goes on in those buildings and in the minds of students and academics.

The corollary of this obsession with building grandiose physical structures is a neglect of the aforementioned problems that have a direct bearing on academic standards. Which is why we’re producing poorer and poorer graduates even as universities are building fancier and fancier structures on their campuses. I should know about the degeneration in standards because I have first class degree holders and even some academics writing to me for one reason or the other or sharing their work with me, and I’ve noticed that their works are poorly conceived, error-ridden, poorly researched, and poorly-written. Some in the humanities and qualitative social sciences cannot even string grammatically correct sentences together and have no basic understanding of research or analysis.

Today, when we say a VC’s tenure was a success or such and such was a successful VC, we’re talking about how many physical structures were built during their time. We’re not talking about how he or she improved the quality and quantity of research output, or how they improved teaching standards, or how they created a vibrant intellectual culture devoid of ethical abuses, or how they helped produce graduates who are internationally competitive, are self-motivated, and are intellectually curious.

Herein lies the problem. ASUU’s initial success ironically killed whatever was left of research culture or spirit of critical inquiry in Nigerian universities. Today, as we speak, TETFUND has N3 billion naira in research funds that have not been accessed. In a story published in Guardian newspaper on February 14, 2018 titled, “TETfund’s N3 Billion Research Funds Yet to be Accessed, Says NUC,” the university regulatory agency lamented that the funds were sitting idle because Nigerian academics had not applied for research funds or because the proposals they submitted were too poor to be funded.

Take some time to digest this irony. At a time when ASUU is ostensibly fighting for “better funding” of universities, TETFUND is complaining that academics are not applying for this pool of research money that was created partly in response to their perennial demand for funding. Is it that the Nigerian academics are not aware of this fund? No. They know about it, but they’re too lazy to craft a compelling research proposal let alone follow through with a rigorous research agenda that such research awards require.

It’s not entirely the academics’ fault; the current ASUU-enabled system does not require them to be innovative researchers. They can survive in the system by being mediocre. They’re content with getting by with writing mediocre, derivative papers that do not require actual research but are adequate to get them promoted to the next rank. They can build “successful” academic careers and rise to become professors without winning research grants or conducting serious, original research.

Then when they become professors, they stop performing academic duties, conducting research, teaching, or mentoring altogether and start seeking opportunities for wealth accumulation or status enhancement outside the academy.

Research culture is dead in Nigerian universities, and it is not because of inadequate funding, as the unaccessed N3 billion TETFUND research fund and the existence of other intervention funds demonstrate. Rather, it is ironically because lecturers are not required by ASUU-FG agreements to satisfy a rigorous research or teaching requirement for promotion, and because their salaries and allowances are not tied to their teaching or research efficacy but are instead determined by the periodic strikes of ASUU and the salary structures that result from them.

If lecturer A, who is hard working, fecund, and prolific earns the same ASUU/FG-stipulated salary as the incompetent, lazy, and unproductive lecturer B who is on the same rank as him, what is the incentive for lecturer A to continue to sustain or increase his research and teaching excellence or for lecturer B to try to become like lecturer A? How can a 21st century university system not at least implement a system of merit pay beyond or in addition to set base pay to incentivize and reward research and teaching excellence? Broach this simple, commonsensical idea and face the wrath of ASUU.

From successfully fighting for improvements to university education in the 1980s and 1990s, ASUU has become an underwriter, protector, catalyst, and incubator of mediocrity in the Nigerian university system. ASUU has become part of the problem.

Professor Ochonu can be reached at [email protected]