A country rich in industrial action, but poor in solutions

by | September 28, 2017 12:50 am

In what has become a reoccurring ritual in Nigeria, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) just called off their strike action that lasted for a little over four weeks. Before the ASUU strike was over, the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), in what looked like a choreography, declared their intention to embark on theirs. At times, it appears that the successful negotiation of one group fuels the action of the others to request for what is rightfully theirs. Whilst most bona fide strike actions are about unfair treatment by the employer or against terrible working conditions, a settlement that includes concessions on both sides is usually reached, which invariably amounts to sheathing the sword to fight another day.

Although, the quest for improved working conditions by ASUU has been on for almost three decades, yet, we are not any closer to a lasting solution than the day the first ever strike action was called. Whilst I have utmost respect for those in the academia and the sacrifices they make, I’m usually amused when I hear of a call for another industrial action. My amusement is borne out of the assumption that the universities should be our knowledge repository, and if they have been encountering a particular problem for almost 30 years, then they have had more than enough time to devise a workable solution.

Truth be told, good education is very expensive, more so at the tertiary level, and the government of Nigeria alone cannot fund it. This is compounded by the fact that many of the people in government clearly don’t see education as a priority sector as most of them do not have any stake in it. We often see the photo-ops when their wards graduate from some of the best schools around the world, so it will only be foolhardy to leave these same people to proffer solutions to this problem, it just won’t happen.

To find a solution to this problem, I think it is important to examine the role universities should play in the society. I’m of the opinion that universities should generate both public and private goods. Whereas, the public should reap to the extent that university education generates new knowledge and produces research leading to new commercial, social, and technological innovations that will enhance national development, private individuals, on the other hand, should benefit from the skills they bring to the table after a university education which enables them secure better-paying jobs. Therefore, if university education produces value to both the public and individuals, it is only rational that both parties be responsible, directly or indirectly, for funding higher education. This happens in countries with good quality education.

In Nigerian institutions, however, not much new knowledge of commercial value is generated, and it is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to even pass on the existing knowledge. This has led to a new crop of graduates that contribute little or nothing to Nigeria’s economic advancement. We have always held the government responsible for this rot due to underfunding, but since the government isn’t about to change overnight and will everything in its fiscus to education, what is the way out? I’m of the opinion that the universities should negotiate real contemporary autonomy with the government, where the schools are responsible for what to teach, who to teach and how to teach. This should also include financial autonomy, whereby the funding from the government will be treated as just one of the many sources of funding for the institutions, and the institutions will be responsible for generating the shortfall. 

A good template to try emulating is that of the United States of America, but tweaked to accommodate our own peculiar circumstances. The states in the US are responsible for public education, supported by grants from the federal government. A look at the University of Texas System (UTS) shows an interesting revenue structure. The UTS supports the activities of 14 institutions under the University of Texas brand that comprises 8 academic institutions and 6 medical schools. There are 30 other public universities in the state of Texas. In 2017, the UTS approved an operating budget of $17.9bn (N6.44trn at N360 to USD exchange rate, that’s 88.2% of our 2017 federal government budget). Tuition accounted for 9.3% of the budget, with state funding accounting for only 12.7%. The largest share of their revenue, 42%, is expected from their hospitals, clinics and professional services.  The remaining 36% is funded by grants, endowments and research contracts with businesses.

I don’t see any reason why tuition can’t contribute 10% to our universities’ operating budgets, and the current government contribution is already way above 12.7%. The problem with our institutions is the lack of commercial and research activities that can be of interest to our businesses. Our universities ought to lead the country’s knowledge industry and make themselves relevant rather than continuing with a welfare model that’s clearly not sustainable. Solving the university cost-sharing model problem will automatically resolve the NARD conditions of service issues as the teaching hospitals are also part of the university fabric. Enough of doing things the same way and hoping for a different result.

Olugbenga A. Olufeagba