The Federal Government is said to be weighing different options on how to permanently put an end to the incessant strikes in public universities in Nigeria, Nigerian Tribune has gathered.
One of the options is to ensure that the federal universities operate at a full autonomy, whereby the institutions are allowed to charge tuition fees that would be sufficient for the training of each student in a particular programme with the governing council of each institution taking firm control and ensuring smooth running of the universities.
The source, a top official of the Federal Ministry of Education, who confided in Nigerian Tribune, however, said he did not want his name in the print because he was not in the position to speak on the issue.
Members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) had embarked on a four-week warning strike on February 14 and on March 14, the union extended the industrial action by another two months to allow the Federal Government meet all of its demands.
Explaining further on the options being weighed by the Federal Government, the source said the government is also considering changing the nomenclature of the Federal Scholarship Board to Federal Students Loan Board.
The source said, “This will bridge the gap in the introduction of tuition fees by the universities. Poor students who cannot afford school fees could apply for this student loan and pay back when he or she begins work upon graduation.
“With this, the Federal Government will be freed from huge wage bills running into billions of naira. Education is capital-intensive and requires cost-sharing. Therefore, ASUU and other staff unions will under this arrangement discuss with their employers, in this case, the governing councils.
“Government has come to a realisation that there is no point in lecturers abandoning their responsibilities of teaching students in the schools and all the time coming to Abuja for negotiation on issues that could be effectively handled by the councils.
“You are also aware that SSANU, NASU are also on strike. Once ASUU goes on strike, all other staff unions would join. What about the state-owned universities? They go merely on solidarity strike because most of the issues canvassed by the ASUU have no bearing on them. So, it is better this is permanently resolved. Let all unions dialogue with their governing councils.”
ASUU has insisted that its members will not resume work until the Federal Government accepts the use of the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) that was developed by the union as an alternative to the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) which the Federal Government is using to pay its workers in the public service.
This is in addition to other demands, including payment of arrears of Academic Earned Allowance, release of revitalisation fund, renegotiation of the 2009 FGN/ASUU agreement and payment of salaries and allowances of university lecturers.
ASUU president, Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, in a strike bulletin that he issued to universities on Monday, said the union would not take anything less than the acceptance of UTAS as a preferred and more suitable payment system in universities.
He said: “Recently, the agents of government are redoubling their efforts at misinforming, misleading and twisting facts relating to our struggle to the Nigerian public, particularly our students and their parents.
“Don’t believe them. It is aimed at dividing us and sowing the seed of hatred against our patriotic struggle.
“Last week, the leadership of our union met with the Federal Government renegotiating team. The meeting was not fruitful, as they were addressing platitudes rather than the core of the issues in contention.”
Nigerian Tribune, however, gathered under the new arrangement that the governing council of each university will take responsibility of negotiation with staff unions on issues relating to salaries, wages and other welfare provisions in line with the provisions of the Universities’ Miscellaneous Provisions Amendment Act 2003, (otherwise called Universities Autonomy Act No.1. 2007)
The Act was enacted by the National Assembly and signed into law on 10th July 2003. It was later gazetted by the Federal Republic of Nigerian Official Gazette No.10. Volume 94 of 12th January as Act 1. of 2000.
Two sections of the Act clearly assert the the autonomy or independence of the universities as follows: “2AA- ‘The powers of the governing council shall be exercised, as in the laws and statutes of each university and to this extent establishment circulars that are inconsistent with the laws and statutes of the university shall not apply to the universities.”
“2AAA- ‘The Governing Council of a University shall be free in the discharge of its functions and exercise of its responsibilities for the good management, growth and development of the university.”
Experts have said that the purpose of these provisions is to liberate the universities from the bureaucracy of the civil service and to enable the council exercise its powers and perform its functions without undue external interference or influence.
It was on this premise that the pro-chancellor, Osun State University, Yusuf Alli, SAN, faulted the decision of the Federal Government to negotiate with ASUU and afterwards force the agreement on universities contrary to the provisions of the Universities Autonomy Act that gives such powers to the governing councils of the institutions.
Yusuf Alli clearly stated that it was wrong for the Federal Government to negotiate with ASUU on behalf of the universities, arguing that universities should be allowed to negotiate with their workers, based on their strength to pay whatever salary is agreed upon.
Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, who is the conciliator in the FG/ASUU debacle, has also asked ASUU to meet with the Professor Nimi Briggs renegotiation committee.
Speaking on when the issue would be resolved, the minister said, “It depends on ASUU. The ball is in their court. They should go and meet the Nimi Briggs committee and look at what the committee is doing and then make further inputs so that the work can be accelerated.”
The Minister of Education, Malam Adamu, had in March inaugurated a seven-member committee tasked with the renegotiation of the 2009 agreement reached with ASUU, where he also emphasised the important role of the governing councils.
This was also reflected in the configuration of the committee comprising pro-chancellors and chairmen of governing councils of universities that were selected from each of the six geopolitical zones of the country.
While the committee is chaired by pro-chancellor, Alex Ekwueme Federal University Ndufu-Alike, Emeritus Professor Nimi Briggs, other members are pro-chancellor, Federal University, Wukari, Lawrence Patrick Ngbale, who represents North East; pro-chancellor, Federal University, Birnin Kebbi, Professor Funmi Togunu-Bickersteth, representing South West and pro-chancellor, Federal University, Lokoja, Senator Chris Adighije, representing South East.
Also on the team are pro-chancellor, Federal University of Technology, Minna, Professor Olu Obafemi from North-Central; pro-chancellor, Kano State University of Science & Technology, Professor Zubairu Iliyasu, representing North West; and pro-chancellor, Niger Delta University, Wilberforce Island, Mathew Seiyefa from the South-South.
ASUU president, Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, however, said it was not appropriate for Ngige to tell the union to go and liaise with another party other than the government.
He added that the union might have no other choice but to roll over the strike after its expiration, wondering why the minister would ask ASUU to meet with Briggs Committee or any other individual.
He said: “The rollover ends in two weeks, and there is no information, nothing new from the Federal Government. They didn’t make any effort to get in touch with us or seek ways of ending the strike.
“Our members will decide after two weeks what step to take. We will meet. We are not begging them for discussion; they should invite us for a meeting. That’s the way it should be.”
Meanwhile, concerned parents and students have appealed to the Federal Government and ASUU to reach a compromise for the strike to be called off and academic activities to resume in all public universities.
Francisca Patrick, a 21-year-old fresh student of the University of Jos, told Nigerian Tribune that the strike action had affected her immensely and that the joy and excitement of gaining admission to study her dream course after two years attempts had waned.
She said since she resumed in school from Lagos in January this year, she is yet to receive a single lecture. According to her, she resumed late January and commenced the process of registration, medical test and trying to sort out her accommodation when the warning strike was declared in February.
“I have been trapped in Jos, I can’t go back to Lagos because of the cost and risk of travelling on Nigerian roads. I have exhausted my food items and provisions and efforts to get something to do have been unsuccessful. ASUU should consider the plights of the students and call off the strike,” she pleaded.