The Chairman, Committee of Pro-Chancellors of State Universities in Nigeria (COPSUN), Malam Yusuf Olaolu Ali (SAN), speaks with BIOLA AZEEZ on the prolonged strike of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
What, in your view, are the effects of ASUU’s indefinite strike on students, parents, state universities and the nation?
IT is quite unfortunate that ASUU decided to go the way it has gone. It is all the more worrisome seeing that both ASUU and the Federal Government had made progress up to about 80 per cent or more on the issues in contention. We were told, and ASUU has not denied it, that the only major outstanding thing was the payment of arrears of salaries for the six months that they were not at work.
It is only in Nigeria that any union would make that kind of demand. Anybody who goes on strike anywhere else in the world knows that he will not be paid for the period of the strike. Unions all over the world have check-off dues paid by members which are usually invested for days like these. In other places, when unions go on strike, they pay stipends to their members from the returns of their check-off dues. So, the question you want to ask is: what has happened to the check-off dues that the university lecturers have paid to ASUU over the decades? But that is aside. It is quite unfortunate for the union to declare an indefinite strike. With respect, it doesn’t show that they care about the parents, students and the educational development of our country.
How do you console a child who registered for a four-year course but now has to spend six-eight years not because the child has failed but just because lecturers decided to boycott classes?
For many federal universities, one session has been lost. I am aware that students who are in 300 level in some universities like the Osun State University that have not gone on strike, their contemporaries in federal universities are still in 100 level. It means that those universities that are on strike may not be able to do any admission this year because they have backlogs of those who were admitted last year that have not resumed. These are young, impressionable children with a lot of abounding energy and creativity. Many of them would be exposed to crime. Many would be exposed to immorality. Many may not go back to school. Somebody who has been learning something stops suddenly. When they resume, it is not going to be same thing, even in terms of ability to absorb learning.
What do you tell a parent who is barely able to pay for one student and has calculated that in four years, he would be done with one child and then the younger one would come in? Now, the money meant for the training of two, three children, you end up spending on just one child. How would parents cope with young adults who ought to be in school but are at home? How do you monitor them? How do you make them see that their future would be assured and that they are not hopeless?
Of course, the loss of federal universities is the gain of state and private universities that are working. Instead of admitting, maybe, 3,000 students in a year, for example, since federal universities that are many are not working, at least half of those who want admission would not be able to go to any university because only state and private universities with limited capacities are available.
It is also actually incentive for a lot of parents to send their children out of Nigeria, to Ghana and all other places, squandering the scarce foreign exchange that the country has.
For the larger society, or Nigeria itself, it is a serious loss when able-bodied young men and women are allowed to roam the streets. It opens the door for all sorts of negative influence. And of course, it is Nigeria that would pay for it in terms of banditry, kidnapping and insurgency as an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.
Then, the competitiveness of our country is reduced. Human capital development is slowed down and Nigeria becomes a laughing stock among nations of the world. The ripple effect is almost unimaginable. The food sellers, the hawkers, whose livelihood is based on selling within the campuses, they have been out for more than six months. Transporters who move between the towns and campuses ferrying students are out of it. Private owners of hostels who invested or borrowed money to build the hostels would not be able to make any income. Some of them would probably default in the repayment of their loans to banks with the risk of losing those properties by way of foreclosure to the banks. So, this strike is a spreader of poverty, intellectual poverty and poverty of material.
Look at the chain effect on those who depend on all those people who provide services in the universities – cleaners and the others. Before the strike, some universities would have stocked their laboratories with chemicals for use by the students. Those ones would have lost their shelf life by now. And I know the loss would be in millions in the universities that are not functioning. Even research would be at a standstill in almost all the universities that are closed because you need students to be around and use the laboratories. How would there be research when there are no students? The ripple effect is massive. It impacts all areas of our national life: economic, social, intellectual and security. They are all interrelated. And it is quite unfortunate that ASUU decided that it is going to be indefinite strike. In other places, workers go on strike but I have never heard – maybe I need to be educated – of a workers’ union withdrawing its members’ services indefinitely because their employers did not agree to pay them for the period when they were not at work.
What do you make of the planned meeting of the government with the pro-chancellors and vice chancellors of federal universities?
I think they should chart a way forward. It is not every lecturer that doesn’t want to work. I think they should encourage those who want to go back to work. And this is a good time for the government to register other unions. This is a democratic dispensation. This is a union. You can’t force everybody to belong to a union. It is even undemocratic. Choices differentiate democracy from other forms of government; the ability to make a choice, whether to go right or left or remain static. Once you take the choices away, then you are taking away a fundamental part of democracy and freedom.
Some ASUU leaders said many of their members doing programmes in the universities are affected too and that some lecturers battling diabetes and other ailments are surviving by miracle.
If you don’t work, do you expect to get paid? We should draw a lesson from the private sector. If my colleagues in this office, for whatever reason, say they are going on strike, where would I get the money to pay them? If workers of Dangote say they boycott their jobs, will anybody pay them? Not going too far, if those engaged by private universities say they are going on strike, will they be paid? Must we just be wasting money because it is public money, when all over the world, when workers down tools, they don’t get paid? It only happens here. People think it is a right to be paid for the period they don’t work. Nobody does that. Going forward, Nigeria must behave as a serious country. The United States of America, the United Kingdom, the whole of Europe, with all their riches, don’t pay workers when they go on strike. Many of those individuals who are pursuing Master’s, PhD are lamenting. So, it may not be true that they support what is going on because their progress is being stultified. How could anybody willingly submit to having their future mortgaged?
Some people have argued that Nigerians should pay more for university education. Do you agree with them?
You see, when people talk about free education, I just laugh. There is nothing that is free anywhere in the world; some people pay for it. If you say you want to provide free transportation, money won’t fall from heaven; some people would have to pay for it by other means, taxation or levies. I think what ASUU should be saying today is for students to pay commensurate school fees. What kind of hypocrisy are we practising here? Some members of ASUU – I challenge them – who send their children to private secondary schools don’t pay less than N500,000 or N1 million per annum. How do you now say people should come to federal universities and be paying N30,000 when the cost of training a graduate in the average is more than N2 million? Why can’t we be realistic? I think what ASUU should be talking about is bringing back the issue of students’ loans and bursaries. In the US, not everybody can afford education. As a matter of fact, former president Bill Clinton attended school in England because his mother could not afford the school fees in the US. It is in Clinton’s biography. But you can’t be propagating some of these things when the world has moved on. In any event, there is no free lunch anywhere. Even when you are offered free lunch, some people would pay for it. They won’t go and steal it. So, we have got to a point where ASUU