By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha
The university campus, anywhere in the world, is virtually dead without students. The lecture halls miss them. Lecturers miss them. The porters and security personnel miss them. Food and petty vendors miss them the most. Food vendors have had their businesses paralyzed and so cannot meet their obligations to their wards or landlords. There are no knocks on the door by students coming for consultation. No assignments to grade. No opportunity to impart knowledge in lecture halls. I recognize non-residential programmes which do not accommodate students all year round. That is a matter of choice. It is true that research is ongoing. Academics are generating ideas and churning out papers for academic advancement. Some attend international conferences and still get positions abroad.
But teaching, especially at postgraduate level, is the interactive part of the life of an academic. It gives life to the profession. The inner joy which teachers derive from nurturing undergraduates from first through the final years of university education cannot be quantified. Mind development and character formation. Developing the art of critical thinking and writing. Transformation of that neophyte into a student that can contest issues and ideas with a professor. But to earn peanuts while doing this life-changing job is contradictory to social justice!
It must be noted that some international organisations are now skeptical about giving grants and aid to Nigerian universities because of the bad image which the shut down has given Nigeria. Exchange programmes are rendered useless when researchers from foreign universities cannot work with their collaborators because a strike is ongoing. We once hosted an American professor in University of Lagos who could not deliver a single lecture because the strike of 2020 started shortly after he landed on Fulbright Fellowship! Knowing all of this, which government should allow its universities to remain shut for seven months?
While researching this topic, I found that staff of American University in Washington went on five-day strike in August to protest ‘inequitable health-care and wage systems that place too many employees at a disadvantage’. In March this year, graduate student workers ‘around the US at private and public universities have gone one strike over the past few years’, by organizing unions and ‘holding protest actions and strikes (over) low pay’, an issue plaguing graduate student workers around the US. In April this year, staff ‘at thirty-six universities voted in favour of a strike action in a dispute over pay and working conditions which could see higher education hit by further disruption this academic year’. The difference is that these strikes did not go indefinitely!
We are discussing students whose academic fate and future are determined by a steady stay on campus, writing exams and moving on to the next level. We are discussing our future doctors, engineers, pharmacists, professors, architects, finance gurus, and social influencers. Their counterparts in private universities and some state-owned universities are moving on. In federal universities, lives, projections, and dreams are truncated. The cause: the now familiar if perennial conflict between government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities ASUU.
The students miss school. In 2019, there were approximately 1,854,261 undergraduate students in Nigeria. Of this figure, 1,206,825 were in federal universities while the states held 544,936 students, and 102,500 were in private universities. The figures for 2022 will not be radically different from that of 2019 because in 2020, Executive Secretary of National Universities Commission (NUC) Professor Abubakar Rasheed stated that the total number of undergraduates in Nigeria was 2 million. In 2021, the figure went up to 2.1 million. In effect, roughly 1,300,000 students, the future high-level workforce of Nigeria, are currently hanging in limbo. Furthermore, students in the secondary school system who had dreamt about proceeding straight to university are uncertain about their future. A nation which brings up its youth population in a perpetual environment of uncertainty is sowing the seed for future fragmented souls. The repercussions will be felt when all the current old horses who caused the confusion would have gone into their graves. Therefore, the youth must fight the government to restore sanity and order to the land.
Some have taken to skills acquisition while others are staying at home, depending on their parents and guardians for a living. Some retired parents are forced to provide for their children from their meagre incomes. This produces stress in homes and trauma in lives. There are some who have taken to social vices or criminality. Internet fraud as a way of life beckons on them. The notorious Yahoo Yahoo business is alluring and attractive to the idle. Just play in front of your computer and trick some ‘mumu’ fellow abroad and smile to the bank. There are some ladies who have become pregnant out of wedlock and have tried to procure an abortion. Some have lost their lives. Too many of them are going through mental stress that could affect them for the rest of their lives.
The purpose of this essay is to highlight the social costs of keeping the universities closed. When we write about the strike, it is often like an abstraction. The human feelings involved and the overall implications on lives and the stability of the nation are hardly reckoned with or factored into policy. A nation is made up of people. Happy people. Hopeful people. Unhappy people. Inspired people. Frightened people. Secure people. Bold and cowardly people. Both the ill and the healthy. An aggregate of how these people feel is what makes the nation. The current ASUU strike is another indication of state failure. It is the failure of Nigeria. Colleagues and compatriots outside the country pity us. There is a rush to leave this country that is so blessed with natural and human resources. Why? Because a group of persons who have no good plans for the country has hijacked power and the resources of the country.
We could say that if only 2 million persons are in the universities in a population of 200 million, the 1% percent enrolment is insignificant compared to the general population. But the university is the resource base of the nation. It produces thinkers who have gone through the rigour of critical thinking and can be deployed to any sector of the country for the purpose of developing the natural and social resources of the land. Add to this population the total number of academics – 100000 – and their dependents we are dealing with a critical sector in the country. They are vocal, and pivotal to national growth. They are the powerhouse of the future. And we can only toy with that sector if we wish to destroy the country.
It is not too late to retrace the national steps. The current model of funding education is not working. If strikes in the university system have become a way of life, it means that the real problems have not been addressed. The funding model must change. No education is free to the extent that someone must pay for it. If the government cannot pay, alternative sources of funding must be explored. A well-funded Education Bank from which students can obtain loans is one of the options open to government and the universities. The federal government should stop opening new universities and merge some of the existing ones to reduce overhead costs.
Finally, the time has come for legislation to compel all state officials to educate their children in Nigerian universities. In simple terms, it must become an offence for any elected or appointed official of the State to send their wards to universities abroad. That way, attention will be paid to the struggling universities in the land. Stakeholders – traditional rulers, former Heads of State, former state governors, the National Assembly, religious leaders – must wade into this matter now and end the impasse September ending. Going to court is not a solution. The alternative would be that a full session would be lost by our hapless students. Time will tell!