• Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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BusinessDay

A manifesto to save Nigeria’s public university

Higher or tertiary education, like all sectors, is fair game for disruption. We saw a glimpse in the pandemic, where classes were held online, and courseware unbundled from college staples like libraries and cafeterias was delivered directly to devices. Overnight, technology automa

The industrial dispute between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Federal Government of Nigeria has dominated the media for many months. Throughout, ASUU leaders stated and restated the position of their members, often informing the public of the Memorandum of Understanding to Memorandum of Action – going back to 2009 – leading to the current demands.

The representatives of the government have managed to perfect the act of “majoring-in-the-minor.” They centre one issue this month and another the next. Their narrative villainises university lecturers as greedy, uncompassionate and unpatriotic.

While the dispute escalates, familiar blame trading and finger-pointing have resurfaced. Too much and confusing information and un/informed opinions are circulating. ASUU-greed experts and professional trolls with a massive following are packaging and disseminating decontextualised data and narratives on social media platforms, especially on Twitter.

University students and prospective ones are angry, depressed and anxious. They are also divided, unsure of how to rescue themselves from the educational institution that has put their lives on hold. Parents’ voices seem drowned out or lost amid incoherence in the public space.

The Nigerian academic diaspora has been an active voice as well. While divided in their opinion, some loudest voices in this group are too obsessed with comparison: “In the US…”, “In the UK…”, “In America…”, “In Europe…”, “In Canada…”, “In South …” etc.

Usually, these diaspora intellectuals ignore their privilege and the systemic nature of the crisis. They “talk at” striking lecturers as “greedy and lazy” people who do not contribute to national and global knowledge, innovation and progress. In this talk, Nigerian diaspora intellectuals suppressed why they left, stayed abroad, and couldn’t return to Nigeria as lecturers.

ASUU is persistent and determined to keep fighting. As a young researcher employed in the country’s foremost university, however, I sometimes ask myself: “Why bother?” High-ranking professors in Nigerian universities are already encouraging their best students to leave and never look back.

Many who returned to Nigeria after studying abroad in the 1970s and 1980s quickly tell their regrets to young faculty on department corridors. Some of the finest thinkers trained in the 1990s and 2000s did not stay long enough to have their spirits crushed. More so, from 2010 to date, young PhDs who entered the system are pursuing needless second PhDs abroad to escape the fast-crumbling university system. So, “why bother?”

I concluded that some people stayed back to train the next generation of Nigerians. They stayed even if it meant struggling through their careers to ensure the sons and daughters of ordinary people had access to quality and globally competitive university education.

Their struggle over the years is not just to save a critical social institution; they stayed to rescue the future and soul of a society. Their struggle is right. Their struggle is just. Their struggle is patriotic.

Again, ASUU is persistent and determined to keep fighting. Still, this struggle is not and cannot be a struggle for ASUU and allied organisations alone.

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We must rally to build a unified voice against common enemies of our collective future: those who understand the depth of the crisis and choose to play politics. The common enemies comprise the state and the intelligent and crafty stooges, political appointees and mouth pieces who know but pretend and speak vacuously.

They are the people who feel young people should be lined-up indefinitely at the altar of sacrifice for the benefit of the few. They are comfortable proposing that your early-career lecturer with a PhD in a specialised field resign from the university instead of complaining that N137,000 monthly take home – in 2022 – is not enough to take them home. They are the ones criminalising patriotism, faking elitism and truncating national progress.

Those at the top of university leadership should speak up and speak out. Your silence is complicity. The Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan has led the way by presenting a passionate and frank assessment of our bleeding ivory towers, the first at the highest level of Nigerian university leadership in a long time not hidden behind political-speak of “Council of VCs.”

More leaders should speak up, keeping in mind that their position will end, and they will return to the rank and file of the demeaned and precarised workforce. You no longer have the luxury of playing the “bewildered generation.”

It is no longer safe for you to ask, “How did we get here?” When writing the letters, make a patriotic and sincere case for “Why we must leave here and move forward.” In the note, let the country know what you and your Bursars go through in Abuja.

Also, professors must resist the urge to keep super-dry skeletons standing. They need to help the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC) to scrap courses lacking the required human resources by refusing to help glorified secondary schools disguised as universities.

Those privileged as heads of government agencies should not sabotage their colleagues. If you cannot talk because your mouth is full, do not be a barrier to those trying to fight for a better system. I consider these simple steps without ignoring that they will come at a personal cost to you.

Statesmen and stateswomen should lend a voice. Before your departure, talk to your replacements. Remind them how we started as a nation and how far gone we are since making the wrong turn. Not tomorrow, but right now.

Politicians should know that there is more for all if we have a society that works. In a society where knowledge is valued, nurtured and accessible to all irrespective of their social status, there will be prosperity that will benefit all equitably.

Parents and students have important roles to play in all of this. As a parent, you are probably tired that your wards are not making that transition to adulthood as quickly as you hope. But delay is not denial. By seeing this struggle as your own and supporting it openly in whatever way you can, you are helping your wards have a solid foundation for their future. Your support is needed to ensure that the real bullies fail in their ploy to impoverish university teachers further. Remember also that your children will have children too, and they may not be able to japa.

To young Nigerians, students and those planning to go to university especially, your voice is more critical today than ever. By their advice that you sue ASUU, a suggestion unlikely to yield any meaningful result for you, they ask you to excuse their incompetence and mischief. It is shameful that they are demanding more sacrifices from you now. Your grandparents sacrificed. Your parents sacrificed so much. You have been making sacrifices since you were born in Nigeria as a Nigerian. Refuse to be the sacrificial goat. Secure your future.

Nigerian diaspora intellectuals should appreciate the delicate situation of university lecturers; as many of you as possible should speak truth to power and resist the urge to villainise ASUU. Take time to talk to your former colleagues and friends in Nigerian universities. Ask them questions, listen and reflect on where you are and where you could have been, and then speak based on conviction and truth. By all means, criticise ASUU, but ask the stooges and mouthpieces of the state on social media what they are gaining by demeaning, demoralising and degrading university lecturers.

To end, we should have an honest and public conversation about what we want for ourselves as a society and the role we want the university to play in it. In doing this, we must also ask what a fair working environment is to make the university play that role, given the required quality and cost of talents. This is how we can start the journey toward saving public universities in Nigeria.

However, the journey must start today, now – not tomorrow.

Adebayo is a research fellow at the Institution of African Studies, University of Ibadan