Nigeria: ASUU-Govt Standoff – All Roads Still Lead to Government

Whatever model is adopted, national governments are still responsible for education worldwide, even if they don’t carry the entire burden of paying for it.

The basic explanations laid out here are not the postulation of some never-thought-of solutions, nor are they about answering the question of who should fund education. Instead, the aspiration is to show that whatever side of the argument you’re on in the Nigerian Government-ASUU standoff, one thing is clear, there is no absolution of the government. No scenario exists in which significant responsibility does not fall on the government of the day.

In the midst of Nigeria’s many intrigues and the drama playing out on the political scene, which is like the longest episode of all the Real Housewives franchises combined, ASUU’s eight-month long strike action is becoming a distant memory. However, history will repeat itself and the signs are there already.The problem of Nigeria’s higher education is multifaceted, and unlike the blue pill or red pill of the Matrix, the solutions and choices are not as straightforward and are more like a mix of the convoluted plots of Vanilla Sky, Inception and Tenet combined.

ASUU’s demands have been consistent; for the government to improve the welfare of its members and fund tertiary institutions better, with the IPPIS/UTAS controversy being the most significant variation to their agreement recently.

For this cause, ASUU wielded its only weapon – strike actions.

First, let’s not knock the chose route of strike actions; they have been influential in the past, and across the world strikes have been used to great effect, albeit with their drawbacks. Strikes are not a relic of the past either; as inflation and energy challenges rock countries of the world, strike actions have resurfaced.

As such, ASUU going on strike is not the problem; the issue is that the strikes are no longer appearing to have the desired effect, and the evidence is in the number of days that universities have been shut down in the last six years.

ASUU’s reasons for their standoffs with the government are not wrong in themselves, especially as the government is the primary funder of education in the country. All things considered, especially what political elites and corruption cost the country, one might even call it a righteous cause.Yet, righteous causes do not input righteousness on its champions, nor does it absolve them of the need to clean their house. That ASUU and its members do not possess clean hands, and several investigations have exposed their maladies, does not wholly disqualify them from demanding better from the government either. For example, human representatives of gods on earth are not infallible, yet they are revered and celebrated as gods. Of Sango, there is a Yoruba adage that goes, “eniti Sango ba toju e wole, ko ni ba won bu oba koso” indicating that despite, Sango, the god of thunder’s many virtues, he might not be amenable to dissent.

If you hold on to the Abrahamic religions, imams, pastors, and rabbis are fallible, but men still need intercessors or guides to navigate them around the spiritual. Two of Jesus’s disciples were called the sons of thunder, and it was not a cutesy pet name; Peter, described as the rock on which the church would be built, denied his Master three times at the point of death.This analogy does not equate ASUU with gods or as sole guides of a higher calling; it is merely a comparison to establish that good causes are not borne on the backs of perfect people.

Raising tuition fees is another example in the models of funding higher education. Most people agree that tuition fees in Nigeria’s public institutions are low but most will also agree that in a country of 133 million multidimensionally poor people, with widening wealth inequality, raising tuition fees will only expand the access to education gap between the 1% and the 99%.

The core of the many versions of these strikes, five in the last five years and lasting between five weeks to nine months, is how to fund education sustainably.Many have posited that ASUU might be fighting the wrong battle and that it is unsustainable for the government to keep funding tertiary institutions. Some have said universities should be self-sufficient, and fund their own growth and innovation.

Others argue that ASUUs position is correct and the privatisation of education will only deepen inequalities.

Which Model Should Be Adopted?

Across the world, especially in the global North, higher education (HE) institutions use a combination of funding models. Although public funding has reduced to varying degrees across countries, public/government funding is still a significant chunk of inflows into HE funding models, whether through federal aid, loans, or subsidies. Whatever model is adopted, national governments are still responsible for education worldwide, even if they don’t carry the entire burden of paying for it.

Public Financing/Government Funding

In Europe, many governments still subsidise education and although there have been criticisms around this, it has not changed yet. How are these governments able to fund public education? It comes down to higher taxes with efficient systems and judicious use of education funding. Among other things, governments must have the infrastructure to collect taxes effectively and efficiently, but that’s not all; they must also respect the social contract to which they have implicitly agreed with citizens. Already, the Nigerian government is looking at taxes – a dirty word to most people in Nigeria – to shore up its revenue and enable it to perform its responsibilities, including the funding of education. Aside from the fact that taxes will have to increase considerably, the government and its institutions, for which people have very low levels of trust, must collect these taxes and use them accordingly. Again, government and how it functions is critical to making this work.

Raising Tuition Fees

Raising tuition fees is another example in the models of funding higher education. Most people agree that tuition fees in Nigeria’s public institutions are low but most will also agree that in a country of 133 million multidimensionally poor people, with widening wealth inequality, raising tuition fees will only expand the access to education gap between the 1% and the 99%. If raising tuition will be added to the mixed model of funding for Nigerian higher institutions, then broader socio-economic issues responsible for these gaps must be dealt with and clear pathways that will not completely occlude access to education for the middle to lower income classes must be designed. Now, who is responsible for the policies and actions that will improve socioeconomic indicators? Government.

What About Student Loans?

There is another example in the funding models for higher education – loans and endowments. However, in the first instance, can financial institutions, who themselves require subventions from governments to stay afloat (whatever fancy economic term is used to describe these interventions), carry the weight of tuition fee loans? Can these institutions, which gave less than 1% of loans to SMEs in seven years, really offer loans to the over 700,000 students who gain admission into higher institutions each year? These are banks whose loan portfolios are taken up by the government!

Also, student loans are guaranteed more than half of the time. Is it the same government eating up the loan portfolios of the banks that will guarantee student loans? Is it even a fair risk to ask commercial banks to undertake?

Or can you imagine a world where Nigeria’s budding online loan sharks are providing tuition loans? Everyone will get the now famous “text message of default” at least once daily.

Let us assume all the questions above are answered in the affirmative; students are required to pay back their student loans. In the US, they have just about six to nine months to settle down financially, before choosing an appropriate payment plan to commence the repayment of these loans. This assumes that a graduate would have gotten a job and settled down well enough to begin to pay back his/her student loans in less than a year after school. How feasible is this proposition in a country with an estimated unemployment rate of 33% and disparaging underemployment rates? We will need to create jobs faster than the current speed of “japa” in Nigeria today if any financial institution holds any hope of recouping those loans.

This piece’s aspiration is that perhaps eggheads, a class to which I do not belong, who are providing counsel to both sides, might consider in a different light, the responsibility of both government and the representatives of the managers of higher education in fostering education. That they might come up with a charter that both parties can not only agree to the letter and the spirit of but can live up to.

Whether the intervention is in improving the business environment, strengthening the naira, reducing inflation, increasing exports, dealing with insecurity, or a combination of these, which most experts agree that Nigeria needs, the government is a vital fulcrum on which most of these actions are balanced.

Could Endowments Work?

Education endowments are excellent and appealing but they assume that there are entities or institutions with the wherewithal, in goodwill and resources, to establish them.

To be fair, several private organisations offer many scholarships directly to students. However, some have argued that investments in inane game and reality shows far outweigh the investments in education, especially by private organisations. The disparity in prize money between Cowbellpedia, Best Graduating Students of most public universities in Nigeria, and Big Brother Nigeria is the most paraded example of the imbalance. However, the argument is that it is simply a business decision; inanity sells, education does not.

Private wealth has also declined in the last ten years, which in Naija parlance means more and more Nigerians are falling into the “trenches”. Even with an abundance of goodwill, there’s less wealth with which to create long-standing educational endowments.

A more conducive business environment might increase private wealth, and dealing with the highlighted challenges will bolster purchasing power. Companies might worry less about their bottom lines and can then focus on investments with more extended maturity periods, like education.

Again, government.

The basic explanations laid out here are not the postulation of some never-thought-of solutions, nor are they about answering the question of who should fund education. Instead, the aspiration is to show that whatever side of the argument you’re on in the Nigerian Government-ASUU standoff, one thing is clear, there is no absolution of the government. No scenario exists in which significant responsibility does not fall on the government of the day.

This piece’s aspiration is that perhaps eggheads, a class to which I do not belong, who are providing counsel to both sides, might consider in a different light, the responsibility of both government and the representatives of the managers of higher education in fostering education. That they might come up with a charter that both parties can not only agree to the letter and the spirit of but can live up to.

It might take a minute to come up with the necessary language and nuance for this charter but maybe it’ll stave off tomorrow’s standoff and change the course of a future that right now appears to be dead set on repeating history.

Adenike Aloba is the managing editor and programme director of Dataphyte.

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