ASUU’s Recurrent Strike: Financing Public Universities in Nigeria

By Victor Ogiemwonyi

The ongoing industrial strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), now in its eighth month, has again brought to the fore the need to examine the financing strategies for Nigeria’s public universities.

The role of Education is so crucial to all development that whether or not to neglect it is out of the question. It is one of the social investment that should occupy number one priority of all governments.

The first problem of our Federal Government is the erroneous assumption that it must be dominant player in the tertiary education space, just as the various state governments. From appointing Vice Chancellors to naming members of governing council boards.

This approach of treating universities as parastatals of government, contribute to the inefficiencies evident in their operational models. Government’s major role should primarily be to ensure that the Nigerian Universities Commission becomes a strong regulator that ensures that the highest of global standards is set and enforced as its primary function.

The next aspect that should pre-occupy government should be affordability of university education for all who qualify.

Providing for this opportunity should take several forms.

The best models in the world for funding public universities combine government funding, payment of tuition fees, research grants and donor support in the form of alumni foundations, among others.

The Nigerian universities funding model seems lopsided with government taking the lion share. There are many things wrong with this model, the first of which is that government is biting much more than it can chew. This is coming from its desire to dominate every aspect of university administration.

Government needs to cut back on its involvement in university administration, and restrict its role to regulating the universities to ensure standards, and contribute to making the university education affordable.

The presumption that paying any tuition at all is unacceptable is wrong headed. Instead, making fees low enough to be affordable should be the goal.

Creating a system that provides scholarships for brilliant but indigent students, and providing low interest loans for needy students are better ways to make university education affordable.

In the US for instance, the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant (BEOG) has ensured that those who desire university education but cannot afford such gets support. The government has offered financial institution including banks, insurance companies, and credit unions, among others the opportunity to participate by allowing them receive applications, that have been vetted for Income level, and made eligible, by the Financial Aid offices of Universities.

This discentralized participation removes every kind of bottlenecks.

This grants and several other student loans programme, allows students to invest in themselves, and repay loans, after graduation and employment, into the workforce. This makes university education affordable for almost everyone who wants a university education in the USA.

We can adopt many of these same strategies to make university education affordable across the country.

The current logjam in which ASUU and the FG has succeeded largely in grounding public universities in the country can never produce a winner. The damage that has been done to date, will never be remedied for several years to come.

Government’s melding in university administration and biting more than it can chew is one thing, ASUU too has become the other side of the problem.

Members of the union have shown unfortunately that they do not knowing what they want. They may be winning the short term battles now, unfortunately, the union will surely lose the war. Federating ASUU into another Federal Government is not the answer.

ASUU in each university should be able to speak for its members. The needs of each university is different. Let the unions in those universities determine what their needs are, and fight for it, within their individual universities.

Members of the ASUU branch in each university should ensure that they are represented in their Governing Boards, so they are part of decision making in those governing Boards and can see what is available and how money is spent.

The modern German unions, for instance, are represented on the Boards of their companies and not only do they take part in decision making, they also see the company from the top. They discuss productivity and available resources. They know when the companies can raise wages and when they cannot. They are partners in running the companies. University Unions are even in a better place to take part in running their affairs.

Collective bargaining is a good thing for its members and for moderating the excesses of authorities- there is always a limit. Ask all the large Unions that in the past went beyond their usefulness: NITEL, NEPA, Bank Unions …all eventually unionized themselves out of relevance.

All large unions generate more check-off dues, and become very powerful that they can significantly disrupt activities those organisations in a bid to force everyone to listen. There is also a price to pay in the form of loss of goodwill and sympathy for their cause.

The two things ASUU should fight for are autonomy for universities to run their affairs, and a commitment from government to provide a certain level of support that can be written into law, with the instrumentality to enforce it.

For instance, the Federal Government should commit to earmarking 15%-20% of its annual Budget for education. This will ensure that funding adjusts automatically when government budget increases. The allocation should be paid directly into the Education Trust Fund monthly at the Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC) meetings, just like is done for the State and Local Governments. This way, they get their allocation directly from the Federation Account, and avoid all the disbursement drama, that sometimes accompany releases from the ministry of Education.

The other issue is how the Fund is managed. Institutions like TETFUND is not optimizing the monies they receive and their current model for funding projects are defective. There should be a proper FUND management institution for the various monies meant for these universities. There should be a structure like the sovereign wealth Fund, which should be autonomously managed like every other fund out there that is free to invest, issue bonds …and …Fund projects. There should be a clear criteria, for managing the Fund.

The fund can issue bonds like a municipality, and because of the recurring monthly receipts from the Federation Account, it makes it possible to structure bonds to meet its obligations, and can repay from the FGN inflows and the returns on their investments.

This twin objectives of autonomy and a clear cut commitment from the government will provide public universities adequate funding, and create a more effective ASUU that is dis-centralized.

These measures will make for a more competitive environment in which universities would compete for good students, teachers and Research grants.

Our huge population makes university education a growth market. There is no doubt about its viability, we can see that in the growth of private universities and the money spent yearly to train students abroad. A more competitive university market here will ensure quality and rapid growth.

There are also other innovative ways that will ensure a better funding model, for our public Universities. The housing of students, for instance, can be better done through public/ private partnerships with universities, providing land, while the private sector players build and charge affordable rent which the universities regulate.

Even Facilities like Laboratories can also be provided by institutions and companies that deal in such facilities, just as they can build and provide as operating leases which the university pay for gradually. This way, even maintenance and modernization burden, is taken off the universities. There are countless other facilities that can be put in place to take off the burden of capital outlays from the university.

This way they can focus on the more important job of educating students, undertaking research and producing quality output for the economy.

Finally, our university lecturers can do more. When they claim that their children and former students who work in banks earn more when they do, for instance, they discount the fact that time is money. University lecturers have plenty of time, but fail to compute such huge available time into their remuneration.

A good university lecturer, can teach in more than one university at a time, instead of offering the same lectures and using the same lecture notes. They can involve themselves more in carrying out researches for organization both local and foreign, besides authoring books, instead of concentrating much of their efforts on producing hand-outs that their students are forced to buy and exorbitant cost.

A firsthand experience some years ago was very illuminating for me. I had attended a three-year programme comprising six weeks per semester (owner and President management programme) at the Harvard Business school, specifically OPM47.  This is different from the one semester (Advance Management programme) that is popular with our top Executives in Nigeria.

I was pleasantly surprised that for every year of the programme’s entire duration, almost all the teachers wrote new books which were distributed to students at no charge because the cost of the books have been built into the course fees. What that meant essentially was that the lecturers wrote those books and the university bought them, and the students paid before-hand, following which there was a ready market for the books even before they were published.

I don’t see why our lecturers cannot make such arrangements in our universities, since it will greatly improve their remuneration and ensure they focus more on academics, which will be a win-win for all.

These are the things they need to do to boost their incomes, rather than selling diesel as some of them do today using poor pay as excuse.

Lecturers in Nigeria’s public universities must choose today whether they want to be academics, or not.

Ogiemwonyi, a retired Investment Banker, writes from Ikoyi, Lagos Nigeria.

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