The ongoing labour dispute between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and their employer, the federal government of Nigeria, could not have come at a more ominous time. And this is a personal thing. As a parent with a child preparing for university, the strike brings to fore a dilemma that similarly placed parents before me must have faced. In a rapid growing economy, with low labour payout rates, and unpredictable employment conditions (now, this is an impasse, if ever there was one), it is important that one be able to plan, and assign very scarce resources as needed. Everything here is too transient to build much that is lasting on.
There is a point to be made here (obiter dicta) that amongst their other merits, advanced economies thrive on the predictability of much of their systems. This is the point of central banks’ commitment to price stability as their primary goal: it helps economic actors to arrange their affairs profitably. The incessant strike by ASUU is evidently in violation of this principle. Were my child to gain admission into a federal university (difficult in the present circumstance, given the competitive nature of the admission process), it will be nigh impossible to assign resources to this project.
Even where we assume a diligent child, the labour disputes in the sector make it impossible to tell when the child will leave school, if ever. A 4-year course could take all of 8 years, with the disruptions to class (and whatever research work there is), ensuring that the child is as improperly tutored as is possible. In the light of the considerable (and near criminal) waste of resources going on in other sectors of the economy, it is easy to dismiss this particular example as inconsequential.
We have lost to oil theft in four years much more than is required to turn our tertiary institutions into citadels of learning that will be the cynosure of eyes the world over. So, in terms of the general efficiency of our processes, it is somewhat overly optimistic to hope that the educational sector will somehow emerge immune to the general malaise that plagues us. By choice, the clichés in the first sentence of this paragraph are a useful metaphor for the maladies afflicting the educational sector.
Except for subject matter experts (in this case, I believe this category is limited to the top echelons of the education ministry, and senior lecturers in the university), most Nigerians have lost track of the main issues in the industrial dispute. It is therefore, hard to place blames. In a sense, the perennial disputes in our higher education sector have become trite, and tiresome. Are lecturers irresponsible who abandon duty to their students, and desert their work stations in defence of hard-won rights? Or is government less than qualified when it is unable or unwilling to abide by the terms of contracts freely entered into?
All of these (and many more) matter! Our universities, as presently organised, sub-optimise resources at all levels. But two stand out immediately. First is the ratio of teaching/research staff to support personnel. The university bureaucracy is disproportionately larger than its core staff, and this at a period where the information and communication technology revolutions have made much of the former redundant, and much of the latter more effective. Why are we unable, even in our “ivory towers”, to assign resources optimally? Why, or what is essentially the same question, do our best minds end up as university administrators? Why would a leading nuclear physicist aspire to be vice chancellor? Can we not find competent mid-level managers (with fund-raising skills tossed into the mix) in the private sector to take up this responsibility and free up much needed resource for moving the envelope up on the teaching and research competences of our universities?
Government is another matter, entirely. In the example of the incumbent federal government, its approach to the governance challenges facing the country has helped polarize debate across key national issues. So intense is the fallout that it is often counter-intuitive to join the discourse. However, sotto voce, the worry (for those who can remember the late 1980s, when teaching opportunities in Zimbabwe beckoned on the Nigerian university lecturer) is that we might be headed Comrade Gabriel Robert Mugabe’s way: where demagoguery and ceaseless tilting at windmills are elevated into the main assignments of the state.
Unable to answer these questions, I have committed to sending my child to a private university. The ambience of these remind of mission-run secondary schools of yore. But at least I am able to assign resources to the critical project of educating my child in the assurance that if she concentrates on her studies, she would be out in the next four years.