In this interview with GRACE EDEMAProfessor of English at Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA, Olabode Ibironke, says the Nigerian government’s non-response to the university’s Academic Staff Union strike is a dictatorial trait
Are university strikes a Nigerian affair? What do universities abroad do differently?
There are strikes, but not nationwide. In the past month, there have been strikes at Eastern Michigan and American University in Washington DC. The structure in the United States is highly decentralized. Excessive centralization is the residual result of our history of dictatorships, military and civilian, and it fosters a top-down dictatorial culture in governance. Its rigidity creates a potential for constant tension and disturbance. In the case of the United States, which is not the best model for public universities, federal and state appropriations fund higher education in addition to tuition and fees, grants, endowments, etc. Private universities also receive government grants in various forms and degrees. Although in decline, government support constitutes a significant percentage of the overall revenue source of public universities. Once the government has established its budget, negotiations on its implications for universities take place at the level of university administration. The government is not in charge of direct talks, nor does it oversee university governance. Where there are unions, the university administration and the unions, all invested in the education system by drawing paychecks from it, and with professional expertise as lifelong educators, are those who engage in these discussions. They approach these conversations with the required knowledge and in full awareness of the issues.
The Urban Institute review reported about 700 teacher strikes in the United States between 2007 and 2019. I participated in picket lines as a graduate student. Canada is also experiencing more strikes at some of its universities. The danger of direct negotiations with the government is that political considerations and tactics always come into play and make things more difficult to resolve. The autonomy of universities is therefore essential to the stability of higher education. We fought so that our lives were not ruled from London and Paris. The new frontier of decolonization is that our lives are not dictated by Abuja or any other capital, for that matter.
The ASUU has been on strike for six months now; What advice would you give the government to end strikes in the university system?
I have seen statistics showing that over the past two decades, since the inauguration of the Fourth Republic in 1999, 1,297 days have been lost due to strikes. That’s about four good years of lost productivity. The cost-benefit analysis should tell you that years of lost productivity overshadow any increase or funding the government won’t approve. And it’s not just ASUU. The professional class, justice and medical sectors are all on strike. This is proof that the basis of our economy is not, strictly speaking, productivity. The problem of extractive economies is the destruction of productive capacities.
That there were as many strikes as during the military dictatorship proves that we are still in a dictatorship. The president’s distinctive facial expression is one of contempt and impassiveness. Not responding to the public is a dictatorial trait. The “Oga mentality” exhibited by government ministers during these negotiations suggests that these standoffs are a test of will. Voting, protesting and organizing workers are also expressions of democratic culture. Unions are not opposition parties.
What have Ministers of Education and Labor got to do with negotiating salary increases on behalf of the government without input from an independent budget office like the Congressional Budget Office that can produce an independent, non-partisan rating of ASUU’s economic demands and budget plans? There is no central command or clearinghouse overseeing all government spending that can provide information and analysis.
I have seen many analyzes suggesting an increase in tuition fees as an alternative to government subsidies. It would create a society in which only the wealthy could afford a college education. We are at this stage where government investment in education is essential. If the government succeeds in implementing its no-work and pay policy in a punitive way, it will deprofessionalize the faculty. The professors have no choice but to take additional steps to pay the debts accumulated during the strike. This will further distract and devalue university education. How is this a victory for the government?
What is your advice to Nigerian speakers?
The ASUU chose to negotiate with a lame government. I fear that we will only see a solution to this impasse after the next election. The biggest problem facing ASUU is the unprofessionalism of teaching. Many in its ranks took up work primarily as a means of subsistence. They must now rediscover the love of knowledge. In addition to the impact one has on the development of young people and society in general, it makes teaching and research interesting.
The National Association of Nigerian Students is now a gathering of political students who do not consider excellence when choosing their leaders. What is the implication of choosing mediocre leaders to run the affairs of NANS?
The university is the center of excellence. If university products no longer radiate excellence, or are not at their best, this indicates that university education has lost its purpose.
The poor leadership of student unions is a symptom of a larger problem of teaching quality. It also demonstrates the damage done to society by the political class. Nigerian politicians, as civil servants, are now the new rich and the model of success. Because they are both incompetent and powerful, they present a nefarious alternative to the very excellent training that the university offers to young people. The interviews of the national student leader make people cringe. It is tragically comical but it is a true reflection of the current state of our society and the immediate future of our political leadership itself.
Many Nigerians go to foreign universities to study; what should system actors do to make the country’s education system more competitive and encourage them to stay here to study?
When the University of Sankoré in Timbuktu became the center of learning for the ancient sub-Saharan, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world, it did so thanks to the reputation of its scholars such as Ahmad Bābā. Reputation is the currency of academic scholarship. The intellectual exchange and dissemination of knowledge is a fundamentally international activity. The country’s education system needs to be brought up to international standards to attract scholars from all over the world for short and long-term stays.
We focus very much on the university system, but not on supporting institutions such as archives, foundations that support research, and professional associations. These auxiliary institutions, essential to higher education, must also be developed to enhance the work and status of our universities.
What is wrong with the Nigerian education system?
Education is the first line of human development meant to propel other forms of development. As you know, the Boko Haram problem began as a direct challenge to the kind of education that our universities represent. Thus, part of our political leadership does not believe in education and cares less about its financing.
What we are offering now is mass education. Federal universities that were once very selective are now instruments of mass education. You have that elsewhere too; higher education must instil a taste for learning and not simply be a press for producing diplomas and certificates which do not correspond to tangible skills and know-how. In other words, education in the country has little or no practical use. There are a few industries or leadership and entrepreneurship opportunities for these graduates.
Briefly outline the way out of these challenges.
Big problems always require a return to basics. We pave the way for solutions by re-engaging the fundamental or first principles. Faced with challenges posed by Industrial Revolution demands for a skilled workforce and an anti-intellectual American culture, former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Land Grant Act that gave public universities federal lands for sustainable income. It was the equivalent of granting universities oil blocks.
Our universities were created to decolonize the public service, produce workers who would take over from the colonizers and advance the march towards modernization. We must reconnect our universities with the objective of modernizing our society as a starting point for renewing their mission. Investing 5% of our GDP, well below the UN recommendation of 20%, is in no way close to the Lincoln model of a society at the dawn of industrialization. Increasing investment in education is not only a way out of educational challenges, but could also be the way out of banditry, terrorism and food insecurity.
How would you describe Nigeria’s contribution to research?
I’m the bibliographic editor for the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, and even at its lowest, Nigeria dominates, by volume, in bibliographic entries. Given the right environment, Nigeria can and should anchor regional centers for academic programs.
What do they uniquely need to do?
Nigeria should be to sub-Saharan Africa what the United States is to the Western world. It should be a leader in research, innovation and culture. This is already the case in the field of culture. It makes no sense that Europe and the United States are at the forefront of tropical medicine and neglected tropical diseases. These diseases are neglected because they mainly affect low-income populations, and are rampant in tropical areas that no longer study them. They are of increasingly limited interest to infectious disease students in the West and are among the first to be cut as budgets tighten. Ironically, the West is also the main sponsor of much research into our indigenous languages and cultures.