Yes you thought the mess in public universities in Nigeria, especially the disrupted academic calendar, was a joke or a bad dream, you need to reconsider that perception. Over the past few decades, university education has gone from bad to decrepit and would probably reach that unthinkable stage where there would be no more public universities.
The future of public universities in Nigeria is grave. Consider the current scenario. honorable and disreputable politicians line up to choose nomination forms to contest the presidential primaries in their various political parties. The competition for the presidential post is now everyone’s business. All politicians with an exaggerated assessment of their qualities have announced their interest in the presidential race, including those who are not registered in any political party. The presidential gold rush has surpassed all other national activities.
All of this is happening in an environment in which public universities have remained closed and inactive for an extended period. This says a lot about the value that politicians place on university education.
How can electoral rhetoric dominate our national discourse when there is no teaching, learning or research in public universities? How important is university education to the federal government? How can the Minister of Education and the Minister of Labor and Employment sleep soundly every night when their ministries have failed to resolve the continuing labor relations disputes between government and university staff and not university? Whose responsibility is it to ensure that undergraduate and postgraduate students undertake an uninterrupted program of study in public universities?
The idea that political campaigns are feverishly and eagerly unfolding in a dislocated educational setting is a statement about how close or far the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is to the government in resolving the long-running dispute. By allowing the conflict to escalate, the government has shown that it is insensitive to university education, the well-being of academic and non-academic staff, and the critical teaching and learning needs of students.
The inability to resolve the disagreement with the ASUU is a governance failure. Unsurprisingly, in a situation where political leaders are ignorant or have no idea what university education is, it is easy to see why the government is indifferent to the prolonged closure of public universities. We are in a country where metaphorically blind political leaders rule the affairs of many citizens in plain sight.
Nigerian leaders have shamelessly sold off the soul and conscience of the nation. Nothing affects them anymore. University education has no value for them, even though many of them have been educated in national and foreign universities.
I had the privilege of undertaking my undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Lagos in the early to mid 1980s. When I compare the quality of education then and now, including facilities, library resources, level of accommodation in hostels, quality of food served to us and other resources that were available to us, I can find no basis for comparison.
Public universities today are a disgrace. Basic hygiene is barely respected in the same way that health care is non-existent. The Nigerian state has exposed undergraduate and postgraduate students to conditions unsuitable for raising animals. Hostels are better imagined than described. They are rotten and unfit to accommodate students. What we freely accessed four decades ago as undergraduates has become a luxury not available to students today.
The rush for presidential nomination forms has become hilarious. No one cares about public universities anymore. It is sickening to see politicians frantically grabbing presidential nomination forms from their party headquarters. You’d be wrong to think that nomination forms are life jackets politicians are keen to grab to stay afloat in rough seas.
In more organized societies, the dominant topic of discussion would be how to restore stability to the university system. Politicians aspiring to become the next president would be asked about their higher education policy, how they plan to restore high standards in universities and what they would do to restore public confidence in universities. These goals cannot be achieved now because the presidential candidates are not normal and the government has shown no commitment to solving the problems that have kept universities closed.
Nigeria is heading precariously and unwaveringly towards a calamitous end. The truth is bitter but the truth we have to accept. The geographical entity known as Nigeria is fast approaching implosion. Currently, nothing is working. Everyone works hard to destabilize the country, to steal as much money as possible, to destroy the public order system, the economy, the education system, the government and everything that makes other countries great.
The maddening conflict between academic and non-academic staff at universities and the federal government has persisted. When negotiations between government officials and union leaders fail to resolve protracted disagreements, it is almost always because of ego. Some negotiators wear their ego on their shirt sleeves. At every meeting you will hear them emphatically asserting that this is either their way or no other way. They have a one-sided mind. They are linear in their thinking. They are inflexible, extreme, inflexible, stubborn, rigid or uncompromising. In this atmosphere, the interests of university students and their parents are seriously affected.
Effective political leadership is not about having pointless fights with ordinary citizens or union leaders. It’s not about showing the power of the state. So far, in the ongoing tension between the government and university teachers, both sides have reached that proverbial tipping point. Moving forward is not possible. Going back is not an option. In this state of boredom, nothing moves. Progress becomes a major challenge.
Public universities face serious threats to their existence due to endless strikes. In the current climate, two options are available to both parties. The first is to subjugate the pursuit of narrow interests. The second option is to reflect critically on what has been achieved, on the opportunities that have slipped away, and to explore ways to resuscitate an education system that has been haemorrhaging for too long.
Consider this experience quite shameful. Almost two years ago, ASUU gave up teaching and other academic activities for about nine months. When you subtract nine months from a full 12-month calendar, you get three months in which academic activities should take place. No objective was achieved because the problems that led to this strike two years ago are still unresolved today. The losers of yesterday and today remain the undergraduate and postgraduate students whose academic development has been effectively wasted.
Nigeria now wears the face of a country deeply at war with its own people. Everyone is alarmed, but no one is concerned or willing to act to solve the fundamental problems. It is this state of crude anarchy that The Punch majestically captured in an editorial published on Wednesday, December 1, 2021. The Punch wrote: “Nigeria faces an existential threat. Centrifugal forces, long suppressed, are tearing it apart. Mutual trust between the nationalities that make it up has collapsed and the unitary administrative and political format imposed on a natural federation has failed irreparably. The economy is unproductive while insecurity has reached an unprecedented level. Unless the country is restructured into a true federation, collapse is inevitable.
I end with a question about the challenges and opportunities facing universities: what is the future of public universities in Nigeria?