Moses Ochonu identifies the changes that have become of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in recent years alleging that the union had become a “problem” of the Nigerian university system.
Nigerians do not like the truth; they prefer self-comforting narratives. Since doing a short update on the just-declared ASUU strike yesterday, many who are suckers for ASUU’s propaganda have continued to spew the predictable ASUU talking points without much critical reflection on them. My American hosts say that the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.
That is what ASUU has been doing in the last 15 years or so. The golden age of the ASUU struggle ended about 20 years ago. For the past fifteen years or so, the union has been struggling to redefine itself and find a new identity but has ended up simply reinventing the proverbial wheel even when the challenges of today’s university system call for a different toolkit than periodic strikes that worked in the 1980s and 1990s but that are increasingly less productive and are even counterproductive. Here are the problems with ASUU’s lazy, unimaginative resort to strikes every five years.
So many strikes have occurred in the last 15 years or so — so many that it’s hard to keep up. So many that no one who attended a public university in this period can say they were not affected by at least one. And yet, the fundamental problems of universities — poor instruction, poor research, poor supervision and mentorship, ethical violations, sexual harassment and exploitation of students, and poor intellectual life have persisted. In fact, academic standards have fallen drastically even as more money poured into universities for infrastructure and as lecturers and non-academic staff salaries and allowances increased. Nigerian academics have become less internationally competitive, and their products, the students they teach and graduate, have become more shortchanged and less educated, never mind the fact that the number of first class degrees has risen (story for another update).
This negative correlation between improved funding and deteriorating standards is worrisome but hardly surprising. This is because as ASUU struggled to get the government to invest more in infrastructure and compensation, the body never asked anything of itself, of its members. All this while, even as TETFUND and other intervention agencies emerged to fund higher education, lecturers remained unaccountable and thus they remained stagnant in their craft and even regressed. They didn’t have to give anything or improve their attitude, mindset, or approach to their jobs in return for all the gains and benefits they reaped from their struggle. As a result, poor teaching continued; lecturers continued to skip classes even as their personal economies significantly improved and some of them even became caught up in extracurricular pecuniary and career pursuits outside the university; poor or non-existent supervision and mentorship of postgraduate students continued; lecturers continued to teach from outdated, dog-eared lecture notes from the 1970s; lecturers continued to publish poorly researched papers or not to publish at all; lecturers, in fact began to game the new NUC publications metrics by patronizing pay-to-publish predatory journals in India and Pakistan, making mockery of the academic research process; sexual harassment of students continued; monetary demands on students continued.
All these occurred in the context of much improved conditions — what one might describe as ASUU’s earlier success. The irony now is that this success has led to a fixation on the erroneous notion that the problem of university education in Nigeria centers on infrastructure funding and improvement to salaries and allowances, as well as a concomitant neglect of the aforementioned problems that have a direct bearing on academic standards. Which is why we’re producing poorer and poorer graduates. I should know because I have first class degree holders and even some academics writing to me for one reason or the other or sharing their work with me, and their work is poorly conceived, error-ridden, poorly researched, and poorly-written.
Today, when we say a VC’s tenure was a success or such and such was a successful VC, we’re talking about how many physical structures were built during their time. We’re not talking about how he or she improved the quality and quantity of research output, or how they improved teaching standards, or how they created a vibrant intellectual culture devoid of ethical abuses, or how they helped produce graduates who are internationally competitive, are self-motivated, and are intellectually curious.
Herein lies the problem. ASUU’s initial success ironically killed whatever was left of research culture or spirit of critical inquiry in Nigerian universities. Today, as we speak, TETFUND has N3 billion naira in research funds that have NOT been accessed. Take some time to digest this irony. At a time when ASUU is ostensibly fighting for “better funding” of universities TETFUND is complaining that academics are not applying for this pool of research money that was created in part in response to their perennial demand for funding. Is it that they Nigerian academics are not aware of this fund? No. They know about it, but they’re too lazy to craft a compelling research proposal let alone follow through with a rigorous research agenda that such research awards require. It’s not entirely their fault; the current ASUU-enabled system does not require them to be innovative researchers. They’re content with getting by with writing mediocre, derivative papers that do not require actual research and are adequate to get them promoted to the next rank. They can build “successful” academic careers and rise to become professors without winning research grants or conducting serious, original research.
Then when they become professors, they stop performing academic duties, conducting research, teaching, or mentoring altogether and start seeking opportunities for wealth accumulation or status enhancement outside the academy.
Research culture is dead in Nigerian universities, and it is not because of inadequate funding, as the unaccessed N3 billion TETFUND research fund demonstrates. Rather it is ironically because lecturers are not required by ASUU-FG agreements to satisfy a rigorous research or teaching requirement for promotion, and because their salaries and allowances are not tied to their teaching or research efficacy but are rather determined by the periodic strikes of ASUU.
In other words, from successfully fighting for improvements to university education in the 1980s and 1990s, ASUU has become an underwriter, protector, catalyst, and incubator of mediocrity in the Nigerian university system. ASUU has become part of the problem.
Professor Moses Ochonu is a professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. He has been the Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in History since 2017.