Professor what!

By Toyin Falola

Early last year, in distress, I called Dr. Samson Ijaola of Glorious University to ask him a question that was not allowing me to sleep: why are “big boys” asking me for money? It is unusual for them to do so because they usually do well financially. I often visit “big boys” in their houses in different parts of the country with two or three cars parked outside. When those in the US and Europe boast of their houses and offices, I mock them that they live in “Boys’ Quarters” and wood cabins with bricks plastered on them. Nigerian professors are among those whom I affectionately call the “big boys.” Whenever we hang out, they don’t want me to buy drinks or pepper soup as they want to entertain me. They are generous. They even carry food and beverages to my hotel room, lavishing one person with what could feed a dozen. The drivers are happy as they cart away rice, swallow, and protein. I love the names given to our rich organic foods. I love it more when I replace swallow with ororo, the elegantly creative name given to brandy and whisky.

I had not seen enough. I asked my question too early, counting my harvest before the locust invasion. Then came the long strike of 2022, and many more were begging, this time not for big amounts but even small ones, as in N10,000. I would give as requested but cry afterwards. I was emotionally tormented. Should professors beg for money? No, not at all. Never! Should professors be wealthy? No, not based on salaries earned from their regular jobs. They can use their extra time to do other things, as professors do in my part of the world, where many end up as Associates and run small businesses. Should they be comfortable relative to the economic productivity of the country? Yes. An occupation as high-scaled as this should not reduce professionals to beggars. Nothing can be more depressing.

Then came other appeals to leave the country. Japa! Any job will do, even driving a cab in Chicago. A country should not find itself in this kind of a mess. The public may be angry at the incessant strikes as they affect the lives of millions of young men and women who must be in school to lay the foundation for their future success. The conditions of service must improve, and the narrative must be rebranded. I am not saying that one occupation is better than another, and all citizens render equally important services. I am not treating professors under the rubric of exceptionalism but as dignified citizens whose occupations create multiplier effects.

Rather than being the recipients of gratitude, professors are scorned and ridiculed at various levels. The negotiations are neither respectful nor cordial at the federal government level. I was part of a small group that went to prostrate ourselves before politicians who were unqualified to register for my classes to appeal to Aso Rock to seek all means to end the last strike. Those who steal billions of naira in Abuja now regard themselves as fellow thieves, along with some professor-administrators who steal peanuts. I am not justifying theft. Professors should not steal, but a career label does not define a thief. A transgression by one professor is extended to all professors as if the criminal has no name. Name the criminal, but don’t tarnish all the innocent ones who are honest and diligent. Parents who offer bribes to secure admissions for their children and wards do not see themselves contributing to the system’s rot. They can bribe today to obtain admissions to rewarding occupational paths and cry tomorrow that their children are not in school.

Unmotivated students who see no future for themselves heap the blame on innocent lecturers who are not tasked with planning the economy and politics of the nation. Universities do not create jobs but enable environments and human capacities. Those who elevated Vice-Chancellors to CEOs because of political calculations and co-optation do not realize the danger of creating hierarchies in the system. You cannot create an Emperor and avoid ruthless clerks and tax collectors. You cannot collect bribes from your CEOs as they receive their allocations and ask them not to dispense some largesse.

If people are underpaid, will they not seek the means to augment their salaries? Is it thinkable that a cab driver in New York, who fled Nigeria because he failed all exams in high school and could not gain admission into any Nigerian university, now boasts that he is better than a Zoology professor at the University of Ibadan? Former students who graduated from Nigerian universities now tarnish the image of their former teachers, proclaiming their intellectual superiority over those older than their parents. As the ridicule continues, a lecturer at the University of Ibadan, with the motto “The First and the Best,” can be invited to come and learn how to publish in a Western university as if the system in Nigeria is bankrupt. How did he obtain a PhD in the first instance if he did not know how to publish?

Regarding himself as hungry, a senior lecturer can jump at the offer of a hotel room after being told that a publishable paper can be produced over the weekend. Anyone who cannot publish at their permanent place of work cannot produce one at a five-star hotel in New York. A silent worker at the University of Maiduguri, doing excellent teaching and research, is being undermined by loudmouths on social media who tell us when they cough from their lonely spaces in London. Colonizers come in various forms and are no longer white in colour. There are now local proxies to serve as agents of imperialism, not fighting with us to stop the illicit flow of the $90 billion that leaves Africa each year but boasting about the $5000 they receive from money stolen from Africa in the first instance to distribute to poor lecturers from where the money comes from in the first instance. They are no different from the chiefs and kings who sold Africans to the Atlantic slave trade between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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“Professor What!” This is where the Nigerian academy is headed. Will that “what” not eventually bring us all down, irrespective of our location? We should halt this dangerous process to restore optimism in our institutions and collective future. We should not only be angry at the leadership and political system but also seek the means to create sanity in institutions, elevate the worth of those who have invested resources in self-development and career elevation, and exercise caution in making public statements that ridicule our people. Our citizens at home will be our development agents. The professor struggling to train students at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University in Sokoto is far more important than the one in any Western university who is no more than a careerist with limited impact on our people. Far more important than me is a professor at the University of Port Harcourt who does good teaching and grades 200 papers in one semester. He is producing citizens that will elevate the nation. What he needs from me is intellectual collaboration, not arrogance that demeans his intellect and capacity.

A little digression is necessary to bring up my key points. The evolution of higher education and the academic profession is strongly related to the history of the professorship. A professor in ancient Rome was a public lecturer or educator specially called upon and received payments for lectures on various societally influencing topics. When universities started to develop as hubs of learning and research in the Middle Ages, the function of professors expanded to encompass not just teaching and reforming perspectives but also doing research and advancing knowledge in their area of specialization. The position of professors has evolved as universities have grown more established and diversified. Today, professors across the globe are valued academics with advanced degrees in their fields of specialization charged with the obligations of instructing, researching, and advancing the body of knowledge in their fields and, more importantly, reforming the perspectives that advance development and growth in their society. There is a non-monetary social prestige attached to the occupation.

In Nigeria, the history of professorship can be traced to the establishment of the first university in 1948. In the early years of higher education in Nigeria, professors were primarily foreign academics hired to teach at the new university. These individuals were primarily from Europe and North America, but as time passed, an increasing number of Nigerian scholars started to acquire advanced degrees and work in academia. Today, academics from Nigeria and outside who teach and conduct research in various fields make up the diversified community of professors. As of 2019, data from Statista show that Nigeria has more than 11 000 professors in its institutions of learning. Current data add another 1000.

In the Nigerian academic system and across the globe, professors are the most senior academics, constituting a distinct and separate labour unit under their scholarship, hard work, and resilience toward advancing the body of knowledge and refining a teeming generation through teaching and character development. In most cases, the responsibilities they are saddled with often require much of their time and personal commitment, tying them to teaching, constant research, writing and publishing, and participating in committees and other institutional or professional groups. Undoubtedly, the demands can be labour-intensive and highly intellectually demanding for anyone engaged in this activity. But this is the path our professors have chosen to tread, and as a nation, we ought to recognize and appreciate every effort they put in to build a better and clearer future for us.

Although the position of a professor is prestigious and desirable, it is mocked in Nigeria’s academic and political system. Given that the position is the highest obtainable promotion/rank, and considering their academic and research obligations, one would expect societal recognition for their contributions to knowledge advancement in society and commensurate financial remuneration for the value they provide. However, this is far from being true in Nigeria. On average, the net salary of a professor in Nigeria is at ₦400,000 per month. To the nearest USD, this is equivalent to $850 (at the official exchange rate or $550 at the street market rate). Compared to other countries, a professor in the United States earns an average of $6,164 per month, a professor in Canada earns an average of $92,000 per year, and a professor in the United Kingdom earns between £3,500 and £5,000 monthly. In a more similar economy to that of Nigeria, professors in South Africa receive a net salary of R527,137, an equivalent of $30,974 when converted to USD.

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The truth is, while professors in Nigeria engage in identical responsibilities as their colleagues in other climes, what makes the difference is the country, Nigeria, in which ours have unfortunately found themselves. The country does not adequately recognize their inputs nor the ripple effects such inputs have on the country’s advancement, and it sparsely recognizes their value with a monthly salary that is nothing but an insult to their achieved status.

Interestingly, the real significance of the impact of the ASUU/FG negotiations and the treatment meted out to ASUU has far-reaching consequences for the Nigerian workforce. The most evident is the depletion of other professionals through migration. The exodus of the most productive class, individuals, families, teams, and top civil servants, who continue to migrate is not dissociated from the posture toward higher education in Nigeria. The reality is that almost every member of the existing workforce is affected by matters relating to the Nigerian University System, either by having a relative who is an academic or offspring, siblings, or spouses who are undergraduates or postgraduate students. The rippling effect on the workforce and its hydra-headed consequences are far-reaching and go beyond what is visible in the immediate. To some academics who appear distant from the ASUU cause, the union is treated like an opposition party to the government that must be crushed. If not, why would other unions at other types of tertiary institutions get more funding and better pay? From some indications, most professors, who are breadwinners, did not receive their December salaries till after Christmas, having to depend on the cooperative societies that are also under tremendous financial pressure for soft loans. How can this be explained? In the same country, some establishments paid thirteenth-month salaries and sundry bonuses for the festive season. The signal is that Nigeria’s university education is a poorly paid industry. Result? Young professors and budding academics with the same skills continue to migrate.

Several professors retired in the last year. The implication for those who fell within this category is that within the last eight months of their careers, they were without funds to prepare for their exit from the system. Professors and all those officially on approved leaves were also placed in the same category as striking lecturers, and their salaries were not paid.

No doubt, motivation is an essential factor in the success of any profession, and professors are no exception. It is the driving force that encourages individuals to perform at their best and achieve their goals. In Nigeria, however, professors face numerous challenges that hinder their motivation and, subsequently, their performance – a major one being the lack of sufficient financial compensation. In addition to inadequate pay, professors in Nigeria face a lack of other forms of motivation, such as conducive working environments, health facilities, housing loans, vehicle loans, insurance, and study leave with pay. On matters relating to health and health services, some professors died during the strike; many more are still dying of starvation and the inability to afford or purchase the right prescription or medication. There is a flurry of medical personnel migration and the burden of paying subsistence bills, among other factors.

The death toll was so unbearable during the ASUU strike. As reported in the news, “over 21 professors and senior lecturers” lost their lives during the ASUU strike at the University of Calabar. Although the Chairman of ASUU, UNICAL Chapter, gave the correct figure to be 15, it is worrisome that this is just the figure from a university! One can imagine what the figures will be if reports are also taken from other universities. In another worrisome development at the University of Benin, a member of staff also committed suicide because of financial difficulty.

A conducive working environment, for instance, is essential for any worker to perform their job to the best of their abilities. However, this is often not the case for professors in Nigeria, who may be working in outdated or poorly-equipped facilities. Multi-national organizations, observing the disdain with which the negotiations were conducted and the public response that has resulted, are somewhat hesitant to release resources normally given in support of research and infrastructure.

As a result, professors may struggle to stay motivated and perform at their highest levels. These incentives, commonly offered to professionals in other parts of the world, serve as a way to recognize and reward the efforts of professors and encourage them to continue striving for excellence. Without these motivations, it is difficult for professors in Nigeria to feel fulfilled in their roles and motivated to achieve their best work. This disparity is unfair and demoralizing for professors who have dedicated years of hard work and study to attain their prestigious position.

Also, professors in Nigeria often face limited opportunities for professional development, which can negatively impact their motivation, recognition for their contributions, and the overall quality of education in the country. Without access to the same resources and training opportunities as their counterparts in other countries, professors may struggle to keep up with the latest trends and best practices in their field. This lack of support and investment in their professional growth can lead to a lack of motivation and commitment to their profession. Professors need to have access to ongoing training and development to stay current and relevant in their field and contribute to their students’ growth and development. The lack of professional development opportunities for professors can also negatively affect the education system, leading to a lack of innovation and progress.

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In all of these, a significant challenge is a lack of recognition and appreciation for their hard work and contributions to the academic field, despite the obvious harsh conditions. In other countries, professors are often recognized and celebrated for their achievements and contributions to their field. They may receive awards, grants, or other forms of recognition for their research, teaching, and other contributions to the academic community. This recognition not only serves as a way to acknowledge and appreciate their hard work but also provides a sense of validation and accomplishment that can boost their morale and motivation. In contrast, professors in Nigeria often struggle to receive the same level of recognition and appreciation for their work. This lack of recognition can be particularly frustrating for professors who have dedicated their careers to teaching and research and have made significant contributions to their field. It can lead to feelings of frustration, disappointment, and even resentment, which can ultimately negatively impact their overall job satisfaction and performance, or, as has been the case for several years, lead to brain drain. In addition to the lack of recognition, professors in Nigeria also face issues such as insecurity, inadequate or unavailable research programs and funds, inadequate infrastructure, and large class sizes that they may not have the resources to manage effectively. These challenges have led to a brain drain of professors and lecturers seeking better opportunities abroad, and some leave the teaching profession entirely to pursue other ventures. The impact of these issues is not limited to the professors themselves, as students may also suffer from the aggression and frustration of their professors.

Strike actions are another issue militating against professors’ smooth performance and activities in the Nigerian academic setup. So incessant have strike actions become a normal schedule and an integral part of the academic calendar. To some extent, an academic year hardly passes without a strike across public universities in the country. This frequent occurrence of strike actions has crippled the higher education system. The most recent strike happened between February 14 and October 14, 2022. Before that was the 2020 strike, which was synchronized with the COVID-19 pandemic and lasted almost nine months. This pathetic situation affects not only the students, as the public often paints it but also the lecturers significantly.

During the last strike action, the government insisted on implementing the no-work-no-pay policy, which would leave the lecturers, including the professors, with no salary for relatively eight months. This situation becomes even sadder when one recalls that a significant part of why the industrial strike was embarked upon in the first place was because of incommensurate compensation. Even upon resumption in October 2022, after the eight-month strike, what they got as their monthly pay was half their normal salary for that month. Undoubtedly, strike actions triggered by the government’s disregard weaken academics’ financial strength and capacity. Since many of these strike actions often end in a deadlock, dissatisfaction and dubious means of acquiring financial gains have characterized the Nigerian university system.

To address these issues, it is necessary to provide professors with better remuneration, funding for research and development, improved working conditions, and opportunities for professional growth. In addition, it is important to recognize and value professors’ hard work and dedication and to provide them with the support and resources they need to succeed. By addressing these challenges, it will be possible to create a better working environment for professors and improve the overall quality of education in Nigeria. Ultimately, the professors are the driving force of the Nigerian tertiary academic system.

Corrupt politicians should be ashamed of themselves for bringing us to this terrible situation. Those privileged to escape to other lands should protect the system’s integrity. I am reminded of a Yoruba proverb: “When tomorrow boasts that it is superior to today, it forgets that within 24 hours, it will be downgraded to yesterday!” Those who abuse the privilege of youth by abusing their former teachers and calling those older than their mothers’ idiots and thieves will later realize they will ultimately end up as carcasses dumped into the graveyard of history. Downfall is the outcome of hubris. The ground does not disappear because you have succeeded in climbing a mountain.

Although the challenges confronting the smooth operation and existence of professors in Nigeria are beyond what has been covered in this piece, it is crucial to state that breaking the spirit of professors, who are the torchbearers of academia, is eroding the essence of the teaching profession in Nigeria. Should the government begin by implementing the suggested solutions, there will be some marked changes. These recommendations will afford a better life for professors and help revamp the entire academic system.

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