ASUU Update: Be Ready For Financial Autonomy If You Want University Autonomy

The Illusive Demand by ASUU by Ndubuisi Ekekwe

The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), a union of university academic staff, is a great institution which continues to ensure that Nigeria has the manpower to compete locally and globally, besides producing graduates that will handle the affairs of the nation. We respect ASUU and certainly commend some of the most brilliant people, in their generations, who have stayed to teach in our schools.

Yet, ASUU is not blameless. The evidence-based and empirical constructs the professors teach in our universities do not apply to how they agitate, against the Federal Government of Nigeria. They make bold demands without examining the basis of such demands. Today, they are on strike, on the following demands:

Ogunyemi said that the industrial action which took effect from Sunday August 13, 2017 will be “total, comprehensive and indefinite action whereby no form of academic activities, including teaching, attendance of any meeting, conduct and supervision of any examination at any level, supervision of project or thesis at any level would take place at any of the government universities”.

In 2009, after a strenuous and painstaking three-year renegotiation exercise, the federal government had signed an agreement with ASUU on the issues ofconditions of service, funding, university autonomy and academic freedom.

—“Of all the items contained in the MoU, only the N200b out of a total of N1.3trn of the public universities revitalisation (Needs Assessment) fund was released.

Simply, ASUU wants four things (yes, five things):

Improved Conditions of Services. More Funding (for the universities) University autonomy Academic freedom Pending N1.1 trillion to be released to public universities.

If you check these five items, there is no way they could be in our sentence or paragraph, realistically. Why? You cannot have university autonomy and expect the government to be funding you nearly 100%. So, the governor or the President will always like to run the university as a “business” because the school is part of the line cost item. If you think a governor will fund a state university and leave ASUU to appoint the Governing Council, which provides a good avenue to settle political associates, you are dreaming. If you think a Vice Chancellor will adhere to ASUU when the governor is the one that ratifies anything he does, you are wasting your time. The Vice Chancellor, largely, is a political appointee disguised on an academic robe.

The fact is this: ASUU cannot eat its cake and have it. That is a conversation that must happen in the Nigerian university system. ASUU needs to understand that it cannot have autonomy when government funds more than 90% of its budget. For autonomy, it needs to ingenuously expand our university funding base away from government. This should be so clear to ASUU by now. So, that #3 should not be there,where #2 exists in excess of more than 90% of school budget. Government is made up of humans, the politicians, and where they allocate resources, are where they have influence. Administrative autonomy in our schools will not be possible without financial autonomy.

The #1 (improved conditions of service) is simply about salary and wages. Sure, I support that our professors be paid well. But here, ASUU has to be totally honest. I have seen adverts where ASUU professors compared themselves to MIT and Harvard professors who make $500,000 per year. Doing that is just unfair, on the following grounds:

MIT is in a larger economy. The U.S. economy is more than 30X the economy of Nigeria. There is no way such translations can happen in wages. Google will not pay a Nigeria-based software engineer who is at the same level as another engineer in Silicon Valley the same wage. Besides the purchasing power parity and cost of local living, the size of your market matters MIT professor mostly gets paid through grants. In some cases, no one pays him/her from university funds in the summer where the professor has to pay himself or herself from grant money. Nigerian professors are guaranteed salaries for 12 months in a year. If an MIT professor or any top U.S. university professor does not have a grant, nothing for that person for three months during summer MIT professor may be paid $500,000 because he/she has a patent the University receives more than $10 million per year. But because the rights of the invention go to the university, sometimes, the school finds a way to make them happy so that they keep working. Being a university professor is challenging because you can create an idea that makes people rich while you toil.  As Amazon, Uber etc go into U.S. universities to lure professors, schools  are fighting to keep them, with better packages. That is why they are paid that much. In Nigeria, we do not have that problem and we cannot expect to compare linearly with the compensations of these U.S. teachers.

Also, if ASUU thinks that Nigeria can afford to inject N1.1 trillion in our universities, at this time, it is not simply honest. ASUU has this upper hand because its products, the students, affect everyone. There is no other sector that can make this type of demand and get away with it: government will simply ignore. But because of the students, ASUU comes up with demands seasonally. While they have the rights to demand, it is very important we look at these issues fairly. I must note that, generally, our schools are not well funded. But that is not the whole story.

The Problems

Nigerian university system has a real funding problem. Everyone knows that. However, what ASSU is doing is not helping. Nigeria needs to expand capacity but ASUU has not brought leadership in that space. I explain thus:

Government keeps starting new universities at federal and state levels. ASUU never mounts any HARD challenge to the governments to be smarter on this policy. For ASUU, more schools offer more rooms to be VCs, HODs, Deans etc. They never care that education budget is not technically growing despite the expansion of university bureaucracy. ASUU could have recommended putting the new schools under the existing ones thereby reducing administration cost, even when expanding access to education for our students. In Rwanda, they technically have one university with campuses around the country. That saves massive cost which goes into improving teaching and research. Imagine having only 10 VCs in Nigeria. The saving on cars, housing etc will be massive to actually improve basic things in schools.There is no hard evidence that shows that more money is the problem. ASUU keeps making this an argument of more money, but it is yet to provide empirical data. The fact is this: even as government pumps more money, the quality of our graduates continues to drop. ASUU needs to answer that question. You can pump money for VCs to be buying Mercedes Benz instead of Honda.ASUU does not want partial privatization of public universities. And yet, it wants more funding in the public schools. Please note that government does not have limitless cash to solve ASUU problem. Nigeria is a poor country. Our annual budget may not even cover South Africa’s health budget. Forget the optimistic GDP data, the key is the money in the bank. Nigeria does not have it. Yet, ASUU does not want private support in the funding. Why? ASUU is afraid of accountability. ASUU has avoided providing benchmarks upon which government can use to tie this funding need. That is what the private sector will likely demand. You go to the CEO of a university and ask: if I provide this more funding, what do I expect in outcome? Today, state and federal governments do not know what to expect from ASUU with more funding in measurable and concrete ways. Governments have rights to those and ASUU must provide them to boost its arguments of more money.

All Together

I am a big advocate of quality education, not just at the university level but also at primary and secondary levels. Nigeria needs one. I enjoyed my time in Federal University of Technology Owerri, despite having to go to class at 4am for a lecture starting at 10am, to “colonise” a seat in the front. ASUU demand makes sense – more funding could have solved that problem. However, I have also noticed that it was not just about funding when I made it into U.S. It was more of an efficient utilization of capital and factors of production. Yet, we can talk about those even for a university. Most U.S. university leaders are professional managers who are well experienced in managing large organizations. That a crop scientist professor has published many papers does not qualify him or her to be running a university when he/she cannot read a simple balance sheet statement.

And because of ego, the professor may not even ask anyone for help. So, you see this problem that unless it is crop science, vision is stunted. In U.S. university presidents’ offices, you see a mini investment banking office with professionals working as though they have come to exponential grow alpha. The quality of our university administration is a fair game if ASUU wants to improve governance and prudent management of our university resources.

Nigeria needs to find the right mix on university funding. Also, we need to empower private universities not necessarily through funding. In U.S., the private schools put pressure on the state schools, which always lag the private ones. Private institutions are always better managed. Nigerian kids have limited choices to attend our private universities because of the cost. If there are frameworks to make some of the private schools affordable, ASUU will find that not many people will take up its illusive demand.

But I must say that the government must be honest on how it handles our professors. You cannot sign a document with full awareness that you would not implement it. That is degrading and insulting. Everyone has a role to play here because at the end, only the students suffer. Where you know you do not have money, stop opening new public universities. Rather, make it easier for the private ones to meet the demands of what you have in mind, while supervising them for quality. Nigeria, by now, should not be closing universities on strike. The fact that we continue to close universities is a shame. It needs to stop.

Nigeria needs a conference on how to fund education in the 21st century. Our students deserve better. For more than 30 years since ASUU was established, it has been making this argument from military governments to civilian ones and nothing seems to be working. The government cannot always be at fault. ASUU may be having issues explaining what it wants.

ndubuisi ekekwe

Ndubuisi Ekekwe, Chairman of FASMICRO Group, writes regularly in the Harvard Business Review.

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