Dirge to University Education in Nigeria

Nwachukwu Egbunike

Sam Egwu, Minister of Education, Nigeria

Sam Egwu, Minister of Education, Nigeria

It’s been a treat reading Niyi Osundare’s Dialogue with my Country. As I poured over this poet’s prosaic monologue – since it takes two to dialogue – Osundare could as well have been soliloquizing as his audience have made no pretense at listening, let alone responding. Nonetheless, his play of words enthralled while the issues he raised sobered.

However, the part of Osundare’s book on education (chapter 5), though originally written some 20 years ago, only reinforced that things hardly change. The dirge for our university system has once more be intoned, like a horrible ghost that hunts our collective sensibilities, the universities have been forced to go on an indefinite vacation. While the famished “ivory towers” or what is left of it, is embroiled in crisis, the education minister surfs in a London celebration wave.

Initially I had no sympathy for ASUU. I had thought that their propensity to strike has not helped anyone. I had reasoned that ASUU, NASU and SANU, should give this government the benefit of doubt. After all, they all cannot be blind to the obvious, this is a war situation and all should be patriotic. That was my position until government reacted. In a despicable “might is right” posture and without any negotiation, they flung a 40% salary increase. As if the university teachers are just hungry and only need a little appeasement, government insensitivity continued with “the no work, no pay policy.”

An elementary principle of crisis control enunciates that two parties in a dispute should always make joint pronouncements. It only makes sense, else one party can easily feel sidelined and the crisis rather than subsiding only escalates. I wonder how the government party came to the conclusion that these teachers are only concerned about their pockets. Thus the solution is to add a few kobos to their income and pronto, they will go back to their classes.

ASUU in an articulate presentation of their reasons for dropping the chalk – delible markers in these days of whiteboard – stated as follows: “For over two years, the Federal Government and ASUU Negotiating Teams searched for a minimum point from which the Nigerian University system could make significant progress towards reversing the brain drain that has deprived our country of a vital causal agency in national development, i.e. the development and sustenance of a large pool of scholars whose intellectual scientific production would reposition Nigeria for greater responsibilities in national development”(see ASUU’s website).

This means that both parties have been talking for two long years and still the government pretends to be caught unawares by the industrial action. If so where they also deaf to the wails of children of lesser gods when these teachers refused to transmit the precious gush of knowledge for two weeks? Or were they blindfolded when “the two teams agreed, to begin the process of repositioning the university system as envisaged, that a required minimum of funds should be provided both in the public universities, Federal and State, with increased efforts by universities to generate funds without compromising the goals and integrity of universities.”

Where then is the role of law in all these? For an administration that has worn us out by this sing song, what is worse than failing to honour an agreement? In face of these, education still remains a point of the 7-point agenda. Lo we have former university teachers as the servant of education and president respectively. And these are the brands that the information minister seeks to re-garnish?

Those who think that the alternative lies in private universities are certainly in error. As much as the space of university education has been broadened by these non-public institutions, the desired may continue to be elusive. Like the morning mist that takes on its heels with the appearance of the sun, many of these private universities are no better than glorified secondary schools. I was stunned on seeing the academic performance of one, in which about 30% of the graduating students made first class while about 50% had upper second class honours degree.

Like mushrooms, the private universities burgeon the academic scenery. Relying mainly on tired professors (and some serving teachers in public universities), some of their students have had the doors of the public schools slammed upon their faces. Needless to state that not all private campuses wallow in this pitiable mess, some are so outstanding that they have made nonsense of governments’ former monopoly of university education. Nonetheless, some private universities deserve not the licenses of accreditation.

In the beginning of this essay I said that Niyi Osundare’s book was a soliloquy not a dialogue. Our leaders are not only deaf but also incapable of sane reasoning. You can only have a conversation with a person who is ready to listen. It’s sad that Osundare’s conclusion in July 31, 1989 in ‘Rhythms of Violence’ should apply July 2009. “All this is just one indication of the decline and fall of Nigeria’s university system in recent years – its loss of autonomy, its dwindling financial support, the constant humiliation of its staff. This in itself is a form of violence to a system on which the country relies for a substantial part of its manpower, a sure invitation to further brain drain.”

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