From where I sit - Strike action and inaction

October 20, 2011

Looking from outside, one might expect that Nigeria, a country of more than 150 million people and endowed with oil reserves, independent from the UK since 1960, would have an educational system that could accord opportunities to all its youth.

But in reality, helpless Nigerian students were recently locked out yet again as the nation's lecturers undertook "warning strike action" to press home their demands for better conditions and an improved teaching environment. The action has been called off for now, but since its underlying causes have not been addressed, "total and indefinite action", as they used to call it, is likely within weeks.

For nearly two decades, Nigeria's academy has been in a constant state of crisis, driving many scholars out of the country in search of greener pastures.

As an undergraduate at Bayero University in the early 1990s, I was one of the many students forced to stay at home for six months while lecturers were on strike. Interestingly, for most of the past 20 years the majority of ministers of education have been university teachers. But instead of bringing change, the situation has worsened.

Hardly a student graduates within the stipulated period without his or her studies being interrupted. Almost 13 years after Nigeria's return to democracy after 16 years of military dictatorship, the academy has made little progress - even though the current president, Goodluck Jonathan, is a former university don.

Until the early 1990s, tertiary education in Nigeria was the preserve of the state. This monopoly was seen as a major factor in the sector's low standards (critics argued that "government is a bad manager of education") and in the fact that there weren't enough student places to meet demand.

The government was compelled to yield to pressure and liberalise the sector by allowing private individuals and other interests to establish higher education institutions. But even liberalisation has not been able to address the problems, as government-owned universities remain dominant.

The National Universities Commission says there are 41 private and about 80 public universities in Nigeria, a figure considered insignificant for a nation of its size. The combined student places in Nigeria amount to a little over 300,000, but there are more than 1 million applications a year, according to the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, the body responsible for providing university places. So higher education, especially at postgraduate level, remains largely provided by public institutions - which is reason to be concerned about the repeated strike action by state-employed academics.

Ukachukwu Awuzie, president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, said that the recent industrial action was a bid to ensure the full implementation of the 2009 agreement it entered into with the federal government on contentious issues such as "dwindling government funding to the university sector, retirement age, setting up of research and development units by companies operating in Nigeria (and the) provision of research equipment".

But Ruqayyatu Ahmed Rufa'i, the minister of education, also until recently a lecturer, said the delay in implementing some aspects of the 2009 agreement was mainly due to "bureaucratic bottlenecks and communication gaps with the union".

The question is: how long can Nigeria continue to allow bureaucracy to paralyse education at the highest level?

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