Sir Temple Ogueri Onyeukwu is an administrator, analyst and public commentator. He is the founder of Excellent Foundation College, Agidingbi, Lagos. In this interview with APATA OYEDIRAN, he speaks extensively on various challenges militating against the education sector and proffers solution. Excerpts:

Could you please take a general overview of the ASUU face-off with the government?

The Academic Staff Union of Universities has been on strike for close to five months now. Cumulatively ASUU has been on strike for about five calendar years in the past 15 years. The victims are the students, the university system, the quality of our graduates, and the economic, social, political, and technological growth and development of the country.

Fundamentally, the cause of ASUU strikes can be traced to inadequate funding of universities and the preference of the Federal Government in outsourcing sensitive and industry-specific payment platforms to foreign entrepreneurs whereas ASUU claims to have a better, locally produced platform at least for the university system.

What is your reaction to the App called UTAS developed by ASUU which has been put to test by NITDA?

Essentially, it beats every reasonable imagination that the Federal Government of Nigeria will prefer a platform developed abroad to that developed locally. We have always blamed the university system for not doing enough research and not translating the results of their research to practical industrial use. All over the world, universities are known to provide productive industries with research results which help in developing, improving and/or creating new products and services for society. Why the Federal Government would reject the result of an indigenous effort and prefer a foreign one is perplexing.

The world over, funding of universities is not the exclusive right of any government. What universities demand include academic and financial autonomy while the government concentrates on the setting, monitoring and enforcing the standards every institution of higher learning must comply with. In Nigeria, the reverse is the case. The government officials will ask you, how do you expect the children of the poor to obtain a university education? Will the universities be properly managed if given the necessary freedom?

However, the more important question is what is the essence of university education? Must every Nigerian pass through the university? Are there potential opportunities for any Nigerian child from a poor background to acquire a university education? Do all parents in other countries bear the cost of university education for their children?

Talking about appropriate cost of education on the government and the governed, what are the available options for parents and students?

I have relations in America and the U.K. Many of them have attained university education up to at least a master’s degree level. More than 85 percent of them funded their university education through the student loan board and are paying back the loan after graduation. When you live in the hostels, you pay appropriate fees that will enable the school to maintain the facilities to guarantee you and those coming behind decent living conditions. When you graduate there is an opportunity for employment and no opportunity to evade a refund of the loans. Your data is your ID. Your biometrics will always give you out if you intend to default.

In Nigeria today, some federal universities still charge less than N50,000 for hostel accommodation for a session. This is unrealistic. Students live in squalors and ghettos since the Federal Government does not maintain the hostel accommodations. Many federal universities charge less than N50,000 as fees for a session. Sentiments take priority over reality. Government after government shies away from following the right path which is granting universities both academic and financial autonomy.

Procedurally, the National Assembly must amend the necessary laws to ensure universities charge appropriate fees, fund their research, pay salaries of their staff, maintain and build more infrastructure, develop the learning environment and remit the balance on yearly basis to the federation account. The universities can pay their recurrent and capital expenditures annually and are conveniently backed by the necessary laws.

Corruption, ineptitude, inconsistent policies, lack of commitment and policy summersault are part of the problems the university system is facing. The Federal Government in its bid to be seen as caring is carrying more load than necessary. The Federal Government is involved in primary, secondary and tertiary education. It is involved at all levels. This is one of the results of a dysfunctional political structure, operating a unitary system of government and branding it federal. Nothing will work under this system unless the country is restructured and duties, obligations and responsibilities properly defined and assigned to the various levels of government.

Consequently, to avert and/or minimise future strikes by ASUU, the government must without delay grant the universities financial autonomy and set up a student loan bank. The government must stop this circle of unending negotiations with ASUU. The government over the years has demonstrated a lack of financial discipline and lack of understanding of the essence of the existence of the universities and therefore treats their demands with levity and even contempt.

Subsequent admissions into the various universities must be contractual between the various universities and the students. The universities must state the financial implications for the parents of the intending students to consider before accepting or rejecting the offer of admissions. All the services provided by the universities must be appropriately priced and made known to incoming students. The universities must adopt more creative means of funding, for example, Alumni Crowd Funding where everybody that has passed through the university in the past will donate to the university on an annual basis. The Manufacturers Association of Nigeria must establish a relationship with universities to maximally utilise the result of their research. Priority must be given to human capital development. Economic growth and development are intricately tied to human capital development. Unless we develop our human capital through properly funded universities, economic growth and development will continue to elude us.

In addition to the above, multinationals, and international oil companies may be persuaded to adopt a university to donate handsomely for research in those universities. The TETfund which has been a source of funding, education can be strictly channelled to funding only university education.

The Federal Government’s local content policy must prioritize the products and services provided by our universities. The IPPIs cannot take priority over the platform produced by our universities – UTAS (University Transparency Accountability Solution). Rather the government should empanel a body comprising those that developed the UTAS to develop platforms for others. This is because the entitlements and allowances a worker gets are industry-specific and the payment platforms must comply with the industry specificity.

What may likely be the fallout of the prolonged strike on parents and students, do you envisage an exodus?

International student funding is another source of generating funding for the universities. In the 1970s and 80s, many Nigerian universities had international students who paid their fees in hard currency. Currently, on annual basis, universities from the UK, Ukraine, Russia and other countries besiege Nigeria to interview prospective students and offer them admission to study. Many parents opt for this due to the unstable academic calendar occasioned by government neglect and incessant ASUU strikes. Where the standards are right and the academic calendar is stable, and the degrees are sought after for employment, fees generated from international students go a long way in funding the universities. It is on record that between 2019 and 2021, about (17,000) seventeen thousand Nigerians were admitted to UK universities. These students paid tuition, accommodation, feeding, daily upkeep, transportation and other bills for the period of their studies. Can you quantify the cost of education tourism occasioned by government neglect and an unstable academic calendar? Yet many of us parents do not want to pay for our children to study in universities at home. The government has continued to deliberately neglect the education sector and the genuine demand by ASUU.

Many Federal Government universities in Nigeria have better infrastructure though not maintained. These infrastructures have been built over many years of their existence. The private universities are run by charging appropriate fees without government subsidy. Currently, the Federal Government has many challenges demanding financial attention, the worst of which is the situation where it uses about 80 percent of its revenue to service debts that have been invested in unproductive ventures that cannot service the debts or repay the capital borrowed.

The second most challenging financial decision of the Federal Government is the inappropriate pricing of PMS. While it is alleged that those at the helm of affairs in this industry are smiling at the banks as a result of corruptly enriching themselves through over-invoicing, inflation of costs including the cost of production for the crude that we export, round-tripping, exchange rate racketeering and “fantastic corruption,” the government is continuously borrowing to pay for fuel subsidy to the extent that Nigeria may need more than N4 trillion to pay for a subsidy this year. The total disconnect between this political pricing policy of the Federal Government and the reality that stares all of us in the face is frustratingly disturbing. Education is one of the biggest casualties of this political pricing of PMS.

What is the solution?

The solution is to extricate the education industry from depending on funding from the government till such a time that people who know the value of education and human capital development ascend the helm of affairs.

ASUU must come up with a template that can guarantee university academic and financial autonomy. In this lies the end to the incessant strike by ASUU, disruption of the academic calendar and improvement in the quality of our graduates to make them acceptable the world over. The Federal Government must as a matter of urgency hand over all the so-called unity schools to the state governments where such schools are located for them to manage. The Federal Government should concern itself with policies that engender justice, equity and fairness. These are the parents of unity, peace and prosperity.

The ultimate question is will this administration muster the political will and courage to introduce fundamental restructuring in the academic and financial autonomy of universities that will minimise its stranglehold on the university system? Given the proper legal framework, each of these universities can survive on its own, our children will acquire qualitative competitive education and ASUU will concentrate on their primary duty of lecturing and research to produce graduates that can hold their ground anywhere.

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