A Political Economy of the ASUU Strike and Education in Nigeria. By Dr. Moveh. D.O
The decision of ASUU to embark on an indefinite strike since the 1st of July, 2013 obviously may not have come as a surprise to Nigerians. In fact, to quote the plaints of one of my students “why must ASUU always go on strike at least once every two years? Sadly, the recurring strike actions by academics and all other professional associations for that matter has become a defining feature of labour relations in Nigeria. As an academic the urge to comment on the strike action by ASUU and the general state of education in Nigeria is one which I find irresistible, particularly in the face of widespread misunderstanding of the core issues at stake. While I run the risk of sounding like a mouthpiece of ASUU, my intension is to offer a dispassionate analysis of the standoff.
In an article published in the Guardian on the 28th of July, 2013 titled: “ASUU: As it was in the beginning” the author argued that only a slim difference exist between ASUU and the face of government. He went on to ask pointedly why ASUU is so incapable of using its members in the corridors of power to enunciate policies that will favour higher education in Nigeria. I wish to begin by correcting the misconception that ASUU has members in government. The moment an academic leaves the classroom to pick up a political appointment or run for political office such a person is at best a former member of ASUU and not a bona fide member of the union. In fact, not all academics in Nigerian universities are members of ASUU. Some out of their personal volition have opted out of ASUU due to reason best known by them. It is therefore wrong to suggest that ASUU has members in government.
The reality of the crisis in Nigeria’s educational sector generally, is one which cannot be fully understood outside the context of a global political economy. Over the years, the educational sector in Nigeria has suffered neglect and deterioration essentially due to the marginalization of the sector by the neo-liberal agendas championed by International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and adopted by successive Nigerian governments. To be sure, public education has never been an element of neo-liberalism. Throughout its post independent history, developments in Nigeria continues to be significantly conditioned from without. Beginning from the 1980s when the influence of the IFIs on Nigeria’s development became significant, the emphasis has been on getting the Nigerian government to “rationalize” her role in the economy in preference of the more “efficient private sector”. Sadly, the Nigerian government has since then started to systematically disengage from social provisioning through the implementation of neo-liberal agendas like privatization and commercialization and the removal of subsidies on petroleum products. Indeed, the increasing number of private universities that have emerged in Nigeria since the 1980s is not unconnected to this trend. While it is established across the globe that uncontrolled privatization and all its associated elements succeeds only in the pauperization of the masses and in serving as an incentive for corruption, successive Nigerian governments have gone ahead with the policy which in the educational sectors, leads to a proliferation of private universities. I do not in any way intend to suggest that the emergence of private universities in Nigeria is a negative development. However, the fact is that their emergence portends danger to our public universities, more so as the government appears set to neglect their efficient funding…perhaps with a view to privatizing them in future. Thus, the agitations of ASUU can in the first instance be seen as a struggle to save public universities in Nigeria. To put this situation into proper perspective one just needs to look at the primary and secondary education system in Nigeria. The generation of Nigerians that went to primary and secondary school in the 1960s to the mid 1980s were fortunate to have attended well funded public schools. In fact, most of the present generation of Nigeria’s leaders are among the group of Nigerians to have attended either missionary schools or well funded public primary and secondary schools. Today our once popular LEA primary schools and governments’ secondary schools are in a sorry state. A significant proportion of Nigerian children now attend poorly regulated private primary and secondary schools which are driven by an unrestrained profit motive.
Another major implication of the privatization of tertiary education in Nigeria is that a significant majority of Nigerians are likely to be the “loosers” in either ways. Firstly, only a small fraction of Nigerians with questionable sources of “capital” will be able to establish universities; and secondly, a majority of Nigerians will find private university education inaccessible. This indeed, is already the trend in the emergence of private universities in the country. University education within the context of the foregoing shall therefore cease to be a basic necessity for all, but a preserve for the children of the wealthy.
It is therefore a misconception to assume that the ASUU strike is in the main motivated by selfish ends. Those who hold this view assume that once the salaries and allowances of members of ASUU is increased, they will go back to classes and wait for the next opportunity to go on strike again. Indeed, issues bordering on welfare may not be unconnected to ASUU’s agitations. In my experience as researcher and as an academic, I have discovered that one of the major challenges facing academics in Nigeria is the ability to concentrate and remain focused. The preoccupation with trying to make ends meet has over the years been a major distraction for serious academic pursuits. Increasingly, many academics are therefore turning to entrepreneurship rather than focusing on research. This reality should however not be a distraction from the core essence of ASUU’s agitations. Tertiary education is a basic and fundamental requirement for the advancement of any society; and so the state must continue to play a central role in the sector. The most advanced countries in the world did not achieve greatness by neglecting critical areas of their societies to an unrestrained motive of profit maximization.