As the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) over poor funding of public universities and non-implementation of the 2009 agreement enters its second week, the words of Professor Olanrewaju A. Fagbohun, Vice Chancellor of the Lagos State University, echo the sticking points:
Has increase in tuition fees put public universities beyond the reach of the poor?
We talk of commodification of education when there is a market-infused approach to education. In such context, knowledge is treated as a commodity whose value is measured by comparing the cost of acquiring a degree with the financial earnings that the degree ultimately attracts.
It is a process whereof education and its acquisition takes on the metaphor of buying and selling of goods and services for commercial interchange. One of the lead stories of the Sunday PUNCH newspaper of April 29, 2018 read, “Public varsities’ fee hike threatens dreams of indigent students”.
Academic activities have been disrupted at different times in many universities on account of increase in school fees to meet shortfall in government funding. What is the relevance of The PUNCH lead story to the issue of commodification of education?
If the higher education system is to achieve its goals of contributing to national development, universities have to be adequately funded. As at today, the opposite is true.
To put it bluntly, even if mildly, our universities are underperforming in their contribution to national development for reason of inadequate funding among others. There is a crisis of funding which is a serious and direct threat to the provision of quality education.
Has the story changed in the last 26 years?
Not much in my view. Our educational sector, particularly the tertiary layer is now more prominent for the wrong reasons, rather than for its contribution to national development. Rather than being the bastion of hope in a maddening state of chaos, it is rapidly shedding its ideals and with alarming readiness imbibing the obnoxious aspects of our rules of social engagement.
I mean, rather than offer a model of decency, as a “learned commune” our universities are increasingly becoming mirrors, even transmitters of all that is socially and morally reprehensible in our society. Rather than be a buffer, our universities are serving as magnets for unwholesome social tendencies.
"If the higher education system is to achieve its goals of contributing to national development, universities have to be adequately funded. As at today, the opposite is true. To put it bluntly, even if mildly, our universities are underperforming in their contribution to national development for reason of inadequate funding among others."
What should the role of ASUU and other industrial unions be in the funding of universities?
At the peak of the crises in tertiary education under General Sani Abacha in 1996, the federal government used funding of tertiary institutions as a weapon of control.
When tertiary institution unions demanded academic freedom and autonomy, the federal government responded by stating that it cannot be funding almost wholly tertiary education; yet, staff of such institutions will be demanding freedom to do what they wish such as having autonomous Governing Councils, and autonomously selecting and appointing their principal officers; freedom to express their views and associate, in line with the Lima and Kampala Declarations on Academic Freedom.
The federal government objected to this, by asserting that, “he who pays the piper dictates the tune”. While it can be said that through struggles staff unions won some measure of academic freedom and university autonomy. Regrettably, both academic freedom and autonomy have been grossly abused and taken beyond legitimate boundaries.
Autonomy emphasizes accountability while academic freedom emphasizes responsibility. Some administrators of tertiary institutions not only lack accountability, they also violate the rights of staff through arbitrariness and highhandedness.
Some staff unions on the other hand, see the privilege accorded trade unions under the law as a veritable tool to entrench selfish agenda and hijack administration of institutions. It is now the norm for local branches of unions to view the democratic conduct of union elections (as against selection) and rendering of financial account as somewhat of an anathema.
They seek to tele-guide every decision of management. The slightest opposition to their views even in the maintenance of discipline and international best practice is met with disruptive self-help.
Members of staff facing allegation of misconduct, including sexual harassment, financial impropriety, cash-for-grade, racketeering, complicity in cultism and miscellaneous malfeasance bordering on integrity and ideals of the university as a “learned commune” easily find consortium instead of reprehension within our staff unions.
This is beginning to rub-off on the credibility that these unions built over the years. There is no doubt that the solidarity once enjoyed by these unions and the student body is increasingly being tested to say the least.
It is high time Unions renounced by words and deed this sordid state of affairs in the strongest of terms and begin a process of introspection and ethical rebirth in our universities.
"Rather than offer a model of decency, as a “learned commune” our universities are increasingly becoming mirrors, even transmitters of all that is socially and morally reprehensible in our society. Rather than be a buffer, our universities are serving as magnets for unwholesome social tendencies."
What are the options for a more stable, productive and better-funded system?
The government at both federal and state levels must separate recurring expenditure of staff emolument from capital expenditure and ensure that they give weighted premium to both.
Research and physical expansion of tertiary institutions need to be addressed in the light of our challenges as a developing country and the soaring student population which has made admission into tertiary institutions a nightmare for many prospective candidates.
Government should not make TETFUND take over government’s statutory obligation to fund tertiary institutions. Government should also give Grant-in-Aid to deserving institutions both federal and state, using set criteria including excellence or distinction in research and innovation, diversity, inclusiveness, scholarship, protection of rights of minorities and needs.
Regulatory authorities such as NUC, NABTE and NCCE should be given every support that will enable them play their important roles of quality assurance and quality control in all principal respects and in ensuring financial accountability, standardization of courses and constant scrutiny of teaching personnel.
R&D and consultancies of federal and state government should first target tertiary institutions consultancy units. Multinational corporations and other Blue chip companies should be encouraged to undertake their R&D in Nigeria.
Through R&D alone, many tertiary institutions will be challenged to think innovatively.
In this regard, they have the potential to strengthen their internally generated revenue profile more than the current practice of focusing on part-time teaching that has become diversionary for both the academic staff and institutional commitment to research and innovation not to mention constituting a threat to standard and consequential cheapening of the certificates that our institutions award.
"While it can be said that through struggles staff unions won some measure of academic freedom and university autonomy. Regrettably, both academic freedom and autonomy have been grossly abused and taken beyond legitimate boundaries."
Wealthy individuals and indigenous foundations should be encouraged to support endowments. This is one secret to the financial solvency of many IVY-League schools in the United States of America.
For example, Harvard University is the wealthiest university in the world. By 2014 it had USD36 billion in endowments alone with returns of 15.4 per cent on it. This amount is more than the combined GDP of six West African countries.
Alumni of tertiary institutions must play a proactive role beyond annual dinners and token interventions. It is incumbent upon tertiary institutions to connect and communicate well with individual members of their alumni and encourage them to render better assistance, individually and collectively.
We must do this by ensuring a respectful and service-oriented approach to our students from day one – seeing every student at the point of entry through graduation as an alumnus of repute and partner.
There is need for the emergence of a Research Triangle in Nigeria, whereby government, industry and the academy will engage in partnership to support cutting-edge research.
There is need for improvement in internal mechanisms of tertiary institutions to ensure accountability and administrative transparency, check waste and corruption, and to block leakages and vying of resources which have become common place.
The National Industrial Court should be galvanized to be able to play a more responsive role between staff unions, university management and proprietors of tertiary institutions. As an institutions of social justice, it must be able to avail speedy resolution of disputes and give effective remedies.
- Extracted from lecture, entitled, “Commodification of Education: What imperatives for transforming university education in Nigeria?”, delivered by Professor Fagbohun at the 6th Professor Adetokunbo Babatunde Sofoluwe Memorial Lecture, University of Lagos, on May 28, 2018 and modified by The Interview.