I was alarmed recently reading an old report that showed that, between 1993 and 2012, Nigerian students lost no fewer than 177 weeks to incessant industrial actions by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). By simple arithmetic, this translates to more than two years lost by students because their teachers stayed away from work over one issue or another. This means that Nigerian children who were in the university within the period had their stay extended, for no fault of theirs.

To say the least, industrial actions by ASUU have become one too many. Records show that every other year in the country’s chequered education history, university teachers have embarked on strike. In 1981, 1986, 1994, 1995, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019, among others, university teachers in Nigeria embarked on strike. In 2020, they downed tools for nine months, about one full academic session and three months short of 12 calendar months. This year and currently, starting on February 14, 2022, university teachers have been on strike for six months. If you thought that February 14, being Valentine’s Day, should not be a day for any act of hate, ASUU certainly thought otherwise. The union’s way of expressing love was to go on strike. And the university teacher would not budge, even in the face of entreaties.

In the last couple of years, ASUU has made demands for the betterment of the university system and education in the general, according to it. The union wants and insists that the government uses the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS), instead of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), for payment of salaries of its members. The university teachers want the implementation of the 2009 renegotiated agreement in relation to conditions of service. They demand enhancement of their “Earned Academic Allowance.” They insist on revitalisation fund for the universities. They want payment of withheld salaries for the period of strike.

One must say that some of the demands by ASUU are profound. Some others, on the other hand, are unreasonable. Yes, nobody would rightly fault ASUU members for demanding better welfare or the improvement of  infrastructure in the universities. It is also legitimate for the university teachers to demand payment of good “Earned Academic Allowances.” However, as legitimate and profound as these demands are, they should not be looked at in isolation from the realities on ground. They should be looked at holistically, knowing the situation of the country.

Nigeria is damn broke at present, for whatever reason. Government has said that it needs about N1 trillion to meet ASUU’s demands. At a time when the Federal Government is borrowing money to finance budget, perhaps, including payment of salary, deploying the sum of N1 trillion in one fell swoop may be difficult. Government should, therefore, be given the grace to meet ASUU halfway and, going forward, put in place a plan for better funding of university education and enhanced welfare for university workforce.

However, the other demands by ASUU leave much to be desired. I am at a loss why university teachers, for instance, would insist on a particular payroll system when the government is already using one for all its workers. No matter how germane the demand for use of UTAS is, ASUU cannot dictate to its employer what to use in the payment of its members’ salaries. It is really absurd that an employee is saying and insisting that his employer must do things his way and people are applauding. One does not know where this happens in the world. Were all government parastatals and agencies to decide and demand distinctive payroll systems, there would be a state of confusion. Where this happens, government would lose total control.

The demand and insistence on UTAS looks to me as a ploy to hold onto something to justify the prolongation of the strike. ASUU should be reasonable in this regard and make do with the IPPIS being used by government. If there is a shortcoming about the payroll system, the union should point it out, while government takes measures to address them. Insisting that UTAS must be used or no deal amounts to ASUU arrogating to itself the power of life and death.

One of ASUU’s demands which flies in the face is insisting that government must pay its members for the period they have been on strike. While government says it would apply “no work, no pay,” ASUU would rather have “no work, earn pay.” Looking at it from the angle that “a labourer deserves his wage,” would it be an acceptable standard that a worker who embarks on strike and, therefore, stays out of work would be paid for doing nothing? I do not think so. Wage payment should be tied to fulfilling the obligation therein. This is not capitalism. It is rather a system of responsibility.

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In most countries, workers are paid based on number of hours deployed to productive activities. In those places, workers’ wages are calculated on hours of service. If an employee works for eight hours in a day, such a worker gets paid for eight hours. Where a worker puts in only five hours, he or she gets paid for the five production hours. This makes the worker serious, knowing that his or her earnings are dependent on the number of productive hours.

Members of ASUU know that, were they teaching abroad, they would not be paid for the days they were away from work. Were they working abroad, they would only earn their pay by being productive at work. The attitude of a worker believing that whether he or she works or not he or she would be paid is part of the problem of Nigeria’s productivity. In the civil service, there are people who  come to work periodically but are paid fully at the end of the month. There are those who seldom come to work but still earn salaries.

This should certainly not be. A time has come to actually review the rules of engagement in workplaces. The terms of employment should be well defined: the hours of duty, days of duty, scope of work to be covered, successes to be achieved and wage. These should be strictly monitored. Where there is a breach, the party at fault should suffer some consequences. Embarking on industrial action without taking any responsibility or consequences leaves the worker in a position to do what he or she wants.

Industrial action, which could pass for a tool of negotiation, should be the last resort, not the first option. When it comes to negotiation, compromises should be made by both parties. There should be give-and-take, bearing in mind that, in whatever relationship, nobody has monopoly or totally holds the knife and the yam and, therefore, solely decides who to give a slice of the yam or not. The parties have their respective values, productive or nuisance.

ASUU should accept the appeal by President Muhammadu Buhari and other good-spirited Nigerians to call off the strike. ASUU should return to the classroom, while negotiation continues. Government should try and fulfil the demands it can. Government should only promise what it would do and not agree to what it knows it would not do. It is the future of Nigerian children we are talking about. The practice of stopping academic activities in the universities intermittently impacts negatively on graduates. At that rate, the nation is churning out half-baked graduates who cannot defend their certificates or compete favourably among their peers or contemporaries outside the country.

The government should, on its part, review the funding regime of university education. Where the government knows that it cannot successfully fund universities, it should not pretend to be capable and, therefore, do it haphazardly. Where commensurate tuition fees are required, government should say so. Nigerian parents would not mind paying more than they currently pay, if this will guarantee that universities would run smoothly and uninterrupted and they would get value for their money.

The university administrators should also be responsible enough to utilise well funds earned from students’ tuition, donations and grants.  ASUU should beam its searchlight, also, on university administrators, ensuring that there is accountability, good corporate governance and good behaviour of its members. There are cases of negligence by university lecturers in the discharge of their duties. There are such malfeasance as sex-for-marks, cash-for-marks and victimisation of students. ASUU should get involved in checking these among university teachers.

Enough of strikes in the universities! Enough is actually now enough!