By Adeshina Afolayan, PhD
In the 90s, I was a student of the University of Ibadan. When I gained admission, I had a reasonable expectation that I would graduate in four years and then get to the next stage of my life. Well, that was before the first and second ASUU strikes hit us hard and disrupted not only the academic calendar, but also our plans and lives. Some two decades later, I had successfully crossed to the other side. The tragedy of my transition, however, is that nothing seems to have changed as to how I perceive ASUU either as a student or as a lecturer and ASUU member. As students, we were vehemently bitter against our lecturers who took the strike option with alacrity without giving, it seemed then, a second thought to us. Paradoxically, as a lecturer now, I still retain a depth of unease even though I seem to have a grasp of the other side of the story. The source of my unease is this: For over two decades now since I got burnt by FG-ASUU face-off, strikes are still a constant feature of higher education framework in Nigeria, and—this is the crux—nothings seems to have changed qualitatively from then to now. Well, that isn’t correct: Salaries have somehow increased. But what do salaries tell us about the state of higher education in Nigeria? This industrial action has been suspended, one way or the other, as we expected. What have we gained? What have we lost? Where should we go from here?
ASUU is a trade union. And that fact is the bone of contention. The fact of unionism gives rise to two contending issues that impact on the state of higher education in Nigeria. On the one hand, there is the fact that ASUU is the umbrella body of willing academic staff of Nigerian universities in union relations. On the other hand, there is also the added responsibility which the Union, since its inception, has placed upon itself. This responsibility is that of championing the cause of higher education in Nigeria. On the surface, this added responsibility would seem a logical and ennobling one to the extent that an academic trade union constitutes an automatic stakeholder in the education sector. However, the perception of this logical consequence of being a stakeholder in the education sector holds certain tricky implications that bear interrogating.
I suspect that being a trade union in an educational sector and fighting for higher education need not be mutually inclusive. In other words, a trade union can effectively pursue its statutory responsibilities within any sector while making token noises about the total health of the sector it is a part of. With regard to ASUU, it seems possible—within the space of a hypothetical—to fight for the interests of the members without a serious regard for the health of the education sector. My unease is that my hypothetical is closer to reality than we think. The mutual exclusivity of being an academic trade union and defending the noble territory of higher education isn’t at all illogical.
Let us return to our fact: ASUU as a trade union. A trade union's raison d’être is to protect the interests of its paying members. The pertinent question, however, is: Does this traditional function of unionism square with a serious and genuine championing of the cause of higher education in Nigeria? It is at this juncture that we encounter the seeming mutual exclusiveness of unionism and higher education. For higher education to be properly championed, then ASUU need to necessarily sacrifice some of its members to standard higher education rigours and innovation. Can ASUU afford to do that? Can we withstand the assessments of our students? Can we confront higher education best practices? Can we afford to upturn unedifying and immoral practices which some of the members engage in? These are some of the challenges of higher education that confront ASUU as a trade union. The answers to these questions determine the strength of our claim as a champion of qualitative higher education in Nigeria.
Whichever way we look at it, ASUU’s redemption lies solely with identifying with higher education (as we have been claiming) rather than sticking with traditional trade unionism. Reason? The card of negative public perception is already stacked very high against us as a trade union. I risk the statement that almost every industrial action of ASUU has almost always been reduced to its pecuniary minima. As students in the early 90s, we had that perception that our teachers were sacrificing our future on the altar of monetary advancement. Some decades after, it reflects badly on us and our sense of creative confrontation that the public and the students still hang on to such perception. Please let nobody retort that a worker is worthy of his wages.
Strikes hurt students as well as the higher education framework of which they are the most significant component. Is it not incontrovertible that without the students, the idea of a university is null? How then do constant strikes factor into this awareness? If constants strikes hurt the cause of higher education more than it advances it, what then has stopped ASUU from creatively rethinking its strategy of advancing that higher education that is its redemption? Do strikes not lock us within the constricting space of traditional unionism we ought to be escaping from?
There is an even bigger problem which the strategy of constant strikes raises beyond the public perception of pecuniary benefits. This is: How are the benefits of such strikes to be measured in terms of the giant strides higher education in Nigeria ought to have taken in comparative and national contexts? In other words, since strikes entered into the equation of industrial action of ASUU, has higher education leapt qualitatively forward? This question has an emotive side that can side-track rational and empirical consideration if care is not taken. We can indeed scream, protest and foam in the mouth in comradely tantrums, yet what will defeat my allegations would be tightly marshalled empiricals—charts, figures and numbers across the universities in Nigeria that prove institutional and academic advancement. I doubt such empiricals can be marshalled. I doubt if ASUU is ever interested in such matters of monitoring. Or if they can muster the effort to gather the data, they’ll prove the opposite and give the lie to ASUU’s strike rhetoric.
What usually happens after a strike? It seems that ASUU is wont to fall into academic somnolence, a complacent sleep buoyed, if the public is to be believed, by pecuniary bloatedness. Again, that makes us more a union than a group of people fighting to improve a sector that in turn improves us. This is my sense: If indeed ASUU is concerned about the quality and advances of higher education as an imperative in national development, then that claim ought to strengthen our vocal cords as a union. I mean, that assertion ought to make ASUU a stern and stentorian vanguard against encroaching social anomie against which higher education should stand as a bulwark. Yet, on ASUU's watch—right under our academic noses—higher education has become a prominent part of the social rot!
After every strike, therefore, ASUU seems to go into a deep slumber until, back to public perception, the salaries fail to take us home again! And the joke usually seems to be on us rather than our employer. We seem to consistently subordinate our social conscience to dulling silence; we consistently fail to live up to the imperative of a civil society vanguard that we ought to be. ASUU, it seems to me, ought to be the civil society vanguard par excellence, speaking truth to power from within, but far beyond, the confines of the demands of higher education. Her voice ought to be heard on virtually all matters of national importance; her analyses ought to chart national direction; her concerns ought to motivate policy changes. She ought to be much more visible in the national scheme of things. Unfortunately, for several years running, ASUU's tokenism outpaces its visibility. We are a vanguard only in the unwholesome fierceness that our name conveys—like PENGASSAN and the associated agony of unfuelled mobility. ASUU also has the negative reputation of conveying a strike-salary equation and uncertain academic future for hapless Nigerian students.
It is time to step out of this negative tradition into a vibrant framework of civil society activism marked by critical internal and external vigilance, in that order. The elders say ‘charity begins at home (I prefer the Yoruba version of this proverb). To achieve any muscular relevance in national affairs, we need as a matter of urgency to put our academic and intellectual house in order. And we will win this relevance when we convince the students—our primary constituency—of our unwavering commitment to their progress. This will involve ASUU rethinking its union credentials. In other words, the issue of performance and assessment of members—issues of character, professionalism and values—must become top and urgent priority. Membership of ASUU must transcend the most minimal of academic qualifications and commitment to paying the union monthly dues. There should be more to being a teacher in an institution of higher learning! These additional requirements derive from absolute commitment to personal and institutional development. The future of the students reflects our character and capabilities.
When we have succeeded with a serious overhaul of our house, then we can step into the breach of social and educational activism. But until then, ASUU remains a negative signifier.
(Afolayan is of the Department of Philosophy, University of Ibadan. He can be reached via: firstname.lastname@example.org)