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ASUU Strike: Our position on varsity funding — Babalakin, Chair, F G Negotiating Team

The on-going strike by the academic staff of public universities is obviously an indication that the recurring face-off between the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU and Federal Government is not likely to end any time soon. ASUU, through its national president, Abiodun Ogunyemi, said it embarked on the strike, which has again thrown the Nigerian university system into another round of crisis, to protest poor funding of universities in the country and the refusal of government to honour an agreement it entered into with the union through the signing of a memorandum of understanding, MoU, in 2017. Ogunyemi said the agreement as encapsulated in the MoU outlined ASUU’s proposal on how university education in Nigeria can best be funded, with specific demand for a N2 trillion annual funding for the sector. But it is a demand the Federal Government considers unrealistic. And it is a sentiment shared by a team it inaugurated to negotiate with ASUU. The five-man Federal Government Negotiating Team has as its chairman, Dr. Olawale Babalakin, Pro-Chancellor of University of Lagos. The other members of the team are: Prof. Olufemi Bamiro, Pro-Chancellor, Tai Solarin University of Education; Prof. Nimi Briggs, Pro-Chancellor Federal University Lokoja; Prof. Munzali Jubril, former executive secretary, National Universities Commission, now Pro-Chancellor Federal University Lafia and Lawrence Ngbale, Pro-Chancellor, Federal University Birnin Kebbi.
While efforts are on to resolve the contentious issues, a prevailing stalemate threatens the realisation of this as ASUU is presently not in dialogue with the government negotiating team, with its officials insisting that they will not call off the strike until all their demands are met. But speaking with news men in Lagos last weekend, Dr. Babalakin, who is also the Chairman, Implementation Committee of Federal Government/ASUU,SSANU and NASU Implementation Committee, appealed to ASUU to reconsider its stance and return to the negotiating table as “dialogue on the same table is the most effective way of resolving issues”. He did not stop there. “Our position as a team is that, Nigerians deserve and should have quality education. This must not be compromised as a result of inadequate funding which has been the situation in the last 30 years. We also believe that no Nigerian should be deprived of university education because of his/her financial circumstance. This position is consistent with that of the government of President Muhammadu Buhari. “Going by the figures provided by ASUU, Nigeria requires over N2 trillion per annum to fund university education. This figure exceeds in value the total amount of money available for all capital projects in Nigeria, including Health, Infrastructure, Security and others. No doubt that if the money were available for university education as ASUU has insisted it is, the government will have no difficulty in spending it on university education. However, as it is, government cannot ignore all other areas of expenditure that require funding.” Speaking further, he said: “The team is determined to avoid the pitfalls of previous negotiations which had on certain occasions left loose ends that have become the basis for future crisis. What we’re keen upon to achieve is that the educational system is sustainable, robust, the funds are available and not subject to the vagaries of the Nigerian economy. This is how we can create the kind of educational system we require in Nigeria”.

Faulting the basis of ASUU’s current demand with regards to university funding, he said: “For the past 20 years, ASUU has gone round Nigeria stating that UNESCO has prescribed 26% of the national budget for education for all developing countries. When this suggestion was made to us by ASUU, we said good idea, but we want a backup documentation from UNESCO or any other body. Till date nobody has presented any document to back it. That’s why in our response, we insisted on verifiable figures. Let’s talk like intellectuals, bring the figure out and a document to support the figure. “That is not the only anomaly. Our position is that we should not be fixated about percentage. We should have a need-based budgeting. What does this means? It means that if a peculiar university requires a particular amount of money we should work towards getting that amount of money rather than coming with generalisation that allocate percentage. So, our position is that there must be need-based budgeting. “The third aspect, in our view, puts a big question mark on ASUU’s suggestion. In a developing economy where the budget fluctuates massively, if you are tied to a percentage, what happens when the budget shrinks? Will you immediately shrink your expenditure? Will you immediately shrink the plan you have for the university because the national budget has shrunk? To justify our position just compare the budget of 2018 to the proposed budget of 2019. In 2018, the budget was about N9 trillion; government has now said the proposed budget for 2019 would be about N8.9 trillion. So, if you have been fixated about percentage, over night the budget for education would have been reduced….. So that is not a proper way to plan for an enduring system that we want to grow to an international standard. “Is N2 trillion too much for the university system? Not at all. But it must be available. Our position is simple: there must be no compromise about funding education. But let us look at the current budget. If you look at the breakdown of the budget, after debt services is removed, you remove recurrent expenditure. All that is left for the Federal Government is about N 2 trillion. Last year, the former Minister of Finance celebrated that in 2017 we spent N1.5 trillion on capital projects…, which was the highest we have ever achieved in Nigeria. So that was what was a available and disposable.”

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