Tuesday, February 27, 2024

On ASUU, Strike debacle and the future of Higher Education – Seun Awogbenle

Nigeria is a country of many contradictions. Almost everywhere you turn, something just does not add up. This illogic has underpinned our policies and national life for a long time. What is, however confounding, is that, even when there is a consensus on what is expectedly the way forward, there is either a lack of political will, courage, or outright complicity of the political class.

 

Take the petrol subsidy, for example, which is expected to take about N2.55 trillion this year alone, nearly half of Nigeria’s total revenue in 2021. Considering that N3.8 trillion is also expected to be expended on debt servicing, it is easy to conclude that Nigeria is spending, if not all, its revenue on petrol subsidy and debt servicing. This is even when we all agree that the petrol subsidy is no longer sustainable. Unfortunately, the government has continued to dither and can hardly muster the courage required at a time like this.

 

In addition to the petrol subsidy, the government is currently subsidizing, either in part or entirely, Agriculture, Health and Education. I have written extensively on education in the past because I am conscious of what we can achieve if we can get both primary and higher education right. Education is the most sustainable way to reduce poverty and create shared prosperity. Still, events like the ongoing ASUU strike, which is the 17th time since 1999, continue to cast a dark cloud on the suitability and sustainability of our higher education.

 

At the center of the strike debacle is the funding of higher education and the role of government. The primary reason for this contradiction is that Nigeria currently spends more than four times on higher education than basic education. Despite this funding, it has remained insufficient and ineffective, so much that between 90-95% of budget allocation to Tertiary institutions is spent on personnel costs. Therefore, there is hardly anything left for research and innovation that should be the raison d’etre of Tertiary Education.

 

Nigeria is perhaps the only country that is more expensive to access primary education than getting a higher education. In contrast, in other parts of the world, the emphasis is on free and compulsory primary education. This level of education provides students with literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking skills, which are the core objective of learning.

 

Higher education is not a right and should presumably not be tuition-free. However, the challenge is that the government, over the years, has decided to subsidize higher education as an attempt to cover up the failure of our basic, post-basic, and senior secondary education to meet its objectives.

 

When you look at our higher education model, nobody appears to be benefitting. Neither the government, parents, nor students benefit from the present arrangement because, a matter of factly, what is the essence of an education that is free but lacks the quality that should prepare graduates for the future of jobs?

 

There are at least three existential issues to address the current challenge with funding education adequately. The first is the feeding bottle financing arrangement for public higher institutions, which heavily depends on the government. The other one is our flawed model, which prioritizes higher education over primary education.

 

Ultimately, the political courage required to implement the necessary reforms critical to reimagining higher education funding in Nigeria is lacking. Prof. Tunde Rahmon Bello, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos, has been widely referenced for categorizing funding sources for universities. According to Bello, the five key funding sources for a university include proprietor’s fund, endowments, research and innovation grants, investments, and businesses.

 

However, Nigerian public Universities draw their funding majorly from the proprietor’s fund, in this instance, the government. This has created an overdependence on the government when other funding sources have been left untapped.

 

A simple fact that we can all agree on is that public universities’ funding by the government is no longer sustainable and does not conform with global practice on higher education financing. This is a simple truth and bitter reality, no matter how uncomfortable it may sound. Our public Universities must be allowed some level of autonomy to be self-governing.

 

The question then would be how we can reimagine higher education funding in Nigeria to the point that it can be sustainable and deliver the expected outcome? Fundamentally, the solution is not entirely standalone or isolated from the broader challenge. My point is that we must start by bringing our post-primary and senior secondary education to the point where the products can become valuable. This would mean that we must reform our education to the point where every young school leaver does not necessarily need a university education as a minimum requirement to access opportunities.

 

This would have addressed the pressure on both the students, parents and even the Universities. This would create a greater sense of purpose for anyone willing to attend a university. The Universities, on full autonomy, must be compelled to explore funding options such as endowments, research, innovation grants, investments, and businesses. I am convinced that if the Universities can be self-governing, they can be considered self-sufficient.

 

However, the government can repurpose part of the funding directly to students through merit-based scholarships and state-backed loans.

Going forward, we all must acknowledge that if we must end the strike debacle and reimagine our higher education for the future of jobs, the present funding model for higher education in Nigeria must change.

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