ASUU – Understanding the union’s outcry
Students of Nigeria’s public universities popularly joke that their university degree programs last for four or five years, plus X. The X accounts for the universities-based labour unions’ incessant strikes, primarily the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is a labour union that includes university lecturers, researchers at various research institutes, and doctors who teach medical students. The association is voluntary, but many academics are members.
Since ASUU strikes began as far back as 1999, students have left their classrooms for a cumulative 50 months. The strikes have virtually become a yearly ritual. As expected, students bear the brunt of the battle between the union and the Nigerian government.
The demands, the justification
For every strike action declared by ASUU, a list of demands and agreements made with government officials remain unmet. The most popular among them are the FGN-ASUU 2001 agreement and the 2009 agreement, a re-negotiation of the 2001 agreement.
The government had accepted to:
- Review the condition of service and salary structure of university academic staff members.
- Revitalize and fund the government-owned ivory towers with a sum of money yearly for a couple of years until the infrastructural deficit is improved.
- Devote 26 percent of the country’s yearly budget to the education sector and half of the total education budget to universities.
- Amend the JAMB and NUC 2004 acts.
- Pay academic-earned allowances to deserving university lecturers.
- Extend the retirement age of academic staff members to a maximum of 70 years for members in the academic cadre and 65 years for other levels.
- Allow the union and the university staff float their pension administrator (NUPENCO).
All eyes were fixed on the government to see how it would perform after the negotiation had birthed the resolutions that made it to the now controversial document pages. The government honoured some of the agreements as soon as they signed. However, the government has failed to meet most of the demands that require some monetary response. In the real sense, that has been the subtle basis for every ASUU strike since 2010.
Would you blame ASUU for embarking on the subsequent strike actions? In 2010 – just barely a year after signing the agreement –– ASUU went on strike for five months before forcing the government to show some commitment. By the end of 2011, they were back in the trenches. The government had not implemented the agreed retirement age, and ASUU said the government was also reneging its promise to fund the universities adequately.
ASUU members also dusted the agreement from their shelves two years after their last strike action in 2013, when they embarked on another five-months strike action. This time, they cited the continued low budgetary allocation to the education sector and, yet again, the government’s refusal to extend university professors’ retirement age to 70 years.
The 2017 strike that lasted for about a month was enough to garner national sympathy and conversation. But in 2018, another strike lasted for 93 days.
The grandest of them all was the nine-month 2020 strike action which had different facets, from the FGN-ASUU agreement to the MoUs to another introduction IPPIS (payment platform controversy). Rough ride for the unfortunate students, a deserved outcry for the university academics.
As the ASUU battle persisted, the government also juggled the outcries from other university unions, including SSANU, NASU, and NAAT. The terms of the re-negotiation were also very similar to that of the ASUU, with only a few differences. The November 2009 agreement has also been the basis for these other non-academic unions’ industrial actions.
Why only ASUU?
Nigerians have long questioned why the government has handled the university union somewhat differently. In a contrasting case, the government responded with a no work, no pay policy against a striking hospital union (JOHESU) when they did not receive salaries for two months in 2018.
Students have called for stricter action against the union, citing the implications for them and the global image it paints of Nigerian universities. The country’s dwindling revenues, economic recession, insurgency, and most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic are other reasons some people have failed to side with ASUU and sometimes describe their outcry as unrealistic.
If not for the outcries!
The infrastructural deficit generally experienced in the country would have been the fate of public educational institutions across the country if not for the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (Tetfund). ASUU’s protagonists are always very proud to say that the government did not plan to establish TetFund until one of the plenty strikes pushed them. Tetfund has today been the bedrock for most new structures built in the various campuses, infrastructural overhaul, repairs, and equipment purchase done in the faculties and departments in the university. If not for the cries, can we picture the even worse level of human capital flight and the brain drain among academics and faculty members that the country would be experiencing?
ASUU has also received some credit for the no-tuition policy that still operates in Nigerian federal universities to date. The onus then falls back on the government to ensure the fundamental right to quality education continues, with sufficient remuneration for those who serve in the sector.