The Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics, ASUP, on January 30 went a one-week warning strike over alleged refusal by the Nigerian government to reopen negotiations on an agreement it had with the union in 2010. Other reasons the union cited for the strike which ended on February 5 were non-payment of salaries and allowances of the teachers, among other issues.
In this exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Ebuka Onyeji, the president of ASUP, Usman Dutse, said graduates of polytechnics are rated low in Nigeria and that this is affecting enrollment in the institutions.
PT: The Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics just ended a seven-day warning strike. What was it all about?
Dutse: It is about outstanding issues we are having with the federal government, particularly the NEEDS assessment excercise that was conducted three years ago when a presidential committee was set up to assess the level of dilapidation and damages of infrastructure and equipment in our institutions. The assessment was conducted and the report was submitted, but up till now there is no white paper, no implementable plan on ground.
Secondly, the issue of review of the Polytechnic Act. The Act is obsolete and we believe there are areas that need to be amended. On several occasions, attempts were made by the sixth and seventh National Assembly. We hope the government will take it more seriously and make sure the Act is properly reviewed.
There is also the issue of poor funding in the sector in terms of capital projects and particularly personnel. From January last year up till now, our members have been receiving a fraction of their salaries. Some percentages have been cut arbitrarily with no reason and they call it shortfall. They cut our salaries and or withdraw our allowances because of these shortfalls.
Then another sorry state is some polytechnics in some states like Benue, Edo, Osun, Ogun, Ondo, Kogi, Abia, Bayelsa are not paid their full salaries for up to 15 months, the least is four months; even with the bailout given by the president and the refund of Paris Club debt deductions.
PT: You said some percentages of your salary is being cut from the Budget Office. Can you explain this?
Dutse: In January 2016, the Polytechnic sector discovered a shortfall, a reduction in personnel, though it was not uniform but according to institutions. But that led to a shortfall, a deficit of what we normally received. So some schools found it difficult to pay full salaries, hence they cut and reduced salaries. The government made a promise that they will refund every deficit and reductions on salaries as a result of the shortfalls but up on till now, we are still battling on that. We have about 10 states that have not received their full salaries for months.
PT: What is the current state of negotiation with the Federal Government and what are your expectations?
Dutse: The government has formed a committee for renegotiation already. That of the universities has been inaugurated, for the polytechnics and colleges of education they said it will follow up later because they have to constitute governing councils. Our hope is that when we go for renegotiation, all the issues affecting us would be trashed out. There are emerging issues to be visited, apart from the 2010 agreement which is yet to be implemented. We hope the Federal Government will be committed and sincere and abide by the agreement reached during the negotiations.
PT: Some polytechnics like Kaduna Polytechnic have said they would not join the strike, does that mean there is a division in ASUP?
Dutse: No, it’s not division. You can only participate in what you are part of the decision making. Kaduna Poly is under punishment because of some violations of constitutional positions and that was why some actions were taken against them. There are issues to be addressed, same thing with Mubi Poly, their problem has to do with leadership issues, which will soon be addressed.
PT: ASUP said it is not happy with the state of polytechnics in the country. What are the major challenges polytechnics are facing in general?
Dutse: The major issue here is underfunding. If you look at the budgetary allocation for polytechnics, it is highly inadequate. If you will agree with me, technical and vocational education is highly capital intensive because we deal with machines, facilities and equipment that are used to transfer skills to our students. And when these things are not provided, there is possibility for us to produce quacks and half-baked students.
If you look at TETFUND (Tertiary Education Trust Fund) and budgetary allocations, polytechnics receive the lowest. When you also look at the capital allocations in the budget, averagely we receive N30 to N50 million, what are you going to do with that, considering how the economy of the country is currently?
The Act establishing polytechnics is obsolete and needs to be reviewed. Administrative power is kicked one side, resulting to abuse of power in the sector. When this Act is reviewed, it will reduce abuse of power.
Another challenge we are having is how our products and the sector is being stigmatised. Our products are being looked at as second class and underrated in the society. They are being marginalised and that is the issue of segregation and dichotomy we have been talking about.
We have made several agitations for that to be addressed, but it seems some cabals that have some selfish interests are doing all their best to undermine this process. There is no basis to dichotomize our products. The society should be looking for what someone can offer and not where the person is coming from. The Nigerian system is more concerned about certificate and where one is from. Other sectors are placed higher than the polytechnics and that is now affecting the enrollment rate in polytechnics.
PT: You said there is a decrease in the rate of students seeking admission into polytechnics, do you have statistics?
Dutse: The enrollment rate is very poor. In the last four years, students that applied to polytechnics yearly are not more than 40,000. But for the universities, it is about 1.5 million yearly. Students who applied for universities but failed to be admitted will now come to the polytechnics as their final resort. From the survey we made, it still boils down to the same issue of dichotomy, which is one of the major issues that discourages people from entering polytechnics. But then again, the elites, they don’t send their wards to polytechnics. They are the ones that are trampling the polytechnics. Students in the polytechnics averagely come from poor homes. They are children of the poor who cannot afford university education. They are sent to the polytechnics to get a diploma which is for a shorter period and that is why the enrollment rate is not appreciating; it is very stagnant and even deteriorating.
PT: So in other words, you think government is deliberately overlooking polytechnics?
Dutse: The government has made several attempts to review this issue of dichotomy. During Obasanjo, Goodluck regimes and even last year, attempts were made to address the issue of dichotomy. But like I said earlier, there are some cabals that have selfish interests who are in the habit of undermining these policies. They want to continue to suppress the system because they know if they give the products of polytechnics proper opportunity, they will excel more than other sectors. Most policy makers are not from the polytechnics so they don’t want competition because they know polytechnic products have the right skills. Government should therefore have the political will to ensure that those policy makers frustrating these policies are checkmated.
PT: If proper decisions are not taken by the Federal Government, what is the next step?
Dutse: I can’t preempt that because the decision is not solely by me. We have to go back to our National Executive Council because they are the ones that initiated the warning strike, so we have to go back to them and make a decision.
PT: How should government ensure proper use of products from the various sectors to ensure harmony?
Dutse: These issues have been discussed severally. We are lacking in political will and commitment to regulate the education sector. There is no adequate funding, let there be adequate funding because the education sector is capital intensive and the funding should be consistent. And again, government should show more interest in our own products. Let them encourage us. Programmes on self-employment, diversification and the rest should go to our products because they have a relevant role to play there. They are skill-oriented and government should show interest in them. We need a cohesive and inclusive system. We should look inwards. Government should also look at the money used to send students to study abroad, we should look at how to find a way to curtail that arrangement and use the money to provide what we are lacking in our institutions. Before, other countries come to Nigeria to study, but now we go to countries like Ghana, Uganda Kenya and the rest and it is uncalled for.
PT: Is there anything else you will like the general public to know?
Dutse: I will like to call on the general public to know that ASUP does not have any penchant for strike or going on strike. When you see us going on strike, it is because of failure of the government to respond to issues affecting the sector. We are calling on the citizens to also put pressure on the government and policy makers rather than calling on the union to look the other way. They should also ask government to do what they are supposed to do. We will like the citizens to know that polytechnic education is very vital. The development of every country in the world significantly depends on technical and vocational education. Citizens should have more confidence and encourage their wards to go to polytechnics.