INTERVIEW: Why we’re against Nigerian govt’s plan to introduce tuition fees in universities — ASUU Chairman

Biodun Ogunyemi, ASUU President [Photo: Channels TV]
Biodun Ogunyemi, ASUU President [Photo: Channels TV]

In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Biodun Ogunyemi, the national president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) speaks on the alleged plans by the government to introduce tuition fees and education banking to federal universities.

PT: Recently, you granted an interview disclosing plans by the government to increase tuition fees in federal institutions in the country. Can you explain more on that?

Biodun Ogunyemi : Thank you, the issue of tuition fees came up at the negotiating table that we have been having with the federal government in the last one and half year or so. Government has always tried to sell the idea that funding education can no longer be done by government alone, and because of that, other stakeholders will have to be brought to it.

We do not have an objection about bringing in other stakeholders, but the objection we have is that we need to correctly calibrate the issue of funding. When you say funding, there are non-tuition components that are being carried out by students or and their parents; they pay for their accommodation, feeding, transportation, books, other living expenses and in many of the universities today, what they call service charges, they are disguised forms of tuition fees, so you see some put together accommodation plus service charges, the university charging   N40000, N50000, some go as much as 80,000-N90,000. In fact  there was a time at Micheal Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, where the immediate past vice-chancellor introduced accommodation fees of 40,000 per bed space, and we are talking of a bed space that you could have 4,5,6 sometimes 8,9,10.  So we now charge these students 40,000, multiply that by 10, we are talking of 400,000 per room. I don’t know any room in Nigeria or any part of this world that you will hire for 400,000 for a year.

So we saw these things happening and we started raising alarm. When we now went back to the negotiating table in March last year, we started with the issue of funding, the Babalakin-led government negotiating team and we presented our own proposal. We suggested other ways of funding education. The service charges are already there, the accommodation is there, the transportation costs that students and their parents are bearing. But when it comes to paying tuition, we told them pointblank that we are not going to agree because they came with the proposal that we should adopt the principle of cost sharing and we said the costs are already shared, the cost of training undergraduate are already shared, students and their parents are already carrying everybody, they did not agree with us.

PT: So how did the education banking come into discussions as a way of funding the sector.

Biodun Ogunyemi: The federal government  said they will respond to our proposal but when they came back with their response eventually, that was going to almost ten months after we submitted our proposal, they  came with the idea of  National Education Banking and we immediately told them that national education banking is not a new idea, it was first introduced in 1993 to replace the student “loan” board.

The Nigerian government experimented with it for 7-8 years it failed, so government had to set up a ministerial committee  at the federal executive council to go and wind up the national education banking plan in 2001/2002, something they started in 1993, so for 7/8 years, the experiment failed. Why did it fail? Government was not living up to its financial obligations towards the bank, there was wide spread corruption, capacity of students to pay back the loan was not there, because there were no jobs and there are still no jobs. So you can imagine what will become of a bank that the loan equipment is not coming or is very low, the rate of payment is low or not coming, and we told them all of these but they went ahead to come up with the idea that well, we have calculated the cost of what we need to train an undergraduate and they have estimated that it will be N1 million that they will borrow from the bank, these students will borrow 1 million but that they borrow, 70 percent of it will be paid directly into the universities and 30 percent will be given to students to maintain themselves, we smelt a rat. Why? Why are you insisting that students who do not have the capacity to pay should borrow and that this time around the money will not be given to them will be paid directly to universities irrespective of whether private or public.

Our own instincts told us immediately that that project was to favour private universities because it will be bonus for them, they get money coming directly from government and they don’t have to worry themselves whether the students pay or not, so it will just be a direct flow, we give it three years, the money will not be there.

We also suspected that the government that cannot increase the budgetary allocation to education will now say it will set aside some money for a bank to take off, an experiment you did before and you packed up by yourself, we also suspected that there are some foreign hands in it, and that people, probably World Bank and IMF as they always do, had promised them some facilities, you know the Nigerian government likes to borrow and borrow and borrow, so they go and borrow some facilities they will use to establish the bank, the debt profile of Nigeria  will rise phenomenally and they will say they have fallen education and they will share the money, after some time, the debt will be there and the capacity to pay the debts will not be there, again we will go back to where we were before.

Now it appears the ruling class in Nigeria don’t care, and they are saying the alternative to that is that students should pay tuition, at that point we saw where they were going, they insisted that there is nothing free and if we are saying that students should not pay, it means somebody is paying and government does not have the capacity to pay, we now say let government tell us that they don’t have the capacity to pay, we have done our analysis. We believe that if government should block the leakages, the corruption in the oil sector, in fund generating agencies and other sources, we can generate enough funds that we need to support free education, to finance free education at all levels in Nigeria. So that has been our own point of disagreement with government, and so when our people come out to say that government is trying to introduce tuition fees, that is exactly what they are saying, that if we do not allow them to go ahead with their Education Bank Project, then it means students will pay tuition.

PT: People are saying that your union has been politicised; is this true?

Biodun Ogunyemi: Politicised in what sense, it is not clear to me. Is it that we are commenting on political issues? Or is it that we aspire to be governors or to be presidents: or to be on the side of the government? Is it that we are working for government or working against government, I want to understand. So when people say politicize, I don’t know what people mean but if what they are saying is that probably some people on campuses have sympathy for government or they are attacking government, it should be expected.

I just told you about allegations of teaching what we are not paid to teach, it is part of our critical nature. We will always want to engage any government, but what we always tell our members is keep  focused on the principle of the union.

So what I am saying in essence is that ASUU members are trained to be critical and that is why we have always engaged successive governments but it appears all governments always accuse us of being sponsored by the opposition, but if you say for instance, Jonathan said we were sponsored by the opposition but when this government came in, have we not been engaging this government? We have not deviated, think of the number of what we did against the government.

Our own is not about who is in power, it is about the policies that we engage. If a government comes out tomorrow to say that we will provide education free at all levels, we will hail that government, but again we will still engage the government on the kind of quality that will be involved. So we are trained to be critical, we focus more on policies of government than who is in power and that is why we have been consistent.

PT: How does the union ensure that internally generated funds from the universities are judiciously utilised? 

Biodun Ogunyemi: Well, we have been asking for that, but we are not yet there fully. We have been asking for judicious utilisation of funds either given to them or those they make out of our students. What we call IGR,  they should be calling these things Internally Generated Revenue. You see for every service charge they collect, there is an expenditure head, when you collect fund in accommodation, there are things you need to provide in the hostel, steady power supply, clean environment, water supply and all other support services that you should be providing. We want to insist that they should continue to do that, but in doing that, accountability is also very important and that is why we have come up at the level of ASUU with an innovative concept, which we call Budget Monitoring Committee.

The Budget Monitoring Committee concept came at our last negotiation in 2009 and it became part of that agreement. We have been using that concept essentially for what we call the Needs Assessment projects and that is why you can see a lot of difference, even though Needs Assessment came up eventually was adopted for the first time in 2013 and the Project Monitoring Committee (PMC) was activated in 2014, we have since been calling for an extension of its application to cover TETFUND projects as well as those things we call IGR as we call it, and of course regular allocation from the government. So we are saying that our concept for assuring transparency and accountability in the finances of universities, our best bet is that the concept of Budget Monitoring Committee must be applied to all university finances in which case, we know what comes in, we know what they are meant for and we know who is spending and for what purpose, we can now monitor and evaluate the process.

PT: So are there mechanisms put in place to support indigent students?

Biodun Ogunyemi: Well that’s an idea that ASUU has been toying with, we have been thinking about it very seriously, because we know that in our campuses we have a lot of indigent students particularly with the economic downturn that is biting hard, families and amongst students.

We tried in the first place to ask for scholarship from government, that government should provide indigent students with scholarship; we also asked for work study, that students who are indigent can be engaged in some of the services provided by the universities.

Some universities are doing well and then we have also proposed something like students support programmes, I can tell you that we know that universities like MAUTECH, Modibo Adamawa University of Technology, Yola, have a programme like that and we know of one or two universities that have similar programmes, and on our campuses, we have been asking for that. Some of these things are being implemented by students affairs unit of the universities. But more recently, and I am going to invite you to our own project, we have come up with an ASUU Student Scholarship Program.

In that scholarship program, we are going to have the first set of award on November 12 2018; so they are screening the students now, and what are we planning to do, that every campus will support one indigent student, only public, both federal and state, and only for universities where we have ASUU chapter. So we have narrowed it down to 55/56, which means come November 12, we are going to give an award to each student from each of these branches.

PT: Is ASUU  planning to sponsor the beneficiaries for the four years?

Biodun Ogunyemi :No, we will support with a sum of N100,000 as scholarship, but next year we are going to bring another set on board, but that will help to cushion the effect, so it will become a yearly scholarship award. We are having the first scholarship programme come November 12. But before then, we have been partnering with the Gani Fawehinmi Foundation to give annual award, we support them logistically but we now felt that after about 20 years, the issue of doing that — ASUU should have its own Scholarship Award Program, and that programme was taken to our last National Delegate Conference, which we had in Bauchi ATBU, Abubakr Tafewa Balewa University in May. So we are going to give the first award to 65- 67 students.

PT:  I want your comment, reaction, on the rising cases of sexual misconduct among lecturers?

Biodun Ogunyemi: Well, journalists have been asking me this question frequently, particularly in the last one year or so, my standard response is that it’s a reflection of the general menace  in the Nigerian society.

Because sexual harassment is not limited to the universities. There was a case that was reported at the National Assembly, you would have read about the story of a youth corper that was harassed and it was reported in the newspaper, I didn’t fabricate it.  So while we were there one time they were coming up with this bill about sexual harassment, it was one of those things I told them, that sexual harassment takes place everywhere and it’s not peculiar to a university system, but perhaps why people are raising alarm about the university system is that they expect the highest level of moral conduct and decency among academics.

We at our level as leaders of the union, are also worried, we are worried that we have few cases, because when people say it’s becoming rampant, I ask them, what is the ratio to the number of lecturers we have on our campuses. At least the first generation universities, you can have as many as 1000-1500 lecturers, so how many cases have been reported in Ibadan, Ife, Zaria, Nsukka, in the last one year.

I want to tell you that ASUU before this issue of reporting or blowing few cases out of proportion, we have taken measures on our own part to ensure that we put few of our members that people call randy in check. Like if you go to campuses now, except where they are not implemented, we said that they should come up with suggestion box, students can report the advance the moment you see somebody laughing in an embarrassing manner or making embarrassing comments, you can start raising alarm, and we have female colleagues that we put at the head of welfare, we have students-staff relations committee and including anonymous writings/petitions, we encourage our students on anonymous petition so that we can begin to monitor  before things go haywire, and when we find courageous students that can come out and put their names. We have our staff ethics, we have our ethics and grievances committee on every campus that is supposed to track and try such cases before they bring it to the national. So we in a nutshell are not comfortable with these few cases and we are doing our best to ensure that the cases will not get to the embarrassing level that we will find difficult to defend.

PT: Is it that TETFUND funds are not being utilized by the schools managing them or the funds are not being released?

Biodun Ogunyemi: In the first place, let’s put these agencies in proper perspective, Tertiary Education Trust Fund, which evolved from Education Trust Fund ETF, was conceived as in intervention  agency, not a funding agency. Intervention and intervention is to stop gap, it is not a sustainable source of funding or fund of provision of facilities, that is the first thing we need to understand and what I suggest to us is that TETfund cannot provide all  our universities need to meet their infrastructural needs. Tetfund cannot provide or cannot meet all the requirements. So with that at the background, we bring in the role of the government in public universities, gone were the days when government used to have capital votes for our universities or tertiary institutions together, but go and check the budgets of these universities now, I  can tell you that even when they allocate some amounts, hardly will that university get even up to 10 percent of what is allocated. Don’t forget that these institutions keep expanding because of the hunger for tertiary education and of course, our population growth rate, you cannot stop the growth or the expansion in our campuses. So when you now say TETfund has been funding, now we brought in the concept of Needs Assessment, but we don’t see the impact, they are not meant to fund the provision of infrastructure, they are only meant to support. The ultimate and sustainable source of funding of infrastructural facilities in our campuses is government budget and that is what has been missing over the years. So an intervention agency has now been made the sole source of funding projects in our campuses and that is where the problem lies.

PT :  Is there actually a faction in ASUU?

Biodun Ogunyemi:  There are no factions in ASUU, before you can say there is a faction in an organisation, it means they have more than one leadership, probably at the apex level. Can you report that about ASUU? We don’t have two presidents, so if you have these next groups that are aggrieved within an organisation, it should be expected because ASUU is a union of scholars, scholars are trained to think differently, and so because of that divergent thinking, from time to time, there could be what you can call internal disagreement and some people can say well, we are staying away but we have had it before and we always have a way of coming back, we always have a way of reuniting even when we have people that disagree within the group. So that is why I can tell you that there is no faction in ASUU, we are not like the politicians that will be saying that they are reformed or they are unreformed. So we can only say that well, because of A,B,C we are staying away and we want to take care of ourselves, whatever they now call their selves, provided they don’t take steps to disrupt the constitutionally recognised leadership, we don’t have problem because we know with time, all matters will be resolved.

PT:  What is the union doing about some of these  institutions that do not have ASUU chapter or where the government tries to stop ASUU from performing their duties, like Ilorin, Kogi?

Biodun Ogunyemi: Well, in those two institutions you have mentioned, those ones I can talk about them for now, probably you want to talk about Nsukka too. You know our branches that we have problems, there are ongoing discussions but there are some differences or I can say they fall into different categories. When they don’t have functional branches, I will call them non-functional branches, there are different reasons,  if you take the Kogi case for instance, I would say it was caused by an overzealous visitor who thought that he could put ASUU in check and thought that he could do it and he will manage the effect of the action which is what he is trying to do, but I want to tell you today that they are realising the futility because that action of his has been condemned as far as the international labour organisation. The president of NLC has reported the matter to ILO and the Minister of Labour and Employment has written to the government conveying the report of ILO on that matter. So I believe that he has enough ground to do a rethink on his unilateral action, because he has no power to annul ASUU branch anywhere, and he doesn’t have the legal power or legal authority. So we are in court over the matter, but I think beyond the court, the matter has been condemned nationally and internationally, so that’s for Kogi.

As for Ilorin, we have had a prolonged regime of disagreement because some vice chancellors have turned the place to a kind or pariah state, where there was a loss and they would not want a functional ASUU and that is why the vice chancellor in and out have always tried to protect the environment in order to ensure that some critical goals, critical leadership does not emerge. What they did recently in that university, the immediate vice chancellor sacked the elected chairperson and secretary. We have taken the matter to court, we are still in court over that, there is one Dr. Afolayan, he is the recognised chairperson, though they have chairperson of a group called Management ASUU, we call them MASUU, so they are projecting that one. Recently it was reported in The Nation that that one has a case of plagiarism hanging on his head, but they will only want to use people which they know have some deficiencies somehow and they can have this control and manipulation on them. So those two universities actually illustrate the case of what we are doing about, even at that Ilorin, we have written to them on the need to discuss with the university and we started discussion but because some vested interests still want that place to remain the way it has been in the last 20 years or so, they have are blocking, but we are not giving up.

PT: How does ASUU feel about the N20 billion that was given to them recently?

Answer: Don’t worry, I will put it straight, N20 billion was not given to ASUU, lets get that straight for the records. The N20 billion was what they promised to release to universities for revitalisation.

The history is that when we had the action last year August to September, by the time we suspended the action in September 14, we had a memorandum of action where government promised to release N20 billion to public universities as revitalisation as a demonstration of their commitment to the revitalisation of public universities.

So N20 billion was to serve as demonstration of commitment to the memorandum of understanding that government signed with ASUU in 2013. I alluded to that 2103 MoU when I said government had agreed to release 1.3 trillion in six years starting from 2011. Eventually government released N200 billion, which was to be the first instalment. Between then and 2013 it took them about 2-3 years to release 200 billion. So government released 200 billion as part of 1.3 trillion and government went to sleep. ASUU in 2016, made it one of our points of demand that government has not implemented that aspect of MoU where it promised to release N1.3 trillion after a period of six years and that as at then, government was owing the university over 600 billion, that was as at 2016.

As at today, because  that aspect of MOU is expected to terminate 2019, so which means when you remove 200 billion from 1.3 trillion , you have 1.1 trillion that government is still owing and we asked them last year that when are you going to start releasing this money? I told you the history that Needs Assessment gave rise to that understanding; so this thing happened last year and government now said we will demonstrate commitment, so by September 2017, we will release 10 billion, by October 2017 we will release 10 billion, making a total of 20 billion to the revitalization fund. That took government one year to do and that was what they did this last two weeks and they went to say that they gave ASUU 20 billion

PT: Are we expecting a strike action soon?

Answer: (laughs) Now that  you have mentioned strike, let me just say this, the president of ASUU does not determine when to go on strike, our members will decide if there will be strike. But if it will not result in strike, they will also tell us where it will end. So what we are doing for now is to keep on updating our members on developments. If government continues to ignore us, we will tell our members, if government decides on hide and seek game, we tell our members; whatever government does we go back to our members.

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