By: Mimiko Oluwafemi
[Analyses]–That the situation has since changed for Nigeria and its universities, is so self-evident that we do not need to delay ourselves here trying to capture the dimensions of the emergent systemic degeneration that is the lot of the nation’s universities. Rather, our focus here is on the critical problematic, to wit, how do we begin to get our universities back on track, in order for them to fulfill their mandate?
For too long, provision of a broader base of funding for these institutions has been presented as the final answer, ‘the end of history,’ as it were, to this historic challenge. While not discounting the place of funding in the general outlook of higher education everywhere, the truth is that the tendency at pigeonholing the funding challenge confronting Nigeria’s universities has inexorably, and conveniently too, marginalized other critical dimensions to this all important inquiry. The desire to re-focus the argument as appropriate largely provided the inspiration for my recently published book, Getting Our Universities Back On Track: Reflections and Governance Paradigms from My Vice-Chancellorship.
The promoter of Pan-African University Press, Austin, TX, Professor Toyin Falola (TF), and his team, after reading my manuscript were ecstatic that it be published immediately. I was deeply honoured by his advice, which I readily accepted. As my wife and I were twitching all over at the huge freight charges to Nigeria that goes with publishing in the United States, TF in an online conversation with me, October 10, 2016, at 5.50 AM, wrote thus, ‘My wife and I are also adding to the amount to make things work, and for the book to sell at a price anyone can afford. It is the story of a successful life.’ I appreciate TF, the man I like to refer to as His Intellectual Majesty, for his leadership. That he thought up the idea of the recent conversation on the subject is further testament to that leadership. Also deserving of my immense appreciation is Dr. Tunji Olaopa, Executive Vice Chairman (EVC), the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), an intellectually engaging technocrat whose passion rips through his usually comprehensive writings on whichever subject he chooses to adumbrate upon.
In the past few months since the book arrived Nigeria, I have been pulled out to talk to a lot of media organizations. I granted full length interviews to among others, The Hope (February 22, 2017), New Telegraph (June 5, 2017), Nigerian Tribune (June 12, 2017), Thisday (June 25, 2017), and Sunday Vanguard (June 9, 2017), among others. Part of my discussion with New Telegraph is apposite for citation here, as it speaks to the raison d’etre of Getting Our Universities Back On Track.
I left office as Vice Chancellor some two years ago. The intervening period I consider long enough to reflect and document the high and low points of my five-year tenure, particularly what I thought I did right that others may want to learn from. Of course, I also laid out where I think I did not do quite well, which also should serve as useful lessons for future Vice-Chancellors in particular, and leaders of sundry public organizations in general.
Secondly, I am convinced now having exercised the office of vice-chancellor for five years, that you do not take things for granted. As VC, I saw a lot of people who genuinely desired to make a difference in the estates committed into their hands, but who practically lacked an understanding of how to go about it. I thought it was important to commit to paper the challenges I confronted, (and) how I managed to negotiate same, such that those who find some value in what we managed to accomplish in those five years could then have a template of sort to draw inspiration from.
… in five short years, the fortunes of our university changed. We moved from the backwaters… to be rated the best State university in the country. Against all odds, we managed to run our academic calendar unbroken for five years, and got our students to begin to post the best types of performance, both in academics and in sports. We became the most subscribed (State) university in the southwest by JAMB’s own account. The Senate building we erected is generally regarded as the best, the most functional, and the most aesthetically pleasing in the country today by seasoned professionals. I thought it was important to document the programme of transition to the new AAUA.
My specific purpose, as I noted in the Preface to the book, was to lay bare the practical realities of governing a public university, in Nigeria, demonstrating in the process the critical challenges I faced, and the careful way in which I negotiated same. As such, (the) book is neither a detached academic analysis nor a participant-observer type of narrative. Rather, it is one that draws on the practical realities that I confronted for five years as Vice Chancellor in the process of delivering higher education through the vector of a public university in Nigeria’s peculiarly challenging context. Even so, while the particular focus of the volume is on the issues of day-to-day management of one university, it invariably (provided) the context for the interrogation of some of the broader policy frameworks that are, for me, as compelling as they are urgent, if public universities in Nigeria are to attain to the status of the development leader envisaged for them.
Arising from this effort are five theses on university governance captured in sequence here. They address the primary themes of this Conversation, and it is my hope that they are helpful enough in navigating the very complex and supremely important subject.
It is apt to start with the question, what is governance? Often times, the conceptualization of ‘governance’ in the literature is either wholly off mark or patently reductionist. While UNESCAP (2007) would seem, unlike many others, to have recognized that governance is applicable also ‘in several contexts’ – corporate, international, national and local – it nevertheless conceives it rather narrowly as ‘the process of decision making and … by which decisions are implemented (or not implemented).’Governance is certainly much more expansive than this. It is a whole enterprise involving the process by which organizational goals are set, and human and material resources are mobilized to effectively and efficiently accomplish set goals, within a specific legal and institutional framework.
It is trite that a social formation cannot grow faster than its universities. That is why the most advanced economies of the world parade the best universities, as evidenced in several webometric rankings conducted across the globe. Universities are ‘the major centre points for knowledge generation (through research), knowledge transmission (through teaching), and knowledge application (through engagement with the wider society)’ (Materu, et. al., 2017: 196). As aptly noted by the Committee on Needs Assessment of Nigerian Universities (2012), ‘The future of a nation can be determined by the quality of its education system generally, but especially by its universities in the immediate term.’ Deriving from the foregoing is my very first thesis: Nigeria’s poor national development profile is largely a function of the mediocre status of its universities. This is not in any way to assume away the fact of the systematic undermining of the Nigerian project by the nature of its politics, including the structure of governance, and character of the state, and the need to get it right at that level before the agenda of development could become meaningful. After all, as if to establish this critical nexus, one pundit was quick to aver, with a tone of finality, when he was notified of today’s event, thus, ‘Unless you get the country back, you cannot get the university back!’ Rather, it is to underscore the fact that there is nothing wrong with Nigeria that cannot be made right by the resourcefulness of truly great universities, including a schema for managing its diversity, and reimaging its governance structure.That Nigeria has not been able to mainstream, and deliver on the development agenda, therefore, smacks of failure on the part of its universities. This is why it is so important that we enhance the universities such that they could be development leaders indeed.
Now does anybody need further evidence that Nigerian universities are not yet living to expectation? Consider the fact of their poor showing in all webometric rankings, emblematized in the one conducted by Journal Consortium, as published in 2015. On the basis of research publications and citations from 2010 to 2014, and visibility on the Internet, it rated the University of Ibadan, which it adjudged the best in Nigeria, as number eight in Africa, trailing universities in South Africa, Egypt and Kenya (Mohammed, 2015). In the 2017 Times Higher Education Ranking, only the University of Ibadan of all Nigerian universities made the list of 1000 top global universities, at 801st position, with universities in South Africa, Egypt and Uganda ranking much higher (WES, WENR World Education News and Reviews, March 7, 2017). As noted by World Education Services (Ibid), ‘Although rankings are notoriously poor proxy for university quality, they do provide the best relative guide available.’ The truth is that warts and all, the webometric ranking scheme holds some positive elements. It affords Nigerian universities a platform to delineate themselves against global best practices, even where issues exist as to the ethnocentric orientation of the key indicators. It also helps these institutions determine their level of conformance to the universalism ethos of universities.
The extent to which the main regulatory agency of university education in Nigeria, the National Universities Commission (NUC), has been able to mainstream these issues, which bother on quality assurance, continues to be hotly debated. I consider the role of the NUC as the assurer of quality quite apposite. At least, this compels many a university to aspire to do the needful. Even so, it is increasingly evident that the entire process of accreditation, by which quality is calibrated by the body, is susceptible to all manners of chicanery perpetrated by the universities, often times behind the back of the NUC. It is also worrisome that many a university in Nigeria has reduced the whole issue of quality assurance to NUC accreditation of their programmes, which can only take place once in a while, even at the best of times. Attaining to global status would require of Nigerian universities internal commitment to, nay institutionalization and mainstreaming of quality. I also argue that NUC’s overt involvement in the administration of the minimum benchmark rule is rather suffocating; and increasingly tends to undermine the place of the senate of each university vis a vis conception, and delivery of academic programmes. It is counterproductive to seek to make all Nigerian universities look exactly alike, as the NUC seems to be doing, even if inadvertently. Uniformity detracts from creativity, which ordinarily should be the hallmark of knowledge centres that universities are supposed to be.
Still on the state of Nigeria’s universities, the level of instability abroad vis a vis their operations remains, to say the least, atrocious. They have not just continued to completely marginalize research, for sundry reasons, but also inevitably, function in the context of very limited research uptake, as not much exists in form of partnership with industry. There is limited access to and focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education across the higher education landscape, as the more lucrative management programmes continue to multiply in response to immediate market demand. The prevalence of skill gaps in the national economy also suggests that the country’s universities are not too relevant thereto. Dearth of critical life skills among products of Nigerian universities is a reality; as weak capacity on their part for the critical thinking prerequisite to a fulfilling post-school life is becoming increasingly evident.
It is also emblematic of the very low level at which these universities operate that the country is yet to arrive at a consensus on the need for some modicum of restructuring of the federation, which is evidently atrophying and threatening to implode. Thus, the country now, and more than at any other time in its post-civil war history, hangs dangerously at the edge of the precipice, with the state racing, arguably inexorably, in the direction of failure. It is the absence of such leadership on the part of Nigeria’s intelligentsia that has elevated arrant illiteracy in the arena of public discourse in recent times to the level of argument, arguments driving us all in the direction of explosion, and ‘before our very eyes!’
In a recent paper, I noted in relation to Nigeria’s universities, the systematic delegitimization of long-established conventions by which universities everywhere are known; scandalous marginalization of the primary mandate to serve as a platform for ground-breaking research; and the total breakdown of community ethos, emblematized by deep divisions on (our) campus(es), … across truly mundane lines (Mimiko, 2017a).
All these evidence the fact that Nigerian universities may have lost focus. The question that arises in the circumstances is, why are Nigerian universities not living up to expectation? Here, the criticality of poor funding cannot be overemphasized.
The poor funding situation for education in the country is put in bolder relief when compared to the position of several other countries around the world. UNESCO (2014: 122) statistics indicate, for instance, that of the 67 countries surveyed in 2011, Nigeria’s official funding of education was the lowest. Whereas education funding as a share of GDP in 2011 and 2015 respectively were 3.6% and 5.6% in Sierra Leone; 4.7% and 5.5% in Ethiopia; 3.0% and 4.7% in Indonesia; 8.2% and 8.8% in Ghana; 6.2% and 7.2% in Tanzania; and 6.7% and 7.9% in Kenya; the figures for Nigeria were 1.5% and 5.6%. While education as a share of total government expenditure in 2011 was 13.7% for Sierra Leone; 25.4% for Ethiopia; 15.2% for Indonesia; 24.4% for Ghana; 24.6% for Cote d’Ivoire; 17.2% for Kenya; and 16.7% for war-torn Afghanistan; the figure for Nigeria was a minuscule 6.0%. Education’s share of Nigeria’s federal government budget hovered at 8.21% in 2003, 6.42% in 2009, 8.7% in 2013, and 10.7% in 2014 (WES, 2017).
As it is with public universities, so it is with private ones, which commitment to charging relatively higher tuition fees tends to becloud the true situation of things vis a vis funds allocation. Private universities in Nigeria are allowed neither a window of benefit from the education tax fund, nor any privilege supportive of their enterprise. After discounting cost of infrastructure and tuition, and where applicable, legitimate profit, what you have left for real financing of academics in this category of universities is minuscule. I argue that in the minimum, the TETFund Act should be amended such that the agency could lend support to private higher educational institutions in the area of academic staff training and development. This would at least enlarge the pool of PhD available to the entire Nigerian university system, currently put at 47% of the total needed (CNANU, 2012).
It has become evident in the face of massification, dwindling proprietorial funding, and rising cost of education that Nigerian universities have to prioritize fund mobilization. This requires mainstreaming of grantsmanship in the operations of the universities, with the VC serving as the chief advancement officer. The question that arises though is, how does a VC find the time to make the rounds in pursuit of funds when all they now have to preside over on daily basis are platforms of instability that the universities have become? The 10% of subvention that the NUC expects all public universities to mobilize on their own, every year, is quite modest. At AAUA, we were able to do 25.81% between 2010 and 2014. The ultimate is for the universities to activate their autonomy mantra, measured in terms of the degree of financial independence they are able to maintain vis a vis their proprietors. Here, I share the perspective of many others who have argued that the free tuition commitment of the Federal Government of Nigeria in university education is due for review (Babalakin, 2011). A creative way must be found to enhance tuition fees charged in Nigerian public universities (Ibid). This could be preceded by the institution of a robust student loan scheme that ensures no student is unable to receive education by reason of indigence. As VC, I personally provided the seed money for setting up the AAUA Scholarship Fund from the stipend I earned as a delegate at the 2014 National Conference.
Even so, paucity of funds alone does not tell the full story of the non-performance of Nigerian universities, a position that informs my second thesis. It is that the governance system as a factor in the overall effectiveness of Nigerian universities is as important, if not more important than funding. From my own modest experience, I actually am persuaded that governance is much more important. For, a university that is fund-deficient, but rich in ideas and governance capability, could readily deploy the latter to mobilize needed funds. On the other hand, a university that has all the funds it needs, but is deficient in governance capacity is almost certainly going to shipwreck. It is axiomatic, therefore, that whereas access to funds is a critical condition precedent to effectiveness on the part of Nigerian universities, it is not a sufficient condition. On the scale of importance, governance capacity trumps funds availability. As the Nigerian experience clearly indicates, abundance of funds in the face of paucity of creativity and capacity reproduces failure.
Now, the tendency here has always been to identify corruption as the basis of the mediocre performance of the Nigerian economy. I have also argued in contradistinction to this, that in addition to the structural deformities, much of what is wrong with Nigeria’s political economy is the demonstrable absence of capacity, or capacity collapse, if you will, on the part of those who dominate our public space (Mimiko, 2011). It is this that gives context to the cesspool of corruption that the nation equates. On the other hand, as the mantra of the Pohang Iron and Steel Corporation (POSCO) of the Republic of Korea suggests, the preferred combination of elements, and causality of relationship, is that of unlimited human ingenuity as counterpoise to limited natural resources. POSCO announces at its gate, most aptly, ‘Natural Resources Limited, Human Ingenuity Unlimited! Our position here is again strikingly akin to the proposition of the Committee on Needs Assessment of Nigerian Universities (2012), to the effect that the real problems faced by Nigerian universities, in the order of criticality I presume, are the quality of leadership and governance in the universities; prioritization of resource allocation; and limited resources. The Committee thus concludes, most aptly, that ‘To address the needs of Nigerian universities, there is urgent need to, prima facie, address the issue of provision of quality leadership and governance in public universities.’
This is where what we tried to do in Getting Our Universities Back On Track finds relevance. It is an attempt to call up the fine details of the day-to-day administration of a truly complex organization that a university is. The complexity of the university system is defined, among other things, by its being populated by very smart people, some of whom could, however, choose to be mischievous; and intellectuals whose forte is pursuit of truth and knowledge without concern as to whose ox is gored. It is incidentally also a system defined by cult followership of sort to staff unions, in which leadership is thereby susceptible to arrant abuse by an unconscionable leader. Nigerian universities not only operate in the context of skosh autonomy, they are above all, a system where academic freedom is misconceived as laggardness, and where humongous time tends to be wasted on frivolities. It is an arena where alliances are now rarely constructed, and loyalties rarely spurned on the basis of ennobling ideas, but on narrow and particularistic identity variables, which being largely immutable, are antithetical to the very essence of university. As Zakaria (2017) aptly notes, ‘Identity does not lend itself easily to compromise.’ Extrapolating from this, I argue that in the context of its elevation as the organizing principle in an academe that is expected to be the bedrock of creativity, and cathedral of ideas and thoughts, identity cannot but be a constraining factor.
As we noted elsewhere, the changing realities with which today’s universities are confronted are legion and mutative. These include but are by no means limited to globalization, dwindling public sector financing, global competitiveness, rapid development of technology, growth of the service sector, growing complexity of society, and expanding bouquet of social challenges for which universities are expected to serve as solution leaders – diseases, wars, conflicts, poverty, social inequality, tumbling values that had hitherto held society together, etc… (Mimiko, 2017b: 377-378, cited in Mimiko, 2017a).
Putting all of these in focus and inventing strategies of effectively dealing with, managing, or responding to them is the extant governance challenge that our universities must have to deal with. More than anything else, this reality underscores the relevance question that each university must constantly ask itself, on the basis of regular mapping of the environment, local and global, within which it must operate. This is the context in which the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) at its 100th year celebrations in 2013 spoke to the concept of ‘future forward’ as guiding light to universities that must remain relevant in the rapidly changing environment of the 21st century (Schreuder, 2013).
At AAUA, we kick started our governance enterprise by enunciating a vision, encapsulated in the mantra, ‘… building a 21st Century University, properly called!’ The starting point in strategic planning is enunciation of a clear vision – of inspiration, of a future that holds the promise of better existence not just for the collective, but indeed every single critical stakeholder. Organizational stability is largely a function of the ability to make each person see the direct impact of an enunciated vision on their own lives. It is the principal tool by which the buy-in of critical stakeholders is secured.
We followed up by segmenting the constituencies, and thereafter evolved strategies for engaging with each of them. The most critical ones were the staff: academic, administrative/technical, and the other (junior); students (student-politicians; disrupters; stabilizers; and regular students); regulatory agencies; host communities; owner-government; alumni; and parents/guardians. We ended up stanching instability and other vices wracking the system, and thus administered the academic calendar in a university of 23,000 students and about 1,500 staff, unbroken for five straight years. My experience with the AAUA enterprise informs my third thesis. It is that professionalization of university governance is a sine qua non for sustained development of Nigeria’s universities, a critical desideratum for bringing them back on track.
In the US context, professionalization is taken as the process of integrating non-university executives into university administration, and thereby reducing the role and influence of faculty in university governance. Such a trend allows universities to focus more pointedly on academic matters, which ordinarily is their forte. There is the other side to this coin, however. It is the tendency that the more you involve non-university administrators in the system, the greater the chances that such involvement could undermine the dominant role of faculty in purely academic matters, as these also become susceptible to intrusion from the ‘new administrators.’ The authority of senate on academic matters could, thereby, be undermined. Even so, it is important to note that while engagement of non-university executives in administration is just one element in the professionalism template, it is one that Nigerian universities can no longer ignore. A deliberate effort was thus made at AAUA to infuse non-university professionals into critical, albeit non-academic, areas of the University’s affairs through direct appointment into established positions. The goal was to at once take advantage of the specialized knowledge of such professionals, and distill the best in private sector management into the university system. This was complemented by an elaborate programme of outsourcing of sundry non-academic activities, a step which enabled the University to increasingly focus on purely academic issues. It is noteworthy that even the most unsparing of our adversaries could not deny the results that attended these modest efforts, which were nevertheless subjects of sustained attacks by the ranks of those who could not bring themselves to accommodating whatever looked like a new way of doing things.
Away from the narrower American conceptualization, professionalization is conceived here as consisting of three critical dimensions. The first is the Merriam Webster Dictionary (2011) definition of professionalization as making ‘(an activity) into a job that requires special education, training, or skill.’ The second involves the development of ‘a coherent, agreed-upon knowledge base’ (Drury, 2011). The third is formal induction into, and certification to ply a trade. Simply put, therefore, professionalization equates the transformation of an activity into a job, the performance of which is predicated upon acquisition of some special skills through formal training in, and induction into a carefully developed coherent body of shared knowledge by which practitioners are to be guided at all times. While the broader dimensions of this are attended to presently, it suffices here to note that as long as we make university governance an all-comers game, assuming that it is something that every professor can relate to effectively, for so long shall we keep having universities in this clime that are wantonly mismanaged.
Some critical leadership initiatives are very essential and must be embedded in the shared body of knowledge and values by which the process of professionalization of university governance is constructed. Visionary, courageous leadership is a critical imperative that must be deliberately taught to those who would be VC. They must have a compelling vision, and demonstrable ability to market same organization-wide. Every university governance leader must be committed to reform. Also called for here is hard core realism; the type that would, for instance, make a governance leader able to live with, and prepare for the possibility of failure of critical gate-keepers in the system to deliver on their mandate, wittingly or otherwise. It is such that would make a leader appreciate that resistance to change could emanate from the most unlikely of places, as was the case with biblical Pharisees who would demand from Jesus, why-a-miracle-on-Sabbath-day?
Above all, consciousness of what leadership itself entails is quite critical. The consciousness that the well-being of an organization depends on what you, as Chief Executive Officer, choose to do, or not do – i.e. how you exercise the power and authority that go with the office – goes a long way in determining the efficiency of operations, and effectiveness of leadership.
My fourth thesis is that to succeed at running a university (in Nigeria), a professor must reinvent themselves and become a governance professional; otherwise, governing a university could very well end up being a very frustrating, uninspiring and regrettable experience. The question arises, who is a governance professional? It is that person who realizes what governance is not, and what it is. It is that person that recognizes that governance is not just a series of ad-hoc efforts and/or sequence of events directed at relating with and/or responding to daily operational issues that crop up in an organization. This is an orientation predicated upon the false assurance that organizations would at any event find their bearing and run virtually on auto-pilot. A governance professional is that executive who recognizes that governance is not a reactive enterprise. Reactive here conceived in its ordinary meaning as ‘Acting in response to a situation rather than in creating and controlling it’ (Oxford Dictionary of English, 2013). Rather, a governance professional is that who appreciates that governance is a product of deep introspection, conversance with technical details, courage to make hard choices, good judgment, and dexterity at inspiring and mobilizing an otherwise rebellious, or at best redundant team of workers, for positive acts in pursuit of an indeterminate, but potentially desirable end-state. I have argued that as part of the process leading to their emergence as university governance professional, a vice chancellor must possess a good degree of exposure to law, history, ICT and financial literacy. They must also be politically savvy, and adept at negotiation, especially if they must successfully navigate the very slippery, often dysfunctional terrain of union activism.
The art of negotiation is particularly fundamental, and to succeed as VC, a professor must be a hard negotiator. They must create latitude for compromise, while remaining unbending on core issues of principle. The leader must learn to refuse to lend themselves to blackmail, and factor in the worst-case-scenario in each and every situation. Above all, an effective VC must learn to live above board, and by example, as in the words of Machiavelli (1992), ‘Nothing makes a Prince so much esteemed as great enterprises and setting a fine example’. Getting Our Universities Back On Track is one modest effort at content creation in the drive for professionalization of university governance in Nigeria.
Recall that for some six months in 2013, ASUU called out its members on a national strike, directed at exacting some concessions from the Federal Government in terms of improved funding of public universities and better remuneration to faculty. Before then, forty-four and half months (more than three and half years) had been lost to strike action in the Nigerian university system between 1981 and 2009 (Bamiro, 2012, cited in Mimiko, 2017b: 290). At AAUA, we managed to get our academics back to work after the first four or five months of the 2013 national strike. How we navigated that very difficult terrain bestridden by the brutally efficient national ASUU machine is adequately captured in this book.
Union-inspired instability in the university system coheres with limited access, evidenced by the fact that only a quarter of admission seekers get placed each year, as trigger factors for the reality of the large number of Nigerian youths currently studying abroad. From 26,997 in 2005, the figure increased by 164% to 71,351 in 2015 (UNESCO Institute of Statistics, 2017, cited in WES, 2017); with the five biggest players being the UK with 17,973; 13,919 in Ghana; 10,674 in US; 4,943 in Malaysia; and 1,915 in Saudi Arabia (Ibid). It has been shown that the N160 billion and N246 billion that Nigerian students paid for education in Ghana and the UK in 2012 constitute 40% and 60% respectively of the nation’s education budget for the same year (Vanguard, June 7, 2017). The point here is not whether it is rewarding for Nigerian youths to be educated abroad in an increasingly globalized context that we must live in. Indeed, such opportunities for foreign study constitute significant value addition to the pool, quality, and diversity of knowledge available to the national economy. Rather, it is the humungous amount expatriated to fund such education, computed at $2 billion annually (Vanguard, Feb. 10, 2016), that is the issue. This type of resource would be quite consequential on the Nigerian educational system already reeling, as it were, in the miasma of underfunding.
It is from this reality of acute instability spurned by the emergent culture of strike action in the school system that my fifth thesis derives, to wit: the brand of union activism abroad in Nigerian universities today represents an incipient danger to the very survival of the system; such that if a bold step is not taken to rein in the unions, and stanch their drive towards totalization, Nigerian universities are not ever going to be able to compete, and may indeed inexorably collapse. The concept of totalization speaks to an all encompassing agenda fostered by the unions. It is a culture of rabid unionism that concedes no ground, but is rather driven by a system of irrationality that does not brook any form of challenge. Under this unusual regime, no grounds are yielded and nothing of the traditions of the university system is too sacrosanct to be trampled upon or violated, even wantonly (Mimiko, 2017b: 254).
Critical dimensions to this new culture include insistence of the staff unions that they not only be ‘consulted all the way, but indeed that their approval … be sought and obtained before policies are made, and all actions taken, ….’ Unions angle for complete dominance of the university landscape. They seek ‘to take over the administration of the campuses, with some of them going as far as suggesting that they must draw up the criteria for appointment and promotion of staff, (and) staff condition of service …’ (Ibid).
Now that campus closure spurned by unions’ activities would seem to have become an integral part of Nigeria’s universities virtually every year since 1982, it implies that ‘the strike option has not been effective, at least to the extent that the core problems remain unresolved’ (Ibid: 253) To suggest that the additional monies thrown the way of the universities (or more appropriately, the staff) after each strike action constitute enough justification for the disruption of their operations in the first instance is one queer logic I have not been able to internalize (Ibid: 254). At any event, the truth is that a mindset of narcissism has (now virtually) taken the place of patriotism, which provided the basis for union engagement in the years gone by. Today, virtually every form of strike action is directed at securing some more material benefits for union members. They are rarely now focused on the public good. The spirit of altruism is long dead, replaced by just a thin layer of façade over what is it that unionists as individuals could exact from unionism. Lenin’s warning on the danger of slipping off into the abyss of ‘mere trade union consciousness’ would seem to be lost now. What is abroad among the university staff unions in Nigeria now is a rabid trade union consciousness, papered over by some feeble attempts at highlighting the state of higher education in the land (Mimiko, 2017b: 255).
What is more, as noted in Getting Our Universities Back On Track, staff unions actually recoil from reining in their members when they commit infractions. Here, I speak to the very poor work ethic in general, and more specifically, their relationship with students ‘for whom they are supposed to serve as role models and stand in locus parentis’. The truth is that many of Nigerian campuses today are, for our students, worse than Guantanamo Bay, from where if you were lucky to be released, you do not want anything to do with such citadels of wanton abuse forever! (Ibid). Yet, hardly do you get the staff unions take principled stand against infractions on the part of their members, especially the more union-centric ones. You could as vice chancellor hardly count on the unions to call their members to account. Rather, what you are confronted with when issues arise are suggestions that such infractions are better left to universities administration to handle, a position, which for me, equates the textbook definition of acquiescence (Mimiko, 2013).
There is yet another unsettling dimension to all of these, which is gradually now playing out across our universities. It is the entrepreneurial, transactional orientation of many a union leader, who now pander to political relevance, and whose public conduct, protestations and remonstrations as unionists are demonstrably directed to seeking attention relevant to their placement in political offices by transient custodians of state power. This is one poignant reminder to how far away today’s union leaders have moved from the ideals of old.
It would be correct to suggest that I have undertaken in Getting Our Universities Back On Track, a detailed, perhaps brutal interrogation of the place of staff unions in the Nigerian university system. This includes a template of sort on how to effectively engage them. I, of course, do not expect the union-centric to applaud all my prescriptions. Indeed, this is the context in which I noted that a struggle is fermenting in the universities between unionists and scholars (Ibid: 293), and everyone is free to be persuaded by the argument of either camp. What I ask for, however, is robust engagement with the issues, predicated upon verifiable evidence, and driven by the desire to change the fortune of our universities.
Part of my advocacy is that we evolve a protest scheme that would not lead to a total shut down of our higher institutions, even where we have to declare a strike action. Examples abound in other climes how this is canalized. Outright call-off of strike actions rather than mere suspension of same each time a negotiated solution is arrived at should be legislated upon forthwith. This would close a loophole that allows unions to undermine extant legal provisions for declaring strikes and remain technically in a state of permanent strike action. Distortions to the concept of industrial strike must also be addressed. By definition, an industrial strike involves withdrawal of labour power; calling members of a striking union off from work for a specified period of time, or indefinitely as the case may be. It amounts to ‘handshake above the elbow,’ therefore, when unionists begin to sabotage facilities on our university campuses in an effort to deepen the effectiveness of their action. The same applies to the penchant to lock the gates of their institutions, and perpetrate all forms of illegality in the name of strike enforcement. Above all, we need the unions to mainstream moral rectitude on the part of (their) members, many of whom are without doubt, attitudinally-challenged.
In the new environment we envisage, unions would be organized in such a way that ‘the focus would not be on how to wrestle down (administration) or authority. It would be on how to add value to what we have. There is need for a higher level of creativity in terms of operations and modus operandi on the part of the unions. It is also quite imperative that a lever of protection be created for those who choose not to take membership of staff unions, or participate in strike actions, such that the democratic basis of unionism, which would seem to have now been greatly eroded on our campuses, could be carefully reconstructed.
Some other steps requisite to managing the staff unions in the overall goal of bringing our universities back on track are provided here in outline form:
Extending the levers of autonomy to empower councils to truly and completely superintend, each its university, including in relation to the conditions of service of staff, and their remuneration.
Creation of a new framework for managing conflicts between management and unions, such that such would not spiral out of control.
Encouragement to staff unions to retain the services of professional lobbyists who could more effectively make their case with government in an environment devoid of the traditional truculence.
Mobilization of higher education students by faculty and staff for creative and positive engagement in the democratic (electoral) system.
Streamlining of the leadership selection process in the unions to ensure that the more senior and matured officers emerge as leaders.
Entrenchment of greater democracy, and tolerance of minority views within the unions.
Encouragement to students-victims of strike actions to approach the courts for enforcement of their rights against striking unions whose members insist on drawing salaries for work not done.
Implementation of the ‘no-work-no-pay’ provisions of the Trade Disputes Act.
A critical element in the inability of Nigerian universities to follow in the tradition of the oldest amongst them in their commitment to, and delivery on quality is the systematic underfunding that has been their lot soon after military incursion into governance. This is one critical element in the broader socio-political environment of the country, which provides the context for the operation of the universities, and fundamentally constrains their ability to engender excellence. More critical to the analysis of extant dysfunctionality of Nigerian universities, however, is the poor quality of governance therein. Varied attempts at marginalizing this variable in analysis does not in any significant way detract from this reality. Indeed, the governance system as a factor in the limited effectiveness of Nigerian universities is as important, if not more important than funding. It is, therefore, imperative that definitive steps be taken to improve on the quality of governance of these institutions as a first step in bringing them back on track. A well articulated programme of professionalization of university governance is the most assured platform for bringing this into fruition. A sketch of unique leadership initiatives essential to such professionalization agenda as articulated in Getting Our Universities Back On Track, has been provided here. It is important that they are embedded in the body of knowledge and values providing content for the professionalization schema, which must itself be underpinned by what I call the AS-AMIE-SIE code. This is an acronym for Accountability, Systemic Stability, Advancement, Meritocracy, Inclusivity, Engagement, Staff Development, Infrastructure Upgrade, and Excellence.
The end-state is to have universities that are research-focused, socially relevant, inclusive and cosmopolitan in outlook, gender-sensitive, and technology-driven – a veritable platform for formal training, and lifelong capacity development opportunities. These cannot but be universities capable of producing graduates with critical competencies, and life skills requisite to bridging the yawning skill gap in the national economy, and holding their own in the emergent global knowledge society. They must be institutions that are wholly stable in operations, and possess a funding base that is robust enough to serve as bastion of defense against shifty proprietorial funding commitment. These would be universities indeed, not just in name; that are relevant to the social development aspirations of today, and critical in defining the place of Nigeria in the increasingly competitive global political economy going forward.
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This piece was delivered by Mimiko Oluwafemi, a professor of political science, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, and the immediate past vice-chancellor, Adekunle Ajasin University Akungba, Ondo state, at the Conversation on Higher Education in Nigeria, organized by the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy, Ibadan, and the Pan-African University Press, Austin, TX, USA, at University of Ibadan Conference Centre, Ibadan, July 10, 2017