Obasanjo Calls It Right, Somewhat

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

For once, I am compelled to agree -- to some extent -- with former President Olusegun Obasanjo about the impact of frequent strikes on the quality of teaching and research in Nigerian universities. Over the past decade or two, I have argued emphatically that endless strikes and demonstrations by university staff and students undermine our university system, the quality of graduates produced by those universities and how overseas universities perceive the graduates of Nigeria’s tertiary education institutions.alt

Every day the universities embark on work stoppage, the nation loses in terms of hours of productivity. Not only will universities record a significant decline in the quality of teaching and research, university graduates also lose their appeal and competitiveness across the world. Overseas employers of labour would be less attracted to hire graduates of a university system that constantly experiences disruptions to academic schedule.

Obasanjo said at a book launch in Lagos 10 days ago (Monday, 23 July 2012) that prolonged strikes by university staff and students jeopardise academic and research work in Nigerian universities. On this point alone, Obasanjo was right.

But wait a moment. Wasn’t Obasanjo the president when Nigerian universities experienced the greatest number of strikes? That says something about Obasanjo’s track record of mismanaging industrial relations disagreements with academic staff. There is something cynical about Obasanjo’s criticism of university staff and students for their use of recurring strikes to advance their demands. During his two terms as president, Obasanjo used strong arm tactics and security forces to shut down universities and to intimidate university staff. Sometimes, he used indifference to enfeeble the legitimate demands of academic staff of universities.

During Obasanjo’s era, the cost in terms of hours of teaching and research lost in the universities through strikes was incalculable. Obasanjo should have managed the situation better through engagement in honest and productive negotiations with the leadership of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and student union leaders. During Obasanjo’s imperious rule, let us not forget, everyone knew that endless industrial disputes between ASUU and the government were prolonged owing to Obasanjo’s intolerance of alternative viewpoints, not to forget his legendary abhorrence of university teachers which he openly admitted.

For example, Obasanjo and ASUU fought each other unproductively in the arm wrestling swordfight over the case of the notorious “UNILORIN 49”. ASUU leaders emerged from the battlefield with blood wounds because of Obasanjo’s contempt for university teachers. Obasanjo had always argued in public and in private that the use of strikes as an instrument of coercion designed to settle disputes between the government and academic staff of universities was nothing but a devil’s alternative employed by union leaders with a devious state of mind.

Frequent disruptions to academic studies and research in universities are as much a statement about the poverty of ideas that has gripped senior university administrators and government officials as they are about lack of knowledge of how to achieve best practice in teaching and learning and research. Under Obasanjo, the Federal Government dragged university education backward.

Beyond Obasanjo’s apathy to the requests of university teachers, there is the need to examine critically the value of strikes to the advancement of the interests of academic staff and students. No matter how you evaluate its worth, strikes have never really fully achieved what the organisers ever intended. Frequent strikes serve to undercut the quality of university education, the image of universities, the image of academic staff and students, as well as the overall way the public perceives tertiary education institutions in Nigeria.

How could scientific research and knowledge be advanced in universities when basic equipment and infrastructure are unavailable or have deteriorated? Certainly, ASUU has an obligation to ensure that teaching and research at the universities are conducted in an environment that promotes learning. However, strikes of any kind that disrupt academic timetable and the atmosphere for teaching, research and learning are increasingly perceived as counter-productive to the business which universities are set up to undertake.

In a previous article I published on the subject of strikes in universities, I argued for some deep reflections on the relevance of that strategy. I raised six critical questions about the usefulness of that tactic. I asked emphatically: “Are industrial strikes the only option available to ASUU to improve the quality of university education in Nigeria? To what extent have industrial strikes helped ASUU to win, lose or stall its war against the government? Are strikes harmful or useful to the advancement of teaching, learning and research in the universities? Are strikes disruptive of academic calendars of universities, including the calendars of other institutions that are serviced by graduates of universities? Should ASUU continue to use strikes as essential tools to draw the federal government’s attention to the poor quality of infrastructure in the universities?”

There is widespread perception by many people at home and in the Diaspora that academic staff members of Nigerian universities often engage in dishonourable practices that cannot be tolerated in overseas institutions. This observation might be right. The lack of transparency and accountability in the system means that university academic staff in Nigeria can afford not to commit to quality teaching and still receive their salaries. They can afford to adopt substandard teaching practices because student evaluation of staff teaching is not tolerated as a part of staff evaluation process. Academic staff in Nigerian universities can afford not to do research and be remunerated. They can afford not to publish and be paid. They can afford to write in pamphlets or lowly rated journals and still claim they are publishing in highly regarded academic journals. They can afford to subject -- indeed some are known to have subjected -- students to physical and psychological abuse, including sexual harassment, without being severely sanctioned by senior university administrators.

In most universities in the western world, annual appraisal of academic and research staff is one of the staff development strategies used to identify and motivate high achieving members. It is also used to sustain quality and high standards in tertiary education institutions. When academic staff members are appointed, they are informed about the procedures for performance appraisal, including regulations and criteria for promotion or yearly salary increment. Right from their first day at work, the staff members understand that their ability to rise within the system is dependent on their ability to meet the established criteria for promotion and/or salary increment.

Absence of a verifiable and measurable performance benchmark in Nigerian universities would make it very difficult for high achieving academic staff members to make legitimate claims for reward or promotion. The adoption of an unclear system of appraisal in our universities appears to be designed to give heads of departments and directors of research centres the upper hand in recognising and recommending mediocre staff for promotion. How could an outstanding staff member, for example, successfully appeal against a vindictive supervisor who is determined to hinder that staff member’s professional development within a university system in which there are no clear guidelines for performance evaluation? This is why we need radical changes to the way in which academic staff are evaluated in Nigerian universities.

Some of our universities are unwilling to introduce radical reforms, particularly changes that would improve standards and also expose injustices in the system. A head of department who has operated for many years with uncontested powers would be most reluctant to adopt an equitable and transparent system of staff appraisal. Senior university administrators must take a moment to develop clear yardsticks for appraisal of staff. That framework would ensure that quality staff, especially outstanding and high achieving staff members, are rewarded and retained.

Another issue that requires critical review is how research grants are awarded to university staff. There is currently so much abuse of the processes through which internal research grant opportunities are publicised, including the processes through which research grant applications are assessed. In order to eliminate the existing culture of favouritism, cronyism, and mate-ship in the award of research grants, applications for research grants should be assessed strictly on a range of criteria, including originality and innovativeness of the proposal, the quality and strength of the application, the practicality of the proposed research methods, and how the proposed research project would benefit the nation (i.e., the national benefit criterion).

Universities must discontinue the prevailing practice of awarding internal research grants to staff members who are friendly with senior officials in the research office or senior officials in various faculties and departments. These rampant abuses and backdoor processes of determining staff who should receive research grants should never take precedence over the merit, analytic rigour and quality of research grant applications. These abuses will not promote a culture of research excellence in Nigerian universities.

It is time vice-chancellors and other senior administrators of Nigerian universities undertook a thorough overhaul of the system of teaching and research, including a consideration of the real essence of university education in Nigeria. The problems that have hampered quality teaching and research in our universities have existed for decades and are well documented.