The call for and against the reopening of higher institutions has pitted public and private universities against each other as the gloom of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hangs over Nigeria’s education system. Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL examines the issues.
Since March 2020, universities, public and private in Nigeria, have remained shut. From that time till date, university education seems to have suffered more setbacks as the enforced shutdown occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic runs into September, with a call for the reopening of the higher institutions pitting the former against the latter.
The Federal and state Governments, taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach in the gradual reopening of schools across the primary, secondary and tertiary levels, decided to have a staggered return to the classroom, with SS3 students allowed to return to school in August solely to write their final-year exam. Following them are JSS3 and SS2 students.
It is a fact that in most public schools in the country, classrooms are often overcrowded with sparse furniture. But things are worse in public universities: other facilities like hostels and toilets, among others are like sinkholes. That condition is worrisome to the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
The private universities have, over the years and to some extent, reduced country’s capital flight, as parents who could sell all they have to send their children overseas to have good higher education can now get a semblance of that in the country’s private institutions. But the continued shutdown of private universities is breaking the resolve of owners of the institutions.
In July, Chief Afe Babalola attributed the failure of final-year students in Nigerian universities to resume studies, like the primary and secondary schools, to the frosty relationship between the Federal Government and ASUU.
According to Babalola, the government left out the final-year students of universities because ASUU might raise objection if the undergraduates were directed to resume.
Babalola, the founder of Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti (ABUAD) and former Pro-Chancellor, University of Lagos (UNILAG), had said, “Before I took over as Pro-Chancellor and chairman of council at the University of Lagos, even council meetings could not take place unless ASUU and other unions had been appeased or else, such council meetings would not be allowed to hold. It was a serious matter at that time, but I successfully managed that.
Babalola asserted that the future of the country with regard to quality and functional education lies with private universities.
The legal luminary said that most private universities are reputed for their moral and physical discipline, quality and functional education, hygienic and safe environment, predictable academic calendar, absence of trade unionism, committed teachers, modern teaching equipment and laboratories, as well as adequate preparation to prevent COVID-19.
However, most of what he mentioned is like a mirage in public universities.
Chief Babalola is not alone in that call for the reopening. The Committee of Pro-Chancellors of Private Universities (CPCPU) also appealed to the government to reopen the country’s 78 private universities shut following the COVID-19 crisis.
The CPCPU, in a communique by the Head of Corporate Services of ABUAD, Tunde Olofintila, said private universities were ready to reopen having emplaced all the necessary requirements and protocols specified by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 to ensure a safe and secure campus.
If the government was beginning to reflect on the clamour of the private institutions, ASUU reared its head, faulting its plan to reopen public universities in the country.
Bauchi Zonal Coordinator of the union, Prof. Lawan Abubakar said the move could be “perilous.”
Abubakar, who declared that ASUU was not in support of the plan, maintained that reopening the institutions would further pose dangers to students and it would be inimical to the fight against the spread of coronavirus in the country.
Abubakar said most public universities lack the infrastructure that would enable students comply with putting safety protocols in place, thereby, making them prone to contracting COVID-19.
To Abubakar, the COVID-19 pandemic had further affirmed ASUU’s demands for a well-funded university system as contained in the 2013 and other Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that was reached.
He expressed fears that it may take more than 10 years to put the necessary facilities needed in public varsities in place before the institutions can meet the COVID-19 safety protocol.
“Had government implemented the 2013 MoU and subsequent ones,” he had argued, “we would not have been caught off-guard by COVID-19; we would have been contemplating reopening the universities now that the numbers of cases are declining in the country.
“So, it is now clear to everyone that neither the struggle of ASUU nor the COVID-19 protocols agree with the reopening of universities. We must avert this disaster while we can.”
In a rallying cry, the union leader urged students, parents and the general public to resist any planned reopening without adequate measures taken, adding that ASUU and other stakeholders have a responsibility to ensure that public universities in the country are not joked with.
Well, public universities are already a joke in the country with incessant strikes, disagreeements with the government and poor infrastructures, a former vice chancellor who pleaded anonymity said.
ASUU reiterated that reopening pubic universities now could lead to a second wave of COVID-19 in the country.
The national President, Prof Abiodun Ogunyemi said while the union is not against the reopening of universities, it is concerned about whether the guidelines stipulated by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) have been met.
Ogunyemi maintained that ASUU would resume when conditions for resumption are met, including their demands as contained in the Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) with the Federal Government.
“Calling lecturers to resume now after almost six months, the question is, what are we going back with? Salaries are not paid, the issue of IPPIS is still in contention, and the condition we left the institutions in before the strike has worsened. COVID-19 pandemic has further escalated the crisis in tertiary institutions; it has exposed the emptiness in our universities,” Ogunyemi added.
The ASUU chief insisted that universities would not reopen until the Federal Government honours the agreement it reached with the union.
He said the government has resumed talks with the union but refused to disclose the details.
“I think it is better we wait. When we get to that bridge, we will cross it,’ he said.
Ogunyemi listed some of the union’s demands to include funding of university education, which the government had reneged on in the last 10 years.
“There is a deliberate attempt to kill university education in the country. Some universities use stoves in their laboratories instead of burners and buckets to fetch water to perform experiments; it’s as bad as that,” he lamented.
The rot in the country’s public universities is further laid bare as academic activities continue seamlessly in private institutions with the former having no clue on how to adjust to the new normal or even disentangle itself from the chaos of incessant disagreeements with the government.
The problems in the nation’s education system goes beyond its dwindling standards or decrepit infrastructures, it sinks to the bottom of ICT infrastructures, both software and hardware, and that deficiency has become too telling with many undergraduates feeling the angst of arrested development occasioned by the COVID-19 crisis.
While many private universities have carried on with academic activities, and even conducted examinations, Federal and state government-owned universities have crumbled under the weight of the pandemic.
The difference: private universities have the infrastructure for virtual (online) education; publicly-owned ones do not.
As far back as 2014, local area network (LAN) is commonplace in the Nigerian tertiary institutions and can be a good platform for distributing and disseminating instructional materials.
Stakeholders held that the system helps in no small measure to correct the problems plaguing the educational sector such as examination malpractice, declining standards of education and cultism, as students are gainfully engaged in academic and social activities.
They added that the creation of a virtual campus by most of the private institutions would enhance the level of e-participation, and e-readiness of the graduates for the employment market.
However, publicly-owned universities are largely dinosaur-years behind. Even the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) has cancelled all academic activities because it does not have the infrastructures to move its traditional functions online.
For Prof Ibrahim Abdullahi of University of Maiduguri, public universities suffer a litany of stumbling blocks: and are ill-equipped for online education because of lack of infrastructures for that purpose.
Spokesman for the National Universities Commission (NUC), Ibrahim Yakassai, described the problem confronting the nation’s institutions as a national issue.
Yakassai noted that even if the (government-owned) universities have the capacity for online learning, most of the students don’t have smartphones while some parents may be too poor to afford data.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and ASUU remains vehemently opposed to the government on certain unresolved issues, reopening of the universities remains a dream, at least for now.