Every time the University Academic Staff Union (ASUU) calls off its strike, we all start counting down to the next one. This is because we know the government will not commit to the deal, and ASUU will still be ASUU. Everyone is fed up with this unsuccessful cycle, and it’s time for the syndicate to renew its tactics. ASUU wants to renegotiate the 2009 deal – which was built on a 2001 deal – and that’s a great idea.
The union is expected to begin exploring an agreement that will ultimately reform the university sector. A reform that will relieve the government of the financial and bureaucratic burdens of its university should be too good a deal to refuse. The agreement should not create an avenue to increase student tuition fees. However, it should be an agreement in which university staff receive competitive salaries similar to those of their colleagues employed by private universities.
Based on recent global advances, reforms are needed for a thriving university system to succeed. For this reform to work, ASUU must work alongside university leaders, student unions, government agencies, and seasoned professionals in a specific discipline to craft a workable proposal. Therefore, as ASUU renegotiates the 2009 FGN-ASUU agreement, they are expected to come up with the following four autonomies as part of the higher education reform in the country.
First, ASUU should negotiate full academic autonomy for individual institutions. Academic autonomy will reform the Nigerian education system. And it is vital to the success of any university. Universities must be able to make decisions on academic matters, such as quality assurance, academic content, introduction of degree courses, language of instruction, and student admission.
The quality assurance system is an essential accountability tool, but the process is cumbersome and bureaucratic. These include accreditation, program evaluation, and other forms of academic audits. Academics may disapprove of bureaucracy, especially non-academics or external agencies like the National Universities Commission (NUC). During renegotiation, the ASUU should recommend that individual facilities choose their quality assurance plans and appropriate providers. Fundamental academic autonomy is the ability to plan and design the different course content. Of course, there is an exception for regulated professions such as medicine, pharmacy, architecture, accounting and general systems engineering, for which compliance with national legislation is mandatory.
Universities should agree to design and deliver academic courses without outside interference. They should be able to choose the medium or language of instruction they deem appropriate. The independence of the choice of a teaching language is essential within the framework of the strategies of internationalization of the establishments. Another fundamental aspect of a university’s academic autonomy is the freedom to specify the total number of students and to set admission criteria. The implication for study places is essential for an institution’s finances and profile. The agreement will overlap the functions of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) which will be part of the restructuring. However, having the autonomy to decide the number of students will go a long way towards certifying teaching excellence. This will also align student interest with the courses offered.
If the union is successful in negotiating academic autonomy with the government and management of each university, universities will have the ability to pursue their specific mission with flexibility. The agreement may also attract international students and international research collaborations. They will compete with private universities and generate additional income for institutions.
Second, ASUU should negotiate staff autonomy. It seems that the federal universities have this autonomy, but in many cases it is not clear. The proposal should also give each university the autonomy to decide on issues related to human resource management. These include staff remuneration levels, recruitments, dismissals and promotions.
Competing in a global higher education environment means that universities hire academics and administrative staff who are the most suitable and qualified with little interference from external agencies. These issues are common for state universities in Nigeria. Moreover, if universities can set their salary levels, it will be much easier to attract a competitive and excellent international workforce. University employees should not be considered civil servants. Staff autonomy can strengthen an institution’s independence in promoting and firing staff. This autonomy gives universities a competitive advantage when it comes to staffing. Achieving staffing autonomy will eliminate all complications of potential crises with the federal government. Consequently, the union will find it more advantageous to negotiate within its institutions than with an uncertain government. It will be good to clarify this autonomy to avoid problems such as appointments of university professors or individual cases of harassment.
Third, the ASUU should negotiate structural autonomy. This means that universities should have the independence to decide on their internal organization, such as decision-making bodies, legal entities, internal academic structures and executive management.
Basically, governing bodies of universities consist of bodies such as senate, board of governors, or council. Some have a combination of these bodies. These bodies form to agree on long-term strategic issues, such as university policies, budget, and academic matters, including staff promotions and programs. It will be better not to have an outside member in the governing bodies so that the universities have a say in fundamental academic decisions. Each university should be free to create for-profit or not-for-profit legal entities. This autonomy will be directly linked to an institution’s ability to determine and pursue its creative and strategic trajectory. The ASUU should also negotiate legal guidelines allowing universities to independently decide on the appointment of their chief executive, the length of their term and the grounds for removal. Universities can do without the NUC and the National Assembly in their decision-making bodies.
Fourth, it is in the interest of the union to negotiate its financial autonomy. This will allow each university to decide freely on its internal financial affairs.
With its financial autonomy, each university will be free to maintain a surplus and borrow money from the capital markets, which will facilitate long-term financial planning. This will open up new sources of private funding. The government will design financial sustainability measures for the sector to cap each institution’s borrowing capacity and the amount of surplus it can keep in reserve. Autonomy gives universities the flexibility they need to best fulfill their various missions. The ASUU must understand that not everything can be agreed at once. If, for example, the government does not agree with the freedom for universities to borrow money, they must understand that this will not be a constraint for complete autonomy, as is the case in European countries like Hungary, Norway, Portugal, Serbia and Switzerland.
Since universities charge tuition fees, a large percentage of university budgets are covered. Tuition fees will not increase as other sources of income expand. Therefore, the freedom to open new flows of private investment finance is crucial in deciding institutional strategies. One practice is universities in the UK where around 25% of their income comes from home student tuition fees. The rest comes from higher fees paid by international students, government grants, charitable donations and university investments. Contributions include research grant funds. ASUU academic branches will internally negotiate their benefits, which will be competitive to enable employees to be more productive. These benefits will cover pensions, health care, housing and other vital benefits.
The conclusion of a financial autonomy agreement will allow each institution to manage its resources independently. It will also enable an institution to design, define and achieve its strategic objectives. The negotiations should also allow public universities to continue to receive part of their funds from the government. To avoid any form of duplicity, ASUU and university management may negotiate a pre-allocated annual budget or a block grant from government funding as is done worldwide. This could be done in terms of value or as a percentage of budget expenditure.
These four autonomies can solve all the grievances presented by the ASUU. ASUU’s persistent strikes for the government to commit to consistent funding of universities, consider the salary scale and promotions of academic staff, salary arrears and allowances, etc., will only be read in the history books. More importantly, it should be an offer that the next government will not decline.
Finally, some of the main presidential candidates have experience in the management of university education. Two of them have written their manifestos but haven’t thought about how they can solve the union’s lingering problems. This will be a great opportunity to push them to adopt this agreement.
Dr Nasir Aminu – Lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University