Wale Babalakin, the chairman of the Federal Government negotiating team on the ASUU strike, says ASUU wants funds but does not want to be held accountable. While this is true and is consistent with what I have been arguing for years, is this not self-indictment on the part of Mr. Babalakin? Anyway, as the FG and ASUU reportedly get ready for a fresh round of negotiation, Mr. Babalakin would do well to heed the following reflections.

The FG has been making promises to ASUU and has been acquiescing to ASUU's demands over the years but implementation has been uneven to say the least. You can fault ASUU for repeatedly extracting promises and deals from the FG that are either unimplementable or can only be implemented if there is a fundamental or revolutionary change in our polity, an elusive prospect at this time. But the fault lies with both sides for engaging in a unidirectional negotiation.

That's a bad strategy in negotiation — shoddily crafting an agreement that both sides know will not be implemented. I studied negotiation as part of my graduate certificate course in conflict management. One thing I leant is that, if you insist on having your way in a negotiation without giving any concessions in return simply because you have the leverage, which ASUU has in its ability to shut all public universities down, you'd be the loser in the long term despite your short term domination of the negotiation. This is because the unhappy negotiating partner you browbeat into conceding to your demands has no incentive to follow through and therefore will not implement the agreement, or will only do so half-heartedly.

That has been ASUU's problem for years, and it never learns from experience. Negotiation is or should be a give-and-take exercise. A good negotiation is one in which each party leaves the table with something, a concession. A good outcome is one that leaves both parties happy but not completely satisfied because they both secured only some of their demands and priorities. This is what makes implementation possible.

A bad negotiation is one in which one party gets all the concession and the other party leaves the table with nothing. Another bad negotiation scenario is one in which one party comes to the table without doing its homework and therefore shows up without an agenda, that is, without any demands — only hoping to minimize the concession it has to make to the other party.

This last category covers ASUU-FG negotiations of the last decade and half. The FG usually comes to the table to minimize its exposure and concessions but not to make demands of ASUU in exchange for making these concessions and promises. That is the problem.

It is not ASUU's fault that the FG always goes to these negotiations without a plan to hold ASUU accountable, without demanding anything in return for the promises it makes to ASUU. In this, Babalakin is to blame for what he is lamenting, not ASUU. It is true that ASUU can make life politically difficult for the FG with its leverage of shutting down the public university system. However, once a shutdown occurs, ASUU members are as exposed and vulnerable to public criticism as is the FG, so the leverage disappears in the moment of negotiation.

It's possible that the FG negotiating team’s failure to engage in a two-way, give-and-take negotiation is strategic on the part of Babalakin’s team, since ASUU-FG negotiations are a farce anyway, and the FG never intends to implement the overwrought agreements it routinely signs. The negotiations are merely face-saving charades for both sides, and the resulting agreements are largely aspirational bullet points.

It is also possible that the failure to articulate any demands or conditions for ASUU to consider and possibly accept is sheer incompetence on the part of Babalakin and his team of FG negotiators.

No matter, now that Babalakin seems to realize his error, one hopes that the looming round of negotiations will be done in good faith and that the FG will insist on a two-way, mutually rewarding process.

For starters, let Babalakin and his team demand the following in exchange for making concessions to ASUU:

1. The formulation by each university, but following a broad outline supplied by the NUC, of a student bill of rights. This binding document would outline and protect the rights of students as stakeholders in the university, give them a voice in their own education and in their relationship with lecturers and supervisors, and finally, appoint a student-centered ombudsman council to shield students from harassment, abuse, and victimization.

2. A mechanism for enforcing minimum class attendance for lecturers. We insist on attendance for students; we should do the same for their lecturers. Lecturers should not be allowed, as is currently the case, to come to class only a few times in a semester and then show up to administer an examination at the end.

3. A system that makes rigorous, multilevel independent interviews mandatory for recruitment into the academic ranks of public universities and toughens promotion criteria.

4. A system to delegitimize and bar predatory and incestuous publications from being used for promotion purposes.

5. A system of merit pay in addition to or as a replacement for the current system of fixed salary structures.

6. The implementation of student teaching evaluation in all public universities in the country.

Some of these measures have to be implemented through the regulator, NUC, but ASUU have to agree not to stand in the way, hence the need to include them in agreements that give or promise ASUU some of the goodies they're demanding.

The corrective intervention needed in the perennial strike-and-negotiate culture is for ASUU to be made to realize that most problems of the Nigerian higher education system cannot be solved by merely throwing more money are them. In fact, one could argue that greater funding in the last two and half decades has contributed to the problem by creating unforeseen issues of corruption, poor ethics, and absence of accountability.

Speaking of accountability, there is now none in the university system. One of the issues in contention in the current strikes is a demand by ASUU for the records of the disbursement of needs assessment funds to universities to be made public. The unstated subtext in this demand is a credible belief on the part of ASUU members that their universities’ Vice Chancellors, abetted by governing boards, are either sitting on or misappropriating the funds meant for paying some of their earned allowances.

The depth and breadth of the problem vary from university to university, but Vice Chancellors are implicated everywhere. This is both an internal and external issue, so blaming the FG alone is not going to cut it. It is true that Vice Chancellors are appointed by the Federal Government, but the process that throws up finalists for the position from among the rank of senior academics — ASUU members — is controlled by lecturers and superintended by ASUU.

Similarly, it is true that university board members and VCs are political appointees beholden to political godfathers. It is also true that the lobbying that precedes the appointments of VCs and boards mirrors the politics of patronage in the larger body politic, and that as a result VCs and boards see their positions as conduits for patronage and tools for amassing illicit wealth. Nonetheless, there is no rule that prevents ASUU and lecturers from confronting these VCs, localizing the struggle by fighting against the corruption of proximate university administrators.

It seems that this local corruption, rather than inadequate funding, is the problem. It is what prevents funds released by the FG from getting to lecturers and their projects for which they are meant. There may also be a problem of the FG not releasing certain promised funds. This should be fought at the central level. This way, both internal and external culprits are held accountable.

In any case, if, as ASUU suspects, the problem is largely one of local university administrators gobbling up released funds through the connivance of governing boards then a localized struggle against these forces would seem to be more effective than a centralized one focused on securing yet more funding that would be funneled through this corrupt cesspool of university administrative structures. Sometimes, identifying the problem or the culprit of a problem is half the battle. The Vice Chancellors escape ASUU’s wrath but it’s not clear if that is because they are or were academic comrades or because they are appointees of the FG and so the logic is to battle the appointer rather than the appointee.

Either way, VC’s have become a part of the problem of higher education and must be confronted. ASUU would do well to fight for internal transparency in universities. This fight for transparency should not be limited to funding issues. Today, sometimes with the active collusion of governing boards, and in a move replicative of what goes on in the political arena, VCs routinely offer academic jobs to grossly unqualified candidates who happen to be their friends, family members, or members of their political orbit. Heads of Departments routinely get phone calls from VCs telling them that to accommodate a newly employed lecturer in their departments. Some come to their offices to find a newly hired member of the department with an appointment letter asking to be given an office and to be assigned courses.

This rampant corruption of irregular recruitment into the academic ranks is at the heart of the deteriorating standards in teaching, research, and supervision. Thousands of lecturers who do not have the ability, temperament, or discipline for academia got their jobs this way and are doing pedagogical damage in university classrooms across the country.

Why is ASUU not fighting against this menace, this abuse of power and process by VCs? This is the reason why the massive fund injection into universities in the last 18 years or so have, rather than improve standards and quality of instruction, done the opposite and impoverished the quality of graduates.

Increasingly, unqualified but connected people are joining the ranks of lecturers and then enjoying the protection that ASUU offers to dues-paying members. Instead of fighting VCs to rectify this problem and helping to craft rigorous recruiting processes, ASUU has been subsidizing and protecting mediocre beneficiaries of a corrupt recruitment system tied to VCs, only to then turn around to routinely blame the resulting problem of falling standards on “funding” — that nebulous, all-purpose culprit of ASUU propaganda.

Again, universities are not only about buildings and increased remunerations. They are about the quality of instruction and research. If ASUU cares about these two indicators, it has not shown it and has been blaming the wrong factors and sparing the culprits. It needs to redirect some of its ire to the local university administrators that are clearly frustrating transparency and due process in the university system, leaving a trail of disgruntled lecturers and poorly educated graduates.

As for the FG, it’s incompetent negotiating team must begin making demands on ASUU in exchange for the concessions it makes to the union. There is also no point making concessions that cannot be implemented unless one is acting in bad faith. A realistic set of concessions that converges with ASUU’s own acceptance of FG demands modeled on the listed points above should make the implementation of agreements more plausible and less painful.

 

Professor Ochonu can be reached at meochonu@gmail.com

 

 

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