Universities are recognised as centres of excellence and workers, both academic and non-academic, are expected to work with the administrators to achieve the tripartite roles of these institutions. But that is not the scenario in Nigeria’s ivory tower as the unions are always at loggerheads with university administrators, writes UJUNWA ATUEYI
The universal idea of the university is to have a community of scholars who are free to pursue knowledge without undue interference from any sector. Expectedly, academic and non-academic members of staff should work closely with university administrators to achieve a common goal. Mutual relationship should be placed above personal interests, and advancing the good course of the university supercedes every other interest.
But in Nigeria, that is not the case as more often than not, university workers comprising the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU) and National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) are always at loggerheads with their various institutions’ management.
Rather than work harmoniously to achieve the goals of setting up the university, it has become a common place for university teaching and non-teaching staff members to engage in supremacy battle with the management of the institution.
Sadly, students and their parents are always the victims of such crises as the incessant strike action by the aggrieved workers often affects the academic calendar, invariably disrupting the system.
For instance, at Osun State University (UNIOSUN), Osogbo, all is not well following the unending faceoff between the institution’s vice chancellor, Prof. Labode Popoola and some of the university workers. While the workers accused the institution’s management of being inconsiderate, the university dismissed their claims as frivolous and of no relevance.
The same is also happening at the Lagos State University (LASU), Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH), Ogbomoso as well as Kogi State University, Ayingba among others.For the troubled UNIOSUN, aggrieved SSANU members are accusing Popoola led-administration of highhandedness, financial misappropriation, abuse of office and gross misconduct among others. They also alleged that he bought a Sport Utility Vehicle worth N69m for the Chairman of the institution’s governing council, Mallam Yusuf Ali (SAN), when workers demands are yet to be met.
But Popoola dismissed the allegations by the aggrieved workers saying his refusal to allow the ‘business as usual’ approach was responsible for the fracas.“In Nigeria, if you are not the kind of administrator that will allow the business as usual approach; insists on the rule of law; refuses that disciplinary issues be swept under the carpet, definitely they will call you highhanded.”
“Allegations remain allegations until they are proven, I have never been corrupt. I fight corruption and so we have a situation of corruption fighting back, it is as simple as that. I always like to refer people to my profile. There are some international engagements you get involved in and if you are corrupt, your name will not even appear there. So it’s all allegations and lies.
“So what is happening at UNIOSUN is an issue of vested interest, it is no longer business as usual, we have blocked leakages, we are entrenching discipline, and you know people don’t like change, particularly when it affects their interests. That is what we are dealing with and not workers fighting me.
On corruption fighting back
He said, “I will give you few examples, when I came here, we had a retainership relationships with one of the networks, and we were paying about N9m per quarter, then I thought that it was too high. I invited the network providers and told them there are other options anyway, there are so many networks that we can partner with, and it came down to N6m. It didn’t come into my pocket, so in one year, we were saving about 12m for the university. I don’t understand that contract; I don’t know why a university will prefer to pay higher than the market rate. So from N9m per quarter we are now paying N6m, so in a year we are saving about N12m.
“Before I came here, to conduct examination in this university costs an average of N10 to N12m per semester. But I said look, I came from University of Ibadan (UI) and as big as the institution is, am not sure they spend up to that sum. And of course, I scrutinise things with my principal officers, particularly the deputy vice chancellor (Academic), we are on the same page on this matter, and we spent less than N5m last rain semester examination. This past harmattan exam, we even spent much less.
“Thirdly, I was handed a bill of N158m for the accreditation of 19 programmes, again I said, am not sure we spend up to this amount at UI, and we did our analysis, we called heads of department, let us work together on this, we ended up spending N54 million and all the 19 programmes where accredited.
“So, there are so many of them, so many, and it is important that journalists are curious about the reasons for this. One of the problems we have here is that many workers have mortgaged their salaries. There is a law in this country, for no reason should a worker take less than a third of his or her salary at the end of the month. So if you are taking a loan, do so, but you should not take a loan that will tie you down and make life difficult for you.”
“It should interest you, how we are able to pay salaries, despite the fact that we are not funded by the government. In the history of this university, there was a time that three to four months salaries were not paid. At a time that government was even funding the university generously, but they owed salaries. Today, we barely receive about 25 per cent of our salary bill from government and yet for 18 months that I have been here, we pay salaries by the 25th of every month. And it is full salary.”
On revisiting past events
Reacting to the claims that he is using a panel against the union, Popoola said, some of the contentious issues were on ground before he came to UNIOSUN.Some of this people were being investigated before I came here. Investigations take a lot of time. So it happened that the report came in when I was the vice chancellor, and people said I revisited it. The report was very clear, they were asked to face the school’s disciplinary committee. Should we allow such things to go? No, I will not because it is not in the interest of the university, in the past it has happened, there are so many of such matters; we have a list of about 24 people who collected TETFund grants. They have to account for it.
“You cannot keep public fund for more than a number of days, if you cannot spend it, you return it. It happened that some of the union leaders were listed as beneficiaries of such grants two years ago. TETFund wrote to us that they wanted us to account for this grants, as the chief executive what do you expect me to do? I will call for a list and it happened that this same people were listed. They collected the grants and spent it, and I said gentlemen please return this money, that is the requirements of TETFund, I’m not TETFund,” he explained.On the N69m Sport Utility Vehicle purchased for the chairman of the governing council, Popoola said it was the unanimous decision of the council members.
We are open to dialogue
However, the Chairman of UNIOSUN SSANU, Mr. Lekan Adiat, he said the governing council is already interceding on the matter, and hopefully the issue will be laid to rest. “The union is open for dialogue, in the interest of the students. We will soon meet with the governing council, I pray the outcome will be fruitful and we will go back to work.”
Continuous dialogue is key
Meanwhile, a Professor of Linguistics, University of Ghana, Accra Legon, Nana Aba Appiah Amfo, in a chat with The Guardian in Lagos on the incessant conflicts between university administrators and workers union, blamed the situation on instability of the nation, saying when there is stability in governance, issues like this hardly comes up.
“It has to do with instability of the nation, stability is not only about having a stable democratic government, it trickles down to the administration of the institutions. An institution that workers will always appreciate, so it is up to the university administrators to preempt some of these issues and begin to have conversations with the various constituents, like ASUU, SSANU, NASU and others.
“When the issues are preempted, you have discussions with them and continue to engage them well ahead of time on any issue, but university administrators should make sure they do not promise what they cannot do, when that happens the trust will no longer be there. So continuous dialogue is one sure way to end the conflicts.”
A lecturer at UNIOSUN who spoke on the condition of anonymity counselled staff unions to show restraint in their agitations, saying no serious academic work goes on in the universities due to the regular conflicts.Stressing that funding, workers welfare and good conditions of service are crucial to the survival of the university system; the source urged the unions to assist university administrators in performing their statutory functions of teaching, research and service.He also tasked vice chancellors to be committed to serious academic work and also work assiduously towards improved welfare for workers, adding, “If university workers are happy, the vice chancellor no doubt will be happy,” he said.