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Hope for an end to the prolonged strike by members of the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP) and the Colleges of Education Academic Staff Union (COEASU) hangs in the balance as the Federal Government and leaders of the unions trade blames over the issue
By Chris Ajaero
For several months now, academic activities in the nation’s polytechnics and colleges of education have been paralysed as the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP) and the Colleges of Education Academic Staff Union (COEASU) have been on indefinite strike to protest the failure of the federal government to honour key aspects of the agreements it had with the unions in the past. ASUP and COEASU have been on strike for 11 months and seven months respectively.
The ASUP strike began in April 2013, but was suspended in July, and resumed on October 4, 2013. On the other hand, COEASU began its strike in December 18, 2013. ASUP’s grouse against the federal government is the non-implementation of the 2009 Federal Government-ASUP Agreement which bothers on four issues that are germane to the technological development of the country. Among the grievances of ASUP are the non-release of the White Paper on the visitation panels to all the federal polytechnics, the non-release of funds for the implementation of CONTISS-15 migration and its arrears, and the disparity between HND and BSc holders in both the private and public sectors and during job search. Others are; the non-establishment of the National Polytechnic Commission, slow review of the Polytechnic Act by the National Assembly, underfunding of polytechnics, as well as the alleged lopsided disbursement of TETFUND grants, scholarships and other financial interventions in the education sector, which has been to the disadvantage of the state-owned polytechnics, coupled with the continued appointment of unqualified persons as Rectors of polytechnics.
For COEASU, the bone of contention is the 2010 agreement which it claimed that the federal government has refused to fully implement. These include the non-integration and payment of peculiar/ earned allowances, non-implementation of life assurance to families of deceased members, and the non-implementation of the retirement age of 65 in many states’ colleges of education. Other issues include poor infrastructural development in colleges of education nationwide, poor funding, neglect of teachers’ education, non-accreditation of National Certificate of Education programmes, non-release of the White Paper on the visitation panel reports, and the imposition of the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS).
Efforts to amicably address the issues involved so that the lecturers can go back to work have not yielded the desired result. Nyesom Wike, Minister of State for Education, has on several occasions led negotiations with the ASUP and COEASU leaderships to resolve the ongoing strike without success. Speaking at the recent public presentation on the education sector’s transformation under President Goodluck Jonathan, Wike blamed the unions for the delay in ending the strike. He claimed that the federal government agreed to pay the N40 billon demanded by the teachers (N20billion for polytechnics and N20 billion for colleges of education) in phases, but the two unions disagreed. According to him, the government could not raise the money at once, hence the plan to pay instalmentally. He said: “Government is not the one holding on to the strike. An agreed proposal to pay CONTISS-15 arrears of salaries to ASUP members in phases is facing complications. Strike is not something you resolve easily. As of February when the arrears were computed, both ASUP and COEASU made a demand of N20billion each, amounting to a total of N40billion. It is not possible for government to raise N40billion. It was later agreed that the money be paid in two phases of N20billion apiece.”
It was gathered that the government, ASUP and COEASU agreed that N20 billion would be paid in April and another N20 billion in September or October.
But Dr. Chibuzor Asomugha, National President of ASUP, faulted the minister’s claim. He denied the union’s rejection of the proposal, saying that it was disappointing that the minister would be making such comments when efforts at resolving the crisis were going. “We did not reject the proposal; I think we have gone beyond that part. The question is: “Did the minister plan to pay that money at all? Did he put it in the budget? First he (Wike) told us it (N20 billion) was in the budget; later, he said it was not in the budget. Why did he bring the Salaries and Wages Commission to begin to raise objections about the payment, if actually he wanted to pay?ASUP did not reject anything. We even proposed instalmental payment and we rolled out a plan on how it would be paid, which the minister rejected but tried to impose his own on us, which we also rejected,” Asomugha explained.
According to him, they later arrived at a plan on the installmental payment on the order of the President with the Ministry of Labour. He also alleged that Wike has stopped the unions’ meetings with the Senate Committee on Education convened to resolve the matter. He said that the federal government delegation which comprises the Minister of Education; the Minister of Labour, Chukwuemeka Wogu and Anyim Pius Anyim , Secretary to the Government of the Federation was absent from the meetings called by the joint Committee of the National Assembly on Education on June 24 and July 1. “When the Senate Committee on Education called for a stakeholders’ meeting on the matter on June 24, 2014, neither the minister nor any of the other government agencies honoured the Senate’s invitation. The same Supervising Minister had gone ahead to make arbitrary appointment of university professors as rectors of polytechnics in wanton breach of extant laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria,” Asomugha said. He was particularly unhappy with the appointment of rectors from outside the polytechnic system. He argued that many polytechnic lecturers have the requisite qualifications to be made rectors and so it was wrong to be imposing professors from the university system on them. “Don’t we have Ph.D holders in polytechnics? There is no academic qualification called professor. The highest qualification is the PhD and there are many that have it in the polytechnic system,” he said.
Asomugha lamented that each day the strike lasts leaves an increasingly irrevocable damage on the tertiary sector of the nation’s education. “Those in the final year of their Higher National Diploma programme have not been able to graduate and proceed on National Youth Service. In the colleges of education, the situation is very much the same as the backlog of final year students has put pressure on the dearth of qualified teachers in basic education, especially. The ripple effect of this very avoidable slowdown in the tertiary sector will not go away in a long while,” he said.
Mr. Asagha Nkoro, National President of COEASU also faulted Wike’s claim. According to him, the minister is neglecting the colleges of education because the high and the mighty have no stakes in the system. “The minister keeps misinforming Nigerians that he has made an offer to us. The continued neglect of the colleges will be counter-productive. Why will the government not release the 2012 White Paper on the implementation of the migration, funding of accreditation of programmes, harmonisation of conditions of service and granting of autonomy to the colleges to award degrees, among others,” he queried.
There is a saying that when two elephants fight, the grass suffers. Students of these tertiary institutions are at the receiving end as they have been at home for too long and many of the polytechnics have lost a session. Emeka Onwudinjo, National Diploma II student of Mass Communication at the Federal Polytechnic, Oko, said the long stay at home was unexpected and has led to some students getting into trouble. “The strike has had a terrible effect on students. Some have been involving themselves in criminal acts. A few days ago, one was caught involved in kidnapping. He was paraded in Awka. There is a popular saying that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Assuming the federal government negotiates with ASUP and they call off the strike, I don’t think the boy would have found himself in this situation. We did not expect that the strike would be this long,” he said.
Chinenye Chibuzo, a student of Alvan Ikoku Federal College of Education, Owerri appealed to the lecturers to resolve the matter quickly so that they could return to school.
The impact of the strikes on scholarship is enormous. The academic calendar of these tertiary institutions has been distorted. The institutions run on ad-hoc basis as the next day is unpredictable. Students can no longer graduate on schedule. Mr. Adeyemi Adejolu, Deputy Registrar, Information and Protocol at the Federal Polytechnic, Ado-Ekiti in Ekiti State, said a set of National Diploma (ND) I students admitted for the 2013/2014 session had been unable to resume because of the strike. “It has affected normal academic activities. Students admitted for the 2013/2014 session cannot resume. At the time ASUP went on break last July, we rounded off the session and screened new students for admission. But the students admitted have not been able to resume for lectures. We can say we have lost a year. The dilemma we are in right now is that JAMB stakeholders’ committee met in Abuja recently to fix national cut-off. That means we will have another set waiting to come in,” he said.
Dr. Don Muo, Deputy Rector of the Federal Polytechnic, Oko, Anambra State, also decried that the prolonged strike has stagnated students’ progress.
According to him, it has become imperative for the leaders of ASUP, COEASU and the federal government to return to the negotiation table to find amicable resolution to the issues in contention. The problem could be tackled systematically over time and this time around the federal government should demonstrate its sincerity in its dealings with the unions. To achieve this, the unions and the federal government must exhibit the spirit of give and take instead of remaining adamant, unyielding and unconcerned about the damage the incessant strikes have done to the education system. Once education, the bedrock of modern civilization is destroyed, the country is finished. What would be left is mediocrity – a citizenry bereft of knowledge needed to pilot the affairs of the country. This is already happening in many sectors and must be nipped in the bud now. Experts advise that government should cut down its profligacy in many areas so as to fund education adequately to guarantee a brighter