The Vice President (External Affairs) of the National Association of Nigerian Students, Akinteye Babatunde-Afeez, tells GODFREY GEORGE why the group is opposed to the hike in fees by some federal universities, among other issues affecting public varsity education
One of the offshoots of the lingering face-off between the Academic Staff Union of Universities and the Federal Government is the issue of payment of half salaries to lecturers for October 2022, and withholding salaries of over seven months. What is the stance of NANS on this issue?
The Federal Government should just make sure that ASUU doesn’t return on strike. We don’t want to know how they intend to do it or why they had to give these lecturers half pay, as we don’t have a say on it. What we are saying is that ASUU must not down tools again. We have written to the Minister for Labour and Employment and the Minister of Education, urging them to manage these issues so that they don’t lead to another industrial action. If this ever happens, we are going to shut down the entire country. We are not going to wait for even a day to do that, should any strike be pronounced. We will take action immediately. Now, they are saying, “No work, no pay”; how are they going to do this? There are ways to go about this and not just withhold their salaries. The Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, has caused a lot of damage already. He is doing a lot of things detrimental to the educational sector of this country. In case you don’t know, Ngige’s action is the reason most of the institutions are increasing their tuition fees. Most of them have already started. Some have not made it official but they already have plans to do that. We are strongly opposed to this!
How differently do you think Ngige should have handled the issues?
We know ASUU has its excesses, too. This is because there was a time when NANS said it wanted to be part of their negotiations to, at least, know what is going on. The ministries of education and labour accepted but ASUU said no. They said they could not be seen negotiating in the presence of their students. So, Ngige has seen many lapses from the lecturers and decided to bank on those. He took advantage of those lapses. The President, Muhammadu Buhari, was backing Ngige, which is why he (minister) had the guts to say ‘no work, no pay’. But Ngige’s arrogance was too much. If not for the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, who intervened, we would have still been on the streets protesting. We are not happy with the way Ngige has handled the situation, and that is why we are telling him to come back to the negotiation table and act professionally to make sure that ASUU does not go back to strike. This is because we are seeing ASUU holding meetings and we don’t want to be caught unawares.
If the government can be spending money unnecessarily on things that don’t matter, what will it take to pay what ASUU demanded? There are about 55,000 ASUU members, according to data. So, we want the government to pay up the arrears. If they cannot, both parties must negotiate. They should make sure they put everything in place so that ASUU will not go back on strike.
We, students, are at the (receiving) end of these issues. Now, every school is rushing to complete its syllabus so that many of its students can graduate. The fact is that Nigeria has wasted our time. Futures and destinies have been delayed. Just this year alone, 65,000 students migrated to the United Kingdom. As of last year, we had only 21,000. What caused most of these? ASUU strike. The educational sector has gone down the drain in this country all because of this issue. I will advise fellow students to use the little time left to do what they have to do and leave the system. We are the victims here and the government we have doesn’t care about the plight of students. They set the age limit for the National Youth Service Corps programme at 30 years and they are delaying students on campus. This shows that they don’t care, and we have been rendered powerless.
A few weeks ago, the Students’ Union Government of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, staged a protest over the 100 per cent increment in fees. After that, other universities joined, including the University of Uyo, in Akwa Ibom State. How do you view this?
It is barbaric and wicked. If anybody is coming up at this point, in this economy, to say they want to increase school fees, it is cruel and crazy. We on the last rung of the ladder are not going to take it. We have had a meeting and we have taken a stance. Every school that has added a dime to their tuition fees will hear from us. We are going to shut them down. It is either they are closed down or nothing at all is added.
They cannot commercialise education. It is not for profit-making. If they want to make a profit, they should go to private institutions. We have been channeled in a way that we now see public institutions as the only hope for the common man. Which private school can students even afford now? Most state tertiary institutions are paying above N100, 000. What is the difference between public and private institutions?
If we allow this madness to spread to the federal institutions, then, they (institutions) will wake up one day and make the school fees N1m. With the money they are getting, there is no change in the school equipment. The facilities are bad. If you go to some classrooms to study and it rains, you would be drenched. There is no conducive environment to learn. There is no accountability, no proper auditing, and the like. For them to say they want to increase school fees, we will not accept it.
Some of the schools claimed that the Federal Government had stopped giving them subvention while some of the intervention funds no longer come in. Don’t you think this is tenable?
Are all fingers equal? There are children of the poor in this country. These are schools that have not changed their syllabuses for years. Are they buying new microscopes? Are they changing the laboratories? That is the reality. If the government is no longer giving a university subvention, the school should speak out. How many vice-chancellors have you seen come out to say the Federal Government stopped their subventions? This is because there is a budget already for education yearly. There is a budget meant for each school every year and they cannot say they don’t receive these allocations.
As long as the National Assembly passes every budget into a working document, nothing stops them from having these subventions and other allocations. So, what is this story they are giving us? Apart from the allocation from the Federal Government, there are others funds generated internally. Many of these schools collect acceptance fees. The Federal Government does not collect it from them. Do you know how many students they give admission to every year? Some charge as much as N50,000 as acceptance fee. Do the calculations; these schools make money. Do they pay the workers of the institutions salaries from these funds? Of course, not. So, what are they using the money for? Is it not to maintain the institution and the infrastructure?
There is just corruption everywhere. We have had cases where a school awarded a contract for a particular building in a particular year and still awarded another contract to another person for that same building in another year. This cycle goes on. They shouldn’t give us that story of, “we have no funds”. We won’t buy that.
There are those who argue that the Federal Government can no longer single-handedly fund public universities and that the varsities should generate their income too. What do you make of that?
Buhari has said he wants a private-public partnership on education. He has said that, but the fact remains that the Federal Government has not stopped doing what it ought to do, as we speak now. The school administrators are simply being mischievous. They are using what the President said and the body language of Ngige as justification to increase school fees, so they can have enough money to embezzle. If the government is saying it can no longer fund education, it should make it official, so we know what next step to take. Even if it has to increase school fees, at what percentage? Is it at 100 per cent? Is that not madness? Look at the situation of things we have in this country. Even the old fees, there are students who have not been able to afford it, yet they are talking about increasing the fees now! They should just say they want to have more dropouts; that is the way I see it.
What is your position on the issue of student loans as the House of Representatives recently passed a bill to reintroduce them in tertiary institutions?
Whenever they want to introduce something in this country, they always use the United States and the United Kingdom as examples. How many such policies eventually last? (The idea of) student loans is good but what are the details? They should provide us with information on repayment plans so students will not keep paying back 50 years after graduation, as we have seen in other countries. We should not jump into it because there are some questions that need to be answered. Is the FG going to partner some companies to give the loans? How are they going to maintain the programme so it does not become a money-making venture for a few?
In a recent letter, NANS said it had yet to take a stance on the new cash withdrawal limit introduced by the Central Bank of Nigeria. Do you have a position on that now?
The people I sympathise with on this issue are those that make their daily earnings through Point of Sale activities and other digital outlets. How are they going to survive? This policy, to some extent, is good; but to a large extent, it is bad. Why? This is because Nigeria cannot survive a digitised economy. We are not ripe for it. This is a country where you make a transfer and for hours the debit alert won’t be seen. There are a lot of fake transfers all over the place.
In time past, we have seen where the political class uses students and student bodies to perpetrate electoral malpractices during elections. What is NANS doing about this?
One of the reasons students are available for them to use for such unlawful activities is because they starve these students before elections so they will see the ones to use to perpetrate their crimes during elections. It is only a hungry man that will take the (politician’s) money and go and do things that he is not supposed to do. But you see now, this issue has been reduced to the barest minimum because many of the students are now wise. They know that if any of them dies for a politician, it won’t stop the election. The President gave a shoot-on-sight order to security agents. We have told our members that if they are stupid enough to go and die for any politician, they would die in vain because it is the children of the elites that will enjoy the dividends. There are 33 million students and we have told them to go out there and vote for the candidates of their choice and not fight or get involved in violence. This is because, if they are caught up in the web of election malpractice and the like after all this awareness, it is out of their folly, not NANS’.