The Oasis Reporters
November 9, 2018
At a time when ASUU is ostensibly fighting for “better funding” of universities, TETFUND is complaining that academics are not applying for 3 billion naira pool of research money that was created partly in response to their perennial demand for funding, making Nigerian academics to become less internationally competitive’
So many strikes have occurred in the last 15 years or so that no one who attended a public university in this period can say they were not affected by at least one. And yet, the fundamental problems of universities — poor instruction, poor research, poor supervision and mentorship, ethical violations, sexual harassment, exploitation of students and poor intellectual life — have persisted and worsened, discrediting the wisdom and logic of strikes as effective weapons for improving the quality of higher education.
Academic standards have fallen drastically even as more money poured into universities for infrastructure and as lecturers and non-academic staff salaries and allowances increased. Nigerian academics have become less internationally competitive, and their products, the students they teach and graduate, have become more shortchanged and less educated, never mind the fact that the number of first class degrees has risen (story for another update). In some ways, then, it seems as though ASUU and the university system became victims of the union’s early success.
This negative correlation between improved funding and deteriorating standards is worrisome but hardly surprising. This is because as ASUU struggled to get the government to invest more in infrastructure and compensation, the body never asked anything of itself, of its members. All this while, even as TETFUND and other intervention agencies emerged to fund higher education, lecturers remained unaccountable and thus they remained stagnant in their craft and even regressed. They didn’t have to give anything or improve their attitude, mindset, or approach to their jobs in return for all the gains and benefits they reaped from their struggle.
As a result, poor teaching continued; lecturers continued to skip classes even as their personal economies significantly improved and some of them even became caught up in extracurricular pecuniary and career pursuits outside the university; poor or non-existent supervision and mentorship of postgraduate students continued; lecturers continued to teach from outdated, dog-eared lecture notes from the 1970s; lecturers continued to publish poorly researched papers or not to publish at all; lecturers, in fact, began to game the new NUC publications metrics by patronizing pay-to-publish predatory journals in India and Pakistan, and by self-publishing, and by publishing in incestuous venues such as departmental journals, making mockery of the academic research process; sexual harassment of students continued; monetary demands on students continued; and more catastrophically, plagiarism became the unspoken norm among Nigerian academics.
Improved access to online journals and resources, enabled in part by increased funding of universities (the very thing they claimed to desire and which ostensibly their struggle was about), ironically made lecturers lazy, causing them to simply copy or reproduce without attribution, steal and pass off entire works, or unethically appropriate works published by others elsewhere. If plagiarism has surged among undergraduate and graduate students, it is because their lecturers themselves either do not know the ethos of academic citation and plagiarism avoidance or are too lazy to care. In this way, bad habits are transmitted from teachers to students, perpetuating a cycle of poor ethics and academic fraud.
As infrastructure and compensation improved in Nigerian universities, Vice Chancellors transformed into tin-gods requiring adulation, submission, and absolute loyalty rather than acting as catalysts for academic agendas and reform. VCs, with the active connivance of university boards, became contractors and receivers of kickbacks on contracts, hence the obsession with building physical structures, leading to the neglect of academic and research standards. Buoyed by power and the control of ever-growing federal monetary allocations, Vice Chancellors could distribute patronage and largesse as they wished. More distressingly, VCs, like political leaders in the larger governmental system, realized that they could give out jobs and began to recruit incompetent, unqualified people who had no business in the academy, into lecturing positions. Today’s poor graduates are partly attributable to the influx of these incompetent recruits into the academy. You cannot impart what you yourself do not know. To obtain anything based on scholarly productivity and commitment to pedagogy and research became impossible. Only those who sucked up to VCs were rewarded. Merit, hard work, and ethical discipline left the space of the university, replaced by a crass politics of patronage that mirrored the messy, corrupt politics of the larger Nigerian political arena.
I reiterate: all these occurred in the context of much improved conditions — what one might describe as ASUU’s earlier success. The irony is that this success has led to a fixation on the erroneous notion that the problem of university education in Nigeria centers on infrastructure funding and improvement to salaries and allowances, even though universities are not about physical buildings but rather about what goes on in those buildings and in the minds of students and academics.
The corollary of this obsession with building grandiose physical structures is a neglect of the aforementioned problems that have a direct bearing on academic standards. Which is why we’re producing poorer and poorer graduates even as universities are building fancier and fancier structures on their campuses. I should know about the degeneration in standards because I have first class degree holders and even some academics writing to me for one reason or the other or sharing their work with me, and I’ve noticed that their works are poorly conceived, error-ridden, poorly researched, and poorly-written. Some in the humanities and qualitative social sciences cannot even string grammatically correct sentences together and have no basic understanding of research or analysis.
Today, when we say a VC’s tenure was a success or such and such was a successful VC, we’re talking about how many physical structures were built during their time. We’re not talking about how he or she improved the quality and quantity of research output, or how they improved teaching standards, or how they created a vibrant intellectual culture devoid of ethical abuses, or how they helped produce graduates who are internationally competitive, are self-motivated, and are intellectually curious.
Herein lies the problem. ASUU’s initial success ironically killed whatever was left of research culture or spirit of critical inquiry in Nigerian universities. Today, as we speak, TETFUND has N3 billion naira in research funds that have not been accessed. In a story published in Guardian newspaper on February 14, 2018 titled, “TETFUND’s N3 Billion Research Funds Yet to be Accessed, Says NUC,” the university regulatory agency lamented that the funds were sitting idle because Nigerian academics had not applied for research funds or because the proposals they submitted were too poor to be funded.
Take some time to digest this irony. At a time when ASUU is ostensibly fighting for “better funding” of universities, TETFUND is complaining that academics are not applying for this pool of research money that was created partly in response to their perennial demand for funding. Is it that the Nigerian academics are not aware of this fund? No. They know about it, but they’re too lazy to craft a compelling research proposal let alone follow through with a rigorous research agenda that such research awards require.
It’s not entirely the academics’ fault; the current ASUU-enabled system does not require them to be innovative researchers. They can survive in the system by being mediocre. They’re content with getting by with writing mediocre, derivative papers that do not require actual research but are adequate to get them promoted to the next rank. They can build “successful” academic careers and rise to become professors without winning research grants or conducting serious, original research.
Then when they become professors, they stop performing academic duties, conducting research, teaching, or mentoring altogether and start seeking opportunities for wealth accumulation or status enhancement outside the academy.
Research culture is dead in Nigerian universities, and it is not because of inadequate funding, as the unaccessed N3 billion TETFUND research fund and the existence of other intervention funds demonstrate. Rather, it is ironically because lecturers are not required by ASUU-FG agreements to satisfy a rigorous research or teaching requirement for promotion, and because their salaries and allowances are not tied to their teaching or research efficacy but are instead determined by the periodic strikes of ASUU and the salary structures that result from them.
If lecturer A, who is hard working, fecund, and prolific earns the same ASUU/FG-stipulated salary as the incompetent, lazy, and unproductive lecturer B who is on the same rank as him, what is the incentive for lecturer A to continue to sustain or increase his research and teaching excellence or for lecturer B to try to become like lecturer A? How can a 21st century university system not at least implement a system of merit pay beyond or in addition to set base pay to incentivize and reward research and teaching excellence? Broach this simple, commonsensical idea and face the wrath of ASUU.
From successfully fighting for improvements to university education in the 1980s and 1990s, ASUU has become an underwriter, protector, catalyst, and incubator of mediocrity in the Nigerian university system. ASUU has become part of the problem.
Written by Moses E. Ochonu
Source: Sahara Reporters