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ASUU and varsity autonomy

By Adewale Kupoluyi

FOR almost two months now, Nigerian public universities have become desolate and crippled due to strike actions embarked upon by all the staff unions agitating for better funding, increased workers’ pay, autonomy and for the refusal of the Federal Government to sign the 2001 negotiated Memorandum of Understanding, articulating the unions’ requests.

The question of university autonomy in the country has been an issue of tremendous struggles between several governments and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). The impasse has led to industrial disputes between the two parties since the 1990s.

University autonomy implies that each institution should be governed according to the laws that establish it in line with the statutes, edicts or even decree that spell out the functions of the administra-tive organs.

For instance, S.4(1) of the University of Ibadan, Act 1962 clearly supports that governing councils, in the case of government owned universities, and board of directors, in the case of private universities are empowered with the responsibility of their management.

Apologists of autonomy believe that it can create a more flexible and responsive system for our citadels of learning.  Therefore, with autonomy, governing councils of government universities will be fully in charge in the running of the affairs of the ivory towers.

As part of restoration and democratisation efforts in public institutions, ASUU sponsored the Universities (Miscellaneous Provisions) Amendment Act, 2003 that among other things, makes new provisions for the autonomy, management and re-organisation of the nation’s universities.

Major features of the bill include the restoration of the powers of the governing council on administrative matters, the senate on academic matters as well as participation of students in some aspects of the university governance. Vice-Chancellors can now be appointed by governing councils as against the unilateral power hitherto given to visitors.

Regrettably, autonomy has not taken deep roots in university administration, even though, there is statutory provision for its enforcement.  Government and its agencies and proprietors have continuously imposed conditions of service and bureaucracy on how they should be managed.

Over the years, there has been a systematic erosion of the autonomy, particularly during the prolonged era of the military.  University autonomy and academic freedom were almost strangulated.

The situation is almost the same in other emergent states. The Associated Press recently reported that an Iranian-American Social Scientist, Dr. Kian Tajbaksh was allegedly arrested for “endangering national security” for championing the cause for university autonomy. The UNILORIN 49 is still fresh in our memory.

In 2004, the Federal Government, in its bid to nip the agitation in the bud introduced a belated bill, which among others, gave enormous and arbitrary powers to visitors, vice-chancellors and other external bodies to the universities.

A critical assessment of that anti-autonomy bill showed that liberalisation of universities was promoted under the deregulation policy.  Rather than serving as models, private universities were viewed as competitors.  Private universities are not affected by the on-going strike action because they do not permit unions to operate.

The role of the major regulatory bodies, the National Universities Commission (NUC) and Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) should also be seriously considered on the autonomy discourse. The argument is that as desirable as these agencies are, their functional roles tend to impinge on their statutory responsibilities.

The bone of contention is that these agencies place too much emphasis on quality over funding; which will enhance quality.  Therefore, there is need to reposition these agencies in order to preserve the autonomy in the system. However, as desirable as autonomy is, it should not be misconstrued to mean that government has no more roles to play in university administration.

To ensure effective and efficient management, governing councils and the government should both be responsible for the negotiation of the condition of service of university staff.  Government should still maintain a national minimum wage for all universities to maintain a sense of equality in the system.

I do not support an arrangement whereby Professors in the same institution earn different emoluments based on their negotiation abilities with councils.  This, if allowed, could easily lead to poor morale for those on the low rung of the bargaining ladder.

Mr. Kupoluyiwrites  from University of Agric., Abeokuta, Ogun State.


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