Labour minister, Prince Adetokunbo Kayode, says the autonomous status of the nationâ€™s universities has robbed the academic staff of the opportunity to negotiate with the Federal Government on the issue of salary and other matters that triggered on-going strike by the academic staff.
In essence, the minister explains there is no subsisting agreement on payrise with government as claimed by ASUU. Excerpts of Kayodeâ€™s interview with Sunday Vanguard:
By ABAYOMI ADESHIDA
YOU are the labour minister and, currently, members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, are on strike over a myriad of agreements that the Federal Government has failed to implement despite several years that the university lecturers have been urged to toe the path of peace in articulating their demands.
How did we get to this fresh impasse and how soon would this be over in view of the collateral damage this could inflict on the nation?
Well, discussing with ASUU or indeed all the stakeholders in the education sector has always been a challenging exercise. When I came to the labour ministry as minister, I thinkÂ this is one of the areas in which I had a lot of trepidation.
For the purpose of what is on ground now, I think we have really had a breakthrough, because I can tell you authoritatively that Mr. President has agreed that a very reasonable offer should be made forÂ the enhancement of the pay of the university teachers.
But the only issue is that in the past, we have pursued this matter in a very unconstitutional manner. The Federal Government has always negotiated with ASUU which is a body comprising lecturers, teachers in the federal system and the states system.
Meanwhile, the Federal Government cannot bind the states system. So, as you can see, it is wrong for government to have been speaking with ASUU which has membership from the federal and stateÂ institutions. Secondly, it is wrong ofÂ the Federal Government to negotiate with even anyÂ teacher because the Federal Government is not their employers. The University Councils or the Boards of these institutions are their employers. You get my point?
In view of the institutional autonomy, which is one of the demands of ASUU, and which the Federal Government has granted, why is the Federal Government talking to the university lecturers? Rather, it is the local union that should negotiate with individual institution.
The Federal Government can agree on some baseline, like the minimum wage, then each institution would pay as it can. So, this is the point, but for the moment, and for the lecturers to go back to school today, and I really mean it today, government is going to make a reasonable offer to them and this is being done with all sense of responsibility even though the circumstances do not favour it at all.
The economy is in a very bad shape and finance is in a very bad shape, and all over the world, there are serious challenges about payment of salaries; and everybody knows that no country in this world today that I know ofÂ is increasing salaries.
And Nigeria is not an island of its own. WeÂ are all impacted by the problems, both external problems and internal problems. We all know what is happening in the Niger Delta, we cannot pretend that all these things are not impacting on finances and government revenue.
These universities are public institutions in Nigeria and the lecturers are merely asking for government action to raise the quality of graduates of these institutions to global standardsâ€¦
Exactly, this is the issue. But if I was employed by letâ€™s say the University of Lagos.
I applied to the University of Lagos, I was employed by the University of Lagos, the approval of Mr. President or even the minister of education was never sought, I can be sacked by the University of Lagos.
I retire from the University of Lagos, bound by the rules which I have signed with the University of Lagos, why then should the minister of education or even Mr. President, or indeed myself, interfere with the contract? On what basis would we be taking that action?
Look, ASUU and the unions fought for autonomy, why do we like to do things half and half? If we want autonomy, we must implement the autonomy across board, and that is the right thing to do, that is what is happening all over the world.
Letâ€™s be realistic about this matter. In fact, university teachers may get more money from the institutions, depending of course on the financial conditions of these institutions.
But, we cannot say that because these universities are in Nigeria, even when we call them Federal Universities, they must come and negotiate with the Federal Government; even though they have signed separate agreements with their institutions.
Let me give you a classical example. We have many institutions today in Nigeria which are regulatory institutions like NAFDAC, NCC, even institutions like the NNPC, and so on, they earn different salaries.
You canâ€™t say because oh you are all federal agencies, a NAFDAC staff would earn the same thing as NNPC staff. You negotiate your salary with your employers.
And that is how itâ€™s supposed to be, that is the relative autonomy which they have been given. I concede that it was the fault of the Federal Government to have fallen into this trap in the first place, and now, the chicken has come home to roost.
And we must really go and tow the path of law, but the path of law is that if you are staff of University of Lagos, you can only discuss your pay with the University of Lagos, you canâ€™t discuss with even the University of Ibadan or somewhere else; especially when these institutions are established by law.
Does this explain why the Education minister said there had never been an agreement between the Federal Government and ASUU?
Believe me that is the underlining issue though it was not articulated that way. But now this is the time, as I said the chicken has come home to roost. There can never be any agreement between ASUU and the Federal Government. One, if there is such an agreement, it would be unconstitutional and it will be illegal.
That is just the truth, because you cannot agree with ASUU when you are not the employer of ASUU.
The local ASUU in the University of Lagos can agree with their employers and at best, what the federal Government can be is interventionist, just to help to guide not to now enter into agreements with lecturers employed by the University of Lagos. So, there was never really, honestly, there was never really any agreement.
What about the Onosode panel?
On the Onosode panel, it was a matter of giving their recommendations to government, and government giving a decision on it; and what government will do for this purpose is ok, yes, weâ€™ll find a way to see an enhanced salary; but this may be the last time this will be done, because the right thing to do is you negotiate your salary with your institutions.
For instance, if you work in Vanguard, you are a journalist, you work in Vanguard, and do you earn the same amount of money with your colleague in This Day? Or, does the man working in Herald in Ilorin earn the same amount with you? So, what are we talking about here?
In arriving at this point, was government concerned about the brain drain in the educational sector that has brought the standard of education down?
So many factors have been responsible for the fallen standard of education in Nigeria and indeed all over the world. Brain drain is part of it, and brain drain is not a Nigerian phenomenon, letâ€™s be realistic about that. Forces of production will gravitate towards where they think they have comparison advantage.
The lecturers themselves, not that they were forced out of Nigeria, they left and I think that the onus is on them to come and tell us why they left. I am here in Nigeria, I could as well have left too as a lawyer to go and teach law or to go and practice law abroad; but I never did. Some people chose to leave, I think they stand to answer the question why they left the country.
Why do you want to abandon your country? Honestly, why should they do that, which country is perfect? Now, a lot of people are looking for the opportunity to come back. Why must you abandon your country and why do you blame government for that? I never left, and I should have left, but I didnâ€™t.
But I cannot now blame government for not going or for going. So, for me, we should ask this question from those who left. There is no country that is perfect. Look at them: we go abroad, we see our colleagues who are teaching law in universities abroad, and do you think they are better than lecturers in Nigerian universities even now?
Honestly, these guys have thick sole shoes, they walk, they trek, it is hard life over there, very hard life, and the truth is that I do not envy them. There is no true professional in this country that will sincerely tell you that he really envies his counterpart outside; when they come home for vacation, we see them! When they come for Christmas; to bury their father or mother, we see them. You understand, they are not better off and thatâ€™s the truth. You have colleagues, many of them who took off abroad, are they better than you? Donâ€™t you feel happier being here?
The important thing is that it is not these policies that really ledÂ to brain drain, people just thought there were gilded streets, there was another Eldorado somewhere and they fell into the trap; the Western, European propaganda that â€˜look, it is better here.’ But that is not, it is hard life there. Iâ€™d rather be here, anytime, any day, Iâ€™ll be here.
It is now clear why ASUU was not invited to the meeting held here in the Presidential Villa yesterday over the ASUU strike, but may we know exactly the decisions of that meeting and how government hopes to get the lecturers back to work?
Exactly, I just told you that Mr. President has graciously agreed that a reasonable offer be made.
How reasonable is the offer?
Oh, very reasonable but there are two critical backgrounds. One, the fact that nowhere in the world is anybody getting increased salary; secondly, because Mr. President feels so touched and concerned about the fact that childrenâ€¦ and all the time, there is always this ASUU strike, and they are always in and out of school; we want to put an end to all that. Honestly, he is tired of the ASUU strike.
That is why he directed that we should give them whatever they want; this time, reasonable offer, something that can be sustainable, then let them go back to classroom immediately.
Even if he wants to follow the law, there is no need for any talk, let them go and negotiate with the institutions. But because heâ€™s concerned that children have been out of school, and the case is even made worse because students in private universities are in school.
And you begin to wonder, how come private universities are never on strike, how come itâ€™s only teachers in government institutions that are always on strike? And nobody has come to tell me that it was because teachers in private universities are better paid, Iâ€™ve never heard that argument.
What I have heard is that teachers in Ghana or Burkina Faso are better paid; but I have never heard the argument that teachers in private universities in Nigeria are better paid. So what are we talking about?
Is government not concerned also that this hard stand could affect achieving the Millennium Development Goals at least in the educational sector as it could affect the enrolment of school-age children if their parents and guardians are unsure of how long their investments would start yielding results?
Of course, everybody is concerned. And let us understand it: it was the concern of government that has enabled us to get this approval we have gotÂ to make this offer to the teachers to enhance their salaries even though it is unreasonable to increase salaries now.
The revenue of government all over the world is dwindling, there is global economic crisis, and people must understand that we are not an island, we are all negatively impactedÂ by the global economic problem. And the argument that this matter has been on for long, why didnâ€™t you do it in 2000; is non sequitur.
Itâ€™s a non sequitur because it was not done and it was not my fault, I was not minister then; it was not President Yarâ€™Aduaâ€™s fault because he was not president then. It is true that today, though nothing has happened since then and today, we have serious economic problems.
So, this enhancement, how much would it add to what they were getting before and when is it going to take effect?
What we want to do is to go back to the Onosode panel, and inform them that look this is the position so that it will become the baseline which they will now offer the teachers, and they will now go and take it up with their universities.
So, it is only fair that this should be done properly through the Onosode panel. But I want to emphasize a point that a lot of emotions, a lot of considerations, a lot of sense of responsibility have gone into this decision.
Because you know in our country, if you enhance the salary of teachers by even five percent, everybody too would want an enhancement. Soon after, people would forget about the argument that teachers should be given a preferential treatment, which we all agree.
Again, part of why we all agreed is because of the students, whom we donâ€™t want to be on the streets. Everybody would be asking as soon as teachers are granted and it would harm the economy, you know it that we cannot have this now.
Did this final decision take into cognizance, the usual follow up problems of areas during the implementation and when is the effective date this one would be commencing?
This salary enhancement will take effect from the first of July, this year. They would pay on a monthly basis thereafter. As I told you, Mr. President wanted to be sure that the money would be available to pay beginning from the end of July.
The first pay would be on July 13 as it is starting from the first of July. Do you understand?, and the money will be available. It would not be a matter of let’s go and look for money, because they have to scrape everything available to pay; and I want to advise that the University teachers should take this and run with it.
Secondly, they should also not forget that from now, we will begin to the policy of no work no pay. Because it will really be unfair for anybody to, in these difficult times, be earning money for not doing any work. No work, no pay.