THE Education Rights Campaign, ERC, applauds the victory of South African students over attempts to impose a steep rise in registration, tuition and accommodation fees ranging from 8% to 12%. Playing active role in this important struggle is the Socialist Youth Movement, SYM, – the ERC’s sister organisation in South Africa that also campaigns for free and democratically-managed public education as the ERC does in Nigeria.

The #FeesMustFall protests started as a spontaneous movement from below of angry students who could not tolerate the pro-rich policy of university managements and the government any longer.

After ten days of struggle, the African National Congress, ANC, government of Jacob Zuma was forced to agree to 0 % fee increase in the year 2016. Although the demand for free education remains unachieved yet, this concession is no doubt a humiliating defeat of a government whose pro-rich policies have contributed to making South Africa one of the most unequal countries in the world.

This victory in South Africa should serve as an inspiration to students all across Africa and especially in Nigeria where education is gradually being turned to the preserve of the few rich through anti-poor capitalist policies of underfunding and commercialisation.

Just like South African students, Nigerian students have a lot of reasons to declare a national boycott and mass protests on the scale of the sort of nationwide mobilizations of students were known for in the 80s under the then vibrant National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS. Now despite over more than 10 years of economic boom when Nigeria made millions of dollars from daily crude oil sales (with the exception of the decline during the 2007/2008 global economic crisis), funding to public education declined while fees increased.

The result is a big financial burden on working class parents who have to suffer untold hardship to scrape together money to pay high fees at the beginning of every academic session.

Apart from those who face automatic exclusion and do not even bother to make the effort to apply, thousands more drop out of school after their first or second year when their poor parents’ savings suddenly run dry, there is a sudden increase in fees or family members lose jobs or fall sick.

For instance, after the Babatunde Raji Fashola-led Lagos State government in 2011 jerked up fees at the Lagos State University, LASU, from N25, 000 to an alarming N350, 000, the full-time students’ population of the university dropped from about 20, 000 to around 12, 000 over the course of the next three years. It took a massive struggle involving students, education workers and groups like the ERC and the Joint Action Front, JAF, for the fee hike to be reversed in August, 2014.

As a result of government pro-capitalist policy of turning public education into a profit-making venture, funding of essential facilities in tertiary institutions are being cut. While grants given to faculties and departments are never enough to cover their most basic overhead costs, essential facilities like hostels, water, electricity supply and medical clinics are rarely allocated enough funds.

Government’s mantra is that universities and tertiary institutions should find creative ways of improving their Internally Generated Revenue, IGR, through increasing fees, application for grants from donor agencies and private bodies and setting up profit ventures like “pure water” and bottled water business, distance learning programmes, etc.

While the idea that tertiary institutions should engage in business and other ventures aside their core objectives often lead to wastage of time, energy and resources on activities that have no correlation to improving quality of education in the respective institutions, this practice also exposes students and members of staff to horrible welfare and working conditions.

In fact, so terrible are the conditions of study in Nigeria that students are dying in droves across the country due to the negligence and inadequacy of functional facilities and relevant personnel. But while attention has rightly been focused on the terrible conditions of hostels where students live like pigs without any good sanitary provisions and the lecture theaters, libraries and laboratories which are often denuded of the relevant materials for learning, it is only recently that the reality has begun to dawn that so underfunded, under-provisioned and understaffed are the health centres that they have now turned to death centres into which many students have gone, never to return.

Many of the health centres are so understaffed that while a doctor or nurse is attending to a patient, over 30 others are waiting on the queue. The drug dispensary units are often without the most essential drugs such that many asthmatic students and students having similar ailments are known to have died at the health centres.

Under the pressure of cut in allocations and the need to ensure that only properly registered students benefit from medical attention, the institutions have now adopted a ridiculous policy that authorises medical personnel to withhold treatment unless an identification is produced by students in need of medical attention regardless of their state of consciousness.

This has led to at least five deaths this year alone. Examples are Mayowa Alaran at the University of Ibadan, Kel at the University of PortHarcourt, Oluchi Anekwe at the University of Lagos, Akintaro Raphael at the Polytechnic Ibadan and Maria Atere at the Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta. They were all neglected at their respective institution’s health centres and died in the process.

Without fighting for improved funding of education and democratic running of schools, not only would hundreds of thousands continue to be excluded from higher education, even the few who are fortunate to afford the high fees would find themselves falling victim of the terrible conditions in the system. In this wise, we have to build a mass movement to demand that education should not be both a debt and death sentence.

Unless something is hurriedly done, the condition of public education look set to get worse in the next period. The situation in Osun, Oyo and Ekiti states where public education has come under new threats are indications of what to expect. Using the economic crisis and revenue decline as an excuse, the Buhari government could implement austerity policies dressed up as cost-saving measures.

During his first coming as a military ruler in 1984, Buhari stopped the public-funded cafeteria system which ensured subsidized meal for university students. Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai’s brazen call for the sale of Unity schools betrays the mindset of the so-called “progressives” now in power. Given half a chance, they could completely convert public education into something the children of the poor cannot have a chance at having. Their excuse would be the on-going economic crisis and the need for reforms.

But one central lesson that all students in Nigeria must take from the struggle in South Africa is that even during an economic crisis, we can force government to retreat on its neo-liberal attacks on education and win big concessions on fees, funding, living and learning conditions.

By Hassan Taiwo Soweto, National Coordinator, ERC, wrote from Lagos

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