A reflection on how we deal with ASUU strikes problem – and free our children and institutions from the stranglehold

There are two reasons why Nigerian parents shouldn’t be at the mercy of Association of Senior Staff of Universities (ASSU). One is our tendency to glamorize university certificates. The other is failure to properly implement the 6-3-3-4 education system which Nigerian launched almost 40 years ago.

The glamorization of tertiary certificates elevated university degrees into some kind of elite turbanning or chieftaincy titles for our children.

Failure to implement the Basic Education programme opened the floodgate for every child to go to university. Consequently, exploding population of young people weighed down government capacity to adequately fund public tertiary institutions. This, in turn, has created a union of overworked and underpaid teachers who lash out in frustration every now and then.

The World Bank summarized the consequence of what our universities have become in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Bank concluded that our students “do not graduate with locally relevant skills for a successful integration into the labor market.”

Locally relevant skills

So, there we have it. Parents assume wrongly that children graduate from our universities with locally relevant skills. And that tertiary education is the only avenue to acquire lucrative, locally relevant skills. Because of these assumptions, every child must therefore go to a university. And because government also promotes tertiary education as a social service, every child must see university as continuation of the failed Basic Education programme.

I confess that, as a parent, I lived with this mindset. But you can excuse the likes of me who can scratch out moderately priced education for their children. One of my daughters, a final year university student, brought the issue home in an article she wrote. What she wrote was however already playing in my mind since June 2021 when I came across the current West African School Certificate Examination (WASCE) timetable. Nigerian students write about 30 vocational and technical subjects in that examination.

Allow me to list the subjects.

Air-conditioning & Refrigeration, Auto Body Repairs & Spray Painting, Auto Electrical Works, and Auto & Mechanical Work. There are also Animal Husbandry, Block Laying, Bricklaying & Concrete Works, Bookkeeping, Carpentry & Joinery, Catering Craft, and Cosmetology. The calendar also lists Data Processing, Dyeing & Bleaching, Electrical Installation & Maintenance Work, Fisheries, Furniture Making, and Garment Making. Also listed are GSM Phone Maintenance & Repair, Leather Goods Manufacturing & Repairs, Machine Woodworking, Mining, and Painting & Decorating. The rest include Plumbing & Pipe Fitting, Photography, Printing Craft, Radio, Television & Electronic Works, Salesmanship, Store Keeping, Store Management, Upholstery, and Welding & Fabrication Engineering.

Here’s something to think about. Artisans without formal education in the building and construction industry who do some of the physically demanding jobs above earn daily wages of between N2,500 and N3,500. This works out at a monthly average of N65,000 – which is twice the minimum wage and the equivalence of entry level pay for most Nigerian graduates.

The fact that our children learn these skills in school gives them a good opportunity to become specialists who can trade their skills internationally. And the opportunity to be equipped with vocational skills that can deliver extra income. The 6-3-3-4 plan is for students and pupils to learn these skills at the foundational education level, not at the university.

Obasanjo Assist

But do they? My wife, a teacher, says students are taught less than 60 percent of these skill subjects. They haven’t been able to learn because the 6-3-3-4 scheme, as usual, failed at implementation stage.

President Olusegun Obasanjo rejuvenated the scheme in 2006. He merged six years of primary to three years of junior high to form Basic Education, aka 9-3-4 system. His was a grand vision and plan designed to achieve 100 percent literacy rate in the country among other benefits. The first nine years of basic education are free and compulsory. It still is. Nigerian parents, no matter how poor or indigent, have no excuse for not enrolling their children and wards in school.

To ensure that states and local government councils do not complain of funds to implement the scheme, the federal government decided to pay 66 percent of the cost of infrastructure, facilities and training of teachers for the scheme.

Again, we failed at the point of implementation.

There’s something good to say about the Basic Education Programme. It is an excellent scheme. School teachers use it to identify innate skills and career interests of children before they get to the 9th grade. Students with high scholastic aptitudes progress to senior high schools (including technical schools) to prepare for tertiary education. Those with other non-academic skills choose vocational schools and apprentice schemes. There, they will specialize in some of the less intellectually demanding skills among which we listed above.

If faithfully implemented, made-in-Nigeria products and services will cross our borders and become export earners. Ghana showed this during her years of the locust. Highly educated Ghanaians earned reasonable and sustaining income through “mundane” tasks that they e expertly performed. We see it today with skilled labour from our neighboring countries that we increasingly prefer to our own.

But we didn’t faithfully implement.

Root of the problem

There are three impediments to the implementation of the Basic Education Programme. One is socio-cultural practices, such as street children (almajiri) and itinerant pastoralism. Ignorance and peer-group pressure is the other. A third is the will to use the massive funding available for this scheme to implement the programme, rather than massive pilfering of the funds by our officials.

Many poor parents do not know that education in Nigeria is free up until the 9th grade. Many of those who know are also unaware of their rights and responsibilities under the scheme. Which is why we groan without protest when unscrupulous administrators force children to pay levies that make nonsense of the free education programme.

By far the bigger challenge is that parents ignorantly look down on the “lower level” skills we listed above. They think that this translates to lower level earnings or possession of lower social capital for their children. This is wrong. It’s silly because all around us are evidences that tertiary education is not the only or even the best entry to high paying careers.

We see young people who developed their innate vocational or athletic skills travel abroad to work. Or admitted to good schools with fully funded scholarships. Those who work abroad as sportspersons or skilled labour earn monthly incomes the equivalent of millions of Naira. Their counterparts in Nigeria live on a basic monthly wage of $60. Again, those of us who live in cities prefer to engage skilled labour from Benin Republic and Togo rather than our unlettered cousins who failed to go to school. The key is getting basic education, followed by vocational and internship opportunities that create the difference in skillsets. Finally, a skilled worker who earns N3,500 per day (standard wage) will out-earn a graduate in monthly wages.

How we deal with the ASUU challenge

So, how do all of this solve the ASUU problem in Nigeria?

The day Nigeria faithfully implements the 9-3-4 education system is the day that ASUU strikes will gradually begin to die a natural death. To do this requires massive reorientation and mind change, especially for parents. Students, especially those whose parents cannot afford it, will no longer hanker after tertiary education. Identifying and nurturing of skills happen outside the ivory towers. When this happens, educational policies will shift to identifying and training only geniuses among the poor by giving them scholarships. Rich people who can afford it will fund the universities through appropriate tuition for their children.

With cost-reflective tuition, university managers will no longer go cap in hand to government. Or intermittently hold poor Nigerian parents to ransom with incessant strikes. And government can invest the billions they waste on university infrastructure to give scholarships to the exceptionally brilliant from rich and poor parents alike. If ASUU chooses, they can continue with their union but face the Vice Chancellors who mess up their system. And government regulates teaching to maintain teaching and learning standards.

The Ghana Example

I noticed two things about Ghana when I visited Kumasi where one of my children initially enrolled. Ghana has three public universities that are prime foreign exchange earners. For international students, average tuition at Kumasi and Accra is higher than what 80 percent of private universities charge. Nigerians are classified as international students. I saw white and Asian students who enrolled at Kumasi. The attractions were cheap tuition and quality of teaching. The fees in those three public universities are higher than what private universities charge in Ghana. Nigeria is the opposite.

Let’s deemphasize university certificates as a basis for fixing and standardizing work compensation. As my daughter wrote in her article, “there is some truth that having a bachelor’s degree increases jobs earning potential. Yet it is also important to note that not all jobs require you to have sat in a classroom for 4+ years. Sometimes it just requires you to be creative, skilled or in good standing with the right people.”