For I while now, I have been making the wild/provocative/unfounded/incendiary/baseless claim that 90% of lecturers in Nigerian Universities are pretty much useless or not fit for purpose. Sadly no one has taken me up on this to ask me to prove how I came about this number.
So I’m going to have to raise the stakes. I am by no means a rich man but if I beg, borrow and steal, I am sure I can raise N1m. This is the deal – if any Nigerian University faculty will agree to a simple performance test of all the teaching staff there, I will donate the N1m to a charity or cause of their choice, provided more than 10% of them pass the test. The tests wont be designed to save me N1m so 40% of the questions will be questions the lecturers themselves have recently set for their students. The pass mark will also be 40%. So if they can answer their own questions satisfactorily, they will just about make the grade. The rest of the questions will focus on checking how much personal development they have undertaken since they themselves qualified as lecturers and general knowledge on education and academics.
I am confident that I will win simply because it is almost impossible for me to lose.
But that’s not the point of this blog post. We are currently in the middle of another strike which has an ending more predictable than a Nollywood movie. Government will cave in and agree to meet most of ASUU’s demands (usually sometime in the future) and ASUU will go back to work. Once we have a change in government (could be the same government but with a new election mandate) or even change in minister, the new guys in charge will then proceed to completely ignore this agreement and express surprise that it even exists at all. Then ASUU will strike again. Ad infinitum. World without end.
Having been a victim of a Nigerian University with at least 3 ASUU strikes as part of my ‘educational experience package’, I can confirm that the quality of teaching from these lecturers does not improve one bit whenever they return to campus after such strikes. If anything, some of them can’t even remember where they were before they responded to the cries of aux barricades and dropped their handouts.
In normal circumstances, it is useful to ask why teaching doesn’t seem to improve after government meets ASUU’s demands even if temporarily. I am also certain that the problem is not really funding per se. Nigeria is really a poor country, so any solution we come up with, no matter how well-intentioned, will have to operate within the constraints of lack of funding. President Goodluck Jonathan has at least increased funding of education to a priority. You can quibble with the amounts dedicated to education but he has at least shown his priorities by allocating the highest budgetary amount to education – N433bn or 8.7% of the total budget. The reliable guys at Budgit also tell me that of this amount, N219bn is for Universities
You can of course quickly see the problem – whatever budgetary increase that goes to University education is likely to be ‘captured’ by ASUU because…well because they can. There is an emotional aspect to any ASUU strike – it is ‘our children’ who end up suffering and of course no one wants to see this happen. So in these ASUU vs FG fights, ASUU’s victory is always guaranteed…it is always only a matter of time.
As I said earlier, I have been a victim of a Nigerian University so let me randomly address some points below. Apologies if my thoughts are all over the place, such is the nature of tirades.
1. Unilag is not the Nigerian University system. Due to its location, it is difficult for lecturers to get away with some of the abominable stuff their colleagues get away with once you cross the Berger bridge and exit Lagos.
2. “Nigerian universities have produced some brilliant minds in the past” – this is one of the greatest myths out there. No such thing has happened. The evidence is in the lack of consistency in this production. Let me roughly describe what happens i.e. what is mistaken for ‘production’.
Students arrive from their various secondary schools into Nigerian universities. Note that private universities that can be selective i.e. cream off the smartest kids are a fairly recent phenomenon. Previously, even if you went to a secondary school that cost N100m per term with the best teachers, your choice was a Federal or State university or going abroad. In short, the very best Nigerian students from everywhere end up in the same universities (remember also that only a minority of students pass JAMB making the process even more selective). You will get some very brilliant students (who already know how to apply themselves) and some really bad ones (totally not ready for prime time) in this mix. There is no production going on, there is co-opting. You will see this reflected in the next 10 to 20 years when the gap between those educated at private and government universities starts to widen to the point of being alarming. If we start getting scholarships institutionalized in Nigeria, this process will happen much quicker.
The idea that Nigerian universities ‘produce’ brilliant minds is also laid to waste by the lack of a minimum standard to their products. There is no limit as to how bad a graduate of a Nigerian university can be. Many waltz through for years, receive lectures and come out ‘unscathed’. It is therefore bizarre to use a (pre-packaged) minority as evidence of ‘production’ or anything for that matter.
What I found in my experience is that usually in 1st semester of 100 Level, some students quickly distinguish themselves sometimes with a perfect 5.0 GPA. The lecturers then use this to identify such students and the co-opting process begins. By the time the student reaches 300 Level, it becomes impossible to maintain the performance they started with without the lecturers ‘approving’ it. By the time this student is approaching graduation he/she has been so embedded in the culture of the faculty and been used like a graduate assistant that upon graduation they end up being ‘retained’ and themselves become lecturers…the system offers them ‘security’ so they don’t have to go and start looking for work when they graduate. As I said, Unilag is different because the smartest kids cant be blackmailed into this kind of system.
You might wonder what the problem is with this kind of system – but think about it, what if Harvard ‘retained’ its brightest students as lecturers every year? Would this be better than the current system where there is a Harvard alumni at the top of every major organization across the world? Any university should be eager to send its students out in the real world because it is the greatest recruiting tool it will ever have.
3. A friend tells me that Unilag’s law faculty currently has 3 Harvard trained lawyers as lecturers there. They are earning 5% of what their contemporaries around the world are earning but they remain there either out of patriotism or love of teaching or both. I don’t doubt that they choose to remain there (when they can go elsewhere) for altruistic reasons. Indeed I have seen this before and I blogged about how I was once treated by Dr Martin Aghaji at UNN teaching Hospital. Dr. Aghaji chose to remain behind at the height of the brain drain when lesser doctors were in Saudi Arabia earning a fortune (he was also making decent money from a monopoly on x-ray services but nothing compared to what he could earn abroad). I am convinced that he remained behind partly if not mostly because he wanted to train Nigerian doctors.
Back to our Harvard trained lawyers – even if we all agree that their motives are entirely altruistic, do you think anyone of them will reject the chance to be paid more in their current jobs? Certainly not. They are evidently currently underpaid. So let’s conduct a small simple experiment.
Say there are 100 lecturers in total and the total budget for their pay is N1m so each lecturer gets paid N10,000. If you sack the bottom 10% of lecturers for non-performance and redistribute their pay, each lecturer gets an 11% pay rise. This is a simplistic zero sum argument with the assumption that resources are finite but it describes to an extent what is going on with ASUU.
The really good lecturers will never be paid anything near what they are worth because the system carries so much dross and deadweight. It works well for a cabal that protects its members but it is a wasted system on university lecturers which heavily penalizes the really good guys. The ASUU collective bargaining system treats lecturers like they are all the same. This is a complete joke. Lecturers are skilled people (or at least they should be) in the way that the top footballers are skilled people – it is in very rare circumstances that a footballer who cant trap a bag of cement will become the highest paid player in the league because the feedback is almost always instant.
Currently there is no system of weeding out the truly useless lecturers as they can simply hide under the ASUU umbrella and get a pay rise when everyone else gets it. But like any other job that requires skill, talented people are always rare so it is perfectly normal for them to earn as much as is possible. To get this to happen, you will need to break up the ASUU system.
I recently completed an MBA and I had the good fortune to be taught by some really good lecturers. These guys are almost always on freelance contracts that allows them to maximize their earnings in the most efficient way possible. So for example the guy who taught me International Business Strategy spends around 9 months of the year traveling the world teaching and consulting. Is he the only one who can teach Business Strategy in the world? Certainly not. But the more he teaches, the better he gets and the more skill and experience he accumulates so it is to the university’s benefit to ‘sign’ him on given that the only way it can get students to pay fees is to promise them they will be taught by the best lecturers. Besides teaching, he also does all kinds of consulting work in places as far away as Papua New Guinea (where they eat human beings). Have you ever seen a Nigerian university advertise a course on the strength of its lecturing team?
Those 3 Harvard guys at Unilag’s law faculty should be teaching across Nigeria and being paid for it. Other schools should be adjusting their timetables to fit into their schedules – the ultimate aim always ought to be that students get the best possible teaching while they are in the University. Again, the private universities are starting to understand this. Recall that some years ago, Professor Ben Carson was a visiting lecturer at Babcock’s medical school. If you’ve read any of his books, you’d understand how much of a coup this was by Babcock.
When I was writing my MBA dissertation, I was allocated a supervisor from an American University who lived in Canada and North Carolina. We had to schedule our Skype calls to fit his schedule due to time difference. Was he the only person who could supervise my project? Certainly not. But having interacted with him and the speed with which he got into the meat of the matter, I knew he had been doing it for a very long time.
These are random examples but they are almost impossible in the current system where a lecturer who is enjoying his teaching has to drop his chalk in solidarity with his union just so everyone can get a pay rise. Many of the really atrocious lecturers wont be able to command the kind of salary they currently do if they were to step into the real world and find their own lunch. This system greatly favours them.
This point is worth repeating – the current system seriously penalizes the lecturers who are actually very good and reduces their ‘discoverability’ to nothing more than word of mouth.
4. The Nigerian university system can function with half the number of lecturers it currently has. I am being generous here given that I continue to insist that 90% of them are not fit for purpose. But in all the debate about education in Nigeria and ASUU strikes, I have never heard ASUU mention anything about a performance based system. The reason for this is simple – as Thomas Sowell once said, ‘people who enjoy meetings should not be put in charge of anything’. More often than not, those in charge of ASUU are the least productive lecturers when it comes to the actual business of lecturing. Such people will hardly ever be in favour of a system that is meritocratic – for them procedures and ‘agreements’ are everything, outcomes are nothing.
It is almost comical how some really good lecturers line up behind these characters as their union leaders. But then this is human behaviour. Even if for only 5 minutes, you can sometimes be best friends with your worst enemy if interests are aligned. The purpose of ASUU is thus to make us continue to believe that without them, the sky would fall and no student will get taught anything ever again.
5. Perhaps the greatest indictment against ASUU is how there is absolutely no incentive for lecturers to improve themselves continuously. Why should they? Pay is not linked to performance in any way so as long as you are a union member, you will get a pay rise the next time a fight breaks out between ASUU and government. This is a very serious problem and I speak as someone who was given extracts from Soviet Russian ‘economics’ textbooks in the name of studying economics. And no, I didn’t go to university in the 70s when these ideas perhaps still carried some weight.
It is depressing how the ‘debate’ about education always comes back to how much we pay our university lecturers. But Nigeria is not a rich country so almost by definition, it will always be possible for our best brains to get better opportunities outside our shores. Alas, education is one of the things (at least in part) that will help us break free of poverty so this ‘debate’ is an endless merry ground really.
I am certain that ASUU’s end is nigh. The day when they will go on strike and no one will pay them any mind is coming sooner rather than later. Usually, unions who specialize in holding everyone else to ransom are the last to figure out when they have become totally irrelevant. Last year, an American baker called Hostess filed for bankruptcy. Hostess used to make a popular and storied brand of cake called Twinkies. Its workers were also heavily unionised of the sort that just didn’t know when to stop. Hostess also used to make a bread known as Wonder Bread. To guarantee themselves work, the unions, on pain of strikes, got the management to give them contracts that said Twinkies and Wonder Bread could not be delivered to stores in the same trucks. Truck drivers were also not allowed to do the loading of the Twinkies or Wonder Bread. Also, if you were a Twinkie loader, you could not also be a Wonder Bread loader. This sounds funny but it’s not a joke. In the end, the company filed for bankruptcy which enabled it to fire as many workers as it could and start life afresh a few months ago.
There is no evidence that there was a scarcity of cake or bread in America while the company was in bankruptcy.
The day ASUU becomes irrelevant, many people will be amazed that teaching will not stop taking place in Nigerian universities. Indeed, you’d be shocked at how teaching quality will go up when there’s no longer anyone to fight for the dross.
* I deliberately left out the Nigerian government from this post because I wanted to talk ASUU. The government is not of course blameless in all this – certainly the stupidity with which they sign agreements and then try to back out of them is worthy of flogging on its own. The FG also lacks the moral standing to do what is right as it never initiates the conversation about higher education in Nigeria. It is always backed into a corner by ASUU.
Perhaps this even proves my point – ASUU is unable to teach the government a lesson it shouldn’t forget because…its members don’t know how to teach 🙂