Free university education no longer sustainable in Nigeria

National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, Emmanuel Osodeke, a few days back revealed an aspect of Nigerian university lecturers’ negotiation with the Federal Government that many of us probably didn’t know.  He disclosed how the union rejected government’s plan to increase school fees of all university students to N1m during its last negotiations with lecturers.

Speaking at a one-day ‘state of the nation summit’ organised for ASUU members by the Bauchi zone of the union, Osodeke also said government’s plan was to open an education bank and give each student a loan of N1m annually at five per cent interest rate to sponsor themselves in school and then pay back when they graduate and start working.

Osodeke said that if the union had accepted the offer, people would have accused its members of fighting for their personal interests and not the collective good of Nigerians.

I quite understand ASUU’s point of view and can imagine its dilemma. It is inconceivable that a government that has offered free university education for over six decades could think of introducing a million naira fee per session, especially in a country where the majority live below $1 per day. At least, one would have expected the government to start small if it is serious about doing anything at all.  I guess the FG was not bold enough to do what it ought to do and was only trying to tie its decision around ASUU’s neck so that the union could take the blame for its action.

Indeed, the issue of tuition in federal government owned universities and other higher institutions in Nigeria is a sensitive subject. It is something people avoid talking about. Government is afraid to touch it for the fear of uproar it might generate. Student union bodies, ASUU and others avoid it like the plague. As strong-willed as Olusegun Obasanjo was as Nigeria’s president, he also vehemently opposed the idea when he was advised to do so. Not because he didn’t know it was the right thing to do, but because he was afraid of the backlash.

You can’t blame him.  It was during his military-led regime that Dr. Jibril Aminu, the then Secretary of the Nigerian University Commission announced that students would pay extra fees due to the high cost of living in the country. This led to the famous ‘Ali must go’ protest which today is described as one of the most violent student agitations in Nigeria. That protest was also reputed to have sparked the greatest political crisis of the 1975-1979 Mohammed/Obasanjo military administration. So, as civilian president, Obasanjo didn’t want to deal with the problem of another crisis over tuition in Nigerian universities. He said he would prefer to push that decision to others to take.  Unfortunately, none of his successors has got enough nerves to dare it since he left office.

I am also expecting a great deal of backlash from the public against the position I am taking on this matter but that’s fine by me. We need to be frank with ourselves. If we truly yearn for world class universities, we must be ready to do what it takes to get a world class education. There is no place in the world where university education is cheap. It is either students pay or government finances it through heavy taxes. Researching into technological innovations cost money.

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