BIG READ: ASUU, funding & social mobility: What needs to be done

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After months of negotiation with the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), who had embarked on a 9-month strike, the Nigerian Government recently reached an agreement with the union, hence ending the strike.

ASUU embarked on the strike action in March 2020, following its disagreement with the Federal Government over the funding of the universities and implementation of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), which according to the union, negates the autonomy policy for the universities.

President of ASUU, Prof Ogunyemi, blamed these for the alleged irregularities in the payment of salaries and allowances of lecturers, with some lecturers receiving very poor remuneration in some cases.

According to him, the government gave the lecturers a one-line salary scale which means taxes are being deducted from allowances, unlike what is practiced in the civil service. He disclosed that lecturers were losing as high as 50% – 70% of their salaries, due to the implementation of the IPPIS.

During the negotiations, the FG processed for payment, the sum of N70 billion, comprising N40 billion for Earned Academic Allowances/Earned Allowances and N30 billion for revitalization of the universities.

FG has also acceded to a hybrid payment platform, which is not 100%, IPPIS for the payment of salaries and Earned Academic Allowances/Earned Allowances, pending the result and conclusion of the integrity and usability test on the University Transparency and Accountability Solutions (UTAS) by the National Information and Technology Development Agency (NITDA).

Education funding

The constant ASUU struggle is linked to one obvious elephant in the room—funding for Tertiary Education in Nigeria. In a Guardian report, the ASUU, Ambrose Alli University (AAU) Chapter, Ekpoma, said the necessity of the strike was borne out of a need for improved funding of universities in Nigeria.

“Nigerians should bear with us. ASUU is fighting their battle. Our union is struggling to ensure that the children of the poor, who cannot afford the prohibitive cost paid in private universities or do not have opportunities to study outside Nigeria, get quality education, which is not priced beyond their reach. This will only happen when government adequately funds public universities and addresses the rot and decay in them,” they said.

Budget funding

For 2021, the FG budgeted N545.10 billion for Ministry of Education as recurrent expenditure, and N484.49 billion for Statutory Transfers. The Universal Basic Education Commission is to receive N70.05 billion, while total capital projects for Education is N127 billion. Altogether, the Nigerian Government will spend 5.6% on education for the year 2021.

Consequently, the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) condemned the FG’s 2021 budgetary provision to education, stating, “It was the worst in the last 10 years. The government only apportioned 5.6 % to the sector out of a total of N13.6 trillion budgetary provisions.

“When you remove the percentage for basic education, what then becomes of the tertiary cadre? The percentage was ridiculous, low and disappointing. This is one of the challenges we are facing in the education sector,” President of the association, Comrade Sunday Asefon, said.

UNESCO’s ‘Education for All, EFA, 2000-2015: achievement and challenges’ and ‘World Education Forum 2015 final report highlighted that “15 per cent to 20 per cent is the international benchmark” to fund education.

This means that with just a budgetary allocation of 5.6%, Nigeria is heavily under-investing in education.

So what needs to be done?

The number of Nigerians that are poor is estimated to be 82.9 million; this was revealed in the latest Poverty and Inequality report released by the National Bureau of Statistics, covering the year 2019. 40.1% of Nigerians are classified as poor by national standards.

According to NBS, on average, 4 out of 10 individuals in Nigeria have real per capita expenditures below N137,430 per year, which translates to N376.5 per day.

With a poor population, education has been used as a tool to lift millions out of poverty through social mobility offered for the poor alongside pro-market reforms. This means that Nigeria cannot afford to joke with its tertiary university funding.

The case for social mobility

Equality Trust UK revealed that a strong relationship exists between high levels of income inequality and low levels of social mobility.

“Education is often seen as a strong driver of social mobility. Social mobility may be reduced in more unequal countries because educational scores are on average lower in less equal countries and education improves incomes more for those at the bottom of the income spectrum than for those further up.

“The link between educational achievement and high aspiration is a key explanation for the association between low educational achievement and inequality. A further explanation suggests that the low levels of trust in unequal societies lead to poor quality social and family relationships which in turn damages learning,” they said.

The report illustrates that for Buhari’s administration to fulfill its promise of lifting 100 million Nigerians out of poverty, investing in education needs to be way above the 5.6% benchmark set in the 2021 budget.

Is Nigeria investing enough in education to warrant reduced tertiary investment?

Award-winning journalist and Business Day columnist, David Hundeyin, says Nigeria’s investment in education does not match its ambitions in fighting poverty for a developing nation.

“Nigeria is investing roughly a fifth of the recommended amount it should be investing annually in education. Per UN recommendations, a developing country should set aside roughly 26 percent of its annual budget for education.

“Nigeria’s 2021 budget sets aside 5.6 percent – the lowest budget share for education in a decade. So not only does Nigeria ordinarily have no business reducing investment in any kind of education based on its purported ambitions, it is not even investing up to a quarter of how much it should be spending on education,” he said.

Professor Yomi Fawehinmi states that Nigeria needs a roadmap to sustainable government funding.

“Nigeria has an ideological challenge with funding tertiary education. Who should fund it, how and at what rate?,” he says.

“In most countries, tertiary education is a balance of funding… User fees like tuition, endowments including alumni support, research funding and others. Our issue is that we focus only on government subsection and subsidies that will be affected by government finances and priorities.

“We need to get to a balanced funding model to make it sustainable.”

Why tertiary education funding is a headache for the FG

Hundeyin that further states that massive government spending has made debt a priority over sectors like education which it needs to focus on.

“The FG has tied itself up in an impossible budget situation by consistently and constantly expanding the size and cost of government over decades, leading to a situation where debt is now needed just to keep the bloated federal and state civil services running, and the federal budget specifically is now almost entirely swallowed up by debt servicing and wage expenses, leaving little to nothing for capital investment which typically comes in form of infrastructure and R&D spending,” he said.

“The obvious (if not exactly simple) solution is to aggressively embark on a rationalisation drive to significantly trim the cost of government. The politically unpopular but pragmatic decision must be made to stop running government in Nigeria as a job creation scheme and make it lean and productive as it was originally intended to be. The cost savings should then be invested in infrastructure and R&D, where tertiary education falls under.”

What examples can Nigeria learn from emerging nations on tertiary funding?

According to Hundeyin, “The closest and most relevant example would have to be that of Ghana, which runs a similar kind of economy to Nigeria and has a similar sized government budget on a per capita basis. According to the 2015 paper “Towards Innovative Models for Funding Higher Education in Africa” published by the Association of African Universities, Ghana’s primary sources of funding for tertiary education are direct budgetary allocations and grants from the Ghanaian government, the Ghana Education Trust Fund (GETFund), internally generated revenue from the institutions and contributions from the private sector.

“The GETfund is supported with 2.5% of all VAT revenues collected in Ghana. With the N1.1 trn of VAT revenue collected in Nigeria last year, this would amount to N27.5bn if applied accordingly in Nigeria. Ghanaian universities also enjoy a significant annual income stream from thousands of foreign students, principally from Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire. These students pay fees in excess of $5,000 per annum, which boosts revenues and further enables education to be provided at highly subsidised rate to local students.”

What are the effects of reduced tertiary funding in Nigeria relating to culture (social mobility) and R&D

Hundeyin says reducing tertiary education funding is a roadblock for social mobility as it would be just a utility for the rich and upper-middle class.

“As has been covered extensively elsewhere, relatively competent tertiary education over the past 60 years has been the single greatest mover of Nigerians from poverty into the middle and upper classes. In terms of providing access to opportunity, enabling social mobility and reducing inequality and inequity, nothing comes close to the impact that subsidised higher education has had on Nigerians – flawed as it is.

“Removing this by leaving tertiary education entirely to market forces might seem pragmatic in the short term by taking what appears to be an expensive recurrent item off the government’s list of budget liabilities, but this short termist view does not account for the fact that Nigeria’s primary competitive advantage is (and has always been) having large amounts of relatively competent labour available cheaply, both locally and internationally. Allowing higher education to become the exclusive preserve of the wealthy and upper middle class demographic entirely destroys this competitive advantage and effectively turns Nigeria into Ethiopia – a densely populated zombie economy without the human capital to power growth.

“It is a terrible idea that completely falls apart within a few minutes of examination,” he adds.

Professor Fawehinmi urges that Nigeria should sell some of its educational institutions and leave those that it can fund, in a bid to find extra sources to fund education.

“Maybe start with what we can afford. Can we afford this number of universities? We should sell some off and retain the few we can fund” he says. “Then introduce user fees including school fees. Also enhance their capacity to attract funds from different sources.”

Bottom-line

For a country where statistically over 40% of its population lives below poverty and has a median age of 17.9, investing in education is non-negotiable for the Buhari-led administration’s battle to uplift 100 million out of poverty. Nigeria is neglecting its young population by investing below UNESCO standards for education which leaves little room for social mobility for the poor. The FG also needs to trim its expenses as a first step towards ensuring more funds for the education sector.

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