Polytechnic lecturers under the aegis of the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics, ASUP, are currently on strike over some demands from the government. In this interview, the National President, Comrade Anderson Ezeibe, speaks on the reasons for the strike and ongoing efforts to resolve it. Excerpts:
By Adesina Wahab
How far have you gone in your negotiation with the government concerning the ongoing strike?
We met with the government team on the first day of the strike, that is on April 6 and we were invited for another round of meetings on April 14 and 15. On April 14, we met with the Minister of State, Education and we were supposed to meet with the Minister of Labour on April 15. Unfortunately, the meeting with the Labour Minister could not hold because the minister was not around.
But for the April 14 meeting, we had some discussions and received some offers from the government and we are awaiting certain things to be done before the offers would be presented to our National Executive Council for consideration. As you know, the first meeting held on the day the strike started and that led to the constitution of Governing Councils for the polytechnics and the inauguration of the members during the week.
How would you describe the attitude of the government to polytechnic education?
The attitude of the government has not been good enough and we have been saying that long ago. If their attitude has been good, we wouldn’t have been on strike. The strike is a protest against the disposition of the government to the sector. Government has been playing lip service to the sector and there has not been enough respect and recognition for the sector. That is primarily why the sector is experiencing funding, regulatory, administrative and other challenges. And that is the reason why we are on strike.
What are the implications of such an attitude on the society?
We have said it repeatedly that the country needs technical and vocational education, TVE. We call it the skill-based education. At this point in time and the way the global economy is going, no nation jokes with TVE. Technical and Vocational Education is not about carrying certificates up and down. It is about what you can do. What skills you have, in what ways you can help the economy and the nation to grow and that is where our sector comes out tops.
This is a sector that produces employers of labour, this is a sector that focuses on skill-based education. Unfortunately, like we all know, our government does not always get its priorities right, and so, they have continued to relegate this important sector to the background. Those who formulated the National Education Policy in this country as far back as 1977, did not make any mistake in establishing the polytechnics and Institutions that offer TVE.
They saw the need for it with respect to the development of the nation and up until now, the government recognises that it is an important sector and that is why they are setting up new polytechnics. Recently, six new polytechnics were set up by the Federal Government and the various state governments are still setting up new ones. If they don’t find the polytechnics as important, then why are they setting up new ones?.
So, it is just a matter of getting the priorities right so that it you can give the right level of attention to the sector at the level that will make it meet up with its responsibilities to the Nigerian society.
Some say you people do not normally get your dues from the government because you don’t go the whole hog or make the necessary sacrifices to get your demands met, what is your view?
That is not true. No two unions are exactly the same. Every union designs its own strategy of engagement. We don’t need to go on strike for one year because another union did that. We don’t need to go on strike for one month because another union did that. We have to design our own strategy to meet our own targets. We are on collective bargaining process. We must not expect to have 100% results. Even the union that went on strike for so long, the government has not met their demands 100% as well.
Our union has gone on strike for nine months in the past, precisely between 2013 and 2014, we still did not get 100%. So, what is important is our priorities and expectations as we go on strike. What are the targets that are process led so that we can initiate the process? What are the ones that need instant response from the government? That is what is important. It is not a matter of how long a strike lasts but how effective it is. What is the outcome of such a strike? And as I said earlier, I have not seen any trade union that went on strike and got its demands met 100% no matter how long or how short the strike lasted.
If the government gives poor finances as a reason for its inability to meet your demands, what would the position of the union be?
I don’t think our demands from the government with respect to financial implications are too much for the government to bear. Particularly we have seen the government demonstrate the ability to this kind of responsibility to various sectors. If we are saying that the payment of our own minimum wage arrears is just about N4 billion.
If the government’s priorities are right, they can afford that. If we say we should be given Revitalisation Fund, the same way our sister sector has been given, the funding of the NEEDS Assessment etc, they are within the ambit of the government to fund. We are not an unreasonable union. We know the capacity of the government despite the global downturn in the economy. We know that what is needed is for the government to get its priorities right.
We know that this is not the time to play with TVE. For any nation that is serious, and we want to believe that Nigeria is serious, particularly at this period, when skill-based education is the in thing, the government should do the right thing.
As a lecturer in the polytechnic sector, the dichotomy between university and polytechnic graduates, how can it be redressed?
First and foremost, it is very regrettable that the problem has lingered despite all the efforts made by our union and others and that we have only been able to remove the disparity in the entry point of polytechnic and university graduates into the public service.
Previously, university graduates are placed on level 8, while their polytechnic counterparts are placed on level 7. But another main issue has not been resolved and that is allowing polytechnic graduates to get to level 17 like their university counterparts. Polytechnic graduates don’t go beyond level 14. They have now introduced the Bridging Programme whereby polytechnic graduates would go for postgraduate programme after bagging HND.
It is very unfortunate and I think our nation should have moved to the level of what you can do, the skills you have and not the paper certificates you carry about. Normally, in the civil service, once you have been employed, your career progression should not depend on your certificate but on your output on the job.
Your performance on the job is now supposed to be the criteria for your career progression. But unfortunately, we are still relying on entry point qualification. This I think does not help and has really amplified the dichotomy. I hope the bill before the National Assembly that intends to address those issues would be passed by the two chambers and assented to by the President.
How would you describe technical education in Nigeria?
The current situation is not good at all. It is not palatable. If it is good, we would not be on strike. The funding of the sector is so poor and it is a sector that requires a lot of funding because of the type of equipment that is used to train the students. Morale is very low because the staff are not taken care of. The discrimination has also lowered the morale of both staff and students. As we speak, the sector is not very attractive to Nigerian youths.
For enrolment for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examinations conducted by the Joint Admissions And Matriculation Board, the sector gets about 1% in the last four years and we have the universities getting over 98% of the applicants.
That tells the whole story. That shows that the sector has been de-marketed over time by the government through its policies that are unfavourable to the sector. That is why we are on strike to redress the situation and let the sector meets its obligations to the Nigerian society. The government should meet the demands of our union so that students would go back to the classes and our members would go back to their beats.