PUBLIC EDUCATION AT THE MERCY OF AUSTERITY POLICIES
PUBLIC EDUCATION AT THE MERCY OF AUSTERITY POLICIES
For United Actions Of Teachers, Students And Parents To Defend Public Education
By Wole Olubanji National Mobilisation Officer, ERC
The education sector is facing serious crisis today. Beyond the poor conditions of learning in schools; there is a whole new level of agitations and appeals that government should pay the salaries and emoluments of teachers, especially those under the employment of state governments.
Top government officials at states and at the federal level are always quick to connect these new crises to the dwindling revenues from oil export. Yes, it is true that there is a plunge in oil price. But we need to ask: how did public education fare during the decade-long boom? Oil cabals, multinationals, big business and politicians were the sole beneficiaries of the last boom in sales of crude oil. The education sector was completely underfunded as dry laboratories; congested classrooms were the order of the day. Just like education, virtually other sectors of the economy did not benefit from the revenues realised by the Jonathan government from the oil boom. Outright looting of public funds was the order of the day.
The handwriting on the wall today is clear that the Buhari government would toe the path of implementing austerity policies. In general, the state of things in the country may be become more unpalatable in the coming period due to the current economic crisis and the education sector would be one of the worst hit.
OYO STATE’S DUBIOUS COST-SAVING MEASURES
In Oyo State, the government recently announced its decision to stop paying the registration fee of students for their school leaving certificate examinations; that is, WAEC and NECO. The Oyo State government made this announcement to stop the payment of WAEC registration fees as well as sponsoring pilgrimage travels to Mecca and Jerusalem. As usual, the State governor hinged the new policy of his administration on the dwindling allocation the State is getting from the federal government. However, it is ridiculous and dubious that the governor could categorise education issues with items such as pilgrimage trips. One is an essential need; the other is for political patronage. To be sure, sponsoring of pilgrimage is a fraudulent wastage of monies that could be used to fund education and social services and therefore should be stopped. But not payment of examination fees which many poor families can truly not afford! Meanwhile despite their dubious cost-saving measures, elected government officials in States of the federation continue to draw outrageous salaries and allowances from the coffers of the State. During last Salah celebration, many state governments and local governments used public resources to buy trailer-load of rams which they distributed to political godfathers and allies. Meanwhile many workers in these states were being owed backlog of salary arrears. Under capitalism, it is the innocent masses, workers and youths that take the fall for government-created crises.
INTRODUCTION OF FEES IN EKITI
In a similar vein, the Ayo Fayose government in Ekiti-State recently introduced payment of fees in the purportedly free-basic education institutions of the state, that is, at primary and secondary schools. Government has directed parents to pay N2, 400 and N800 for their wards in secondary and primary schools respectively. In fact, it is a total farce that education was free in the state before the introduction of the new-policy by the governor. Right before now, principals and head-teachers of State-owned schools are known to charge fees for extra-lesson, damages, health and sundries. The reintroduction of fee is thus an official legitimization of this onslaught of cut-throat charges in the State-owned schools. It is instructive to note that many parents, who are majorly civil servants or self-employed artisans, are conspicuously poor. As the crisis of dwindling oil revenue continues, similar onslaught on public education is to be expected in other states of the federation.
OSUN STATE: AREGBESOLA’S WHITE-ELEPHANT EDUCATION REFORMS
In Osun State, a similar crisis has taken an embarrassing dimension. The month-long closure of schools is the new tradition in Osun-State owned primary and secondary schools, due to perennial strikes embarked upon by teachers on account of non-payment of salaries and running costs in schools. Similarly, lecturers of the four state-owned polytechnics and colleges of education organized under the Council of Academic Staff Unions of Osun State Tertiary Institutions (CASUOSTI) have also downed tools for about four months now, over series of demands that borders on funding, pay and working conditions.
It is an astounding paradox that the same Osun State government that recently publicized with fanfare the “opon imo” project (distribution of electronic tablets to students) could not afford to provide ordinary chalks and printed examination questions for its schools. This is just an example of the cosmetic approach of the government to provision of essential social amenities. Like the “opon imo” project, many of the state’s social programmes are designed to enrich political associates. Despite billions of naira spent on the acquisition of these “opon imos”, they have since been retrieved by the state government, while a majority of public schools, except a few model schools recently built, continue to exist in deplorable conditions.
The excruciating impact of neglect of education in Osun has brought education workers and students in the state in direct collision with the government and pockets of struggle have broken out. In fact, secondary school students recently protested an obnoxious government policy that tax certificates of their sponsors would be required for attendance in schools. Students of the state-owned institutions have also protested severally to demand that the state government meets their lecturers demand so they could resume classes.
FUNDING PUBLIC EDUCATION
There is need for a new commitment of government to funding the education sector appropriately. United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recommended that developing countries like Nigeria should fund education with at least 26% of annual budget. Regional governments like the Western region during the early days of post-colonial administration actually funded education with around this benchmark. S. Ademola Ajayi, in his paper titled “The Development of Free Primary Education Scheme in Western Nigeria, 1952-1966: An analysis”, revealed that “between 1954 and 1966, education attracted the largest share of the western region’s recurrent budget, having varied between 28.9% and 41.2% during the period”. In the 1958-59 financial year, Ajayi continues “41.2% of the total recurrent budget was devoted to education alone”. In 21st century Nigeria, the budgetary spending of government has drastically dwindled, and now fluctuates between a meagre 8-12% of annual budget. Meanwhile during the first and second republics, the revenues allocated to the education sector were majorly derived from cash crops like cocoa etc, not the “get rich quick” oil sector. But this was a different historical period for capitalism. Due to the influence of the Soviet Union and other Stalinist states, capitalist leaders in Nigeria and other African countries especially favored the police of public investment in education and critical infrastructure. This is the background to understanding Awolowo’s welfarist policies. An additional factor was also the pressure to develop as fast as possible an indigenous African civil service and technocrats who could handle government bureaucracy, institutions and economy following the departure of colonialists after independence. However, the 21st century Nigeria has not repeated this feat in terms of appropriately funding the education sector. This is largely due to the revival of neo-liberalism following the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Stalinist states in the early 90s which manifests in the unabashedly pro-rich policies of successive governments. Instead of funding public education, governments now deliberately underfunds it and encourage private schools to thrive. Public resources that were in the past budgeted for social amenities have now become fair game for treasury looters and corrupt politicians. Businessmen who yearly spend billions on political campaigns are in turn compensated through government policies, such as privatization and deregulation, while politicians equally compensate themselves with large chunks of annual budget, earmarked for their emolument and looting.
Under the Jonathan government, public education was severely underfunded and academic and non-academic workers had to embark on strikes. The result of successive government policies of underfunding and commercialization is the tragic conditions on our campuses today. From the bed-bug infested mattresses at the prestigious University of Lagos (UNILAG) and the poor health infrastructure and official negligence which claimed the life of Oluchi Anikwe a 300 level accounting student electrocuted by a falling high tension cable, to the decaying hostel facilities and dirty toilets and bathrooms at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), things are so bad for Nigerian students of nowadays.
CAN BUHARI BE DIFFERENT?
Against the background of the economic crisis and the capitalist system to which Buhari subscribes, it is unlikely that the Buhari regime will fund public education adequately. Recently, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, APC-governor of Kaduna State and a close associate of President Buhari, suggested that the Federal Government should sell off all unity schools in the country. El-Rufai’s statement gives a peep into the philosophy of education of the think-tanks of the current Buhari regime.
Only the readiness of students, education workers and the trade union movement to lead a mass fight back can save public education from further collapse. There is need for organized agitation and demand for improved funding of the education sector, especially at a time when President Buhari is preparing his first budget. Already pockets of protests are breaking out across the country. Radical Unions like the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) as well as students’ unions and the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) need to come up with a programme to unite these struggles and articulate clear demands for improved funding of education, especially in the face of current economic crises.
It is unfortunate that the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) is not up to this task as it has completely turned into an instrument in the hand of State. Instead it has engaged in one scandal upon another. The national executives of NANS recently presented an award to Buruji Kashamu, who is wanted in the US for drug-related charges. While this action of NANS has been widely condemned, it reflects the crass absence of democratic tradition in NANS and ideological collapse of the students’ movement. Decisions taken at NANS level do not reflect the mindset of Nigerian students, and are instead reached by few “professional” students who are disconnected from the harsh reality of things on campuses. The non-participation of real students in NANS has made the body incompetent, and incapable of voicing out demands for improvement of the education sector.
The ERC supports the call for genuine students, activists and radical unions to reclaim NANS. This is because there is urgently needed a genuine platform democratically controlled by students to coordinate and organize the imminent struggle in the education sector. However such a platform, which can also emerge as an alternative to the present moribund NANS, can only succeed if it endeavors to unite in action with education workers and other Nigerian workers to fight for funding of education, improvement in living standards and socialist transformation of Nigeria.