Economic Update
Negotiations between the Nigerian government and several university staff unions have led to the end of a three-month strike and the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU). Public teachers’ unions have been striking nearly continuously in recent years to receive higher salaries and increased training.

The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), which had been on strike since June 22, agreed to an indefinite strike suspension on October 8 to “enable a cordial atmosphere for the peaceful conclusion of negotiations between it and the federal government,” local press quoted the ASUU president, Ukachukwu Awuzie, as saying. In the MoU signed, the teachers indicated, among other things, that they wanted a pay rise of 53% for lecturers and 25% for junior staff. The mandatory retirement age is also to be raised from 65 to 70, so that 400 professors will not have to retire next year.

An October 24 meeting between the ASUU and the state’s negotiation team concluded without reaching a final agreement, although the minister of education, Sam Egwu, told local press that they would be preparing a report for the government to review. He added that an additional N78bn ($512m) would be required to meet the teacher’s salary request, while funding and staff training needs had already been addressed.

The Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities (NASU), Senior Staff Association of Nigerian University (SSANU) and National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) followed suit with the ASSU, suspending ongoing strikes on October 17 and signing MoUs. The Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT), a union of primary and secondary school instructors, has also been on strike intermittently throughout 2009 to protest the government’s failure to provide a promised 27.5% pay hike. Though the Teachers’ Salary Scale was approved by the government in 2008, 19 states have yet to implement the salary raise.

In a country where teaching has traditionally been one of the lowest paying professions, this MoU is a sign of hope that the required attention may finally be being paid to education. While UNESCO suggests that developing nations dedicate 26% of the state budget to education, Nigeria hovers around 8%.

Teacher strikes closed public universities for a total of 36 months between 1993 and 2008, with full-year closures occurring in 1992 and 1996. One effect of these recurring strikes has been the emergence of private universities, which need not be unionised. Nigeria’s first public university was established in 1948, while the first private university was formally accredited in 1999 following liberalisation by the incoming civilian government. Seven new private institutions were approved in October 2009, bringing the total to 41, more than half the number of government-run universities. Due to their higher tuition (starting from $2300 per semester), access to private schools is limited to those who can afford it. Nonetheless, in fall 2009, the private sector saw a record number of applicants for its 32,000 spots, while 138,000 new students matriculated in public universities.

To free up more money for higher education, the senate is in the process of reformulating the Education Tax Fund (ETF). Established in 1999, the fund currently directs business taxes to all levels of education, but a new legislative proposal would see the money sent solely to tertiary schools. “The problem with the Nigerian education sector today is poor funding, which led to the strike by ASUU to last for three months because they are trying to reform the sector. This is an opportunity to address problems in the sector,” said Joy Emodi, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Education.

The Yar’Adua administration has advocated a Vision 2020 since coming to power in 2007, a long-term development plan aimed at turning Nigeria into one of the world’s 20 most industrialised economies. A large portion of this strategy calls for developing the education sector, yet schools have been a victim of underfunding. As a result, the national literacy remains below 70%, and recent national exam scores by secondary school seniors were so low as to warrant a “state of emergency in the education sector”, in the words of one state education commissioner.

With its first university established in 1948 Nigeria’s higher education system has traditionally been well-respected throughout the continent. The University of Ibadan, for example, was renowned for its tropical health research in the 1970s. By the 1990s, however, federal funding for public universities had dried up – between 1990 and 1997, enrolments grew by 79% while government spending on education fell by 27%.

Although meeting the immediate needs of teachers is a step closer in the long road towards reclaiming Nigeria’s stature in academia, it is a more definitive signal that the government is serious about reforming the public education sector.