Ensuring Proper Autonomy in Nigerian Universities, by Mo Babajide-Alabi
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Ensuring Proper Autonomy in Nigerian Universities

By Mo Babajide-Alabi

In 2009 when the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) secured a deal with the Federal Government granting autonomy to universities in Nigeria, there were celebrations in the academia and the general public. Prior to this, there had been incessant strikes and shut downs of universities, arising among others, from the dependence of the universities on the Federal Government or its parastatals in taking simplest of decisions.

It is heartening to note that since this agreement, the spate of strikes by the unions in the universities have radically subsided. The 2009 agreement has gone a long way in restoring sanity in university education which most times in the past has been subjected to politics and unnecessary interferences. Section 5b of the agreement in reference says in part: “The protection and enhancement of the autonomy of universities and academic freedom require a greater assumption of responsibilities and commitment from inside the universities themselves, by the university administration strictly adhering to proper operation of the Committee System which is essential for smooth and effective running of the university from the departmental to Council levels.”

It was not uncommon in the past for Vice Chancellors to be selected based on the political clout the candidate possessed and not necessarily the academic or administrative capabilities. However with the agreement in place it has managed to bring sanity to university education, and  also stabilised the process of appointments of VCs and ensured quality and wider participation of  stakeholders. In the past, all a mischievous or over ambitious candidate had to do was ensure his/her name was among the three ranked and presented to the Visitor to the university. The appointment of the VC was therefore left at the discretion of the Visitor. At this stage, it was usually the best negotiator among the three that is declared the winner.

With autonomy granted to universities, there has been more transparent steps in the selection of university leaders. The 2009 gentleman’s agreement has therefore brought about proper administration of universities in Nigeria. The quality of the process also has ensured the ideal candidates are selected as vice chancellors, thereby stopping the “dice rolling” by the Visitor.

This system of appointment, based on the 2009 agreement, is under strain at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, south west of Nigeria. The university has been in the news for some time as the term of the incumbent Professor Tale Omole is gradually coming to an end. The transition has been made difficult by the actions of two unions – Non Academic Staff Union (NASU) and the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU). The unions have come a little short of throwing out the baby with the bath water, alleging the incumbent VC has an agenda to hand over to a particular successor.

The unions are also protesting the position of the Governing Council on the shortlisting and selection process which led to the appointment of the incumbent Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Ayobami Taofeek Salami. The antics of the unions have been questioned in various quarters and also accused of stalling the progress of the university.

The protests which started on the veiled allegation that the Governing Council usurped the powers of the Joint Council and Senate Selection Board within short time degenerated into a means of settling personal grudges against the candidates shortlisted. The union officials obviously chose to discard the fact that the Governing Council is self regulating in the shortlisting of the candidates before presenting them to the Joint Council and Senate Selection Board. Apart, this was the same process by which the incumbent VC, Professor Tale Omole was chosen.

THE APPOINTMENT PROCESS

The selection and appointment of Vice Chancellors of Obafemi Awolowo University usually attract wide interests and attention because of the position of the university in Nigeria and Africa. It is in view of this that the Governing Council seemed to have painstakingly gone through the selection process in its consideration for the post.

It advertised the post in national newspapers and stated clearly the selection process as requested by the statutes of the university and also drew up a time table of activities.

Out of the 33 candidates that applied or were recruited, the council shortlisted six for the post, out of whom only three, including Prof. Salami, participated in the appointment interview.

All over the world, the selection and appointment of VCs are primarily based on the experiences the candidates have in academic pursuit and their robust knowledge of the institution. The non-academic unions of the university seem to be aggrieved more with the personality of the VC-designate, than the selection process or his qualifications and what he is bringing to the table.

It is not strange in Nigeria universities for unions to wield great influence in appointments of principal officers. While this can be attributed to the popular “Nigerian Factor”, it has not helped the status of vice chancellors from Nigeria. While not disputing the academic or administrative capabilities of the vice chancellors, the undue influence of the unions, even non-academic, in their selection process tend to cast doubt on their suitability for the posts.

There is need to send out strong signals to unions, especially in the university system that the overall development of higher education in Nigeria should be the priority of all stakeholders. The era of hero worshipping of union leaders to ascend the highest post in the university should be discarded as belonging to the dark years in Nigeria education history. In most cases, once the preferred candidates of the unions do not stand the chance of selection, the officials “cry murder” and fault either the shortlisting or selection process, as witnessed in OAU.

On the other hand the place of the unions in the proper management of the university system cannot be undermined. While at the same time, they should be made aware of their bounds as part of the system and not as “kingmakers”. If the union officials are aware of this and do not let their personal ambitions or biases to becloud their judgement, they would not have canvassed for the return to the pre-2009 agreement.

Calling on the Visitor, President Muhammed Buhari to dissolve the Governing Council is a return to the archaic military era when the Federal Government incessantly interfered in the internal running of the university system. The incumbent VC’s term ends this week, and if the prayers of the unions are answered, this means repudiating the 2009 agreement, which states in Section 5.1.3a that there shall be no more appointment of Sole Administrators.

In conclusion, the unions and all the stakeholders in the university should come together and find a way of out of this for the sake of all involved. All efforts should be intensified at ensuring the situation do not go beyond what it is now. The non academic unions should sheathe their swords and give Professor Salami the needed support to succeed in his term. He has the capabilities, as evidenced by his experiences in the university, which also is his alma mater.

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I am an experienced Social Media practitioner with a strong passion for connecting with customers of brands. As part of a team, I presently work on the social media account of a leading European auto company. On this job, I have brought my vast experiences in journalism, marketing, search engine optimisation and branding to play.

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