By: BUHARI HABIBU, PhD
Recently, the federal government announced that lecturers in public universities, who have been on industrial strike for several months will not be paid for the period they were on industrial action. Following this announcement, a national debate ensued among legal luminaries, academics, consultants on labour issues and media experts, including what appears like an orchestrated blackmail against university academics on the ‘no work, no pay’ policy.
At the centre of this, is whether university lecturers do any work during industrial strike or not. Do the university lecturers abandon all their duties during strike like the striking workers in the health and other sectors do during industrial action? Does shutting down the university mean ‘no work’ in the university system, like it is the case with other workers, whose duties are strongly tied to that particular place of work that is shut down?
The university system is more complex than other places of public service. It is not a place where lecturers only teach students, lecturers must perform other duties that are fundamental to the running of the system. Every lecturer is employed to perform three main duties in the university, which include teaching, research and community service. Members of the public are mainly familiar with teaching and may not understand what community service is all about.
Research and community service are so important that in serious countries, the best and most renowned universities emphasise more on solving community or societal problems through innovation and solution-driven investigations. They de-emphasise the admission of undergraduates, who do little or negligible research work. Rather, they place premium on admitting talented postgraduate students who will be involved in discovery and innovation to make humanity live better.
The performance of universities is determined by the research they conduct to address the challenges faced by the local or global community. Even with the challenge of inefficient cutting-edge research facilities, meaningful innovative works and discoveries are ongoing in the fields of life science, physical science and technology in Nigerian universities. In most academic departments, the research output exceeds the available research facilities, indicating that scientists in some public universities greatly maximise the use of their prevailing research environment.
Scientists from developed countries are usually astonished and amazed by the performance of some Nigerian university scientists, despite obvious challenges, and are positive on the great achievements, if the system is fixed. Scientists from Nigerian universities that leave to the diaspora have vindicated the research training in Nigerian universities.
In fact, most of them end up being retained in universities located in both developed and developing countries. However, in order to meet the global standard, the system must be improved to enhance true endogenous development in the country and this is what the striking lecturers are craving for. This is not only about monetary investment, but also the interest and political will to create and doggedly implement policies that will mandate all academics to be productive in research and innovation to attract more grants and increase the revenue of public universities. Research and community service in the university keep most lecturers working, even during industrial strike.
Clinical services to the university community: Some lecturers in the university render special services to the university community, and these services are outside the defined statutory mandate of lecturers. Thus, they are viewed as non-academic duties and, thus, these services are not withdrawn when lecturers are on industrial strike. During strike, clinical services rendered by medical doctors from the faculties of human and veterinary medicine are usually on.
These lecturers are expected to routinely attend to patients, despite the stoppage of their salaries for months, even though they are working. These lecturers are expected to borrow money from where ever, come to the clinics, and remain patriotic amidst hunger. In some universities, several communities heavily depend on these health services to cure them and save lives. In some, such veterinary services, if withdrawn, could cause untold hardship, economic losses and increase unemployment rate in the affected communities.
Ongoing field and laboratory research activities: Lecturers do stiffly compete for local and international grants. Such grants, if won, add immense value to the country and the university, in terms of knowledge acquisition, revenue generation, job creation, product patency and research development. In addition to getting some funds in form of administrative charges (sometimes up to 10 % of the grant), the university gets modern research equipment and job is created for members of the university community.
Universities in developed countries get a huge chunk of their revenues from research grants. Besides the fact that such research must not stop once commenced to prevent sanctions on the university and the researcher involved, the research must commence at a scheduled time, whether the university is on session or not. To prevent wastage of funds and embarrassment to the nation, granted and other ongoing research are sustained during industrial strikes.
Research work at documentation and publication phases: One of the most reputable biographic databases of scientific publications, ScienceDirect-Elsevier, showed no reduction in the number of research and review articles published by Nigerians during university industrial strikes.
In 2020 and 2022, 5,822 and 6,544 published scientific articles mentioned Nigeria, as compared with 7,575 and 4,690 in 2021 and 2019, respectively. Similarly, another biographic database of published academic articles (Scimago) showed higher number of published articles from Nigeria in 2020 than 2019 or 2018, despite the industrial strike and Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. This data does not portray industrial strike as a friendly activity in the university system, but shows that lecturers are not idle during industrial strike.
Every scientific publication bears a nationality, and publications captured in biographic database such as ScienceDirect-Elsevier can improve the global status of the nations involved. Most, if not all lecturers handle a number of scientific documents during industrial strike for the purpose of publication or to reduce their workload after the industrial strike. Workload after strike is voluminous without room for any break over a period of more than a year. This explains why the immediate post-strike period usually witnesses the highest number of postgraduate defences and graduations in Nigerian universities.
Publication of scientific articles is integral to the performance of any university, thus, it accounts for more than 70 per cent of the promotion requirement of lecturers. This supports the popular saying in the university: ‘publish or perish’. Whether there is industrial strike or not, this component of academic duties is sustained by lecturers.
University Units and Centres with live subjects and livestock: Laboratory animals and livestock kept for research and commercial intents are found in probably all universities. This animals must be fed, watered and their housing cleaned daily. Feed formulation, health services and animal management supervision are usually under the watch of lecturers.
Even during industrial strike, these animals are cared for routinely; these entail regular visits to the laboratory, research, teaching or university farms to ensure teaching and income generation are sustained after the industrial strike. Especially, there are special laboratory-managed disease causing organisms, types of laboratory animals and livestock that must be propagated, because they represent a great research interest and were produced through unabated efforts and plenty of funds.
Lecturers and laboratory staff with interest in these animals do all within their reach to ensure these animals survive beyond the period of industrial strike. In some instances, these disease causing organisms are the only surviving set in the country and represent the only hope for the country’s scientists to continuously study and understand the diseases.
Maintenance and propagation of special plant varieties: Special varieties of plants are managed and propagated in nurseries and laboratories in universities. The plants in the nurseries and micro-propagation media need time and attention to remain viable. Many Nigerian farmers depend on these biotechnologies to commence crop farming, especially during the rainy season, and if the plants are lost due to any circumstance, strike inclusive, national productivity of the crop may be affected and farmers may incur economic loss. These plants are products of long-term research and monetary commitment that the lecturers cannot sacrifice during strike.
No matter how black the lecturers of public universities are made to look, the milk they produce is always white. Unlike other sectors of public service that are reduced to almost zero activity during industrial strike, it is not possible to shut down the universities completely, due to the uniqueness of the academia. Many lecturers have invested their whole carrier to establish different components that make up the research system in universities and can sacrifice so much for it, including borrowing money, sometimes with high interest rate. Loss of lifetime career investment during industrial strike due to poor political will by the government to prevent or end industrial strikes, promptly is killing the moral of many lecturers, and making the future of research and community service very darker in Nigeria.
The genuine efforts of lecturers are appreciated everywhere but Nigeria; this makes it easy for any nation to take advantage of the intellectual assets in our universities and drain the best of our intellectuals. Hungry, angered and wounded lecturers will be at the nadir in conducting research and cannot do what it takes to produce students that can propel the nation to greater heights. If the future of our youths matters, we must remember that an empty sack cannot stand.
Dr. Habibu is a lecturer with Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State and can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org