The Guardian’s cover story of Thursday, October 5, 2023, with the headline: “Crisis looms in varsities over mass exodus of lecturers”, generated reactions both from within and outside the academia. While some could see the crisis and the negative impact on the already strangulated public universities, others, in their characteristic hatred for ASUU, think there are unemployed graduates in the labour market to replace the exiting experienced academics. People that have got no idea how universities operate are so confident to comment on university matters. Reading comments on universities from people that are supposedly educated and passed through the university system is mind buggling.
There is an ongoing brain drain in our universities and our system is unfortunately encouraging it. Why should the leaders care when their kids are not in the public universities? Universities abroad don’t poach just anyone. They go for the for the very best. The experienced best. Funny enough, universities in Malaysia, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Botswana, Kenya, etc, are among the universities poaching from Nigerian Universities. These were universities we were better than some years ago. They are progressing while we are retrogressing. I saw an advert on academic positions from the University of Rwanda a couple of weeks ago that I nearly responded to.
You can’t blame those leaving when we have a system that is making no effort to keep our best. A system that is strangulating academia without looking back. A system that is making teaching as a career at all levels discouraging. The political leaders are making it look like they want the public universities destroyed for the private universities to flourish. But there were comments, from those that can’t see beyond their nose, that the lecturers’ mass exodus is not a bad thing. After all it will create job space for the unemployed graduates on the streets.
Before the mass exodus that started in 2022 during the ASUU Strike, there were no enough academic staff in our universities. That was why some universities survive on Visiting Professors and Lecturers from other universities before the coming of IPPIS and there was no employment of these graduates. As a matter of fact, there is an existing embargo on employment in public universities since 2020.
But supposing the embargo is lifted now, it is obvious that Nigerian universities cannot attract lecturers from anywhere in the world looking at the salaries of the Nigerian lecturers. A lecturer in Niger republic, Cameroun, or Benin republic will not even think of taking up a lecturing job in Nigeria. So, can our inexperienced graduates replace the experienced brains being drained from the universities?
What some people are ignorant of is the fact that the university academic job is technically not designed for first degree fresh-graduates. It’s like employing an SSCE holder to teach in secondary school. The job description of an academic is research (40%), teaching (40%) and community services, administration, others (20%). The graduates need further training to fit into that. But there is a temporary full time trainee position called Graduate Assistantship at the University. In some countries, it is a part-time job with tuition waiver and on a pay per hour basis.
Graduate Assistantships are not meant for just any graduate looking for a job as perceived. They are designed to recruit outstanding and promising students to graduate study. It can be described as an award given to an outstanding student working towards a master’s or PhD degree.
It provides appropriate graduate-level learning experiences to the beneficiary through supervised assignment. The faculty members they work alongside with as their guide or supervising them typically assign them duties that align with the goals of the academic department or research facility. They assist with tutorials, lab demonstration, grading undergraduate work, administer exams, lead study groups, etc.
The Graduate Assistantships also provide support that enables graduate students to complete their degrees in a timely fashion without financial burden. They are developed while they learn the skills to be an academic till they obtain their PhD, the normal minimum requirement for tenure appointment in a university.
The first and second degree holders employed as GAs and Assistant Lecturers respectively are graduate trainees. We rely on these junior academics in Nigerian universities because even after 60 years of university education in Nigeria, the PhDs are still in short supply. They are leaving as they are getting trained. So, if we are happy to lose the experienced PhDs because there are unemployed graduates looking for meal ticket to replace them, then you will stop blaming the university for producing alleged “half baked” graduates taught by the inexperienced GAs and ALs.
The university crisis is beyond the mass exodus of our bests. It’s unbelievable that after over 60 years of university education in Nigeria, our graduate assistantship program is still not well structured. We have graduate assistants employed without proper mentorship and orientation and they go straight to the lecture rooms. They are expected to know what to do, learn on the job, make mistakes, and learn from them. Some were employed without any attachment to a mentor and they are expected to have normal growth. There are junior academics employed in 2018 that are still struggling (in 2023) to start a PhD.
Some of the ASUU branches are not helping the situation. They don’t seem to care much about the new recruits, how they are doing in their job, and their career development. They learn about their job and even about ASUU by themselves. Rather than providing proper mentorship on work ethics and how to be a sound academic, we are busy chasing university politics. We have individuals that have constituted themselves as the “owners” of some of the Union branches. They are highly opinionated individuals that are afraid of their opinionated colleagues. They decide who becomes what at the branch under their model of “guided democracy.”
I have heard the ‘owners’ of some Union branches organising retreats for congregation members elected to the University Senates. But I have never heard of a retreat for newly recruited academics to tell them about ASUU, work ethics as ASUU member, their responsibilities as academics, and personal development program (PDP) that will aid their growth. We grow up on autopilot without knowing the ideals of the union from the branch but expected to be loyal to its dictates we are not aware of.
A lot have no proper understanding on why ASUU should go on strike over university funding. A lot of colleagues cannot stand to defend ASUU ideologies because we have failed to properly educate them. There is a serious disconnection as such you can’t blame the opinion of those outside the university observing this internal failure. They may not be wrong if they think that the employment of GAs can perfectly solve the problem created by the mass exodus of experienced lecturers after all there are GAs taking the full responsibilities of a Lecturer.
All is not well with our university system and something is particular wrong in the hiring of academics in some of our universities. In some cases, the recommendations for employment as GAs and ALs are based only on loyalty to some individuals and not the system. The recommender wants to have the control of the large chunk of the staff in the department for some personal interests. This sometimes leads to the employment of people that should, ordinarily, have no business with the academia. Such new recruits cannot be mentored.
There was a situation where the application of one of the best graduating student of a department in a federal university, who later got a Masters degree from a university abroad, was rejected by the same department she graduated from. Meanwhile, 3 GAs who graduated from state universities were recommended by the department for direct employment. Her loyalty was not guaranteed. A GA once said they will not make one of their senior colleagues a HoD. That’s how “powerful” a GA that is meant to focus on his training is.
While our attitude in the university is making some people outside the university think that a GA can do the job of a PhD, the thought that first degree holders can replace exiting PhDs is a joke taken too far. Who will train the GAs? The mass exodus has created vacuum in the university. This will hunt our universities and education system for the next couple of years years the way it did in the early 90s.
Their leaving will, no doubt, create employment opportunity. I hope FG will lift the embargo on employment in universities to employ these fresh graduates in the labour market. Such graduates, when employed, will learn on their own, use their salary to fund their self-supervised MSc and PhD. Since we don’t have the culture of keeping our workers, when it is time for them to train others they will leave for a better job and another set of fresh graduates will be employed. The cycle will continue.
But as we fight the external aggression on the univerity system, we sincerely need to do some internal cleansing. One of it is the review of our adopted employment method of employing our loyalists even if they lack the basic knowledge of their fields. We are contributing to the destruction of the system we are suppose to be serving. We need to begin to hire outstanding and promising young academics that will add value and who are loyal to the system. That is the only way we can sustain the intellectual capacity of the system.
There should be an establishment of proper mentoring system for proper guidance and career development. Departments should be managed in Research Groups with with key performance indicators. There should be provision for the operation of such research groups. A new recruit is placed under the mentorship of the Group leader or one of the professors in the group depending on his research interest.
The Union branches need to do more than just calling for congress meetings to give reports from the Zones and NEC. Career development of members should feature on the priority list of the annual activities of the branches. If we can organise bi-annual retreats for newly elected senate members with befitting refreshments from the Union dues, we can do similar or better retreats for new staff members.
There is still poverty of knowledge on ASUU, the public universities, and the crisis consuming our education system. If you want to know or want your students to know a bit about our public universities’ industrial unrest and some of the reasons why we are not making much progress, you can get a copy of the book: Nigerian University Industrial Unrest and the Poverty of Sincerity published in 2021.
Abdelghaffar Amoka Abdelmalik, PhD, wrote in from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and can be reached at