By Johnbosco Agbakwuru
Abdussobur Salaam is the National Public Relations Officer of the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU). In this interview, Salaam says some forces may be working against the recall of sacked members of Universities’ Staff Schools. He also says that SSANU may go on strike over the failure of the Federal Government to address the issue of Earned Allowances. Read on:
Q: Has the issue of disengaged workers of Staff Schools now been resolved?
A: The last JAC (Joint Action Council) national strike was based on three issues
- Recall of our sacked members in the Universities’ Staff Schools.
- Payment of our short-paid Earned Allowances.
- Resumption of our renegotiation of the 2009 Agreement.
While the strike was ongoing, we received communication from the Federal Ministry of Education directing Vice-Chancellors to recall the staff, place them on nominal payrolls while they liaise with the Office of the Accountant General so as to get the arrears of the salaries owed them. Based on the above, the first issue has been quite resolved even though we monitor the process to ensure full compliance because we are aware of some forces that may want to truncate the process. Nevertheless, for now, we are quite satisfied with the response from government, even though belated and having caused us and our members much pain, and we can reasonably say that the matter is almost concluded.
Q: What is the situation between SSANU and Federal Government in terms of the renegotiation of the 2009 Agreement?
A: We have resumed renegotiation with the Babalakin Committee and, even though the pace of discussions is not as fast as we desire, we are hopeful that the exercise will be concluded shortly. We recognize that it is a negotiation and, as such, we will not allow imposition by the government team. We are hopeful that the entire exercise will bring about positive dividends for the university system and our members.
Q: Government promised to address the disparity in the sharing of the Earned Allowances from September. Has the promise been fulfilled?
A: On the issue of Earned Allowances, our demands are clear. Till date, however, there has been no signal that government is ready to pay the allowances before the year runs out. We have put further industrial action on hold because of the fact that the two other issues are being resolved but we may be compelled to go on strike on the specific issue of Earned Allowances if it is not speedily resolved. This is because the issue of Earned Allowances is a sore point among our members and which they don’t take lightly. It is not a frivolity but a legitimate allowance which should have been embedded in the salaries of recipients since 2009 but was forced to accumulate and owed in arrears up till today. Indeed, in making our demands, we should have asked for accrued interest on the allowances because there is time value of money which has been lost on account of the time between now and ten years ago when the money ought to have been paid. The JAC of NASU and SSANU shall, however, be meeting soon to appraise the situation and determine the next course of action.
Q: What is the position of SSANU with respect to the directive from the Federal Government that universities must key into IPPIS?
A: On the issue of joining the Integrated Payroll Personnel Information System (IPPIS), SSANU has decided to key into it because of the wider issues of accountability, probity and anti-corruption. The position of SSANU is that the existing system has given too many financial loopholes in our ivory towers which need to be checked and IPPIS seems to be a very good measure to check financial infractions and excesses in the university system. We have, however, made certain positions which include that even though we are not averse to IPPIS, the peculiarities of the university system must be captured in the process. Issues like sabbatical leave, appointment, retirement age, payment of specialized or Earned Allowances, cooperative deductions, union check-off dues must be captured to our satisfaction. The engagement between the union and the Office of the IPPIS in the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation is ongoing and if these issues are well addressed, IPPIS would ultimately benefit the system. We have, however, directed our members to key into IPPIS for the greater good of the system.
Q: Will joining IPPIS not violate the university autonomy law?
A: The position of a section of the university community is that joining IPPIS would violate the autonomy laws of universities. While on face value, it may be so, the reality is that these same proponents of university autonomy are always selective, propagating university autonomy when it favours them but breaching it when it does not. On the whole, however, the position of our union is that since the funds for salary payment are government funds, you cannot determine for the government how it should apply, appropriate or conserve the funds. Our major concerns should be that we are properly paid, not short-paid and payments are made in line with acceptable modes of payment without demeaning or reducing our self-esteem. Proponents of the present autonomy laws may want to protect it because it favours them. As far as SSANU, and I know too of NASU, is concerned, the present autonomy laws are heavily skewed against the non-teaching staff. It is not healthy for the system as it makes a group in the university perpetually subjugated under another group. With the present laws, what we have is an animal farm situation where one group of employees, the academic staff, lord it over another group, a case of all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. Given the present constitution and membership of Council, this is inevitable. It has even become so bad that government has lost grip of the ownership of the universities on account of the fact that decisions at Council are determined by majority and where government nominees are only five and internal members of Council, academic staff members are ten and in the majority, they will definitely have their way. In most cases, Councils have been pocketed by Vice Chancellors and this too is not good for the system. First, government appointees on Governing Councils are to satisfy political interests as job for the boys. Based on this, the appointees, sometimes, come in with a mindset of what can we fleece out of the system? Apart from a few outstanding persons, Council Chairmen usually look out for the icing in the appointment since it is seen as their own share of the political cake. All an unscrupulous Vice Chancellor needs to do is to pocket such a Chairman of Council by ensuring that access to funds and university resources would be through him. As such, decisions of Council are based on what the VC desires and nothing else. Matters are further compounded when the Council membership has Deputy Vice Chancellors who are appointees of the VC thereby making them his appendages and cannot speak contrary to what the VC wants and will forever concur. The university Senate representation on Council is almost usually at the behest of the VC because the VC is the Chairman of Senate, therefore you hardly again find Senate representatives on Council going contrary to the VC. Consequently, the VC has his way with the DVC and Senate representatives on Council. No decision can be taken independently by Council except the wishes of the VC. Where independent decisions are to be taken, you can almost be sure that the VC and the Chairman of Council will cross paths and this is not good for the system. SSANU position is that the university autonomy laws must be reviewed and made more representative and democratic. These are among the issues we are putting on the table for our renegotiation. In the university protocol, the Governing Council is higher than the Senate. However, how would the Registrar and Bursar, who are appointees of Council, be excluded from Council, while Deputy Vice Chancellors, who are appointees of what we may consider, with no disrespect meant, to be a subsidiary body are automatic members? What justice is that? Our position, therefore, is that for university autonomy to make sense, Registrars and Bursars must be automatic members. Similarly, University Congregation representation on Council must be increased to three, with two slots ceded to the non-teaching staff since academic staff members already have four slots from Senate which cannot be contested by non-teaching staff. The contention of SSANU is that the university system will continue to face crisis if the present governance model is not reviewed, the autonomy laws modified and the current internal colonialism of one group subjugating another group is not checked.
Q: What are the causes of incessant industrial unrest in the university system?
A: There are many reasons responsible for industrial unrest in the university system. Some of them are internal while others are external. The external causes may include the penchant of government to fail to respect and honour agreements. Look at how badly our 2009 Agreement has been implemented. Some salient aspects of the agreement have not been implemented and where you observe some level of implementation, it has been in breach. Within the system, conflicts and unrest could arise from the angles of inexperience of both union leaders and management. They could also arise from overzealousness of union leaders and the lack of transparency, openness and high-handedness of Vice Chancellors. These are areas that we need to look at, especially the area of inexperience. The observation of SSANU in recent times is that most Vice Chancellors are actually not experienced enough for the job. They do not have the requisite managerial and administrative experience to take on the leadership of a highly volatile environment such as the university. It is a big challenge. You can imagine a professor of agronomy or veterinary medicine who is appointed Vice Chancellor without any requisite human managerial training, the tendency is for him to want to treat his staff members the same way he would treat his animals. I was quite amused when a Vice Chancellor granted a newspaper interview where he publicly expressed his inexperience by narrating that when he assumed office as VC, he found out that the university’s admission and carrying capacity was low and decided to increase it. According to him, he got the NUC to increase the admission carrying capacity only for him to now realize that the increase in capacity demanded additional structures and facilities to cater for the increase. He didn’t anticipate the need to increase facilities when making demand for increase in students. Meanwhile, this is an elementary or basic management or economics principle! When you increase population, demands on existing infrastructure increases. You just have to anticipate that. He publicly expressed his ignorance and there are quite a number of them. Unfortunately, such Vice Chancellors do not seek advice from professional administrators, Registrars and Bursars, who can give them quality ideas on how to improve the system. The point being made is that beyond academic prowess, whoever is to be appointed Vice Chancellor must have shown proven records of administrative experience. Even at that, SSANU position is that before assuming office, as part of their orientation, they must be taken on a proper course and training on leadership and union management. The Michael Imoudu Institute for Labour Studies is there. Training of Vice Chancellors on labour relations is very important! Some Vice Chancellors don’t even know how to manage their Registrars or Bursars whose knowledge should have been maximized in the interest of the system. I can confidently say that any VC who fully utilizes his Registrar and Bursar in his administration will succeed but if they don’t, problems set in. The position of SSANU is that the powers granted to Vice Chancellors are too enormous and need to be pruned. Most of them find such enormous power suddenly thrust on them and, in many cases, don’t know how to use it. They discard the Registrar who is there to guide them and take up advise from cronies who are either sycophants or inexperienced like the VC himself. Leadership of a university or indeed any organization is for prepared minds. This accounts for why Vice Chancellors, at whim, suspend or sack staff members, especially union leaders, over trivial issues that could have been resolved through dialogue. There is no doubt that union leaders may be overzealous or exuberant but it behoves on a good administrator to know how to manage the various tendencies. Most Vice Chancellors don’t know how to handle it and consequently do not translate the unions into allies but see them as enemies. We have seen cases where Vice Chancellors would use their inexperience and lack of administrative knowledge to jeopardize the system over petty and mundane matters. This is what inexperience does! Like I said, our laws bestow so much power on Vice Chancellors and a small misuse of the power could cause upheavals. Vice Chancellors are so strong that they determine almost everything in the university. Only recently, a Vice Chancellor of a state university directed staff members to sign oaths of secrecy. Union leaders are being sacked for leaking what Vice Chancellors consider to be confidential information and I find it very sad. In an age where universities in advanced countries are opening up their books and records for public scrutiny, posting Council and Management decisions on their websites, Nigerian universities are directing their staff members to sign oaths of secrecy! How do we advance? I think the Committee of Vice Chancellors should rethink itself and be less of a talk shop or a protectionist group for Vice Chancellors and delve more into training of Vice Chancellors on how to relate better with unions, be more open and transparent in their dealings. On our part, I mean SSANU, we have always made it mandatory for the training of our leaders at all levels in conflict management, collective bargaining and other knowledge that would empower them to defend and protect their members while not jeopardizing the system. Our advocacy is for the system and SSANU will continue to do whatever it can, to protect the university system.