The problem of increment of fees or commercialisation of education is taking a global character. The capitalist political class and policy makers are offloading the problems of the economy on the workers and working class youth, students inclusive. Yet in Africa, everyone keeps talking about the youth being the future of the continent and about the need to offer them the opportunities they need to succeed.
The struggle against increment in fees is taking an international dimension today. From Quebec in Canada, to Chile, Germany and now South Africa, the students are refusing to be made the sacrificial lamb of the capitalist disorder. In these countries, students’ struggles have won significant victories against attempts to introduce tuition or increase fees generally. These examples have shown that no improvement or victory can come the way of students without them taking ‘mass action’. Yesterday, 22nd October, the title of an article by Angela Mudukuti in Eyewitness, a South African online journal, was ‘Only radical action brings solutions’.
Truly, the radical actions of South African students brought some victory for them. President Zuma, in response to mass revolt of students that the #feesmustfall, announced earlier on Friday, October 23, 2015, nine days after the protests started, that there would be ‘zero percent increase in fees’ next year. Fees have actually fallen! As a reminder, the authorities of Witwatersrand University, South Africa, had earlier announced its decision to increase fees by 10.6% for the 2016 session. The response gotten was in form of a nationwide protest. From a struggle of a hundred members of Students’ Representative Council to a national movement of South African youths, the struggle is an inspiration for Nigerian students, who are under barrage of attacks.
The problem of increment of fees or commercialisation of education is taking a global character. The capitalist political class and policy makers are offloading the problems of the economy on the workers and working class youth; students inclusive. This was actually what angered the students of Wits University, who called for a balance between ‘economic consideration and humanity’ (Eye Witness News, 22nd October, 2015). In the United States of America and United Kingdom, two leading countries in the world, commercialisation of education in these places has aroused new interests in the public domain. While the German government was forced to abolish tuition fees last year after a wave of mass protests, public opinion shifted towards the US and UK, with demands that both countries should do the same. David Smith, writing for Economy Watch on October 8, 2014, noted that ‘the world’s fourth largest economy, Germany, has abolished all higher education tuition fees after flirting with the system for a few years. The contrast could not be greater with both the United States and the United Kingdom, which has largely aped the US model with potentially disastrous results’. Smith was optimistic that mobilisation of students in mass protests against fees in UK could bring a halt to student debts.
The huge strength embedded in students’ protest can bring about a reverse in the neo-liberal policies of government. Capitalism being profit motivated, rarely take initiatives of policy that will benefit masses such as provision of social amenities, quality education etc., except if there is ample cash to be profited from such ventures. It is only organised action of students that can bring about a change of government’s policy under capitalist and neo-liberal government.
In Nigeria, government continues to claim that education is tuition-free in institutions of tertiary education. But this tuition-free policy is a farce considering the situation of things obtainable on campuses in the country. In the background, education administrators represented by vice-chancellors, provosts, and rectors, set up bogus charges to extort money by all possible means from poorly-paid parents. For instance, Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) authorities charge an average of N93, 700, despite the tuition-free policy of government, as items like health, damages, library, sundries among others which cost thousands of Naira. There is no doubt that Nigerian schools, especially tertiary institutions, are fully commercialised. In all frankness, the situation that ignited a mass protest in South Africa this week is present in harsher forms in Nigeria. Aside from the minimum wage being insufficient, government at all levels still owe workers backlog of salaries. With continuous privatisation of sectors of the economy, government continues to drive the hitherto employed population of the country into the unemployed populace; more than half of the Nigerian labour force is unemployed, largely because of government’s neo-liberal policies. It is absolutely correct to say that payment of fees in Nigerian schools is difficult, and continuous hike in fees aggravate this situation.
But why have Nigerian students not protested against this callous situation? What stops a national protest similar to protests of Wits students from taking place in Nigeria? These are the questions that arise in the wake of the victory of South African students. At least, as a fact, it has been established that Nigerian students face worsened forms of fee hikes and general commercialisation of education, when compared with their South African counterparts. But it is not the case that Nigerian students are unreasonable, or cowardly; they are as intelligent and humanly as their South African counterparts. The difference however is that the Nigerian students’ movement currently lacks some of the factors that guided and organised the Wits movement. This is the crisis of leadership.
Last year, the students of Lagos State University protested for several weeks against the policy of the Fashola’s regime, which increased fees from N25, 000 to N348, 000. It is instructive to note that it took the students three years to realise the excruciating effects of this hike. For three years, the LASU students’ union leadership did not consider the hike as evil, and did not muster the courage to mobilise students against it. The reaction that followed in 2014 against the fee was a spontaneous reaction that started among a minority, who could not afford the fee as at the date of University deadline for semester’s registration. Meanwhile, the protest of students of the University of Witwatersrand started with a demonstration of a handful members of the Students’ Representatives Council. That is the difference; clear-headed and vibrant leadership.
In the country today, the platforms of leadership of the students’ movement are reactionary, and fail most times to reflect the mindset of Nigerian students. Leaders of students’ unions - National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), rely heavily on government for financial patronage or ‘support’, and thus lack the will to stand against policies of such governments that are unfavourable to students. There is also the reality that NANS and most students’ unions are completely disconnected from students. Democratic practices such as congresses and parliament that should keep leadership in check and focus on pro-students’ demands are lacking. Today, the National Secretariat of NANS is not located on campus, and NANS elections are no longer preceded by manifestoes or debates of programmes. NANS, which is completed funded and owned by government, is populated by non-students, who have made a career out of holding offices in NANS. How can bodies like this lead or take initiative of fighting against policies that are against the interest of students?
It will be unfair to say that Nigerian students do not have the will to fight like South African colleagues. But while Nigerian students would normally get angry at this or anti-student policies of government, the absence of vibrant leadership that is sincerely committed to defending students has made nonsense out of this anger. In 2014, OAU students protested against the decision of the authorities to implement an over 500% increment in fees. But this protest was frustrated and brought to a halt by the leadership of the union itself, led by Mr. Isaac Ibikunle. The leadership espoused a philosophical backing for its reactionary stance in that year; it argued for a new 21st century method of confronting hikes, while condemning the readiness of students to protest as infantile. In reality, the argument for ‘new methods’ of struggle is only a pathetic excuse to hide the pro-management and ‘sell-out’ character of current crops of union leaders.
While our colleagues in South Africa have won a victory with a radical option of struggle against the South African government, Nigerian students have ample lessons to draw from this spirited, historic effort. The ‘tuition-free’ policy of the federal government is a big ruse, and there are indications that authorities will soon increase fees across Nigerian campuses. By acceding to the demands of owners of distribution companies (Discos) for a new electricity tariff in the country, President Buhari has shown that he may not be entirely different from his predecessors who are characteristically neo-liberal and capitalist. The APC as a party too has an incoherent and dangerous attitude to public education; for instance, the Oyo-APC government recently stopped funding payment of WAEC and NECO, while Osun-APC government has almost destroyed basic and secondary education on account of incessant strike and neglect of schools. It may thus be wistful thinking to wish that education would receive improved funding in President Buhari’s first budget that is the 2016 budget. The truth of the matter is that without improved funding of education in Nigeria, the problem with public education, and its attendant excruciating consequences cannot be eradicated. But the Nigerian government does not think in that direction; government will instead use the excuse of plunge in price of oil at the international market to cut spending to the education sector. The correct thing for a foresighted-government to do in period of economic recession like this is to build a diverse economy, which a quality education sector can initiate.
Nigerian students today have a generational task of demanding for improved funding of the education sector by government. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recommends that developing economies like Nigeria should fund their education sector with 26% of their yearly budget. As youths, there is need to remind our government to do the needful; it is high time the practice of holding students and parents responsible for the irresponsibility of government stopped. The experience of our colleagues in South Africa must pass two or three messages. But the first is that genuine students must organise, exercise their democratic right to peaceful protest and dissents, and call on President Buhari’s government to improve funding of education. There is no excuse for not funding education with over 20% of Nigeria’s annual budget; and the funds yearly earmarked for looting and extravagant lifestyles of political office holders must stop.
* Wole Olubanji is the National Mobilisation Officer of Education Rights’ Campaign (ERC) and Convener, Alliance of Nigerian Students Against Neo-Liberal Attacks (ANSA). He is a final year student in the Department of Philosophy, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.
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