AMIDST the uncertainties created by shortages of new naira notes and fuel scarcity in the build-up to the general elections, Nigerians were recently greeted with the directive issued to Vice Chancellors of all universities and Directors of inter-university centers by the National Universities Commission (NUC), based on a purported instruction from the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, that these institutions be shut down and their academic activities suspended between 22nd February and 14th March 2023, for the purpose of the national and state elections holding on 25th February and 11th March 2023 respectively. The directive was said to have been arrived at by the Minister after extensive consultations with relevant security agencies, and propelled by the need to allow concerned students of these institutions participate in the elections, and as well ensure the security of staff, students and properties of respective institutions.
THE NUC closure order has expectedly attracted condemnation from the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). whose President, Emmanuel Osodeke, believed the NUC overreached itself with the directive, arguing that there had never been a time universities had to shut down for elections, more so that the closure and opening of universities were the prerogative of the Senates of the institutions. However, the Secretary-General of Committee of Vice Chancellors of Nigeria Universities (CVCNU), Yakubu Ochefu, disagreed with Osodeke, as the President of National Association of Nigerian Students, Usman Barambu, commended the initiative, stating that the decision was part of the interface they had with the Minister of Education.
NO doubt, we are of the opinion that closing Nigeria universities for three weeks after many public universities were shut for eight months in the recent past due to staff union strikes is needless, to say the least. More worrisome is the avoidable arguments the closure order has generated about a sector that should be dutifully sacrosanct in the application of rules and laws, as the Ivory Tower remains a beckon of hope in all nations.
WE observe that the overarching advisory and regulatory responsibilities of the NUC to Nigeria universities is a function of the warped federal system of government practiced in the country. This is because education is listed in the concurrent list of the 1999 Constitution, as Amended, and the existence of a supervisor in the NUC to state-owned institutions, for instance, would be predictably anomalous. It is noteworthy that the Act that established the NUC in 1974 “charged it with the responsibility of advising the Federal and State Governments of all aspects of university education and the general development of universities in Nigeria”.
AMONG others, the functions prescribed by the NUC Act are: creation of new universities and other degree awarding institutions; development of programmes to be pursued by the universities; advising the Federal Government on the financial needs of university in Nigeria; receiving block grants from the Federal Government and allocating them to Federal Universities; and carrying out such other activities as are conducive to the discharge of its functions under the Act. Analogous to the closure order of the Minister through the NUC, the Act setting it up prescribes that “the Minister may give the Commission directives of a general character or relating generally to particular matters, with regard to the exercise by the Commission of its functions” under the Act, and the Commission is duty-bound to comply. Deductively, The Hope is of the opinion that the NUC did not err in this matter, as what it did through the Minister is within the prescription of its Act.
ON the flip side, we posit that the argument centralising the Senate of universities in taking decisions about opening and closure of universities is valid, as the Universities (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1993 (amended in 2012) confers the duties of organising and controlling teaching in the universities on the Senates of the respective institutions. Flowing from the foregoing, and conventionally too, the Senate set and adjusts academic calendars for universities. More importantly, the Universities Autonomy Act No.1, 2007 precludes universities from unnecessary interferences from policies and regulations generated from ministries. However, the autonomy has not taken over the influence of the Visitor to the universities. This is not to ignore the fact that state and privately-owned universities have their own laws that are substantially different from that of federal universities.
WE hold that these hullaballoo are needless if the Minister for Education, through the NUC, has merely advised heads of higher institutions to countenance the issue of security in their academic calendaring, and ensure the protection of lives and properties in their domains, as elections approach, in recognition of the autonomy of these institutions and sacredness of their statues, rather than issuing a directive from Abuja like an oligarchic.
BY and large, The Hope sees this french leave awarded by the central agencies as disruptive, at a time public institutions are trying to normalise after the disruptions occasioned by Covid-19 closure and protracted union strikes. While the closure would allow students participate in the elections, it would further portray our universities in bad light to international watchers who were before now skeptical about the quality of Nigeria university education. Sending students home could similarly endanger them, just as they could be vulnerable to manipulators when away from the watchful eyes of their parents and guardians.
THE Hope desires that Nigeria would attend to the many overlaps that cause tensions and suspicious between agencies and levels of government, while also advocating for improved seamless and effective electoral processes that would allow for inclusive citizens’ participation, with less vexation in the polity. For instance, Nigeria is due for electronic voting that would allow for staggered elections and hassles-free involvement. It is needless to emphasise that persistent shutdown in critical sectors of Nigeria life is burdensome and disruptive to an ailing economy!
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