“This strike will be total, comprehensive and indefinite.”
18-year-old Miracle Majesty stared blankly at the TV as Biodun Ogunyemi, the National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), declared to watching journalists that the union had kicked off another industrial strike.
For Majesty, a 300-level law student, she could no longer enjoy her holiday. She would have to cancel her resumption plans; who knew how long she would be at home?
The strike by ASUU, the union of Nigeria’s university lecturers, instantly put a halt to academic activities in 90 federal and state-owned universities across the country.
Nearly three months into the strike, Majesty and her classmates at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) have grown bored, frustrated at sitting at home.
“I have been home for months now, and there’s a lot of uncertainty around everything I do. I have no idea when school will start; no idea when I will write exams and no idea how long this will last,” Majesty laments. In her opinion, the strikes are too frequent, a view supported by the fact that ASUU has embarked on some form of industrial action almost every year since the return of democracy in 1999.
For years, ASUU has been at loggerheads with the federal government over issues like university autonomy, conditions of service and funding, and each time these two elephants fight, the students suffer.
Longer school years
Amina Shodipo’s first memories as a student of the University of Ibadan (UI), Oyo State, are of empty lecture halls and reluctant lecturers.
On the day she was to register as an electrical and electronic engineering student, the 5th of December 2011, news of a strike swept through the department’s corridors.
“There were already rumours before registration that ASUU would go on strike, so I expected it,” she tells me. Indeed, the 23-year-old was prepared for the strike and moved quickly to meet her friend in Ibadan who she would be staying with for the next month. The strike lasted much longer, and after some time, she went home.
Shodipo’s five-year stay at UI had a lot more sit-at-home days, and the most memorable is the 1st of July, 2013.
“That day, we heard that our class had been cancelled because of an ‘indefinite strike’. Again, I waited in school for some time hoping it would be called off. When the end didn’t seem like it was in sight, I left for home,” Shodipo recalls.
At the time, Shodipo did not know that she would end up staying at home for nearly six months, a helpless victim of the running battle between ASUU and the government. This time, ASUU had demanded that the government comply with all the conditions of the 2009 agreement. When the government stalled on parts related to funding, the union went on strike.
Shodipo remembers being angry at the system and irritated by the constant questions from family and friends, questions that she had no answers to, questions that she hated she had to face. “I remember my dad asking everyday ‘anything from ASUU?’” she says.
One of her biggest fears was spending longer than she needed to at school. Many strikes distort the school calendar, leading to horror stories of people who spend three times the allotted time to get their degree.
“The most painful part of the strike was seeing my secondary schoolmates who were schooling abroad live their lives free from the fear of strikes. It must have felt so good not having your life put on hold because of bad governance and systemic corruption,” Shodipo admits. “It was a constant reminder of the privilege I did not have.”
As each month passed, the likelihood of a return to the classroom seemed to grow fainter. Shodipo sought out ways to remain productive and enrolled in a 6-week catering class where she learnt how to bake cakes and decorate events.
Her luck turned shortly after as the strike was called off, and the university opted to reduce holiday days to make up for the strike period, to synchronise the school calendar. “The school kept regularising the calendar over and over, so I got done in time. In the end, I can gladly say that it had no negative on my life plans,” she announces.
Not everyone is that lucky.
Rushed academic sessions
When a strike is called off, students are forced to complete their assignments, projects, and exams within a much shorter time frame. In a bid to catch up on months of missed work, lecturers rush through the curriculum.
Grace Ekpeyong*, drawing from her experience at the University of Calabar (UNICAL) during the 2009 strike, tells me that a lot of students are pushed beyond their capacity during this period. “It was unbelievable how much the lecturers rushed us once we resumed. They put a lot of work on us, and there wasn’t even enough time to study properly for exams,” she complains.
Ekpeyong, now a researcher in Lagos, remembers that she got her worst grade in one of the courses she got rushed through. “I got an F in financial accounting and carried it over till my final year in school. I was so hurt because I wasn’t even given a chance to study or cover the syllabus.”
Accelerated academic sessions have adverse effects on students. Although lecturers rush through the material to ensure that students graduate on time, these graduates do not have the same depth of understanding or capacity to apply the material.
And yet, the alternative—more years at school—often seems worse, particularly when it comes to finding a job after graduation.
“A lot of employers place age restrictions when hiring. That 27 year old who was supposed to graduate at 25 may not get her dream job because she has passed the required age range for it,” Ekpeyong states flatly. “Her counterparts in private universities will get it instead because they didn’t have to give up school years for strike actions.”
She has a point.
The public sector, for example, stipulates that prospective candidates must be below the age of thirty to be eligible for graduate vacancies in the ministries, departments and agencies of the federal government. This limit often pushes out qualified graduates who had to stay extra years in school because of strikes.
In a country like Nigeria, where 8 million youths are unemployed, such restrictions worsen the odds of a graduate finding a decent job.
Stay at home
For the young Nigerians suffering from the current strikes, the most difficult part is often the psychological weight of sitting idle at home.
Miracle Majesty, who has been at home for the duration of the current strike, describes a sense of drift. “When I am in school, things are predictable. I know when I am going to a class or when I need to submit a project. But everything feels aimless at home; there’s nothing to do. It’s purposeless,” the UNILAG undergraduate tells me.
Unlike Amina Shodipo, who decided to take up catering classes during the strike, Majesty is unsure about how to use the time. “I don’t know when the strike will be called off. What if I pay to learn a skill and ASUU asks us to resume? The money will go to waste,” she quips.
And yet, some students hold surprising views about the strike.
Musa Wushishi*, who is currently enrolled in a part-time postgraduate degree at UNILAG, says the strike provides a much-needed break from school. “I am a bit relieved that the strike is happening. I must admit that this is a useful break for me,” he says, adding that he feels sorry for those that are affected by the strike.
At the moment, students are appealing to the government and ASUU to squash their ‘beef’ so that they can return to school. “I want to go back to school, I am tired of staying at home," Majesty says.
* name changed to protect identity