Punch Editorial Board

AN information technology design that acts as ramparts against escalating payroll fraud, and has produced amazing results since its introduction, is vehemently being opposed by the Academic Staff Union of Universities. ASUU’s reasoning is self-serving, pedestrian and indefensible. The Federal Government should, therefore, not budge, as this has nothing to do with the concept of university autonomy.

Rightly, the Federal Government’s Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System aims to enrol its workers on a single platform for all Ministries, Departments and Agencies that draw personnel cost from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. So far, it has saved the country billions of naira by eliminating thousands of ghost workers. Between 2016 and 2017 alone, the Federal Government was able to save the sum of N208.4 billion in personnel costs. Government had earlier given October 31 as the deadline for all public sector workers to be enrolled on the IPPIS, to avoid their salaries being stopped as President Muhammadu Buhari hinted when he presented the 2020 budget proposals to the National Assembly. Many states also bedevilled by the vice have opted for the policy.

ASUU Chairman,Prof Biodun

ASUU has been so agitated that the zonal mobilisation of its members for a showdown with the Federal Government had begun before it was eventually suspended. According to the union, the IPPIS implementation violates university autonomy. The South-West Coordinator of ASUU, Ade Adejumo, said IPPIS was so rigid “a platform that (it) discountenances the peculiarities of the university system” in replacement, recruitment of academics, mobility of academic staff for visiting, adjunct, part time and sabbatical offers. This is a red-herring, a deceit for the unwary.

The union is only trying to be clever by half. The process it spurns enthrones openness, accountability and transparency, which, undoubtedly, will expose many lecturers and professors who have visiting contract appointments in more than one university to the detriment of high academic standards in the country. Nigeria is not the only country where universities have the so-called peculiarities dubiously being canvassed to discredit the IPPIS.

  If stopping its members in their strides in going against official regulation on visiting teaching appointment is not ASUU’s grouse with the policy, several meetings the Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation held with the body of vice-chancellors, registrars, bursars, National Universities Commission, ASUU and non-academic unions on how the IPPIS operates and explanations on accommodating the so-called peculiarities would have allayed its fears.

According to an OAGF two-page advertorial in newspapers, “Visiting lecturers are entitled to 50 per cent of their salary in the visiting institutions, but only limited to one institution as approved by the NUC, NBTE and NCCE, their regulatory body.” Amid this controversy, the VC, Bayero University, Kano, Muhammad Bello, says the policy of his university allows a lecturer to visit up to two universities if the distance is not more than 200 kilometres from his main place of work; but limited to one institution if the distance is more than 200 kilometres. He, however, added, “lecturers are human and the services they provide require their time and effort, and it is not possible for one to be teaching in many universities and still give his best.” Further, those on sabbatical, will collect “100 per cent of their salary in the institution where the sabbatical is taking place in addition to the full salary being paid in their host institution,” the OAGF said. Casual workers, consultancy services and NYSC members issues, the OAGF emphasised, were outside the realm of the payroll as they had nothing to do with full time job.

  It is curious that academics who should know better are opposing innovation and cutting-edge technology to fight corruption at its roots. In a similar way, ASUU had said in 2015 that the implementation of Treasury Single Account in universities was a clear violation of the university autonomy. Autonomy should be balanced with accountability and transparency. Where universities are spending public money, Ferdinand von Prondzynski argues in The World University Rankings, they must account for the expenditure.  The university teachers should face the truth: lecturers’ academic role in universities other than where they are originally employed, which transcends official guidelines for adjunct, visiting and sabbatical positions, is unethical. It is a scam that should be condemned. Much fuss has been made about the Universities Miscellaneous Provisions (Amendment) Act 2003, which ASUU stresses, vests in the governing councils the exercise of powers in the laws and statues of each university to advance its autonomy logic. But what really is the value of autonomy of a Nigerian university that relies wholly on government for funding, paying salaries, gratuities and pensions, research grants and building physical infrastructure? Logging on to IPPIS does not erode autonomy.

Universities with autonomy, which are truly self-governing institutions, have financial autonomy besides their academic independence. Government only gives them grants. Harvard University is a typical example of this model. Its 2019 financial report states, “The university’s net assets increased by $2.3 billion to $49.3 billion at June 30, 2019 due to investment returns on endowment, generous contributions and a disciplined focus on financial management.”

In Nigeria, government pays the piper and, therefore, should call the tune. A report by this paper last year revealed that 62,000 personnel were being probed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, out of which 30,000 were on government payroll, but not on the nominal roll of any ministry, department or agency. Intriguingly, the IPPIS revealed that out of the oft-stated 371,800 personnel of the Nigerian Police, 80,115 were “ghost workers;” and 12,024 civil servants anomalously did not collect their salaries through commercial banks.

Certainly, the universities cannot be immune to these financial vices. Even in their core areas, they have abused standards, one of which is the role of ASUU members in dubious accreditation of courses in new universities. Indeed, values and tradition of the ivory tower have been eroded. This is why universities admit beyond their carrying capacities and students pay their way to get good degrees they can hardly defend. Trafficking in sex-for-marks is unabashedly in vogue, just as some academics collect grants from the Tertiary Education Trust Fund for higher degrees abroad only to embezzle such funds.

Evidence from several visitation panel reports strongly indicates that universities stink in many ways. It is enough reason the government should not permit ASUU’s quest for a carte blanche in universities’ financial management under any guise. The minimum wage consequential adjustment has increased the federal monthly wage bill to N611 billion. Therefore, every kobo of it has to be accounted for. But the Federal Government should ensure that any framework of accountability does not in any way undermine the traditional responsibilities of the university system to the wider society.