There is no doubt that the crises of tertiary education in Africa are many and affect the quality of education negatively. The economic tribulations of the various nations do not spare the education sector and in the debate on university strikes, the countries that are mentioned in most cases are Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. The scenario is almost always the following: lecturers’ unions and representatives of the government, from the ministries of finance, education, labour, etc. engage in negotiations and in most cases the discussions yield no consensus and another negotiation date is fixed. We also frequently hear that lecturers’ unions are weak and corrupt because governments often annihilate the unions’ determination by giving “fat envelopes” to the union leaders. This is difficult to refute when we know how deeply corruption has eaten into the fabric of African societies. In such cases, the leaders of the lecturers’ unions return to the “members” and ask them to be patient because the government has agreed to meet their demands.
In the case of Nigeria, a newspaper made the following comment: “Nigerian students have missed out on nearly seven months of classes due to ongoing protests by lecturers. But protests like these are quite common in the country. Lecturers have “struck” 16 times since 1999”. In Burkina Faso, university education has been severely disrupted by strikes which started several years ago with very serious repercussions. Both lecturers and students go on strike and students compound their discontent with demonstrations in which they vandalize public property and destroy facilities on university campuses. The 2016 strike was significant as lecturers across the country stopped all activities for three days as they demanded better pay and increases in certain allowances to offset the high cost of living. The lecturers’ union summarized the deplorable state of university education in these terms: “public universities are going through a chronic and structural crisis. All these problems are the consequences of the invalidation of the 2000 academic year. It is unfortunate because the same difficulties negatively impact teaching, training and research in universities, three factors that affect the whole nation”. That strike utterly changed the academic calendar. High school graduates stayed at home for a year or two before their batch was admitted for the first year of university. Numerous interruptions have made it impossible for university students to graduate on time, and a lot of juggling has to be done with the academic calendar. Courses or student batches that were supposed to be taught in 2019 were taught in 2021.
The situation with the 15 public universities in Ghana is slightly different, but equally serious. Almost every year, lecturers go on strike but, recently, university students seem to have reduced the frequency of their strikes. One often hears statements like “the public higher education landscape in Ghana is currently beset by industrial strike action by lecturers”, and the nerve of this problem dates back to 2014, when an interim market premium (IPM) of 114 per cent for lecturers was frozen with the view to carrying out a labour market survey to ascertain the actual market premium that lecturers deserve. The market premium is an allowance that is paid in addition to a salary for specific skills that the government has identified to be critical and in short supply in the country. The recommendations of the 2014 market survey were simply shelved. In 2019, another market survey was conducted, and no action came out of it.
One of the cankers of the current Ghanaian situation is that students are at the losing end whenever lecturers embark on a strike. Students are simply held for ransom and, sadly enough, lecturers have their share of suffering when they have to teach topics that were supposed to be covered during the strike period. In certain cases, lecturers’ discontent is twofold: they do not obtain their demands from the government, and they also have to cover the syllabus despite the time lost by strike action. Both lecturers and students are denied the 16-weeks allocated to complete the semester’s work directly impacting the quality of education. Students, therefore, graduate with lower skills and do not perform well on the job market or in the professional arena. When strikes occur students lose focus in their studies, perform poorly and may even engage in examination malpractices because of ineffective teaching and learning.
University students in Ghana are already bearing the brunt of the economic turbulence that the country is going through. So, when lecturers go on strike, students suffer financially and morally. On 17 October 2022, universities in Ghana started an unlimited and nation-wide strike which entails the following: students’ scripts were not graded; lecturers did not take part in any academic activity like departmental meetings or conducting interviews for the admission of new students; or organizing viva voces. Lecturers were joined in this action by the administrative staff and universities came to a total halt. Only security officers went about their duties. The lecturers’ union is the University Teachers Association of Ghana (UTAG) and the administrative staff are members of the Ghana Association of University Administrators (GAUA) and other unions are in the battle also. The reason given for this indefinite strike is: “the government’s failure to act on the codified conditions of service of members” which explicitly is “an improvement or increment in the condition of service, the off-campus allowance, vehicle maintenance allowance and that of fuel allowance, a 60% augmentation of lecturers’ salary. The current strike was therefore declared because of the unilateral variation of the Condition of Service of workers in public universities to their disadvantage without recourse to them”.
Students bemoan the fact that while they were hopeful that the impact of COVID seemed to have been surmounted, the strike of lecturers is another barrier to their success. Students know that the strike is a “worrisome destruction” to the academic year. Representatives of the various Students Representative Councils (SRC) in the country are appealing to the government to quickly address lecturers’ concerns and to mitigate the “harsh impact” of the strike on student’s finances. One representative had this message for the government: “as I am talking to you now, we are done with a few courses. Looking at our calendar for this semester, it is already packed, so with this strike in, we plead with the government to address the concerns of our lecturers to help students to move on with the academic calendar. We’re already tight with our daily expenses, so can you imagine we not going to lectures and staying around and spending the little money we have for food and other stuff when there are no lectures?”
Some students who were supposed to graduate weeks ago are very disappointed because they have no idea when that important landmark in their life will take place, since grades and results cannot be processed because the staff is on strike.
Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.