By HENRY UMAHI (KINGHENRYSUN@YAHOO.COM)
Owed salaries for months, tertiary institutions crumbling
“All is not well in Abia State Polytechnic, Aba. If you are owing me salary arrears, I can’t say all is well.” This was how the chairman of the local chapter of the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP), Mr Precious Nwakodo, in capsule form, described the state of affairs in the institution in an interview with the reporter in his office on September 1, this year.
Justifying his position, Nwakodo stressed: “Here, we have issue of salary arrears. As at September last year, we had salary arrears of eight months. As at today, it’s about four months’ arrears. The last salary we got was for April/May.”
He, however, added that “things are getting better and, by my own analysis, if we continue with this pace, by January or February next year we will come to normalcy.”
Located in the heart of Aba, the commercial nerve centre of Abia State, the institution contends with the ruins that define the city. Coming into Abia Poly through the second gate on Aba – Owerri Road, you quickly notice that all is not well with the institution. To start with, a heap of garbage welcomes you even as destitutes reside near the main gate. Blocking part of the road, the decomposing waste sting you like a bee and you are forced to close your nose and quicken your steps while passing.
It was gathered that overflowing garbage bin is a permanent feature there. “They only come to evacuate the garbage bin when it starts overflowing. And because they do not come regularly, the garbage bin is always overflowing, making it a permanent feature sort of,” a teacher who craved anonymity, told the reporter.
And when you come into the school, you will also see another overflowing garbage bin by the second gate, which is the exit gate. Indeed, waste management could be said to be an issue in the school. For instance, on the day the reporter went to interview the Abia Poly ASUP chairman, wastes littered the front of the ICT building where his office is located.
Again, on the day the reporter visited, it rained and the school was in a mess. You could hardly see where to step on without soiling your shoes because the roads within the school are not tarred. Agatha, a student, captured the situation thus: “During the rainy season, the students hardly put on shoes to school because your shoes will not be the same again. Sometimes when it rains, the entrance will be waterlogged and you don’t have a choice but to pass through the water like that. At times like these, we wear rubber sandals or something you can wash because of the mud you will wade through. You are here, so you can see things for yourself.”
However, the institution has recorded some infrastructural development. Investigation revealed that most of the new buildings came into being through the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), an intervention agency. All the facilities funded by TETFund are tagged and identifiable. Yet, the institution is not sufficient in requisite infrastructure and personnel.
Institution of crises
Over the years, Abia Poly had contended with myriads of problems. First, it grapples with a precarious financial condition, resulting in its indebtedness to about seven banks. It was gathered that what the management of the institution was doing was tantamount to robbing Peter to pay Paul. A report said that what the Rector was doing was “to put students fees into the bank and collect overdraft to pay salaries. When the school account is in the red, he moves over to another bank with the same style. That is why the banks can longer guarantee us credit which we used in paying workers salaries.”
It was learnt that First Bank has bought off the school’s debts to other banks. According to Nwakodo, “the institution borrowed money from First Bank with the express permission of the governor to primarily clear the institution’s indebtedness to other banks. The condition was that First Bank, which is the borrower, will clear debts to other banks. We want to harmonise our accounts into one bank.”
Sources maintained that the institution is presently indebted to First Bank to the tune of about N1.4billion and it could rise because of interest. Its wage bill is about N165 million, which the monthly subvention from the state government cannot offset. The shortfall is borne by the institution by way of internally generated revenue (IGR), particularly school fees and other levies. School fee in Abia Poly is high even as classrooms are overcrowded. While ND students pay N56,000 per semester, HND students pay N66, 250. Take this: Students pay N10 to urinate in the school toilet. Worse still, the two toilets in the school are dirty and smelly, a harbinger of disease.
The vision statement of Abia State University, Uturu is: “To be an internationally recognised university, producing disciplined graduates with entrepreneurial and competitive abilities and contributing effectively to research and development in a modern world.” Its mission statement remains: “To engage in high-level manpower development, research and community service, leading to the production of high quality graduates for the globalised economy and the extension of the frontiers of knowledge based upon discipline, integrity and social responsibility.”
But it is doubtful if the institution is achieving this ideal in every material particular. This is because the situation of the school now may not guarantee or engender academic excellence. To be sure, the institution has witnessed its fair share of strikes by lecturers over non-payment of salary as and when due. This disrupts the academic calendar to the effect that a student may spend up to six years for a four-year programme.
Students study under uncongenial atmosphere. On September 4 this year, the reporter was at ABSU and saw students studying in an environment that left so much to be desired. Students in the environmental studies department, for instance, were seen sweating profusely in a classroom while lecture was going on. In fact, the lecturer was using some folded papers to fan himself because of the heat. Although there was no power outage at the time, the ceiling fan in the classroom had packed up, it is more of a monument.
It was also learnt that there is shortage of manpower in the school. “Some of the lecturers have left because they do not receive their salaries regularly. The result is that you see a lecturer handling two or three courses,” disclosed a 400 level student who identified himself simply as Innocent.
Moreover, from a relatively low school fees regime, students now pay between N80,000 and N120,000 depending on the course. And those who do not pay on time are punished further with a surcharge.
A lecturer at ABSU remarked: “The problem is that the school is not well funded by the Abia State government which owns it. So, the bulk of the needed funds are raised by the institution through school fees and that is why the fees are high. And because of that, students are now gravitating to the Federal University of Agriculture, Umudike where they pay lower fees. We are not paid as and when due and the institution has not embarked on any capital project sponsored by the state government for many years.”
All is also not well at the College of Health Sciences and Management Technology, Aba. One of the allegations rocking the school is that it has been annexed by a certain community in the state. According to inside sources, a recently reappointed top shot is running the institution like his personal estate, recruiting only his kinsmen.
“He is running the place like a fiefdom. If we have 150 employees there now, 145 come from his native Ibeku kingdom. I’m not even talking about Umuahia North and South, I’m talking about his native Ibeku kingdom, which is Umuahia North alone. In fact, all the principal officers of the school are either maternal brothers or sisters to the governor. And those employments are without due regard to public service rules and all the rest of them. Of course, he is running the place with the help of his two younger brothers who are the contractors in the school. Whatever project that was to be done; must go through the brothers in disregard for even laid down rules,” a staff volunteered.
The source went on: “The school is infrastructurally underdeveloped despite the fact that it is alleged that the Education Trust Fund (ETF) has given money for that purpose. As we talk today, they are managing to lay a foundation of the administrative block, that is the only tangible project that is there and the school is generating a lot of money and the fees are so high compared to other schools. The fee is about N120,000 while Colleges of Education in Akamkpa, Cross River State and Port Harcourt, Rivers State charge far less. It is a middle level producing institution that is supposed to take care of people at the local government level but the man does not care and you cannot talk. He does not even consult anybody before he increases the school fees. Some students were even suspended from the school because they protested that the fees were increased, and were denied one academic year. He is running the place just like his private institution and nobody talks because he is using his ethnic connection with the governor to intimidate everybody.”
Another source, who identified himself simply as Daniel, said: “The students’ population is about 5,000. The school is still transiting from being an appendage of the State Ministry of Health to standing on its own because the state House of Assembly recently passed a law granting the school autonomous status, so there is the mixture of both the ministry and the college staff. But he has gone ahead to employ many people. As I talk with you, there are 21 names that have been penciled down to be employed today (Monday, September 1, 2014) and more than 90 per cent of those names are from his native Ibeku kingdom.”
It was learnt that the school does not have enough classrooms and hostel accommodation for the students. During exams, four students sit on a bench.
Crisis is also rocking Abia State College of Technical Education, Arochukwu (ASCETA) where the staff and school authority are locking horns over the running and/ or state of affairs. In a nutshell, they contended that the school had experienced a reversal of fortunes in recent times.
There are allegations of mismanagement of subventions to the school even as salaries of workers have not been paid for over five months. The management is also accused of high-handedness and being in the habit of victimizing staff through undue suspensions, surcharges, withholding of salaries, wrongful retirements and outright dismissals on spurious charges.
In a recent save-our-soul letter, the workers complained about “denial of staff promotions, non-financial implementation of promotions since 2008 and non-confirmation of staff who are due.
“Appointment of Deans / Heads of Academic Departments (HODs) and Heads of Administrative Units (HOUs) without qualification and merit and disparity in real terms of salary given to staff on the same rank in different banks.
“Indiscriminate increase in school fees and imposition of levies on, as well as non-provision of necessary facilities for students, thereby scaring potential students away and forcing the students population down to less than 1,000 in all departments.
“Proliferation of study centres (currently about 25 of them), thereby bastardizing academic standards and indiscriminate employment of new staff without due process, most of who are placed on salaries above what they earn and by so doing, escalating the wage bill of the college.”
The workers did not only accuse the management of mismanagement of TETFund, which they alleged had seriously threatened further interventions, but as well as being selective in TETFund beneficiaries.
It was also gathered that the once financially buoyant college is now debt-ridden to the point it is indebted to banks and even filling stations to the tune of several millions of naira. The financial situation, it was learnt, has become so precarious that the college is no longer able to pay for petroleum products bought from filling stations.
“Taxes and rates deducted from staff salaries are not remitted to government agencies hence staff cannot get tax receipts and clearances from the Board of Internal Revenue since 2009. Also, union dues deducted from workers salaries had not been remitted to the unions for over two years now,” sources disclosed.
It was also gathered that some staff of the institution had died as a result of the dehumanizing condition of service even as the school is on the verge of collapse.
By HENRY UMAHI (KINGHENRYSUN@YAHOO.COM)