The unwavering strike of the Academic Staff Union of Universities in Nigeria

What students in science-related disciplines are doing to stay productive and the challenges they face by Akpan M. Friday


In 2020, University students in Nigeria were left without tuition for a total of 9 months due to the COVID-19 lockdown measures and a prolonged strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities Nigeria (ASUU).


Unbelievably, we acknowledge it has already been two years since the outbreak of COVID-19. Though not totally eradicated, at least we see a decline in the status of the viral disease which has seemingly brought life back to "normal" in Nigeria. Unfortunately, many Nigerian tertiary students can't relate to this norm; it is as though they are still facing another pandemic-shutdown of academic activities. This is due to yet another incessant, lingering and prolonged strike by the Union which has eaten deep into the fabric of education in the country. Countless times since 1999 the union has gone on strike to enable their voices to be heard concerning their income and a total reform of the Nigerian tertiary educational system, but this invariably affects the students. These periodic disruptions in learning have left a vast majority of students in danger of losing a bright future through education.


While many students are learning a trade, taking remote jobs or helping out with home chores, others are actively investing their time in activities that help the advancement of their career. As a victim of this gruesome strike, I have observed and highlighted 5 ways students in science-related disciplines are staying productive in their field of study during the prolonged strike in addition to the challenges they face.


Volunteering at health organizations

Students in health-related disciplines are actively making themselves available at different health organizations, helping out in labs and with medical outreach in their various communities during the strike. Lawrence Akoh, a medical student at the University of Abuja, notably volunteers by giving health talks and offering local medical outreach within his community during the strike under health initiatives such as the Widows Intervention Foundation Worldwide and Worldicure Foundation. According to Lawrence, volunteering in health initiatives is a way of practicing in his field of study during the prolonged strike. The Slum and Rural Health Initiative is also a health initiative for active volunteerism.


Pictured below: Lawrence Akoh, University of Abuja


Acquiring digital and computational skills

Bioinformatics is gradually paving its way into the minds of undergraduate students. Though bioinformatics is not taught at the undergraduate level in most Nigerian universities, undergraduate students in the life sciences have quickly realized the need to up-skill themselves in basic bioinformatics skills. They have seized the opportunity the strike presents to either learn a programming language, take machine learning classes or learn the applications of AI in digital pathology.


Taking remote internships/jobs

Fortunately for the students, there are many openings for summer remote internships through international academic institutions that offer science-related courses and even local and international organizations. Students of the life sciences are opting in for these trainings both remotely and on-site. Recent summer remote internship programs that are available to international undergraduate students from Nigeria are: RNA bioinformatics summer fellowship program, The Institute of Molecular Biology international summer school program on epigenetics, gene regulation and genome stability, and also the Ashoka University summer internship program in modern biology and bioinformatics.


Taking online courses

Coursera, Edx and Udemy have become the new universities for students who undertake both paid and free online courses from international schools. These courses offer certificates that can help in the advancement of their career, and students are motivated and comfortable taking these courses as an alternative to their regular in-class teaching.


Organizing and attending scientific webinars and workshops

Local pharmacy, microbiology, medical and other life sciences associations for undergraduate students are actively organizing webinar and workshop series, teaching its members about topics ranging from research and grant writing to how to prepare for graduate school opportunities. One such example is the webinar hosted by the National Association of Microbiology Students South West Region in collaboration with the American Society for Microbiology, which taught its members about research writing as well as how to access graduate school opportunities. Also, the Pharma Learn 2.0 Capacity development training organized by the Pharmaceutical Association of Nigerian students, OAU Chapter has trained its members on skills for Research Methodology.


Examples of past educational webinars


Challenges faced by life sciences students in light of the strike

The unwavering efforts by students to stay relevant and productive in their field of study is commendable but many are faced with challenges, a few of which include:


Lack of digital resources

Taking an online course may seem cheap, easy and convenient but for these students one major challenge is the availability of a laptop for learning. Most students have a mobile phone but it is not sufficient to cater to the needs of an online course or learning bioinformatics skills and its application in life sciences. Laptops are therefore a necessity but very few can afford it.


High cost of internet connection

The high cost of internet data is a source of discouragement for many undergraduates engaging in these activities. Students access the internet through mobile phones over a 3G or 4G network which is common but slow. Rarely is Wi-Fi found in homes and it is very expensive. Most network providers offer a gigabyte for 1 thousand Naira for one month which is barely enough to download or stream videos for online courses. When students can't access the internet because of the cost, they forfeit taking up online courses or participating in workshops or webinars. Even when some strive to continue with the courses, they eventually fail to meet deadlines.


Poor power supply

Poor power supply is a major setback to online learning in Nigeria. Power supply by the government is very poor. Alternatively, homes may use generators but the cost of fuel is still high in a country known to produce crude oil. Unfortunately, when there is a power outage, students have no choice but to hope until the power supply is restored. This can be days, weeks or even months in some parts of the country.


Uncertainty

Many students await in hopes that the strike would be called off soon and fear to participate in internships or summer programs which may clash if the strike is called off.


Education is the bedrock of any society. If there's anything that is likely to cause a global catastrophe, it's definitely a global pandemic! There's a need to invest in education, especially in microbiology education, if Nigeria wants a chance to tackle future global health threats like COVID-19. Despite the unwavering strike and the challenges faced by students in staying relevant in their field of study during the prolonged strike, the majority of students are not daunted. Availability to more free online courses, reduction in cost for paid scientific courses/webinars for undergraduates in the life sciences in Nigeria and provision of digital equipment that can aid learning would be of immense benefit to students as they seek to continue learning during this period.


Meet Akpan M. Friday

Akpan M. Friday is an undergraduate student at the University of Abuja, Nigeria where he is majoring in Microbiology. Akpan is particularly interested in genomics, bioinformatics and precision medicine. He is an American Society for Microbiology (ASM) future leaders mentoring fellow and a science outreach enthusiast who aims to bring science to children in schools in underprivileged areas through his organization X-WOW Science Kids Club. He currently lives in Abuja. You can connect with him at akpan.m.friday@gmail.com or on Twitter at @damiakpan.

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