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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Editorial: Varsity issue needs saner counsel - The Nation

There was a time when university unrest meant a tussle between placard waving, slogan shouting undergraduates and baton wielding policemen with tear gas canisters ready at hand. Those days it seems belong to a bygone era and it is the dons who are dissenting now and loudly at that.

Matters came to a head this week when university academics resigned from all voluntary administrative posts and the government refused to budge, saying the resignations are invalid because they required three months prior notice.

At the centre of the dispute is a pay hike which ironically was proposed by Higher Education Minister S. B. Dissanayake himself, lamenting indignantly in Parliament that our professors were paupers, in comparison to their counterparts in the region.

Various figures were bandied about and there was an expectation that the academics would get a pay hike of about two hundred per cent. Now however, the minister has been accused of going back on his word and the university teachers are adamant in their demands.

It appears that in the ensuing name calling, back-tracking and general sense of dissatisfaction some issues at stake are losing their focus. And for this, we feel that Minister Dissanayake and his senior officials as well as the university teachers’ trade unions are responsible.

The government’s position is that a 200 per cent pay hike for university lecturers will lead to a cascade of demands from the rest of the public sector that it will not be able to cope with. It also says that ‘substantial’ increases in pay have been granted since a wage hike was first promised.

The dons on the other hand are threatening to walk out insisting that, as the crème de la crème of the country’s intelligentsia, they are entitled to salaries on par with their colleagues in the region and that nothing less will suffice.

If one were to be objective about the issue, both contentions are correct. And therefore, it would serve little purpose to stick to these positions and engage in vituperative banter. All it does is to leave a bad taste and spoil the relationship between the authorities and academia.

The government must surely recognise that university academics are a distinct category of intellectuals tasked with the job of moulding future generations of professionals in the country and as such, must receive a reasonable remuneration.

To expect them to survive on fifty thousand rupees a month or less - a wage earned by a semi-skilled employee in the private sector - is nothing short of ridiculous and it is no wonder that most of them catch the first flight overseas when the opportunity arises.

The government does recognise some categories of officials as being special - members of the judiciary, the armed forces, officials of the Central Bank, for instance -and their salaries are buffeted by various allowances and other perks, ensuring that they get a decent take home pay.

Perhaps an option would be to recognise university academics as such and grant them their dues while at the same time ensuring that the floodgates are not opened in the rest of the public sector. For this, the Minister requires the courage of his convictions, but he is apparently not convinced!

It is a crying shame that countries such as Bangladesh which has a poorer socio-economic standard than Sri Lanka is able to entice our academics with offers of higher wages. Surely, that is an indication that something is not right, somewhere.

Minister Dissanayake, it must be remembered, is also hell bent on eliminating student unrest in campuses and establishing private universities. Both are laudable objectives. But the latter will simply not succeed if the academics’ salary issue is not resolved amicably.

It doesn’t take a senior professor to deduce that if private universities are set up while lecturers in state run campuses are paid only a pittance, there will be a mass exodus of teachers as it happened when international schools were set up and that would be an unmitigated disaster.

The dons too have their obligations. It is well known that some of them work only a few hours a week and are often seen more at mass scale tuition classes than at their work places. If they are demanding higher wages, their work ethic has to improve and drastically at that.

It is no exaggeration to say that there is a culture of complacency among some academics knowing that no matter what they do or do not do, their salary would be waiting for them at the end of the month. Better monitoring mechanisms may need to be built in to the system.

It is in everyone’s interests that this dispute is settled soon and is also settled on the best possible terms for it is the welfare of future generations that is at stake here. Until that happens, it would be prudent to turn the volume down on the rhetoric and let saner counsel prevail.