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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Power of Voluntary Action: Note on TU action by university teachers

By Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Senior Lecturer
Department of Sinhala
University of Peradeniya

The overwhelming majority of academics have resigned from their voluntary positions in universities. At the University of Peradeniya, this trade union action has become increasingly effective and made the university nearly unable to function. We teachers, however, still come to the university everyday and continue to wait for a positive response from the government.

A positive response? Yes. Any other kind, we will not accept.

We meet everyday to discuss, share thoughts and reflect on future plans, but with no administrative system functioning at the departmental level, such as the head of the department, it is often impossible to continue teaching. Even a simple teaching aid such as a white board marker cannot be obtained without the administrative system of the university that is mostly made up of voluntary positions.

The trade union action by Federation of the University Teacher’s Association (FUTA) has already gathered momentum and continues to bring us academics together in an awesome sense of solidarity. Those who openly supported the government at several elections and the open or ‘not-so-open’ advisors of the government within the academic community are also supportive of action today. Some of them had been pro-government intellectuals years before the current Minister of Higher Education joined the government. Rumour has it that some of those intellectuals played a key role in preparing the ground for the minister to jump from the UNP to the SLFP and secure a ministerial post. He calls our trade action "a JVP or UNP conspiracy" and that claim is nothing but heap of rubbish. Our trade union leaders have lifted this struggle to a plane much higher than mundane and dirty party politics and that is why we are all behind them as one.

The minister of higher education, whose position and ‘fame’ often seem more centred on his tongue than his intelligence, keeps badmouthing us as if we were a bunch of Samurdi Niyamakas. The Samurdi Niyamakas are our brothers and sisters and we only have solidarity with them and a minister yelling at them is also wrong. In talking to us, however, but we expect at least a little more decorum of the minister. He is the minister of higher education, after all, and we are teachers of the highest institutions of learning in this country.

Voluntary and volitional

Resigning from voluntary positions alone could bring the universities to a virtual standstill. It is probably the case that little is known and understood about these voluntary positions outside universities. These voluntary positions include the Dean of a Faculty, director/rector of an institution, head of a department, coordinator of a programme, editor of a journal, chairperson and members of a committee, Senior Student Counsellor, members of a study board, proctor, deputy proctor, and so on. These positions are so great in number and so essential to the working of a university that one begins to wonder why anyone should do these for free. Casual observers of universities may believe that teaching and research are the only duties of a university teacher when, in fact, it is the case that much of his or her time is spent on these voluntary positions for which the financial remuneration is next to nothing or literally nothing. It is especially ridiculous when this service is not acknowledged even inside university communities; a certain vice chancellor claims that a professor only works for two hours a week. We all know that there are many ‘invisible’ work hours for a true university academic. The name for those mostly unseen and unsung work is "voluntary" and it is this work which this essay aims at bringing to the discerning readers’ attention. It is even a euphemism or a misnomer to call it "voluntary" since once you ‘voluntarily’ accept those positions you are held responsible for everything about them.

No Voluntary Positions = No University

The typical weekly schedule of a committed academic is crowded with many voluntary engagements. For these positions university teachers often get ‘points’ that can be claimed when applying for promotions. Yet there is a limit on the number of points to be claimed for any one of those positions and often it is three (3) with one point given per year. But, it is hardly the case that we work in these positions to score such ‘points.’ There are many of us who work more than three years in those positions because we want these institutions to survive as havens for higher learning. Some teachers work for years on end in positions such as Senior Student Counsellors simply because they want to help their students.

In spite of their numerous imperfections – often caused by short sighted politics – our universities remain the most important place for the brightest people in the country to sharpen their minds and prepare themselves for greater things, things that will benefit themselves, their families, their communities and their country in the final analysis. We decided to suspend all our voluntary services for the time being to show the authorities that what we do out of goodwill is as crucial for the smooth functioning of universities as what we supposedly do for our salary. As already noted, without the services of the head of the department—a position a lecturer from the same department takes up for a period three years—practically no teaching can be done at a department. The department head is the immediate authority to assign, coordinate and supervise all the teaching activities of a department. In other words, the department head is the hub on which the wheel turns. It is the same in all university units. Let’s take relative small unit - a committee. A committee is small group to which decision-making on important academic and administrative matters are delegated. Administration of the university being essentially democratic - far more democratic than perhaps even the government- the committees are little cells in which the ‘life’ of the university really ‘resides’. Committees regularly meet, reflect on issues, and make decisions: these involve the reading and the writing of numerous documents. Many university teachers spend much of their reading and writing time on these documents. The contrast with the recognition of the necessity and value of such work in the government sector is striking. Newspapers reported on the 12th of May that government had increased the salaries of elected or appointed members for the director boards of state institutions, and those individuals will get ten thousand (10,000) rupees for each sitting of board meetings on top of all other perks while university lecturers are appointed to various ‘boards’ within the university and they are paid nothing.

If the government were to establish another service (let me give it a name: "Academic Administrative Service for Higher Education") to do these jobs, Dr. P.B. Jayasundara, who is known to ‘protect’ our nation’s money as if it were his own, would have to find billions of rupees more to run universities. Even if he managed to find that kind of money in the government’s resources, he would never find the personnel as qualified as university teachers are! By resigning from those voluntary positions, we have demonstrated that we can make universities practically non-operational without actually resorting to a full-scale strike. A triumph without even touching the trump card!

Salaries of Academics

In this essay, I have been discussing committed academics and it is worth emphasising that it is committed academics who are the most typical of a university faculty. Even so, the government has accused us of making money elsewhere even during our regular work hours. If there are such people it is government’s responsibility to identify and deal with them. Our struggle is to help university teachers to hold on to true ideals of university teaching by giving them a decent salary. University teaching needs to be hinged on research, and apart from student contact hours, many other hours must be spent in the field or library. If a university teacher cannot afford to spend time in the library or lab it is felt as a sense of loss and alienation. Although no amount of money could create that thirst and passion for knowledge in a person, we have seen that could easily be destroyed. Without a sense of financial security one cannot focus on research!

government aspiring to encourage a genuine research culture within our universities must pay us adequately. It is the duty of the authorities to correct or get rid of those who do not fit into the nation’s plan for making Sri Lanka the knowledge hub of Asia. As The Island editorial pointed out on the 10th of May, it is government’s responsibility to make us work harder by paying us more.

Our struggle, however, is not only for us. It is also for our posterity, for the future of our students, our communities, and our country. We want to play an active role in making our country the Knowledge Hub of Asia but we also know that with the present conditions of our universities today, the goddess of knowledge can only ‘hobble.’ Many writers have already pointed out the real fact that our universities often are unable to recruit the best people in respective fields with the existing salaries in the universities. Natural sciences are having special difficulties in this respect. It is remarkable that still our universities have mid career academics with PhDs from reputed universities in the world. It is only their dedication that has brought them back home. A failure to address this ‘problem of salary’ this time will result in an exodus of brilliant people, taking the ‘knowledge’ with them and leaving the ‘hub’ behind! Our struggle, therefore is to breath life into the plan of ‘knowledge hub.’ Still, the Minister of Higher education calls us ‘conspirators’! If we were conspirators, the idea of ‘knowledge hub’ itself would also be a conspiracy. We thought it was a part of Mihinda Chintanya! We have never seen a minister so openly denigrate his own president’s policy plans!

We love our students and it is in front of them in classes that we really come to life. This time, however, we want to return to our classrooms with our heads held high. We are determined to do exactly that!

Link: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=25587