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Thursday, May 26, 2011

SALARY FRACAS: Try raising standards of these Unis!

By Rathindra Kuruwita

The trade union action by the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) will enter its third week tomorrow. FUTA wants the authorities to increase their salaries by 100% and if these proposals are accepted the basic salary of a Senior Professor (the uppermost in the salary structure)  would be increased to Rs 168,000 while a junior lecture’s salary would  be increased to Rs 50,000.7-2
Although the government, and especially the Minister of Higher Education S. B.   Dissanayake now claims that it is unfair of the lecturers to make such demands, FUTA’s demands tally with Dissanayake’s  promise to increase lecturers salaries (Rs 200,000  for a professor and Rs 50,000 for a junior lecturer) made in Parliament last year.
The government’s refusal to have discussions with the relevant stakeholders can only be interpreted as a conscious decision to weaken the state universities which it has labelled ‘un-liberated areas.’

Sri Lankan Universities not up to standard?
The latest reason adduced by the government for not agreeing to a salary hike is the claim that Sri Lankan universities are nowhere in the global ranking of universities. “How can lecturers demand higher salaries when our universities are not even among the top Asian universities?” stated some top state policymakers recently.
However FUTA President Dr Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri told LAKBIMAnEWS that one of the main requirements to get anywhere in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) system is research. However research is not a part of Sri Lankan universities due to the lack of funds. Currently, the state universities are underfunded and no major investments have been made to revamp these institutions that desperately need to be modernized.
“This is like a chicken and an egg scenario. If they increase salaries and investments the standards will rise automatically. Although an increase of salaries does not automatically mean an increase in standards the prospect of high salaries might push better students to take much more interest in joining universities,” Dewasiri said. “Then again if the administration wants to make Sri Lanka a knowledge hub they should invest more on education and improve the standards of universities. It is ridiculous to except miracles without financial backing.”
“In the last 30-40 years there has been a minimal increase in our salaries and most of us have to spend the 25% of our salary given as an academic allowance to buy food or pay rent. And because of that we have to take up other jobs like being visiting lecturers or give tuition. This means there is limited or no time for research or to read books. This of course has lead to a decline in standards,” he added.
Salaries of Sri Lankan lecturers are abysmally low compared to other South Asian countries, many of which have a lesser per capita than Sri Lanka. India which has a much low per capita has always insisted that it needs to pay world class salaries if it needs world class teaching. In 2008, the Indian Cabinet approved a 100% salary increase for academics and it has insisted that the salary scales of the South Asian University to be established under the auspices of SAARC should be closer to the salaries of Europe or USA as much as possible. However due to strong objections from other nations including Sri Lanka, the salary scales proposed initially were pruned.
Indian Express reporting on the issues stated that a professor’s salary has been slashed to US$30,000-45,000 per year from the proposed US $35,000-60,000; an associate professor is likely to get US$20,000-35,000 instead of US$25,000-45,000. An assistant professor’s salary is down from the proposed US$15,000-35,000  to US$15,000-25,000 per annum. While India was keen on “world-class” salaries in order to attract the best of faculty, including those of South Asian origin currently teaching at Ivy League universities, the Maldives was the only country to back New Delhi on this. Sources present at the meeting said Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan were the most vociferous in their opposition.

Brain drain increases

A few decades ago the salary of  Central Bank officials and university academics was equal. This was because authorities realized that unless competitive salaries were paid Central Bank/universities would lose the best officers to commercial banks/foreign universities.
Although the salaries at the Central Bank increased with the changing times the salaries of university academics remained stagnant. Now the best students no longer see lecturing as a potential career and the majority of qualified lecturers are rapidly leaving the university system. According to the University Grants Commission (UGC) statistics over 500 lecturers who had left for post graduate studies in foreign countries have not returned despite the UGC being able to take legal action against them. Taking that risk shows their disillusionment of the system.
In 2009 Minister Basil Rajapaksa promised to raise the academic allowance to 50% as an interim solution while Minister Dissanayake promised to increase the upper limit of the academics’ salary scales to Rs 200,000 last July.
“The Secretary of the Ministry of Higher Education Dr. Sunil Jayantha Navaratne has said academics have been given a 36.25% salary increase from this year. However if one were to look at the research and development allowance, effective from January 01, 2011, it is 25% of the basic salary and 6.25 will be given as a study allowance. The basic salary will only increase by 5%,” Dewasiri said.
He added that lecturers also have to undertake many administrative duties that are required to keep the system operating. However a Head of Department doing this  full time job gets an additional Rs 1,000 per month.
“Many universities have vacancies because they can’t find fully qualified lecturers. If we can’t attract talented enthusiastic young people who are art at the  top of their class we will not be able to expand our courses to suit the changing needs. This would restrict us to traditional core subjects because Sri Lankan students/lecturers who are good at subjects that are in demand would find employment elsewhere. And if this is the case it’s absurd to ask us why the universities are ranked low.”

Government finds cash to increase henchmen’s salaries

The government which refuses to grant a salary hike to academics increased the salaries heads of government departments. They now receive a salary of Rs 90,000 plus perks for transport, telephone, housing and for attending meetings. In the same vein it has created many new job opportunities -- which makes for minimum or no economic value addition -- for its political henchmen.
Despite its best efforts the government has not been able to attract any affiliate reputed foreign universities. If the government is serious about making Sri Lanka a knowledge hub and wants its universities to be among the top universities of the world it should work on strengthening its universities not by weakening them by appointing henchmen as vice chancellors and steamrolling all alternative opinions.