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Sunday, May 29, 2011

University crisis: A flicker of hope?

by Nedra Karunaratne, University of Peradeniya

Watching the events of the present trade union action by the FUTA unfold, it is commendable that the members have been able to hold onto their cause for almost three weeks now. The government has tried every tactic from threats, circulars, intimidation, false propaganda and finally coaxing to try to avert the salary increase demanded by the academics. The academics on their part have upheld their stand firmly and stood by their original claim for implementing the 2008 UGC approved salary scale. This situation has arisen from the lack of understanding by the authorities and the good heartedness of the academics. The salary issue has been a festering sore for more than three years, with the government adding some plaster on it whenever the wound opened up. There comes a time when even the most enlightened must say enough is enough.

It is high time that some constructive remedy is brought about along with some reforms if this situation is to be rectified. First of all it is imperative that the academics must be considered as a special category of teachers. The STA of the University of Peradeniya has published an elaborate account in the Island newspaper of the 25th May 2011 for the justification of this claim. However, if that be the case, they should live up to that standard. The title ‘University Professor’ was awe inspiring not so long ago. That may not be the case now since the standards have been lowered in the past years mainly due to the inability to recruit quality personnel to fill the vacancies that have been created specially due to the mass exodus of graduates to western countries and down under.

This dearth has created a vacuum which has resulted in many of the Universities having to hire the most qualified applicant even though the applicant may not be of the highest category. Secondly it must be recognized that the Universities are the institutions which nurture the future workers and administrators of a country. The output of the University depends on the input (the quality of the student) and the teacher (how qualified s/he is). Taking these two facts into consideration, the demands of the University teachers sound very reasonable.

The following points, however, must be considered if the future of the academia and the quality of the programmes taught are to be preserved. First that it is important to come up with a scheme to reward the academics who dedicate their time and energy solely towards their teaching and research commitments and administrative functions. To this end, the research allowance proposed has some credibility. However the percentage offered is only a pittance and is not sufficient to retain or recruit high caliber teachers. Careful thought is needed to draw up a realistic increase in salary structure which can be coupled to a research allowance which is earned by the deserving (there must be an incentive for all to aspire to improve). In addition a fair compensation needs to be allocated for those who give up valuable time for administrative duties, sometimes putting their research activities on hold. This should put an end to lecturers being accused of working only two hours per week. A fact unknown to many is that when a lecturer works two hours he has put in as much hours of preparation and more hours for setting examinations and evaluations. A science teacher at the University of Peradeniya sometimes has to oversee four groups of practical classes per week amounting to 12 to 20 hours per week. This however is not counting the number of hours spent in various committees, boards of study etc, most of which do not pay per sitting.

The second point forgotten or overlooked is the quality of the student. We are told that the cream enters University but the academics do not produce employable students. As long as quotas exist, a section of the cream is shut out of the University. This does not mean the complete eradication of the area basis allocation. Just that after over 30 years of implementation of the quota which began due to lack of facilities in underprivileged areas, no improvement or upgrading of these schools has yet occurred - a strange phenomenon in a country aspiring to be the miracle of Asia. The percentage of students below average admitted to the Universities under this guise is too high.

The Daily Mirror of May 26, 2011, reports that at a Leadership Forum held during the SLASSCOM HR Summit, industry leaders Dr. Hans Wijayasuriya, Hiran Cooray, Dr. Anush Amarasinghe and Ramesh Schaffter were of the view that university graduates possessed the required technical or hard skills but lacked heavily in soft skills that has resulted in a high rate of unemployment. The soft skills particularly English, leadership and teamwork are stated as those important in graduates to procure employment. These are skills students should acquire during their school years and not after they enter Universities. Is this not an endorsement of the fact that the school system needs upgrading and strengthening in order to inculcate soft skills? The Universities as Institutes of higher learning are for acquiring technical and hard skills. As a matter of fact, the proposed leadership training being given to the new entrants should be extended to all school leavers so that not only graduates, but the entire work force of the country will be able to think independently and take up responsibility.

To get back to the topic, the main thrust of the trade union action is not just asking for money. Academics do not stoop to low levels. This is a struggle to safeguard the dignity and credibility of the University teachers on the one hand and to attract quality teachers on the other. The importance of recruiting new and young staff members is being felt very badly with many departments being nearly 50% understaffed. The fundamental role of the government is to ensure that the percentage of GDP allocated to universities for research is comparable with other Asian countries. This is one way of ensuring that our academics will excel in their fields. That is how Sri Lanka could become a knowledge hub.

Our University rankings will not increase if we continue in the present path. A highly ranked University will attract not only highly qualified teachers, but also foreign students thereby boosting the income of the University. If the future of the country is important, if the workforce is to be made of individuals who can think and take responsibility, the foremost priority should be to staff the higher learning institutions with intelligent, able and satisfied professionals. Let’s not forget that a University exists because of the teachers and its reputation is maintained because of the quality of the teachers. At this juncture, when we are about to see a glimmer of hope with the President consenting to meet the FUTA, it should be kept in mind that excuses given by the government should not be taken seriously as they have violated many of their promises. FUTA should stand firm and fight for the cause of the battered academics who for more that three years have swallowed every pill, bitter and sugar coated given to us by the authorities.

(The writer is professor of chemistry at the Peradeniya University)