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Sunday, May 8, 2011

University Salaries and Teaching Staff Shortage: Why not copy the Indian aolution?

The Island, 08/05/2011, Gamani Premadasa

"One of the critical factors affecting the quality of universities and institutions imparting higher education is our inability to attract and retain young and talented persons to the teaching profession." This was a statement made by the junior minister in charge of higher education in India, in December 2008, as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Every bit of that statement would apply to universities in Sri Lanka today. An acute shortage of teaching faculties, which amounts to 50% in some universities, has been mentioned as a major obstacle to India’s plans to improve its higher education system.

As one of the solutions to the faculty shortage, the Indian cabinet had approved monthly salary increases of professors from 16,400 Indian rupees to 37,400 Indian rupees in 2008.

Ironically, the salary scales of the South Asian University that is to be established under the auspices of SAARC members have been slashed. A professor’s salary goes down from the previously proposed US $35,000-60,000 to US $30,000-45,000 per year, an associate professor’s from US $25,000-45,000 to US $20,000-35,000, and an assistant professor’s from the previously suggested US $15,000-35,000 per year to US $15,000-25,000 per annum. While India’s position in this matter, backed by Maldives, was that "world class" salaries should be paid to attract the best faculty, those expressing vociferous opposition to such a move included Sri Lanka (www.indianexpress.com/news/faculty-salaries-for-south-asian-university/608181/).

University teachers in Sri Lanka have been agitating for years for a substantial salary increase in lieu of discharging their primary responsibilities of teaching, student assessment, research and in some fields, patient care. They have been threatening to go on strike for quite some time, and, in utter desperation, 90% are reported to have resigned from the various administrative support positions in which they offered additional services.

We hear almost daily pronouncements by those in the higher echelons of power in higher education that six universities in Sri Lanka are to be upgraded to international standards. The move is highly laudable and the writer with all sincerity, hopes that those who will be entrusted with this onerous task will achieve the goal. (With so many universities in every corner of India, and some having branches in many other countries, not a single Indian university is listed among the top 300 universities of the world. How some in Sri Lanka fare in one of the many World Rankings is as follows: University of Moratuwa 2324; University of Ruhuna 2552; University of Peradeniya 2615; University of Colombo 2690; University of Kelaniya 6104; Eastern University 7391; University of Sri Jayawardenepura 6068; University of Jaffna 9096. (Reference: www.webometrics.info/rank_by_country.asp?country=lk)

The officials of the Ministry of Higher Education state that a 36.25% salary increase is being given to university academics in Sri Lanka. However the same sources break down the increase to a 25% of the base salary that will come as a research and development allowance, a 6.25% which will be given as a study allowance, and an increase of the basic salary, which all other public servants too will get, of only 5%. Unless the increase is in the basic salary, the net benefit of the ‘windfall’ to the academics can be only marginal.

It is somewhat meaningless to talk in terms of percentages when dealing with issues pertaining basic middle class needs and comforts. The university academic, just as every other citizen, has to deal in hundred rupee or thousands rupee bills at the supermarket or the wayside boutique. More importantly, although the percentage increase may appear substantial to the uninitiated, if an Assistant Lecturer gets a monthly salary of Rs. 20,000 (The websites of University of Peradeniya or of the University Grant Commission, rather surprisingly, do not allow the reader to unearth the salary scales easily even when many academic cadre vacancies are advertised), an increase of 35% will only give a total of Rs. 26666. A young man or woman who toiled day in day out with books, obtained the best results in his or her school, was ranked among the highest academic achievers in the country and then spent at least four years with sleep-deprived nights in undergraduate studies to get a First Class Honours or Second Class (Upper) Honours pass at the degree examination deserves a great deal more than this pitiful handout at the age of around 25 years. Dr. Jayaratne Pinikahana, writing in Island Online on February 15, quite rightly pointed out "a University Professor in Sri Lanka after years of hard work with masters and a PhD plus fifteen years of teaching, and research experience receives a moderate salary of Rs 50,000 a month while a marketing assistant or an insurance broker with less than GCE advanced level qualification receive double this sum!"

Sri Lanka is duty bound to treat its present-day academics as a valuable asset. Raising Sri Lankan universities to international standards will remain mere wishful thinking unless academics are compensated in a manner that parallels the salaries and benefits offered by other countries. For a start, let the reference point be the universities in other South Asian countries.

Gamini Premadasa