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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Resolve the present crisis in the university system

The Island 22/06/2011

We urge the government to positively respond to the demands put forward by the Federation of University Teachers' Associations (FUTA) for the increase of salaries of university teachers and improve the system of higher education of the country. Unless resolved without any further delay, the present crisis has the potential to further escalate and bringing the entire university system to a standstill. We appeal to the government to accept on good faith the FUTA's commitment to a negotiated settlement of this salaries dispute and work towards what the President himself has called a 'win-win solution.'

The salaries demands of the university teachers are not a new development. The FUTA has been drawing the attention of the government to the salaries issue for more than four years. In all previous discussions, the Ministry of Higher Education, the University Grants Commission and the Treasury accepted the fact that salaries of university teachers needed to be increased substantially. In fact, the UGC even developed its own proposals for a substantial salary revision for all grades of university teachers. What we are asking for is the implementation of the proposals which the government earlier accepted as reasonable and acceptable.

We wish to emphasise that the salaries issue is one of the several areas where urgent improvement is necessary in Sri Lanka's university system. We welcome the government's policy goal of transforming Sri Lankan universities into world class universities that will be centers of excellence in teaching, research and innovation. Yet, this goal, however great it might appear, will remain an illusion if the university teachers, who constitute the fundamental human resource base in the entire system, continue to remain low paid, economically poor with comparatively low living standards. If the government does not change the present trend of maintaining public universities with no significant budgetary allocations not only for salaries, but also for research, infrastructure development and quality improvement, the entire higher education system in our country will deteriorate beyond repair.

During the past several decades, Sri Lanka's public universities have received only little attention of governments in terms of improvement of quality and standards. However, even with limited resources available, the universities have initiated curriculum development, staff training, post-graduate courses, research promotion, student welfare, employment orientation and university-community interaction. Therefore, it is wrong for some senior government officials and politicians to denigrate the existing system of university education by spreading falsehoods about methods of university teaching and student evaluation. A new and far-sighted commitment by the government to financially support the continuation of quality improvement programmes in our universities is urgently required. We urge the government to view our salaries demand from a long-term perspective of capacity-building, institutional strengthening and productive investment for the future.

The FUTA demand for a salary revision for the university teachers and the trade union action has once again highlighted the urgent need for government intervention to identify and address crucial, but so far unrecognised problems. The government and the higher education authorities have a duty and obligation to identify these problems and work with the university community in a spirit of cooperation and dialogue to resolve them. In this context, we are concerned that higher officials of the Ministry of Higher Education and the UGC view the university academic and student communities as not deserving constructive engagement. We urge them as well as Vice-Chancellors and Directors of university institutions to extend their support for our struggle and play a constructive role in resolving this issue for the greater benefit of the entire university system.

The Arts Faculty Teachers' Association, University of Colombo