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Monday, June 20, 2011

Resolve university dons’ pay dispute

The Island 20/06/2011

By Mahesan Niranjan

I write as someone who benefitted enormously from free education I received in Sri Lanka, at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. In 1983, shortly after graduating, I left Sri Lanka, vowing never to return. Low salaries for academic jobs, a monstrous bureaucratic environment and callous attitude of headstrong senior academics drove me to turn down the offer of a teaching post from one of the most beautiful universities in the world, Peradeniya. The knowledge that the thugs who attacked my uncle’s flat at Maradana, forcing me to escape by jumping off a second floor balcony, came with sponsorship from the then government denied me the pleasure of residing in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, Sri Lanka.

Since the end of the war, two years ago, I have visited Sri Lanka eight times, making links with the Universities of Peradeniya, Colombo and Jaffna. During these visits I have taught an undergraduate module, acted as external moderator of exams, given several research seminars, assisted in setting up small research groups, launched a PhD project and written research papers. These visits have been most enjoyable and intellectually stimulating, for I get to interact with exceptionally bright young students and a set of energetic and dedicated staff who teach them. However, my most recent visit last week was disappointing, because much of the university system in the country appears to have come to a grinding halt over a pay dispute.

Amongst the young people I am fortunate enough to work with in Sri Lanka now, is a young lady who is a final year student in computer science. She has taught me much about the molecular structures of chemicals derived from plants indigenous to Sri Lanka, and how one might use mathematical models to search amongst them for therapeutic drugs for complex diseases. Her work is so good that in April this year, I invited her to my laboratory in Southampton to pursue collaborative work. At a conference there, intended for PhD students in my department, she also gave a presentation on her work, and that presentation was judged to be of the same calibre as PhD students with two years of post-graduate research experience. This young lady told me yesterday that she had job offers from software companies in Colombo, with a starting salary exceeding Rs. 50,000 p.m., with the possibility of doubling it in a period of three years. Should she choose to stay in the university as an assistant lecturer, she will be paid Rs. 24,000 p.m. which will, at best grow to Rs. 50,000 at current rates after about five years and acquiring her PhD degree.The lecturers, who deserve much credit for creating this talented young person, currently earn an average salary significantly below Rs 50,000 p.m.

The aforementioned example may considered to be at one extreme of the spectrum, as I am writing about one of the best scholars in the country, working in an area in which the industry is prepared to pay to attract talent. Yet, it is helpful as a point of calibration to judge how far salaries of university staff have fallen behind, in this fast moving world.

At a time when the war in the country is over and everyone appears to have an appetite for accelerated development and attempt is being made to make Sri Lanka the ‘knowledge hub’ in the region, decision makers ought to acknowledge that keeping our smartest young people within the education system is absolutely vital and settle this pay dispute urgently and fairly.

(The writer is Professor of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, UK.)