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Friday, June 3, 2011

Tail wagging the dog: Response to ‘the concerned academic’

A member of the Science Teachers Association (Faculty of Science, University of Peradeniya) Science Teachers Association of the University of Peradeniya published in The Island of May 12, 2011 an article entitled, "Trade Union Action of University Academics" for which a response appeared in The Island of May 19, entitled "Pay increases for Academics") written by "a concerned academic". Following note is a riposte to some of the issues that "concerned academic" raises.

The aim of Science Teachers Association’s article was not to undertake a scientific analysis of the salary issue, but to state several obvious facts that were however not explained adequately; this was done without promulgating deep political issues. Hence the notion of the "concerned academic", that some of us are not capable of "scientific analysis" can safely be disregarded. It would indeed be a tragedy if the Science Teachers themselves were incapable of undertaking a scientific analysis, especially given the fact that the "concerned academic", who is putatively so well adept at scientific analyses has not been able to pass on his skills to the next generation of teachers. Hence, having safely established that the fact that a scientific analysis was never at stake, let us consider the presumptive rhetoric that the "concerned academic" brings up, and question the motivation behind his move.

  One fact stands clear. That is the denigration of the very faculty that the "concerned academic" himself worked at some point in time and apparently prospered. This denigration is unjustified, coming from someone who fully well knows the broad variation of talents that exist among academics of even this faculty. Some of them are brilliant researchers, others are brilliant teachers, yet others are good motivators etc. and all these attributes are essential for the smooth functioning of a multi-functional faculty/university such as ours. Often you don’t often find all these qualities in equal quantities in a single person. "Concerned academic" has highlighted a brilliant teacher who has inspired and motivated many generations of not only university students, but also younger prospective university students, as a multi-millionaire tuition master. Even despite the hardships of a hand-to-mouth existence, brought about by extremely low salaries, only a very few of our academics do tuition, in statistical terms, it would be an extreme tail in a normal distribution. If the "concerned academic" was enlightened enough of this fact, he would have highlighted the academics who fit within the middle of the distribution also. If he was ethical, he would also have mentioned the academics that fall in the other extreme tail of the normal distribution, that is perhaps the academics who carry out brilliant research (or ones who are brilliant motivators etc.) but yet remain relatively poor.

It is well known that even the one at the helm of the university administration at present had been a tuition master in his younger days in life. He too, may have felt the need of extra income as the university salaries even at that time were not adequate beyond hand-to-mouth existence.  Instead of being blatantly arrogant and  punitive to his own onetime colleagues, he should have the capacity and vision to understand the  realities, particularly the younger generation of lecturers, who have returned to serve the motherland against all odds, are facing during their critical period of settling down.

  As academics we are not, as the "concerned academic" put it, "worried" about others getting a healthy salary. A university teacher could never match what a normal Sri Lankan politician actually gets (gross pay) through commissions, contracts etc.; however the irony is that it is normal for a contemporary politician to do most of this, the finer politicians would form one of the tails! What we requested patiently over the years was to revise our salaries as agreed by the government in 2008, instead of cheating us.

I am so glad that the "concerned academic" did not use his real name for this article, as we would start questioning for instance, perhaps the subject knowledge that he may have taught us. Seriously, India’s per-capita gross domestic product (at nominal values) is lower than Sri Lanka: for India it stands at about (USD 1265) and for Sri Lanka it is (USD 2068). Though India is a big country and its gross domestic production is enormous, it also has a large number of people, much larger than when compared to Sri

Lanka. So "concerned academic’s" theory does not hold water. Furthermore, for the calculation of the per-capita GDP (for a country), the cost-of-living in that particular country is not considered, cost of living for Sri Lanka is greater than that of India. When this is considered, Sri Lankans are at a greater disadvantage.

  The reference to sabbatical leave is preposterous. Our note was not about what we have, but what we ought to have, in such an instance, why would anyone want to highlight a perk that we already have. Again the concerned academic fails to realize that he is talking about one of the tails of a normal distribution. Only one single teacher may have used his sabbatical leave to stay at home and maybe do his garden (but one must admit that gardening for 365 days is pretty boring, and perhaps he was doing some experiments as to how plants grow under certain conditions?), but the "concerned academic" cunningly lumps everybody as being in the tail.

What about the people who do brilliant research, networking with the best labs in the world, while on sabbatical? "Concerned academic’s", servitude is immeasurable.

 Submitting a research proposal to get an allowance is not that useful. The high flown guidelines, consistency, ethics that need to be followed up when writing a research proposal are ignored in this ignoble proposal that we have been asked to submit. In several faculties, this much publicized research proposal has already been handed in, this had been done in haste, and several academics have succumbed to the pressure applied by the government and its stooges who purport to be our administrators. In some institutions, hapless academics have been forced to submit a proposal on a given day, by 4.00 pm! In a whimsical sort of comparison, we give even our first year students more time than that to write a lab-report! So the upshot of this circus will be a deluge of half-baked proposals that may even be used in the future by the administration itself to show to the public why we do not deserve a pay-hike! This exercise of "instant proposals" highlights the ad hoc measures taken by a government, which cannot be serious about the standards of education in a University.

  If an allowance should be paid, it should be for the output of the proposal and not the proposal itself, mainly because the output is measurable, but the proposal itself is not. Nowhere in the world are allowances being paid for half-baked proposals! I will take this up issue up in a subsequent article.

  It is amazing that most of our graduates can take up highly competitive exams such as GREs, score high and enter top US universities with the 1960s lecture material (as the "concerned academic" mentions) that we teach. Has science not advanced? Or is GRE subject tests testing 1960s knowledge? We

ARE teaching our students modern science and the number of students that find positions abroad for post-graduate studies is proof of this. 

The political leadership has set a goal for us to be the knowledge hub of Asia. How can we be a knowledge hub if we compare ourselves with India, Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh (we lag even behind these (!), and as our compatriot Dr. Liyanage Amarakeerti correctly said, we will

just be the hub without the knowledge in the near future!). This is one of the reasons for comparisons with countries whose education standards are supposed to be very high. "Concerned academic" should have realized this given his prowess of analysis. In his statement with comparison of research standards and the quality of researchers to Nobel prize winners, did he compare the funding those governments put into research? Our government did not invest a single rupee in research funding for the last three years. We are happy that it has now released a small sum this year and hope would continue to do so in the following years, without which we cannot conduct any research leave alone produce any type of prize winners.

  The "concerned academic" purports the changes that need to be made. While this is unethical to the core, everyone involved with the university system also realize that changes need to be made. We need to retain the best people that pass out of our system, to upgrade and rejuvenate the system, and to ensure the continued high quality input of those recruited. For this, among other things, we also need a better salary. Who would want to serve the university system if they are only paid 1/3 of the salary his lesser-qualified batch mates get?

  Finally the "concerned academic" lashes out at the young academics who chose on their own volition to come back to Sri Lanka, to help rebuild the country from the chaos that it was in (during the war). Here the "concern" of the "academic" hits a new low. While our graduates who stayed back in western countries, some of them even by cheating our tax-payers money by not paying the bonds to the government/university, are left unscathed, the few genuine folks who came back to Sri Lanka are pummeled.

The names and other information of the young scientists who recently returned to serve Sri Lanka can be found on University websites. Browse the web to see what kind of research the young returnees are doing, despite lacking any kind of support for research from the government. In the blinded groveling haste, the "concerned academic" fails to realize that he is actually being a nuisance to the very establishment that he is sucking up to.

  But one must pity the "concerned academic" as we realize that even the he would not have been so sycophantic towards politicians if he got a better salary as a university teacher, and by proxy a better endowed provident fund and perhaps also a pension. If he got a better salary he would have acted

more professionally, preserving his dignity, ethics, and values in his retirement. Thus the article by the concerned academics motivates us even more to find a just solution for our salary anomaly, especially as we would not want to end up like our subservient "concerned academic", groveling for scraps from the government, wagging the tail (or should I say highlighting only the tail?), after possibly leading a distinguished career in the university service.