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Friday, June 17, 2011

University Dons, a burden for the country?

The Island


by Prof. KKDS Ranaweera

Department of Food Science and Technology, University of Sri Jayewardenepura

Those who educate children well are more to be honoured, for these only gave life, those the art of living well – Aristotle Sri Lankans have come to expect a good and well rounded education system; in most instances, it is the only wealth that parents can afford and provide for their children. Universities are the corner stone of the knowledge based economy of the future and as such we need to shape our University System to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Performance indicators such as quality, relevance, efficiency and innovation play a very important part in assessing the progress and are essential comparative and analytical tools in the Higher Education system. Society including relevant politicos and higher authorities in the Higher Education system assumes that the present, quality of University education is not good enough and needs improvement. Hence, every attempt should be taken to enhance the Quality expected and it should also be reflected in the policy making and system management structures within the Institutions. As such, Quality aspects should not be limiting but should be broadened expansively as contributory collectives from all stakeholders including the Government (Higher Education Ministry), UGC, University Management, Faculties, Departments and of course the Students. With regard to relevance of the academic programmes, in a student-centred educational system obviously a key value for any degree programme is its relevance for students as well as society.

It is a collective responsibility of all the stakeholders across the entire Higher Education system to achieve the prime objective, to accomplish quality, relevance, efficiency and innovations in University Education itself and in every aspect the education lights up. Understanding this objective involves not only being responsible but also being liable and taking its ownership. For example, the higher authority of the Higher Education system should realise that their role is not merely to downstream the decisions and new policies to the lower level within the hierarchy. They have to mediate on behalf of their members since they are the representatives. In this instance, they need to represent the interests of their members (the employees in the present case it is none other than University Dons) to the decision makers. Unfortunately, what the top ranks of the Higher Education system presently does is unacceptable; putting the University Dons in a helpless and agitating situation for the sake of pleasing the Government thereby to secure their positions at the expense of Dons’ dignity. In the light of the present crisis in the state University system, the private sector Universities could have a comparative advantage over state run Universities by attracting and retaining better Human Resources through offering attractive packages of benefits. The core values of the academic culture are based on meritocracy, free inquiry, genuine competition and so on. These values and qualities are central to the requirements of achieving a world class Higher Education system that would be comparative and on par with any other in the world. The Government, therefore will have to motivate the University Dons giving due attention to the above values as well.

The academics who had remained behind during the last three decades of war and strife will certainly not move to the private sector universities for the sake of earning more money. Some lecturers may move from state run Universities to the private sector. But the majority of them will not because of loyalty considerations, although University Dons have found it increasingly difficult to manage basic living standards with their current pay income. The present article does not intend to finger point on privileges entertained by the many other officials serving for the state sector Institutions although one may need to compare these illogical differences. The majority of Dons struggle to meet their daily financial requirements and this lies at the root for the current demand for salary increases by the FUTA. It is financial considerations that lie at root of the discord and not any political agenda. It should be of no surprise that these genuine demands have the support of other trade unions and political parties.

Brain drain and Brain gain

Brain drain is not a new experience to Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka aspires to become a brain gain country in near future. It is a realistic ambition and goal and can be certainly achieved by providing conditions conducive to attract those expatriates who have left the country for a better life and who are now seeking a far better life in Sri Lanka. The policies employed to attract these expatriates should also not neglect those especially University Dons who are currently here and have remained behind in the past. Although, the private sector institutions would very much like to attract and recruit eminent Senior Academics, the uptake might be less than expected for several reasons. These reasons include being the association of Senior Academics to prestigious State Universities, being a member of a recognised and pre-eminent academic community and having facilities for carrying out research.

There are however, factors affecting the current status quo including demoralisation of University Dons through various ways like counter-attacking the justifiable demand for long-felt salary increase by agitating into baseless legal actions, issuing unacceptable circulars in ad-hoc manner and contradicting to very promises given in recent pass with regard to University Dons’ salary increase. These feelings are being propagated by those who are supposed to protect the academic community and its interests. The situation is further exasperated by the lack of recognition of rights and of appreciation. Salary increases are also a way of demonstrating appreciation and breaking the recent promises on salary increase further enhances these feelings of dissatisfaction and mistrust. One may question from himself that "Can the demoralisation of University Dons be one of the fabricated steps to promote the "Brain drain" from the state sector universities towards the private sector Institutions. We spend too much of our time worrying about everything but the real issues of higher education including its existence. Therefore, the present FUTA demand on salary increase should be handled with the sense of mutual respect and of course on a benevolent background. The Government should be able to give due attention when it is needed mostly and should be able to resolve the problem without spending much time and most importantly without hurting the Academic community.

According to the estimates, Sri Lanka’s ratio of public expenditure on education to GDP declined from 3% in 1990 to 2.1% in 2004 in Sri Lanka which far below when compared with that of neighbouring countries like Bangladesh (2.4%), Nepal (3.4%), India (4.0%), Maldives (7.5%) and Bhutan (5.2%). It is a clear fact that low funding on Higher Education will result in the cut-down of financial allocations on Infrastructure of Universities, Staff Development programmes, Curricular Development and revisions, University Lecturers’ salaries etc. We know that currently we are not able to remunerate at the same level as developed countries but a quick comparison of the remuneration of academics living in neighbouring countries like India and Bangladesh indicates how far we need to go before we are on par with them and the severity of current predicament.

Research and Development (R & D) Allowance

Current practices in R & D allowance leaves much to be desired. A special attention should be given to re-design the R & D allowance and the mechanism of its disbursement with an aim to encourage those who truly carry out such endeavours. But introduction of any inappropriate mechanism would affect the whole integrity of the community and not just to the perpetrators.

As pointed out by Prof. J.E. Jayasuriya "society in the twenty-first century would be exceedingly complex largely on account of the advances in science and technology that would take place in the years that lie ahead. In highly competitive societies, groups would vie with one another for power and the enjoyment of material goods. Human values and considerations would have no place and the ethos would be one of super industrialism. This pathos is now self-evident across the whole of the University system and beyond. It is a loud wakeup call that shouts the need to preserve the values of the Sri Lankan Academia. This may be the next battle for the FUTA to take over.

The current system disallows University Lecturers from airing their grievances especially when it comes to compensation and remuneration. They are not allowed to ask for a salary increase simply because they are considered a group that does not generate income for the country that is there is no direct evidence that this very group as a whole contributes to the National economy. At first glance there appears to be some truth in such an (mis)understanding but evidence confirms otherwise. Moreover, who produces the Human Resources needed to strengthen the country’s Economy, who produces future scientists or in a nut shell who produces economists, doctors, engineers, professionals of other categories etc? Surely, it is none other than our National Universities whose prime objective is to add values to the People, Nature, Aesthetic world, and many more things we live with. Hence, is it the country’s best interests to discard genuine distress of the very group that is responsibly engaged in preparing the Country future leaders?