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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Wages of scholarship

The Island

By Usvatte-aratchi
(The writer is not affiliated with any university in Sri Lanka)

By and large those outside universities have left university teachers alone to fight for their claim for higher wages. The teachers claim that they cannot live on current wages, that there are a lot of unfilled vacancies in universities because suitable candidates don’t apply on account of low wages, that those who have no serious commitment to the local universities leave for universities elsewhere and that as a consequence of all this, teaching in our universities falls in quality and negate hopes of establishing good universities here, leave aside international quality centres of learning. Government claims that teachers already have been offered wage increases, that government cannot afford to pay higher wages to university teachers without producing an avalanche of claims for higher wages in the entire public sector and that teachers can earn high wages when private sector universities spring up here in two years and compete away teachers from public sector universities to teach there. While there is some merit in the claims made by government, my understanding is that university teachers make a much stronger case for a large wage increase. The public cannot leave this question alone without conceding that it does not matter what happens to university teachers’ wages, it does not matter who teaches in our universities ( Drill sergeants from the army can always substitute for them and do a better job!) and all this talk about world class universities here is just another set of ill thought out sweet words on the part of some politicians and pliant bureaucrats.

There are many points of view from which the claims of university teachers for higher wages can be looked at. First, look at the standards of living of university teachers. Those who live on their wages alone for income live a life, at best, of genteel poverty. Look at the clothes they and their family wear, the meals they eat, their means of transport, their housing and furniture and the incapacity of them to buy books and journals that they need to work with. Some might argue that they don’t need to buy books and journals, they can use the material in libraries and on the web (Kindle and like equipment has made this more practicable.) Fine, if the library acquires the books and subscribe to journals that teachers want to read. Fine, if the speed of loading websites is reasonably fast. Actually these conditions do not prevail at this time in our country. A serious scholar needs to buy her books, subscribe to journals and all these cost money and they cannot afford them on current wages. Several young scholars in my and related disciplines have sought my help to find recent publications that they want to use because their university cannot provide them, which is quite extraordinary. On these accounts university teachers need to be paid higher.

Secondly, relative wages are important because they are signals to workers to decide where they work and to shift from one line of work to another. (It also reminds me of the ‘moral and historical element in wages’ which Marx wrote about.) Look at the large numbers of mathematicians and physicists who have picked up work in financial services as ‘quants’ during the last 30 years or so. It is simply because pay and perks in financial services are so much higher than in alternative employment. Look at the way well known professors are competed for among universities in US (Sachs and Stiglitz in Columbia, Amartya Sen in Harvard, among others). In my days many bright scholars like Hemapala Wijewardena, Y.Karunadasa, Ashley Halpe, Leslie Guanwardena and Gerry Peiris actively chose to stay in Peradeniya to teach and research. Several others chose to teach in universities overseas. It is well known that low relative wages to university teachers have cost our universities a large number of bright academics. Those who took to an academic life did not lose much financially compared to someone like me who reluctantly became a bureaucrat. Today anyone who chooses academic life in preference to bureaucratic life chooses hugely. The consequent loss to society is because potentially good academics work for higher pay in less demanding bureaucratic drudge. A bulldozer can be used to scrape the earth to clear brush from it and it can also be used to clear jungles of huge trees. It is simply foolish to use bulldozers to clear shrub when land development awaits the felling and uprooting of huge trees. A second reason why we need to pay higher wages to university teachers.

Thirdly, why do university (indeed, school teachers) teachers give tuition outside universities to earn extra wages? Because, many young lecturers simply cannot make ends meet with the meager earnings they pick up at universities. Take a young man with no personal wealth and has a wife, a small child and his parents to look after. He needs to pay for living space, food, clothing, medical care, transport, books and journals and an occasional outing in a three wheeler at least to Galle Face Green of an evening and much more. Count the cost of these if you live in and around Colombo and you will see that to say that they live in ‘genteel poverty’ does gross injustice to the material poverty of their lives. One bright young man, whose acquaintance I have had the privilege to make, worked weekends to give tuition. On Friday afternoon after work at the university he would travel for five hours by bus to Moneragala, sleep the night in some shack, teach seven and half hours on Saturday, pocket Rs. 7,500 and return home on Sunday travelling another five hours by bus. I know well that he economizes on everything. He does not smoke, he does not drink, he does not run after girls’ skirts and wears thread bare clothes. Nor does his wife indulge herself in pleasures which most young women of her age interest themselves in. They barely manage to survive. I suspect this is true of many junior teachers in universities. It is true that many other people live with lower earnings. But they are not university teachers. University teachers cannot come to work in Colombo from Hakmana or Hettipola. They cannot live in a hovel in a slum in Colombo. They cannot let the wife go to work leaving the baby at home in the care of ageing parents. A wife’s wages, if she can find fitting work, are barely above the costs of daycare. How can you find fault with a young lecturer for giving tuition during weekends? If you want to prevent university teachers giving tuition, pay them higher.

I spoke about junior teachers. I also meet one or two retired professors about once a month. They travel by bus having become too poor to maintain the cheapest motor car. I also have a friend who lives in a better neighbourhood in Colombo. His neighbour is a retired very senior officer of the army. (No, my friend does not live in Welikada.) The army provides at cost to it four men to work in the household of the man and one of them is his chauffeur. The retired army officer enjoys many other privileges. I know that retired university professors are not offered the chance even to borrow books from their own library after having worked there for some 35 years! Why are university teachers treated with such austerity and meanness when Members of Parliament with barely a second level education earn a handsome pension after short five years of power and high wages and ample opportunities to amass wealth by illegal means? A society which treats its soldiers so sacred and its university professors so profane is likely to meet a darkly ugly end.

Fourthly, the idea of the Minister of Higher Education that in two years when private sector universities will have come up, university teachers will earn much higher wages is wholly unrealistic and entirely harmful to the cause of university education. Private sector universities must charge fees low enough to attract students and pay low enough wages to teachers to make a profit. Under these two pressures how can they pay wages to teachers much higher than in public sector universities? If you go by the experience in the Philippines, Thailand and many other countries wages in private sector universities will be lower than in public sector universities. Many think that they can establish Harvard, Princeton and Stanford here and pay comparably higher wages to university teachers. This is the stuff of which fairy tales are woven and it is helpful to snap back to reality. It is entirely harmful to university education if the good Minister expects teachers in public sector universities to double up as teachers in private sector universities and so raise their earnings. What is that except tuition by another name? I have seen these arrangements work in many places and am convinced that except in exceptional short periods when this is a stratagem one cannot do without, it is a mechanism to cheat students of a good education. The adjunct professor arrangement in US universities is a cheap way to cheat students. To use public sector university teachers as part time teachers in private sector universities will rob both sets of students of good teaching. I would oppose it at every turn. One way to oppose it is to pay teachers in public universities higher wages.

There is a widespread comment that our public sector universities have not grown up to levels of excellence in rich countries. However, we must not forget the many good things that they have done so well for us. Teachers for our vastly expanded secondary education programmes have come mainly from our universities. The doctors who have helped us to reduce morbidity and maintain high level health care have come from our universities. Engineers who have built and maintained our irrigation systems and power development have been trained in our universities. Some of the better judges in our courts have been from the Faculties of Law in our universities. We must build on those successes to reach the next level of excellence. We are not going to do that by denying university teachers reasonable wages and by bad mouthing them.

Of course money to pay university teachers higher wages competes with other uses. It is a matter of priorities whether we spend money on high wages to university teachers or on a sports complex at Hambantota for the Commonwealth Games 2018. Where would returns to that $300 billion over six years be higher? My hunch is that higher wages to university teachers would pay handsomely better. For all these reasons let us request government to reconsider its position and negotiate with university teachers to arrive at a solution satisfactory to both parties. It is our responsibility to support university teachers in their claim for higher wages.