The trade union action called by the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA), has once again highlighted the crisis in our universities. Unfortunately it is the strikes, the clashes and the protests that bring the universities to the news headline, and not their silent contributions to educating the youth and equipping them with skills and competencies.
The State universities in Sri Lanka need to be modernized and energized. Presumable to begin this the Government has proposed that new entrants be sent for three weeks training at a military academy. It also says that the long standing salary demand of academics is non-negotiable. Neither of these auger well for successful reforms which need to be derived by consultation with the relevant stakeholders. Lack of discussion and transparency can only be interpreted as the government having a narrow political agenda such as deliberate neglect of the State University system and the militarization of the country. This in the background of increasing advent of military intervention in many spheres of civil life such as in dengue control, land acquisition, commercial air transport services, vegetable trade and even garbage collection possibly underlines the fear that there is no need for universities to produce graduates except for a few that will seek to make loyalty to their political masters a higher calling than professional conduct. It also begs the question if converting the universities to military academies is a more pragmatic strategy at this stage.
The government however, cleverly shrouds this reality in stating that Sri Lanka will become a knowledge hub. But what steps it has taken towards this remains a mystery. It has not as yet succeeded in attracting a single private university of repute. Since higher education in Sri Lanka has been monopolized by the State, how it can achieve a knowledge hub by willful neglect of its own universities is hard to understand. The tracer surveys undertaken by the UGC indicate that the vast majority of graduates of State Universities are gainfully employed. In fact they are in high demand even in foreign markets. Many do accept these positions sadly so because the country cannot offer them suitable employment. Those that are reported as ‘misfits’ are mostly victims of policy blunders under political pressures to increase intakes in certain disciplines far beyond the market can cope with. It is not that universities are not without their own internal problems. But the remedy to this is to strengthen the universities and not to weaken them further.
Many articles have been written showing how so very low Sri Lankan university academic salaries are when compared even to our neighboring countries, many of which have lower per capita incomes. The government now states that it cannot afford this increase and that other public servants will also request similar increases. This is a question it should ask when it determines the salaries of its Central Bank employees. But this is done since it is a practical requirement that unless such market based salaries are paid, the Central Bank would lose its gifted staff to the commercial banks and the regulator would be weaker than the industry.
Government should not forget that most academics are in a similar position and able to secure employment abroad. This is amply evident if you scroll through the faculty names of any reputed university which will always include a high proportion of those who graduated from our State universities and perhaps did not return. Those that are more altruistic and wish to serve their mother country do so sacrificially. Not only are the salaries an insult to their abilities (it is not uncommon for a fresh graduate to find a job that pays more than his professor!!), the working conditions are often hostile and difficult. Doing quality research and publications for a Sri Lankan academic is an uphill task, having to also undertake many administrative duties that are required to keep the system operating due to administrators not being competent- again due to low wages and poor resources.
Many universities have large number of vacancies for qualified staff and many others have filled them out of necessity with those having partial qualifications. This is the status of the universities that are expected to drive the knowledge hub. If the country is unable to attract and retain gifted lecturers, it will find increase of the university admissions not only difficult, but also constrained to traditional areas, as staff in newer and more popular subject areas are in great demand globally. Alternately more students will seek foreign qualifications which cost an average 20 times more in foreign exchange.
Increasing salaries alone won’t fix all the problems o four universities. But consultation and negotiation would. It is important for university staff to feel part of the country’s resurgence as opposed to being labeled pawns of foreign powers and JVP sympathizers which may be label that even stretching the imagination fit just one or two.
The government should not compare the salary scale of university academics with those of Director Generals of government departments. There is no dearth of applicants for DGs posts. How many such vacancies are there currently? Today a Chairman of a corporation who may not even have O/Ls or marketable skills is allowed a salary of Rs 90,000 plus many other perks. On the other hand University lecturers are not entitled to any form of perks for transport, telephone, housing or for attending meetings. Even a Head of Department which is a full time job which only sets back his or her career, gets an additional measly Rs 1,000/- per month and vice-chancellor also not much more. If government did not create tens of thousands of new jobs in areas of little economic value addition in many government institutions- just so that employment is created for political supporters, paying a reasonable salary to university staff would not be an issue. Government should also not that even the termination of the war has not stopped the brain drain of university staff. Besides they leave even to join the private sector, as those salaries and benefits are much more attractive. The recent decision to impose PAYE tax on university staff and constrain the duty free permits will only accelerate this.
The government has so far shown that it lacks in sound judgment and considers steam rolling the protest as the preferred option. Clearly it does not seem to have the foggiest idea of the role of universities or higher education. Treating universities in this dismissive manner can only be a short term political gain, as the youthful minds and enthusiasm if not respected and nurtured by capable staff will only lead to greater chaos in the future and possibly set back Sri Lanka’s dreams of progress even further.