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.

  • vishwakarma

    Most countries of the world have such requirements. Srilanka provides absolutely free education , our students need to pay back some way.
    A basic BA degree in the USA costs average 40 thousand US dollars .
    I know of thousands who can’t find employment after getting a Degree in the USA. They also owe 50- 100 thouasnad dollars to banks , loans also accrue intertests.
    In Srilanka most kids have never had a chance to play , Studdies and tution make them only book worms.
    It is good to give them some training.
    Tailand, China, Korea- of Bank i MoooN- has such requirements of military training.

    It amy build personality and character in these youth.

    • Sunil

      @vishwakarma

      Solders are trained to go to war and kill people. That’s what Armies are for. In the Army you get weapons training and the discipline to kill another human being when given the order to do so without asking why. Do you want every university student to get weapons training and the discipline to kill another human? Are we still a Buddhist nation?

      Let’s not talk about rich countries like the US.

      Remember that Sri Lanka is one of the poorest countries in the world! Absolute poverty in Sri Lanka has increased in the last 10 years when globally it is reducing.

      We have one of the largest military budgets per head in the world even after the end of a war.

      Lets channel more money to education.

      • The Reader

        @Sunil, I thought both absolute and relative poverty has declined over the past decade. Could you please provide empirical evidence to support your claim? Because if that is true, it would be an interesting finding.

      • ANU

        I dont think Sri Lanka is poor country. See the Ministers salaries, Vehicles they use, they live a luxary life. They are the people who represent the majority, which means majority is rich. Hih, Hih, HEEEE

    • So we make the same mistakes that these countries made? what an argument! this is a move to make conformist zombies out of university students. The goal is twofold:

      1. Crush free thinking and the generation of free ideas. A subservient populace is easier to control for the powers that be i.e the government and the private sector

      2. Create mindless sheep-like zombies for the corporate sector. Again “leadership training” is just an euphemism for a type of mind control that these corporate types engage in. They have merely outsourced this job to the asinine government of Sri Lanka

      The corporate types and the government are in bed together to achieve the same goal. Create a subservient class of workers who are zombies and sheep=like and can be controlled with very little effort

  • What we need is a mandatory budget allocation for education and an independant education comission with the foresight and power to implement the seemingly radical changes necessary to set our secondary and tertiary education systems in the right direction.
    Same goes for state media.

  • I agree with most of your arguments. Except one proposition that you have made on the difference between Central Bank and the Commercial Banks. In your own words ” Central Bank would loose its gifted staff ( already lost..some left the country and others doing teaching with a first class and others found their owen ways)to the commercial banks and the regulator would be weaker than the industry”. I agree that a decade or two ago, there had been gifted staff, not now. Except for few genuine selections, I have number of examples to defend on this. One is droping excellent young country brains who scored and ranked 1st in consecutive times in CB MT examinations at the interviews.The other commecial bank sector has already absorbed the best.

  • dinu

    Sri Lanka is bcoming like Pol Pot’s cambodia and students are being indoctrinated. What are the lectueres doing about this? They have given free PhDs to Rajapakse Bros INC

    • Thambi

      If Sri Lanka was becoming like Pol Pot’s Cambodia intellectuals and city folk would be herded into villages and slaughtered. I don’t see this happening so far, do you?

  • Kid

    If they want the youth to become leaders,let them work together with people from different communities (especially minorities, and I don’t just mean racial)to solve problems. Give them skills to look at a problem from different perspectives and to come to a compromised decision. Take them to visit marginalized communities. Teach them a new language. Let them play team sports. Give them an opportunity to be creative. Heck, teach them to meditate! THAT will develop leadership, not millitary training!

    What is WRONG with our government? WHO is making these decisions?

    • yapa

      If you want 1 year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.

      A Chinese proverb

      Thanks!

  • Academic

    When you have a UGC chairman like what we have what else can you expect for the country? Another term of 5 years is enough for him to destroy complete all what we have achieved so far. We have a minister who cannot control his mouth even after spending 2 years in Prison. Calling all graduates as smokers of marijuana is an insult to all the graduates of this country. If the minister does not know this, you hardly see students smoking even cigarettes let along marijuana. Did the minister learn to smoke marujuana while he was a university student?

  • Prasad

    Dear writer of the article,
    I am an academic in Australia working in a medical faculty of a prestigious university. I told this NOT to pamper my ego but to show you that I know what I’m talking about. Generally speaking, the salaries paid by the university, of even professors (medical) are not very high compared to qualified plumbers and fitters. Basically, they get paid separately and handsomely for hospital work (clinical) by the hospital and less for academic work (teaching, supervision and admin). In my workplace, they have hardly any time to do private consultations, therefore all work only in the government hospital. Having said that, I know that they get a very decent pay-check for their academic activities, fortnightly. Why? They get allowances from the research projects. All of them are involved in one or more research projects and they are lawfully entitled to receive an allowance as investigators. The university is more than happy to let them do that because a university’s ranking depends primarily on the research outcome. You can have bunch of lecturers who cannot deliver a good lecture but could have several research papers published in prestigious journals annually, you get ranked highly. This is what is needed in Sri Lanka; more research output and the ability of the academics to supplement their income through allowances coming from research projects. If you increase their salaries but they end up delivering only lectures, this will not help the university system.

  • Navaratne Herath

    I assume that military training joke is one minister’s own decision. The big question is whether he will mandate this training to students who expect to enter proposed private universities; will it be a mandatory requirement for undergraduates?

  • Nandana

    The academic from Australia,
    You have lost the plot here. Academics are asking for a decent salary, so they can simply survive. So they carry on teaching and do research. Do you have any idea how to run a family with 35,000 rupees?

    Plumbers and fitters get paid with cash and they don’t declare that. In a developed country if you do a decent job you get a decent salary more than enough for the basic needs such as a car, a house. Education for the children are not a problem.

    I would prefer a lecturer who can teach rather than doing research. They grants to do research and they can employ research assistants. In sri lanka you need to do everything yourself for a meekly salary.