Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Are we ready to throw the ‘cream’ away?

The Island, 24/05/2011, By Palitha Weerakkody, Associate Professor, University of Peradeniya.

If any Sri Lankan parent is asked whether they would like their son or daughter to become a professional one day, he or she will, without hesitation, say "yes". That’s because the main goal of any parent is to ensure a better living for their children. If they are not affluent or highly connected, the only pathway open to attain this goal is the exam-oriented free education. Nevertheless, they also seek our next generation to do the best for the country.

This is why all of us push our children through formal and informal educational channels, and gladly put cheerful hands together to appreciate their every success at family, institutional as well as national levels, from Grade IV Scholarship upto graduation. The winners, the cream of the student community, are undoubtedly the most suitable for becoming future leaders who would drive the nation to a prosperous future. Only a few of them, apparently the best of the best, are destined to be university dons who will be entrusted with the national responsibility of generating future professionals in every discipline. Skills development to cater to the timely needs of the society would not be possible without them. Hence the labour room of professionalism in every art and science is the university system.

Simply take a tour back in the ‘time tunnel’ and see the evolutionary process of science or arts in the world. You will definitely stopover at the Academy, Thaksala, Nalanda, Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard in different parts of the world for landmark successes. You will glimpse the legends of great personalities like Disapamok, Socrates, Marx, Newton, Einstein or Tagore in there. They are the rare breed who contributed to the global development by giving birth to great philosophies and inculcating the wisdom among the others. Inventions in super highway by their next generations have made a technological boom in the 20th century, bringing so much of comfort for the human life. Even though, the so-called "foreign expert mania", which dominated in the post-independent regime in Sri Lanka, has camouflaged the valued local institutes and local counterparts of this breed, the pioneering work and inspiring careers of Professor Sarachchandra, Dr. Paranavithana, Dr. Bibile, Dr. Kulasinghe and many more will never fade away from Sri Lankan minds for many more years.

There is no doubt for anyone to understand that the current version of this breed is the present day academics in the universities and top class professionals operating from various institutions. Take the prominent group, the academics of the national universities of Sri Lanka for instance. The advanced stuff expected from them in the form of technological or ideological breakthroughs as resolutions for current political or technical issues are somewhat lacking apart from their primary task of conducting the degree programmes.

We can never forget the fact that this group is the one who conquered the national education system in the best possible way with all our blessings and thus the most capable and the best trained for leading the nation. As a nation, have we given them the due respect or recognition for their achievements and capabilities? Do they perform a leading role within our socio-economic structure? Is it because they are far away from the decision making process, the driving seat of our socio-economic mechanism or their lack of interest on national issues. Have we spared a single minute listening to their views in this regard and lookup their opinions on nationally or internationally important issues? Finally, have we ever thought how to stop brain-drain and ensure their existence within the system by providing minimum recognition, work place satisfaction or standards of living? In a nutshell, is it ethical or morally correct to expect a great piece of work from someone who has not been substantially recognized, upheld and empowered? These must be the main questions posed at true nation lovers and so-called nation builders of this country.

Although late, still it is interesting to see how they utilize their expertise and spare time in a situation where their full calibre is untapped. In concise form this can be explained as confining into one’s own cocoon, accumulating personal recognition or monetary gains (piling up credit or cash). You may see only a few of them making public appearances, representing the intellectual class in addressing current issues. But the viewers very well know that they are just dummy players in the real decision making process. In short, they have nothing much to do other than pushing the shopping carts of the politicians and bureaucrats. However, by and large, the academics as a group are deprived of the recognition gained by their predecessors.

But yet for all, are the politicians, bureaucrats, media personal, any other professional groups, general workers or priests qualified to criticize their work or brain wash the governing authorities for turning down their demands on remunerations and professional dignity? No, simply because none of ours hands are clean; none of us can claim that our work performances are upto the top capacity. All our attitudes and social values have been subjected to erosion during the last few decades, making us either inefficient or dishonest. Just similar to all the other social or communal groups, probably the majority or the minority in the university academia also has no idea of what they are raised for. Therefore similar to all of us, they might also be pressurised by the whirl winds of life and engaged in a life-long struggle of ensuring better employment prospects, balancing the family budget, assuring college education for their children, ensuring health and safety and reaching the minimum living standards in an ever competitive and money-minded socio-economic atmosphere.

At this stage the readers may misunderstand the author’s attempt was a mere justification for the current trade union action of the university academics. Its not true; the author’s main aim is to provide insight for the supporters as well as the critics of the recent trade union actions to look at the problem from each others angle or from a broader perspective.

Its not uncommon that any trade union gives priority only to essential needs when short-listing the demands. Of course, we must breathe first, before standing-up or moving ahead. Therefore a union action very rarely would entertain requirements for improving the output of the system. But this is not an excuse for a matured union who represents a group of intellectuals. They could have simply thought about this fact at least to get the attraction of the on-lookers. For instance, research funds, institutional facilities, subscribing needs for e-libraries, cost of attending research symposia and payments for publishing research work, etc., the basic needs for performing an effective higher education programme, are gradually loosing their grip within our university system. Moreover, the top-down approach in decision making together with macro and micro level politics have made the majority of members subservient. Ever downgrading general infrastructure and services in the society has been a constant obstacle for time and stress management. Even though all of these are not easily corrective, highlighting them even at the bottom of the list could save the indiscriminate criticism on the apparently self-centered (salary) demands. At least a modest critic would find that the higher work output of a professor in the developed world is incomparable with ours as the latter is not playing in the same courtyard.

On the other hand, the authorities must be more advanced and tactful in dealing with a prestigious group of workers. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the educated and middle classes of this country knows that this is the "cream" of the society. They know the vast majority of the present day university academics and other professionals did not run away even when the country was militarily unsafe and economically fragile, not because they had no access for green pastures abroad but for their patriotic nature or attachment to the family. It’s a shame that the higher education authority is yet restricted to the old fashioned way of penalizing all in the class for wrongdoing of a few students. Instead, their approach must be more democratic and analytical to comprehend the situation and search for a lasting solution which will be more gainful for the country’s higher educational future.

For instance, getting American or Indian examples for proposing a conditional salary increase in a stepwise manner would be a better platform for negotiations. In a way, the treasury will find their task of lobbying for extra allocations easy. And this trend will probably discourage the follow-up groups, awaiting positive results, to kindle their own hearths. Performance based salary structures is becoming popular within the modern organizational management since it’s a permanent solution for worker upheavals due to anomalies and other common issues on salary structures. By accomplishing quality assurance programmes for its institutional setup during the last many years, the Ministry of Higher Education must be having the fullest capacity to develop performance indicators at individual and institutional levels very effectively, providing a scientific basis for future salary revisions. This could open up a new dialogue to the development forum, something like ‘paying for the measurable output’ or ‘paying for diligent work’.

In a worst case scenario where all the negations that were started in good faith will be failed due to unforeseen reasons, yet the government can win the hearts of the majority of workers if they will be honest, determined and transparent. For example the number one reason for people of this country seeking a income hike frequently is the ever increasing cost of living. This is not only an effect of inflation but also a matter of the trade mafia (including advertising of products). Other prominent factors causing over-expenditure are the unnecessary cost components that arise in a situation where free education, public health and public transport services, etc., are failing continuously. For instance, a middle class family needs an additional expenditure of Rs. 5000.00 to 20000.00 per month for extra food, tuition fees, vehicle maintenance and contingent health care. If the government can propose a well refined national developmental programme for cutting unnecessary expenditure, minimizing bribery and corruptions, regularizing trade, optimizing the efficiency of public work and bringing public, private and NGO sectors to a common developmental agenda, the general public would be easily convinced about the possibility of minimizing most of the above mentioned extra expenditure needs within a short-run. It will not only eradicate the ground reasons for demanding for higher wages but the faith developed on the good governance will provide a lasting favourable political atmosphere for developing the nation just as some of our neighbours in Asia adopted way back in 60s and 70s.

After discussing all the facts relevant to resolve this conflict, I wish to alarm the relevant parties on a yet another pit-fall. Very few professional groups, mostly the members of the academia, appear in the media, pretending to be modest in opinion but vehemently trying to condemn the demands for a salary hike by tarnishing the image of the academic staff to the general public. The honesty of these comments is really questionable as most of them are from the minority who pushes the shopping cart for the authorities. Some of these names may be new to the media so that the public may not know their true colours. But the underlying truth is that these members are well-off with extra earnings through various unauthorized and unethical means which would not fall within the scope of a law- abide and disciplined citizen of this country. I believe all Sri Lankans have the genius to extract milk out of waste water.

If the high quality education is the goal sought, then the academics should be allowed to work independently without significant economic stresses and political interferences. The authorities while labelling the academics as selfish and incompetent are actually looking up and spitting. The resultant low retention of top class academics within the national university system or their substandard academic quality will really endanger the fresh hopes of the majority of Sri Lankan parents who looks upon national education system as the only saviour of the future of their children.