Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dilemma of university teachers

The Sunday Times, The Business Times, 22/05/2011

For many years, most university academics have been criticised for teaching less in universities and more outside. They have also been blamed for blocking changes in curricula to keep abreast with modern standards and making graduates employable, out of concern that they would be lumped with more work.

The latest action however by the Federation of University Teachers (FUTA) to step down from their administrative positions because of the government’s failure to provide a wage hike as promised, some years back, has thrown some light on their plight and brought to focus what they actually do.
And this is contrary to what the public and the media believe or was led to believe as the role of university teachers.

In a well-crafted article carried in a local newspaper this week, a Peradeniya University don explains that there is often a misunderstanding of the role of a university teacher. “Casual observers of universities may believe that teaching and research are the only duties of a university teacher when, in fact, it is the case that much of his or her time is spent on these voluntary positions for which the financial remuneration is next to nothing or literally nothing,” wrote Liyanage Amarakeerthi, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Sinhala.

These voluntary positions include the Dean of a Faculty, director/rector of an institution, head of a department, coordinator of a programme, editor of a journal, chairperson and members of a committee, Senior Student Counsellor, members of a study board, proctor, deputy proctor, and so on. These positions are so great in number and so essential to the working of a university that one begins to wonder why anyone should do these for free, he argued.

“It is even a euphemism or a misnomer to call it ‘voluntary’ since once you ‘voluntarily’ accept those positions you are held responsible for everything about them,” he said. “There are many of us who work more than three years in those positions because we want these institutions to survive as havens for higher learning. Some teachers work for years on end in positions such as Senior Student Counsellors simply because they want to help their students.”

The state university education structure is no better than the country’s secondary education systems which are complicated, complex and children often used as ‘experiments’. It is poorly managed, has no quality-assurance standard and teachers are virtually ‘protected’ because their salaries are paid no matter even if they are the worst of the lot.

One of the problems in the system is that if a company produces a service that service should be sold at a price. In the case of universities, it produces a service (education) and whether it is good or bad, that service is fully utilized (by students) but not paid for.

Some university teachers acknowledge that they teach elsewhere and undertake consultancies, in addition to their in-house duties, as the remuneration is low and there is little or no rewards in the system.

“If we don’t do well or don’t teach well there is no punishment or penalty. If we do well too there is no reward or little recognition,” one lecturer said. Sri Lanka was once the best paymaster in universities against the rest of South Asia. However, over the years India, with wage scales for a senior professor of, Indian Rs 100,000 per month and Bangladesh have overtaken Sri Lanka where a senior professor gets around Rs 76,000 before tax deductions.

A junior lecturer starts at around Rs 26,000 per month after years of study and graduation – so much so that if a lecturer did his graduate studies abroad, the wage is hardly enough to pay back loans taken for education. One of the main problems is that Sri Lankan universities have responsibilities but not powers which are vested in the state through the University Grants Commission.

“Universities need to have both and be independent institutions permitted to raise their own funds,” said the lecturer from Colombo University. Academics argue that the government should move out of the control of universities in a phased-out manner and cite another problem – the Treasury subsidy.

If a university is able to raise part of its revenue on its own, the Treasury subsidy is cut, which academics argue is unfair. “This means that universities whose staff is either lazy or don’t have the competence to raise their own revenue, gets the same Treasury subsidy without cuts. If this is the case, there is no motivation for the revenue-earning institutions to collect its own funds,” one academic noted.

Universities, it is argued, should be made autonomous bodies, allowed to raise their own funds, select their students – based on an entry level test – and permitted to take fee-levying foreign students. Instead of the Treasury subsidizing the universities, that money could be channeled to deserving students, a move which is certain to improve standards, the quality of teaching and the quality of the staff.
Over the years the universities have lost the most qualified people because of the brain drain, the war and the inability to reward and recognize. Nevertheless, there are many qualified and brilliant academics who chose to remain in Sri Lanka despite tempting offers elsewhere.

The latest crisis in universities involving the teachers has, if at all, brought to the fore what they actually do and not what they are perceived to be doing. If the Government is prepared to sign a virtual blank cheque to pay hefty wage hikes to political appointees like heads of corporations, why can’t they do the same for the men and women who groom and guide the country’s future talent and create the pool of human resource?

Not doing so is like ignoring the much-publicised knowledge hub. What purpose is a knowledge hub if the knowledge-providers are not decently looked after?