Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Editorial: Pay them more; make them work harder

The Island, 09/05/2011

Universities are perennially in crisis in this country. There seems to be no end to the countless number of boycotts of lectures and other forms of protest. It looks as though students, academics, non-academics and most of all, the government were making a concerted effort to ruin higher education.

University dons are currently on the warpath demanding a pay hike which the government promised many moons ago. Promises, as they say, are like babies––easy to make but hard to deliver. When it was in trouble, the government pledged a salary increase for university dons but, ensconced in power, it has , true to form, reneged on its promise. University teachers have been given some allowances instead of the promised pay hike and they have resigned from the administrative posts they held on a voluntary basis, in protest, thus plunging the whole university system into a deep crisis.

Minister of Higher Education S. B. Dissanayake refuses to budge claiming that the protesting teachers have got a substantial pay hike, to all intents and purposes. He is bandying about some figures to bolster his claim. If so, he needs to be asked why the intelligent dons should continue their protest. He deserves the credit for his bold steps to eliminate ragging and violence from universities but if he thinks, in deciding on university teachers’ pay hike, he is capable of railroading them into taking it or leaving it, he is mistaken. He has to adopt a different approach to the problem at issue.

University teachers have their weaknesses; they have their lapses. Some of them are even culpable for dereliction of duty. There are also total misfits among them as is common knowledge. But, the fact remains that the vast majority of university dons are hardworking and underpaid. In a country where some private tuition masters earn millions of rupees a month, the opportunity cost university teachers have chosen to bear is undoubtedly enormous. Their motivation for joining universities has been anything but pecuniary interest. They, therefore, deserve better salaries, period. This does not mean we consider a 200-300 per cent pay hike feasible. That is something to be sorted out through a dialogue with both parties to the dispute making concessions.

The government is planning to turn Sri Lanka, amongst other things, into Asia's knowledge hub, we are told. A country, no doubt, has to think big but to achieve that dream, there has to be a vibrant university system to do the thinking for us and facilitate such a quantum leap. No country that fails to get its act together in the higher education sector can achieve its development goals.

University teachers should be given better salaries not because they are protesting or issuing threats but because that is the only way to retain their services and attract more talent. If you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys! (The obverse of this adage is true of politics, where the higher the salaries we pay, the bigger the monkeys we get.)

Sri Lanka may not be able to match university salaries in the developed world but it is imperative that the university teachers here be remunerated adequately so that they will be able to live and engage in their academic pursuits, free from financial problems. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has appealed to the expatriate Sri Lankan experts including academics to return and help develop the country. But, who will want to answer his call, return home and settle for a pittance? We lose many educated, talented young men and women to NGOs etc because universities cannot offer them decent salaries.

The government must stop riding rough shod over university teachers. It must keep its propaganda hounds on a tight leash. Their attempt to brand the protesting dons as a bunch of traitors is not only laughable but also counterproductive. As Prof. Sumanasiri Liyanage pointed out in his weekly column in this newspaper yesterday, at the forefront of the on-going campaign for a pay hike are some university teachers who backed the government to the hilt at the last presidential and parliamentary polls.

The government-controlled media has also denounced the university teachers' protest as a sinister move to promote the Moon Panel report! Suffice it to say that when their campaign for a pay hike kicked off UNSG Ban Ki-moon had not even thought of an advisory panel!

Meanwhile, the JVP has pledged solidarity with university teachers. A political party has a right to express its opinion and espouse a democratic cause. But, the best way the JVP can support the protesting dons, paradoxical as it may sound, is not to support them at all. For, the JVP is notorious for causing university trouble and its pledge of support does more harm than good to the protesters. Government propagandists have already called it a JVP-instigated campaign to disrupt universities! The JVP should be kindly requested to rein in its violent student activists who are terrorising undergraduates and ruining their education, before it fights for the rights of teachers.

Minister Dissanayake has proved beyond any doubt that he cannot handle university teachers up in arms. The President has to step in and invite the warring dons to talks aimed at settling the dispute amicably. It is hoped that he will pay them more and make them work harder.