Thursday, May 12, 2011

The minister of Higher Education and his officials

The Island, 11/05/2011
By Prof. A. M. Navaratna-Bandara
Department of Political Science
University of Peradeniya

At the Press Conference held on last Friday (06 May, 2011) the Minister of Higher Education and his officials in the Ministry and the University Grants Commission demonstrated how they were going to treat the university academics in this country. They told the public that the academics engaged in trade union action will be punished and bring instant replacements for those who vacated their posts. Further it was proclaimed that these academics are deceiving the country when they say that they were not given a salary increase, when, in fact, they were given a big pay hike in the budget. Finally, they branded the academics as anti-state conspirators serving foreign interests.

As an academic who has served in the system and the country for more than thirty five years I must say that this is the first time I have seen such a poor show from a team appointed by the Head of Executive to lead the higher education system of this country. The whole world has seen how the Minister and his team are handling a crisis situation – the acid test to be faced by any administrative and political leadership.

This is not the first time the university teachers resorted to this type of trade union action which is one of the important fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution to any citizen of this country, namely, "freedom to form and join trade union" [Article 14 (d)]. In 1996 the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) was engaged in similar action – resigning from the voluntary positions - to resolve a dispute on fixing their salaries. As a person who served as one of the negotiators who met the Ministerial Sub-Committee appointed by then Cabinet of Ministers in 1996 on behalf of FUTA I would like to present the following to the people of this country to show how the political leadership of the country at that time responded to similar TU action launched by the Academics.

In 1996 FUTA sought an academic allowance as a remedial measure to reverse a manipulative action taken by the UGC bureaucrats to nullify the ministerial decision to introduce a new salary structure for the University Teachers in 1993.

1. Today the FUTA has resorted to the present TU action because of similar bureaucratic mishandling which finally went back on the promise given by the highest political authority to go ahead with the new salary scheme approved by the National Salaries Commission, the UGC and the Minister.

2. However, in 1996 the Minister of Higher Education did not resort to insult and attack the University Teachers. He was silent on the issue and let the Deputy Minister handle the situation.

3. In 1996 the Secretary of Higher Education, an able administer from the Sri Lanka Administrative Service, played the traditional role entrusted to an administrator - "Your Obedient Servant" and "Trusted Advisor" - did not appear on the public platform or gave statements to the news papers on policy issues divulging personal talks he had with his minister or other ministers.

4. In 1996 it was the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, a former university professor, who took the responsibility of dealing with the situation. He overtly and covertly attacked the University dons and used national news papers to discredit the academics and disrupt their TU action.

5. However, I must say that even the Deputy Minister did not threaten to punish the teachers. Neither did he ask the UGC to misinterpret the University Act and issue Circulars calling the Heads of Departments to give three months notice before they resign from the voluntary positions held by them.

6. I must tell the public that the much talked of voluntary position referred to at that press conference - the position of Head of Department – the position they wanted to tie us down for three months provides an allowance of Rs.1000.00 per month!

7. The then UGC chairman and the Council played a very low-key role in the debate ensued in the national news papers, knowing very well that there was a reasonable argument behind the demand for an academic allowance. They never tried to issue circulars with retrospective effect knowing very well that no administrative authority is empowered to issue by-laws with retrospective effect.

8. When the Deputy Minster was muddling the issue the Cabinet of Ministers headed by HE the President Chandrika Bandaranaike appointed a Ministerial Sub-Committee to look into the matter. The Committee was headed by the then Minister Indika Gunawardana. Interestingly the present Minster of Higher Education was a member of that committee. The other three members were the then Deputy Minister and the present Minister of Foreign Employment, Dilan Perera.

9. Dr. Michael Fernando, now a retired don, and I met Minister Indika Gunawardana on his invitation and with the connivance of the Secretary of FUTA, now a Vice Chancellor of one of the Universities, to negotiate with the Ministerial Committee on behalf of the FUTA.

10. Minister Indika Gunawardana after listening to our presentation of the history and the facts related to the TU action commented "…We can defeat the academics by maneuvering our political and propaganda machine. Some people in the government wanted to do it that way. But these people don’t know that if that happened the government would lose the academics and will jeopardize the higher education system. My view is that we have a moral duty to help the University Teachers to win their demand."

11. Then after consulting with the FUTA leadership we proposed a compromise and it was agreed and included in an interim report submitted to the Cabinet. The compromise was paying an Academic Allowance of 30 % which was later reduced to 25% - the members of the UGC know very well that if this allowance was not introduced the take-home pay of the academics would be reduced to a half.

12. It is of interest to note that the current Minister of Higher Education as a member of the sub-committee at that time gave us his full support in dealing with the issue. I have still in my possession the photocopy of the final report that was given to me by him.

I sincerely hope that the Minister of Higher Education would recollect how he helped the academics in 1996 and change his approach to the TU action taken by the academics without following blindly the advice coming from the "Yes Minister" type advisors in the politically appointed officialdom in the UGC and the Ministry. If he asks anyone in the academic community, he will learn that the so called 36% salary increase in the budget is not a straight forward raise as claimed. I must tell the Minister that the Research & Academic Allowance proposal has not been implemented yet as the UGC and the Treasury are yet to develop an acceptable formula to establish a mechanism of evaluating the performance of the academics. As such the increase given to us is only 11%. Since this includes the 5% given to all the public servants the actual increase granted to the academics is a mere 6%. If we take into account the 5% we lost from the 30% academic allowance in 2005, the net increase we gained from the last budget is only 1%! I must state that the university dons are asking for a decent salary not a package of allowances.

I still think the doors are open to negotiate a compromise as the one we reached in 1996. Bringing politics into the dispute will only muddy the issues making resolution of the conflict even more difficult. The FUTA is the Trade Union of the university academics developed by generations of teachers committed to strengthen higher education while protecting the rights of the academic community.