Friday, May 20, 2011

Needed: Talks not war of words

Taken from The Island Editorial
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Needed: Talks not war of words

The government could not have found a better person than Minister S. B. Dissanayake to tackle the JVP's violent student union in universities. Its members have met their match in him. He is to be complimented for the tough measures he has adopted to rid the universities of politically motivated disruptive elements and to put an end to the scourge of brutal ragging which has made higher education a frightening proposition for peaceful students and their parents.

But, sadly, Minister Dissanayake has failed to realise that the strong-arm methods that have proved effective in making student thugs fall in line will not work in dealing with the university teachers on the warpath demanding better pay. It was reported yesterday that the government had decided against paying the protesting dons their salaries for May. But, the University Grants Commission lost no time in issuing a denial.

The government takes great pride in telling the world that it continued to pay the salaries of many public employees in the North and the East during the conflict, even though they had stopped doing any work for the State and were working for the LTTE full time. Therefore, there is no way such a democratic government could stop the salaries of dons or any other category of workers engaged in legitimate trade union action. One may not approve of what the university teachers are doing but one has to recognise their right to resort to trade union action. Attempts at suppressing trade union rights cannot be countenanced on any grounds.

Minister Dissanayake reiterated yesterday at a press conference that university teachers had got a 36 per cent pay hike. He added up various figures to prove his point. But, dons dispute his claim, pointing out that some allowances tied to research etc cannot be considered part of a salary increase.

It defies comprehension why the government has not taken any meaningful action to create an atmosphere conducive to an amicable settlement of the dispute which has taken a heavy toll on the university system. If it cannot increase teachers' salaries because it is cash-strapped, then how come it is in a position to shower pay hikes, special allowances, perks and the like on lawmakers, executives of state ventures et al? If it is short of funds, it must declare an austerity drive and set an example to others by curtailing its wasteful expenditure. Its claim of pecuniary difficulties does not sound convincing, given its profligate spending habits.

The government apparently fears that a pay hike for university teachers may prompt other workers to down tools demanding salary increases. Hence its argument that university teachers' protest is a JVP-instigated conspiracy to trigger a wave of strikes across the country! The Federation of University Teachers' Associations (FUTA) has pooh-poohed that allegation. These are matters to be discussed at the negotiating table.

Almost all universities have been affected by a severe dearth of qualified teachers. The government's ambition is to develop local universities to the international level and make the country Asia's Knowledge Hub. World class universities have to have world class teachers. And world class teachers cannot be produced or hired by offering peanuts. This is why the government must be prepared to pay university teachers well. There may be lapses on the part of university lecturers and the academic standards of local universities may be very poor but it is up to the government to pay attractive salaries to retain and attract the best brains to develop university education and research.

The government and FUTA, we repeat, must stop taking potshots at each other through the media and negotiate a settlement urgently. Both parties must be flexible and realistic. There are signs of their dispute getting out of hand.