Sunday, May 15, 2011

SB sees grand conspiracy

The Nation, 15/05/2011, By Rohan Abeywardena

Higher Education Minister S. B. Dissanayaka, a one time university student leader is no stranger to university turmoil, but having successfully stood up to militant Inter University Student Federation, he now sees the agitation by the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations as a well-planned conspiracy by a group of lecturers who have captured power in the FUTA recently to undo all positive achievements they have made in the university system and to also plunge the country into chaos by making an impossible demand of a 200 per cent salary increase.

Q: No sooner you took over the portfolio of Higher Education, you wanted to create a revolution in our universities to drag them out of their backwardness and it was you who said the university teaching staff deserved greater remuneration. So where did things go wrong?
I don’t think I need to explain anew about the backwardness that our universities had fallen into. In the last 30 years or so, the university system had become hostage to extremist students. The vice chancellors and deans could not take decisions. The system collapsed, the academic criteria dropped and resultantly dragged down their standing among world universities. During a greater part of a year universities were engulfed in lecture boycotts, strikes and protests. Students stopped learning English, attending lectures, and won’t allow changes to syllabi and examinations.
What we did was to take back the administration after 30 to 35 years into the hands of academics. Now the vice chancellors, deans, heads of departments and university councils can take decisions. As a result we have been able to change the syllabi, introduce new syllabi and we are even in the process of changing the medium of instruction to English. Now we are implementing the necessary steps to ensure that those graduating from universities no longer have to waste their time walking the streets in search of jobs, but would be of the calibre sought after by employers.
All this was progressing smoothly. Today the students can no longer scare the university administration, the inhuman ragging has been tackled up to 90 per cent; it was not too long ago when Sri Jayewardenepura student Samantha was assaulted and killed and the university administration was unable to take action against those who assaulted him. That was the state of the universities. Today all that has been changed and I visit all universities.
In the meantime, all students entering universities are given leadership training and a laptop. All those who are weak in their English are afforded distant learning facilities of that language from America through 10,000 scholarships. This will ensure that after this year English will not be a problem for any student entering a university. In parallel standards of lectures, research and consultancies are being improved.
As for the salary issue what they are asking for a professor is Rs. 135,000 per month, a 200 per cent increase, but what I said was that an ordinary lecturer should draw a salary of more than Rs. 200,000, meaning that a professor’s salary should top Rs. 400,000. I still hold the same stand, but such increases were not to be provided with cash from the Treasury.
The world over universities today is cash generating institutes. This year we can attract foreign students to the tune of five per cent of the intake and earn money. Our universities can do research with the private sector. We can provide consultancy services to all types of institutions. Various departments of the universities can engage in projects. Universities are meant to be research and development centres. Through all such activities the universities can earn income.
In addition from this year we are granting permission to universities to create associate campuses that can take in fee levying students and award degrees. What I say is that times when everything was begged from the Treasury are gone from the world. We have in this country the best of intellectuals, scientists, senior lecturers and professors and with them if we can make the universities earning centres we can expand the free education system, and increase facilities in the university system. We can take in more students, award more scholarships, pay Rs, 200,000 salary to a lecturer and Rs. 500,000 to a professor. That is my target and we are working according to that target.
But now the university lecturers are demanding a 200 percent increase in salaries. It is totally unfair. In the last budget all government employees were granted a salary hike of five per cent, but university academic staff was given an increase of 36.25 per cent. The employees who got five per cent, ministry secretaries, directors, clerks, peons, doctors, engineers and even university non academics are keeping quiet, despite getting an increase of five per cent. It is the university academics who got 36.52 per cent who are now demanding a 200 per cent increase. Is this fair?
The previous office bearers of FUTA, after the 36.52 increase, came in delegation to my residence and thanked me. They also walked into the Treasury and thanked Dr. P. B. Jayasundera. They said ‘we never believed you would give this much.’ That is how the FUTA welcomed the increase. After that the main body of FUTA got changed with the arrival of JVP elements, strong UNPers, those who vehemently supported Sarath Fonseka, and those with NGO links. They are the ones who put forth this 200 percent salary hike demand because they are opposed to the government and its policies.
The chief architect of this demand is a man who openly opposed the security forces’ fight to defeat terrorism. Head of FUTA was saying that the war was wrong. What they said then Darusman is saying now. Dr. Mahin Mendis was also the same. They then spoke in defence of the LTTE and Prabhakaran. Now they have captured power in FUTA and are demanding a 200 percent hike in salary. This is what has happened to FUTA that earlier thanked us after the last budget. They want to help Darusman by creating chaos in the universities and this country. If we give into them then others will also demand. On hearing this already others are agitating. If we give in our development budget will get blasted. The discipline that we have restored in the universities, they want to destroy and once again allow extremists to take over the varsities.
This is a well planned plot staged by a group of lecturers who captured power in FUTA recently. Their objective is to destroy all positive changes that have been achieved and hand back the universities to extremist student elements. Through the breakdown of the university system they want to plunge the country into chaos and create a situation for Darusman objectives to succeed. I appeal to the academic staff not to be deceived by this conspiracy and not to disrupt the functioning of the universities. Instead we must work to take the universities to top slots in the world and to ensure that students graduating from them do not have to beg for jobs by improving the quality of products turned out by our universities.

Q: True you broke the back of the militant students who held the entire system hostage, but you cannot behave in the same way with the academic staff. So where is the give and take on your part?
When only a five per cent increase was given to everyone else, the university academic staff alone was given 36 per cent. That is why they came and personally thanked us.

Q: Is there a mediator who can bring about a settlement?
The President has already explained matters to vice chancellors. They in turn will meet the lecturers. In the meantime no one from the Aesthetic University has resigned from their administrative functions. Those from the Ayurvedic College, Borella who resigned on Tuesday came back on Wednesday. No one resigned from the South Eastern University at Oluvil. Only a small number has resigned from Colombo and from Kelaniya only about 37 have resigned. At Sri Jayewardenepura half the academic staff of the Science Faculty has not resigned. No one from the Medical Faculty has resigned.

Q:Isn’t the situation pretty bad at Peradeniya?
At Peradeniya and Ruhuna, a large number has joined the protest. We call on them not to resort to such behaviour as it is bad for the country and the university.

Q: How is the situation at the Open University, where FUTA spokesman Dr. Mahin Mendis has a base?
There, many heads have resigned, but work goes on. There too in the next few days a lot of change is expected.

Q: There has been talk that those who resign from their voluntary administrative duties would not be given back those posts. Are you going to stick to that principle?
That is not something I can do. This has been said by the University Grants Commission through a circular. The UGC too is run by academics.

Q:Another rule clamped by the UGC is that academic staff wanting to quit administrative duties should give three months notice, but FUTA has argued that this is not in the laws of the country.
It is wrong. It is the accepted law in this country. A government servant can’t just resign from his job and leave. He has to give notice prior to quitting. In lieu of notice he has to forego three months’ salary. That is the common law. This may not be in any statute book, but it is the accepted criteria. If that is allowed to happen the entire system will collapse.

Q: If the administrative duties are an additional burden to academic staff, cannot such functions be entrusted to others?
It is the accepted norm everywhere for academic staff to handle administration in universities. It is not correct to put non academic staff to administer academics. It is the vice chancellors, deans, and heads of department who handle administration.

Q:Are they being properly rewarded for the extra work?
They are being paid an allowance and I wanted to increase that, but at the time FUTA objected on grounds that it would create unnecessary competition. Now since allowances of state sector managers are being increased they too will benefit by it.

Q: Though you promised a total revolution in the university system there appears to be certain amount of indiscipline and unaccountability on the part of some lecturers as their work is not properly evaluated and some hardly put in adequate amount of work and are far too busy doing “private practice”
Eighty per cent of the academics are doing good work. They prepare thoroughly for lectures, carry out research, improve their teaching techniques and come out with regular publications, but there is a balance of about 20 per cent who do hardly any work. They are busy with giving tuition, doing external courses. We are going to regularise everything under the new university act; accreditation, qualification framework and a quality assurance council will be set up, under which both private and government universities will be regulated.

Q:What about assessing the work of the lecturers by students as is done in India?
We can’t introduce it in our country all at once, since there is lot of politics. In the recent past militant elements ensured that a student could not speak with a lecturer. Students were forbidden to use English. Not more than two hours could be spent in a library. Printed tutorials were not allowed. Those were the JVP laws that were enforced through the Inter University Students Federation. Now that we have scrapped all such arbitrary rules we cannot carry out assessments after each lecture. But we have developed a programme where from a random sample of those who are scoring highest marks in a given semester we take an assessment of their lectures. Similarly from those who make use of the library facilities most we will obtain an assessment.

Q:You also had a grand plan to introduce and legalise private universities. Where does that stand now?
About ten such universities have already begun their basic work. At the moment they are approved by the BOI. They have already begun construction work and other activities. We have provided the necessary lands and other support. Once the Accreditation Council is set up their registration will come directly under us and we will regulate them thereafter.

Q: How for example is the Malabe private medical school functioning?
It is working smoothly without any problems. All necessary approvals have been given, except I believe for a minor report. Once that arrives, I will gazette it with degree awarding rights. Its acting vice chancellor is also attached to the UGC.

Q: What are the other private university ventures in the pipeline?
The Manipay and King’s Universities are coming; The Tokyo University is already under construction. They have even opened an office here. Two more Indian universities are coming. A university park will be set up in Puttalam and thousand acres have been obtained for the purpose.

Q: The UNP and the JVP have thrown their support behind FUTA.
Not only the UNP and JVP even two or three International NGOs are helping them. We have to expect that.

Q: Can you afford to back down?
It is not necessary. Even today five or six heads of departments have resumed their duties and withdrawn their letters of resignation. They are two from Sabaragamuwa University and two from Kelaniya University. Day before yesterday the head of department and others from the Ayurvedic University withdrew their letters and yesterday they resumed duties.

Q:Aren’t the students very silent on the issue?
But these people who are trying to create trouble in the universities, they want the students also to get out and create trouble, but progressive and patriotic elements in university administration will tackle the issue.

Q: sisting on meeting the President?
It was the Minister who asked us to write to the President.

Q:Has your letter reached the President by now?
We wrote long ago on March 29 and on April 23 we hand delivered the letter to the Secretary of the Higher Education Ministry. We don’t know what happened to the original letter. We hand delivered a copy on Wednesday to the Presidential Secretariat and they confirmed it was delivered to the President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga.

Q:How long will you hold your fire?
Our membership is quite confident about our collective strength. We have a success of 90 percent in the present trade union action, apart from a few places.
Even in places where we were much weaker we have sizeable support as in Kelaniya and Colombo.

Q:Some of your members have withdrawn their letters of resignation as in Ayurvedic University at Borella.
They are only rumours. On Wednesday, they called me and said there are rumours that letters of resignation have been withdrawn, but there was no truth to it.