Monday, May 16, 2011

University crisis: Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?

By Anonymous

Watching the events of the present trade union action by the FUTA, it is commendable that the Members have been able to hold onto their cause so far. The government has tried every tactic from threats, circulars, intimidation, false propaganda and finally coaxing to try to avert the salary increase demanded by the academics.  This situation has arisen from the lack of understanding by the authorities and the good heartedness of the academics. The salary issue has been a festering sore for more than three years, with the government adding some plaster on it whenever the wound opened up.

It is high time that some constructive remedy is brought about along with some reforms if this situation is to be rectified. First of all it is imperative that the academics must be considered as a special category of teachers. However, if that be the case, they should live upto that standard. The title ‘University Professor’ was awe inspiring not so long ago. That may not be the case now since the standards have been lowered in the past years mainly due to the inability to recruit quality personnel to fill the vacancies that have been created specially due to the mass exodus of graduates to western countries and down under. Secondly it must be recognized that the Universities are the institutions which nurture the future workers and administrators of a country. The output of the University depends on the input( the quality of the student) and the teacher(how qualified he is). Taking these two facts into consideration, the demands of the University teachers sound very reasonable.

The following points, however, might put a spoke in this pretty picture. First that it is important to come up with a scheme to reward the academics who dedicate their time and energy solely towards their teaching and research commitments and administrative functions. To this end, the research allowance proposed has some credibility. However the percentage offered is only a pittance and is not sufficient to retain or recruit high caliber teachers. Careful thought is needed to draw up a realistic increase in salary structure which can be coupled to a research allowance which is earned by the deserving (that hurts, but should be an incentive for all to aspire to improve ). This should put an end to lecturers being accused of working only two hours per week. A fact unknown to many is that when a lecturer works two hours he has put in as much hours of preparation and more hours for setting examinations and evaluations. The second point forgotton or overlooked is the quality of the student. We are told that the cream enters University but the academics do not produce employable students. If a rotten egg is added to a cake being made the result is a rotten cake. As long as quotas exist, a section of the cream is shut out of the University. This does not mean the complete eradication of the area basis allocation. Just that after over 30 years of implementation of the quota which began due to lack of facilities in underprivileged areas, no improvement or upgrading of these schools have yet occurred. A strange phenomenon in a country aspiring to be the miracle of Asia. The percentage of students below  average admitted to the Universities under this guise is too high.

To get back to the topic, the main thrust of the trade union action is not just asking for money. Academics do not stoop to low levels. This is a struggle to safeguard the dignity and credibility of the University teachers on the one hand and to attract quality teachers on the other. The importance of recruiting new and young staff members is being felt very badly with many departments being nearly 50% under staffed. The fundamental role of the government is to ensure that the percentage of GDP allocated to universities for research is comparable with other Asian countries. This is one way of ensuring that our academics will excel in their fields. That is how Sri Lanka could become a knowledge hub. Our University rankings will not increase if we continue in the present path. A highly ranked University will attract not only highly qualified teachers, but also foreign students thereby boosting the income of the University. If the future of the country is important, if the workforce is to be made of individuals who can think and take responsibility, the foremost priority should be to staff the higher learning institutions with intelligent, able and satisfied professionals. Let’s not forget that a University exists because of the teachers and its reputation is maintained because of the quality of the teachers.


Comment by Kumudu

Thanks to “Anonymous” for the valuable intervention. I would like to add a couple of points to his/her comment. 

“Anonymous” says that “it must be recognized that the Universities are the institutions which nurture the future workers and administrators of a country.” I believe the workers here would include scientists, writers, journalists, dramatists, intellectuals, artistes, social scientists, academics etc,.  We could in fact put them in a separate category outside mere workers. We need to keep a space preserved for producing such people also in our higher education. 

The proposed research allowance rewards only the researchers, and not “the academics who dedicate their time and energy solely towards their teaching and administrative functions.” As already pointed out by Sumanasiri Liyanage, our universities have been basically teaching universities. We mostly teach undergraduates and we don’t have full time graduate students. To develop a fully pledged research culture, especially in the arts and social sciences, will take time. Hence, while an enhanced research allowance may go to the deserving, how would the dedicated teachers and administrators be rewarded?