Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why University teachers should be recognized as a special category of professionals

The Island, 24/05/2011, Members of the Science Teachers Association (University of Peradeniya)

University teachers (academics) are defined as people who pass their knowledge and expertise on to the next generation of doctors, engineers, bankers, teachers, biologists, chemists etc.. They help their students to think critically as well as imaginatively; provide practical training; and shape their students' goals, careers, and lives. As experts in their subject fields, they also set standards for research—usually reflected in the articles and books they write—and expand the horizons of scholarship and its importance and relevance in society. They are unique in that they perform the dual function of adding to the existing knowledge and disseminating it.

One of the demands of the current trade union action by university academics is to recognize them as a special category of professionals. For someone who is not quite familiar with the processes that govern, sustain and strengthens the university system, this may seem obscure; here we aim to explicate this point using mostly the Science Faculty of the University of Peradeniya as an example, though many of the features mentioned for this faculty are generally true to most of the other faculties also.

Academics should be considered as being special for a combination of the following reasons:

(1) Only the highest achievers are considered even for an interview for an academic position in the university system. It is common knowledge that only the best students, passing through the G.C.E. Advanced Level examination enter the universities in Sri Lanka. After entering the university these students are subjected to four years of rigorous learning, evaluation and testing through which the best students are selected to be awarded with first and second-upper classes, for their B.Sc. degree. When interviews are called upon to recruit these young graduates as university probationary lecturers, only First and Second-Upper class holders are considered.

For most of the jobs in the government sector, a class or even a degree is not a requirement although preference may be given.

(2) The process of evaluation for recruitment to the university academic staff is stringent and only the best of the available best make the cut. Recruitment occurs at three levels, as probationary lecturers, as senior lecturers and as Professors. Majority of lecturers join as probationary lecturers and senior lecturers, and rarely as professors. Obviously, the easiest level to join is as a probationary lecturer, even for this, as mentioned above, a First or Second-Upper class is required, and this qualification should be bolstered further by having several scientific publications and at least one year of undergraduate teaching experience in the University.

Once a prospective probationary lecturer applies, a shortlist is made in which only the cream of the applicants are included (unlike in most other cases bureaucrats and politicians do not have a say whatsoever in this process). Each of these interviewees is then interviewed by a group of top level academics that include the Vice-Chancellor of the university, dean of the faculty under issue, head of the respective department and university council members. The qualifications of the interviewees are rigorously checked, and each candidate is required to give two presentations, one on their respective subject area together with an impromptu speech on a general topic that is suggested by the interviewers. Each member of the group assigns a score to each candidate, which is averaged. Only the candidate that gets the highest marks is considered for appointment. For more advanced candidates (i.e. senior lecturers and professors), research and teaching criteria that must be fulfilled are much more rigorous, and the highest educational qualification should at least be a Master of Science by research (M.Sc.), a Master of Philosophy (M.Phil.) or often a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D) degree.

Such a process does not apply in many of the other professions. Even when there is, political favoritism etc. override the true interview process.

(3) Once within the system, process of evaluation for promotion is tedious and stringent. The process of promotion from a probationary lecturer to confirmation in the post (where one automatically become a senior lecturer) requires completion of a postgraduate research degree. This can be an M.Sc., M.Phil. or a Ph.D. degree. A caveat is that this degree has to be obtained within 8 years of becoming a probationary lecturer, failing which the lecturer is discharged from service. This sidereal requirement is not enforced in any of the other professions in the government sector, when compared to the university system.

Moving on from a senior lecturer position to a professor is extremely demanding and requires very objective contributions in three major areas: "teaching and academic development", "research and creative work", and "dissemination of knowledge and university and national/international development".

Fulfillment in "teaching and academic development" involves fulfilling many of the following sub-criteria such as: "academic preparation" where the service after being appointed a senior lecturer is assessed; "qualifications for teaching" where types of degrees and membership in professional bodies are assessed; "extra teaching load" where teaching outside the area of expertise of lecturer and excessive teaching load within ones area of expertise are assessed; "postgraduate supervision" an important aspect in which graduate students are supervised to conduct research and in writing theses/research papers; "participation in continuing professional development" where a lecture acts as a resource person of workshops etc. is considered; "institutional development" where curriculum development, inter-faculty teaching, new course introduction/development etc. is assessed.

Fulfillment in "research and creative work" is essential, without which further promotions beyond senior lecturer are effectively curbed. This involves performance in following aspects: "peer reviewed publications" where a scientific research paper (a unique contribution to scientific knowledge) is assessed by academic peers before acceptance as quality work, and if the publication runs in an internationally indexed journal the work is even more highly appreciated; "scholarly work" where writing book chapters, reviewing articles for scientific journals, editing books etc. are assessed; "patents" where new inventions are assessed;

Fulfillment in "dissemination of knowledge and university and national/international development". This involves dissemination of knowledge in the form of books, magazines, commissioned reports etc.; "awards" awards for recognition in teaching and research work, awarded by governments or professional bodies are assessed; "university and national/international development" involves carrying out advisory work for the university, government and international organizations and serving at the highest echelons within these bodies.

Once a senior lecturer submits an application, for promotion to the grade of Professor, two panels are appointed to evaluate the applicant. Two subject experts, often including a foreign expert, independently evaluate contribution to research and dissemination of knowledge. The other panel evaluates contribution to university & national development.. An interview is then held and the candidate is intensively scrutinized before being awarded the professorship (or associate professorship, depending on candidates’ performance). Highly objective promotion criteria as vigorous as above are not seen in any other government sector institutions.

(4) Academics are not instantly replaceable, as the training and knowledge they have had is unique. University lecturers, especially the professors have a broad understanding of their major subject area and also a highly specialized knowledge on various aspects that they carry out research in. This is not the situation in other government institutions; top brass of these institutions are routinely moved from one department to another, even at the director-general level by politicians. Thus it is common knowledge that a University teacher of good standing is not a commodity that is freely available. Therefore, academic staff members have no equivalent grades in the government sector or among the non-academic grades in universities. The duties of an academic cannot be compared with those of, or performed by, any officer in other establishments. However, all other categories of employees in the University system, both administrative and non academic cadres, have equivalent positions in the government service as these positions are not held by anyone who has undergone special training as described above.

(5) Most of them are independent thinkers and cannot be easily influenced by anyone. The training that is given to them to become probationary lectures, senior lecturers and professors, have made them independent thinkers.

(6) University Academics train the best of the best students and set the standards of the top-level workforce in our country. It is the level of knowledge imparted by the academics that finally determines the quality of the Doctors, Engineers, Scientists, Business Managers etc. that pass out the university.. No other government profession can influence these people as much as the university dons.

(7) They carryout work 24hrs, everyday and there is no overtime paid for this service. Most of the research work is done outside of teaching time.

(8) They are not remunerated for the research work and student supervision that they carryout. It is crucial for academics to carryout research and train students to be good scientists. This requires a lot of extra-work, but academics do not get paid for doing this work. There is no money allocated from research grants to the principal investigators (academics), but only to the research students in the form of student stipends.

(9) They review scientific work without any monetary considerations. Academics help each other a lot. For instance, they review scientific papers, grants, book chapters, books, and theses of students without any payment. This is not the case for other government institutions; there are specific payments for additional work that they carry out.

(10) Free dissemination of knowledge. University academics do not get remunerated for publishing their scientific work in Journals, actually often they have to pay a fee to the journal to publish their articles. For some of the journals, this can count up to several hundred dollars. Situation is so worse that the current monthly salary of a professor does not suffice to publish in some journals.

This is not an issue for any of the public servants in other government institutions.

The academic standing of a University reflects the quality and integrity of the teachers in the institution. It is essential to recruit the best people to the University academic staff so that they will produce quality graduates who are employable and will contribute to the development of this country. The age-old tradition has been that those recruited to the academic staff of universities were the cream of a graduating batch of students often with a first class or second class (upper division) honors pass. It was the dream of every student in the graduating batch to be the best in the batch- to be the winner of the coveted prize- a position in the academic staff cadre. However, the situation now is that the graduates we produce have aimed their goals in the direction of greener pastures abroad. Our government is spending the taxpayers’ money to provide the developed countries with our best brains. Their excellent performance abroad is testimony to the quality of our science degree. Unfortunately, the reality is that none of these students want to return to a University lecturer post with its paltry salary when they can earn over ten times more in the country they earned their Ph.D’s. Lets take the example of the Chemistry Department at the University of Peradeniya. Of the cadre of 28, only 14 positions have been filled. Although the vacancies are advertised every year there are no applicants of good standing to be recruited. The second and the more alarming fact is that in the next 10 years 7 of these 14 members will retire leaving only 7 staff members of whom another 5 will retire in the following 5 years. How can this department function after 2025 if no appropriately qualified personnel are not appointed right now? Is it possible to fill these vacancies with lesser-qualified people? Yes, it can be done but with detrimental repercussions leading to deterioration in our standards. Nothing is impossible in politics. The rot has already set in.

If there is any need to elaborate further on this, the best example is the dearth of suitably qualified people to fill the academic staff positions in various other faculties. In the faculty of medicine of Rajarata University, for example, all the Professorships in the clinical departments are still vacant even after admitting the fourth batch of students. In the entire University system approximately 20% of the vacancies in several academic departments are vacant due to the inability to attract highly qualified academics because of poor salaries and lack of other benefits. Most university academics who leave the country for further education do not return mainly because of the degrading treatment they get at home. Sri Lanka is one of the worst hit in terms of brain drain with 27.5 per cent of academics leaving the country each year. The percentage is high when compared with 4.2 per cent in India; 9.2 per cent in Pakistan, 4.7 per cent in Bangladesh, 2.7 per cent in Nepal and 2.2 per cent in Maldives. Considering these figures there is little doubt that the situation in Sri Lanka is worse than in any other South Asian Country.

The reason why University academics should be recognized as a special class should be evident by now. University teachers of the best quality are needed to produce the best quality graduates. Such academics can be recruited and retained only by offering them the environment for free thinking, and a life free from the hassle of looking for other methods to make ends meet. Above all the authorities should have the courtesy to treat them with respect without insulting them They should be humble enough to yield to reason.

The basic privileges enjoyed by dons of the past such as housing and ability to purchase a car on their return after postgraduate studies do not exist anymore. The high price of rented housing has been a deterrent for newly returning young Ph.D’s, The issue of car permits where other government servants require only 5 years of service to be eligible, while university staff need 12 years is another example of how much the government metes out step motherly treatment to university academics. University dons also do not get a pension, official cars (and taking the official car home after retirement etc.), overtime, subsistence allowance during foreign travel similar to other staff grade categories in the government system.

There is also the argument that Universities are money-spending institutions and organizations such as the Central Bank make money and therefore can pay higher salaries to its employees. This is a flawed argument since all those professionals including those who are recruited to the Central Bank are products of our universities trained by the academic staff. Taking this argument further, it is the income tax officers who should be paid the highest salaries since they collect most of Government’s revenue. Anyone with a sane mind would not buy such arguments. University academics represent the creators of new knowledge and the much talked about Sri Lanka becoming Asia’s knowledge hub will be a distant reality if this kind of step-motherly treatment is meted out to academics.

In education, it should be quality and nothing but quality that should matter. If it is the wish of the government to make Sri Lanka the knowledge hub of South-East Asia, then the authorities should demonstrate their commitment by financially empowering the universities to recruit and retain quality teachers.