Friday, June 3, 2011

President meets FUTA: moving towards a ‘Win- Win’ Solution

The Island, 03/06/2011, By Kumudu Kusum Kumara

It is heartening that a breakthrough has occurred in the much publicised dispute between the government and university teachers over the salary demands of the latter. President Mahinda Rajapaksa met a delegation of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) on May 25th, to have discussions. The government media announced the outcome of the discussion as "positive" and" fruitful."

While the FUTA held that their demands were not positively received by the government at the meeting, it nevertheless saw several plus points emerging in the discussion. As the FUTA saw it, the government response shows very clearly that the authorities are of the view that the FUTA demands cannot be taken lightly. Moreover, the President acknowledged that there is a salary issue of the academics, and stated that a solution should be found on a ‘win- win’ basis. It was also agreed to continue negotiations and there will be another meeting on June 3rd.

Overall, this outcome has generated much needed hope that the issue can be amicably settled avoiding a confrontation.

The discussion however, has brought to light some key concerns on each side which the other must take cognizance of and which enables us to move towards a deeper understanding of the issues at stake.

Concerns on the government side

On the government side, apparently it believes that a) there has been a 36.25% salary increase to the university teachers in the last budget, b) that another salary increase to university teachers at this point will have a domino effect, and c) that the FUTA needs to take into consideration not only the universities, but also the overall situation of the country the neglect of which will negatively affect the government plans for development.

The government’s insistence that the 25% research allowance (which has to be earned by each university teacher individually and annually) is a salary increase is due to the understanding the previous FUTA leadership had arrived with the government in the salary negotiations at that time. While the present FUTA position is that it is without the consent of the FUTA membership that the previous leadership of FUTA agreed to accept the 25% of research allowance (under the conditions it has been offered) as a salary increase, as far as the government is concerned it is FUTA that accepted the formula offered.

However, it is after the formula applicable to the offer of research allowance was released that it became evident to the FUTA membership that it cannot be considered a salary increase given to all the university lecturers. Given that Sri Lankan universities have been basically focussed on teaching undergraduates and not on post graduate research, the initial stringent conditions attached to the offer of research allowance would have made it difficult for a significant number of lecturers to qualify to obtain it. It has been pointed out that this allowance does not recognise the contribution made by lecturers dedicated to teaching and administration. When each university has been allowed to determine the conditions applicable to the allowance, thus making it feasible to obtain it with the least conditions, a different set of issues has been raised in relation to academic community’s attitudes to standards applied in evaluating research. Given the complications that have arisen in this regard across the universities, it would be prudent at this point to declare the research allowance a general incentive given to all university lecturers for their contribution to teaching, administration and research.

The government position that at this point of time another salary increase cannot be given to university lecturers given its potential domino effect and being in between budgets, are concerns that can be addressed by the FUTA by agreeing with the government to formulate a plan to address the FUTA demands. The government position as stated by the minister of higher education that a process has been initiated to implement a salary increase to the university lecturers and its next step can be considered at the next budget can be the basis for negotiations at this point to reach agreements.

The government position that the FUTA ought to take into consideration the needs of the country (meaning its economic policy) can be addressed by the FUTA by inviting the government to open up the subject to discussion as to what significance and priority public sector higher education occupies within that policy.

While the government raises the issues of economic difficulties, FUTA views this as a matter of what the government considers priorities in national policies on education.

FUTA‘s concerns

On the side of the FUTA the key concerns are a) that the government is not willing to consider the salary demand of the university lecturers as a priority issue and b) that the government considers that behind the FUTA action there is a sinister campaign against the government.

While the FUTA has vehemently denied the claim of the government that their trade union action is aimed at creating trouble for the government, the FUTA can confirm this by showing their willingness to work with the government on a plan to improve the quality of our public universities.

The government can positively respond to the first concern of the FUTA by re-asserting its commitment to raise the standard of public sector universities, initially at least some of them to international levels, and by coming out with a plan to raise the GDP’s contribution to the advancement of education, and to consider the salary demands of the university lecturers as priority within that plan.

FUTA position is that its demand for a salary increase needs to be given priority as the public sector universities are unable to retain their best products not to mention the difficulty of attracting Sri Lankans who have migrated in the past. As stated by FUTA the best products of the respective Faculties in our universities are in high demand not only in Sri Lanka but also in other parts of the world. If Universities are to recruit such products to their staff so that they in turn can educate future generations, the remuneration and other facilities provided to them, must be adequate to afford them a conducive work environment and a comfortable life style according to Sri Lankan standards, and not luxury lifestyles. Many of the best graduates of our universities, who joined the staff, have eventually been compelled to leave due to financial difficulties.

Hence, if the government has a genuine need to make Sri Lanka the knowledge hub of Asia as it claims, the place of university in our society and what should be the place of and the treatment meted to lecturers has to be seriously considered.

In this regard, the government needs to take into account that the best quality that academics can have is critical, independent thinking on all matters - scientific, technical, economic, social, and political. Government should encourage academics to give critical comments about whatever they are doing and to consult them before acting. (They should not consult a only those who are sympathetic to them). In fact, if there are academics who readily agree with what the Government says, common sense would be that their advice should be treated with caution. The Government must welcome intellectual dissent and there are at least some academics left in the system who are capable of this. Others will develop the capability if given encouragement. In order to foster this independence of thought, academics should not be "recruited" by the government to make statements in support of them. Most academics who are critical of the government will be critical of ALL governments.

The ‘win-win’ solution: addressing the good of public sector higher education

Thus if the government and the FUTA is to move forward without getting bogged down in legal battles and stronger trade union action, the discussions should move towards addressing the FUTA concerns within the government’s overall development policy framework.

What is at bottom here is the issue of what is the good of public sector higher education in Sri Lanka. How do we envisage the future of public sector universities in our country? Does the government consider improving the standards of public sector universities in Sri Lanka, a viable option? What should be their character in the face of demands of a global change in the sphere of education? Should we turn them into centres that produce knowledge workers focusing higher education on giving training in soft skills, English and IT, or alternatively focus on developing them to become centres of excellence in teaching and learning, and research which will also have facilities to develop soft skills.

The government can present to the university academic community what is their policy on the public universities and show willingness to formally engage the academic community in the form of a dialogue among stake holders with a joint interest.

Mahinda Chinthana Idiri Dekma posits that universities should not become mere factories which manufacture technicians for employment and that they should produce a graduate who sees beyond the horizon. To see beyond the horizon is not merely to equip oneself to do a job, but to set out to conquer the world professionally, intellectually and as citizens. If we are to train our young to become future leaders they must be trained not only to jump over physical fences, but also to extend their horizons in innovation, creativity, and thinking. To achieve this target the government and the university community must work together to develop a viable learning and teaching culture in our universities.

(The writer is a member of the Arts Faculty Teachers’ Union, University of Colombo.)