Tuesday, June 21, 2011


By C. R. Abayasekara, Dept. of Economics & Statistics, University of Peradeniya

The piece by Luxman Siriwardena and Chanuka Wattegama (hereafter ‘S&W’) titled “Sustainable solution for academic income issue: an economic perspective” in The Island paper of June 07, 2011 addresses some issues concerning the ongoing pay dispute involving the FUTA and the government. It is noteworthy both in its selection of issues and in some of its methodological approaches. However it is contended here that the underlying assumptions and/or simplifications they make may tend to cloud the complexities involved and therefore mislead casual readers. An attempt is made here, therefore, to dig deeper into their claims, and argue why the authors’ conclusions are debatable at best.  

1.      International comparisons of academics’ salaries

S&W compare salaries across countries, seemingly finding that Sri Lankan academics (already) do equally or better than their Chinese and Indian counterparts. The authors’ finding is based on a ‘consolidated salary’ scale for Sri Lankan academics. Going by the figures touted, it appears that this ‘consolidation’ includes the so-called ‘R&D Allowance’ referred to in the last budget, and is computed at the highest point on the salary scale for any position, thus comprising the maximum possible figure.

Several responses are in order. First, the allowance is not a salary increase; it is conditional on meeting certain requirements such as obtaining approval of a research proposal, and publication of results in a journal of repute. It is, in fact a potential research grant which is (impliedly) returnable to the government if the results do not merit it. (Note however that in the face of trade union action, the authorities have issued three successive circulars on this grant, finally implementing it by enabling anyone who wrote up a proposal to obtain it – a rather cavalier approach to research!). The grant may have merit as an incentive for research, but cannot be passed off as a component of the salary. The ongoing action by FUTA does not incorporate the R&D Allowance as a component of the current salary structure. Second, it is not clear whether salaries in other countries have been computed on a comparable basis of consolidation. Without it, the comparison is meaningless. Third, salaries have not been related by the authors to the stage of development achieved by a country. This could be rectified by considering academic salary as a proportion of per capita income, for instance. Also, other South Asian countries should be included as well, apart from India.

One final point is that the authors use “PPP-adjusted US Dollars” as the unit of currency in comparing salaries across countries. Given that this may not be readily comprehended by members of the public, a brief explanatory note is provided here. The idea is that using standard exchange rates often does not serve to represent the actual purchasing power of an income figure. The rates have to be ‘adjusted’ to show what the equivalent income would be in a particular country in terms of what it could buy. It is these ‘adjusted’ figures which S&W use in their cross-country comparison. Debating the pros and cons of its use in this case is outside the scope of this piece; suffice to say that the PPP methodology is widely used. 

Going back to the three points raised, one would conclude that the authors have not conclusively proved that Sri Lankan academics do as well as or better than their counterparts in South Asia, if not other parts of the ‘developing’ world.

2.      Life-time earnings

S&W draw the attention of readers to an individual’s expected life-time earnings rather than the pay for any specific academic position. Further, they argue that this earnings profile should be looked at from the lowest entry point on the ladder (which would be ‘Probationary Lecturer’ in today’s academic structure). These are valid points, and the latter is in keeping with the argument by FUTA that recruiting the ‘best’ of each graduating class is necessary to maintain staff quality. In such an exercise, one needs to compare the life-time earnings expected from alternatives to those of an academic job, to judge the attractiveness of the latter.

In order to better compare earnings across jobs which are qualitatively different, one has to assess these differences ‘subjectively’, or ascribe monetary values to them. S&W consider (only) State sector jobs, and show that academics have certain advantages, such as the retirement age being 65 and provision for taking sabbatical leave. One could include other differences as well, e.g. the availability or otherwise of a pension, the standards applied to obtaining promotion, job-designation (e.g. teaching, research, and contribution to national development by academics), etc. The point is that such differences can be accommodated when negotiating the actual salary scales; their existence does not necessarily negate a demand for a higher salary by the academics.

There is one additional factor which should impinge on such a comparison: the need to retain the ‘best’ in the university system. This implies that the employment options one compares have to relate to a ‘high quality’ graduate. Despite their pessimism regarding overall graduate quality, S&W will accept the fact that this quality varies within any cohort in any stream of study – so that poor ‘average’ quality (if we accept their perception) – can coexist with a few outstanding performers. This means that the job options compared should only include those which compete with the universities for such graduates, including the private sector. The latter is valid for not only for fields like electronics and computer science, the graduates of which are marked highly by S&W, but for any field.

I sum up the discussion here by agreeing with S&W that life-time earnings are relevant for comparing an academic career with others, while stressing the fact that qualitative differences in career paths can be incorporated in a specific salary scale. As to whether academics fare better than comparable categories of the public sector - the jury is still out.  

3.      Graduate quality and employment issues

S&W report specific attributes lacking in graduates which make them unattractive to the industrial sector. They also lay the blame for the persistence of graduate unemployment at the academics’ doorstep, so that increasing academics’ pay is tantamount to “negative incentivizing”. It will be convenient to take each group of attributes separately as causes and remedies may differ.

(a)    Lack of “competencies”

S&W mention proficiency in the areas of English, soft skills and computer literacy as the competencies most graduates typically lack. What they do not offer is a rationale for why these skills should be developed at the university rather than prior to entering it. The issue can be made clearer by considering each component separately.

The decline in the standard of English knowledge of school-leavers over many decades is too well-known to elaborate. Universities tackle this in different ways. First, there are specialized English Language Teaching Units (ELTUs) entrusted with the task of teaching Language, and are ancillary to the degree programs. Second, many degree courses are taught in English. Third, students may be provided internship opportunities in an English-using work environment. Finally, one can add a range of other opportunities and activities such as English debates organized by student societies and corporate social responsibility programs undertaken by the private sector. The responsibility for English-learning within the university is then shared by many actors, and may atone only partly for shortfalls in learning at school for any particular individual. It is not possible to blame the academics as a group for this state of affairs.

The perceived lack of ‘soft skills’ have been sought to be addressed by universities over the past several years, not least by designing course syllabi so that they could be assessed as part of course requirements. One may however legitimately expect their acquisition during the 18 years or so prior to entering the university through a combination of family background, schooling and exposure to wider society. After all, graduates of an earlier era seemed to possess them in abundance and one did not give the entire credit to their university experience. Part of the answer to any decline may be unwittingly provided by S&W themselves. They position a typical undergraduate in the following milieu, as expressed in their second paragraph:

“State universities are increasingly becoming exclusive clubs for rural middle class and lower. An entry is a ‘consolation prize’ for those who cannot afford superior offshore education for their children.”

Without sounding elitist one may legitimately hypothesize, in line with the above view that the mix of students has adversely impacted on the possession of soft skills of university entrants. Another part could be attributed to the long-term decline in the school system with the gradual spread of tuition-based, exam-oriented book-learning, and the relatively low importance given to extra-curricular achievements when admitting students to higher education. At the same time, however, one must recognize that different degree programs and courses within the public university system may have achieved differential success in compensating for inadequate soft skills.

Two attributes of graduates named by S&W, viz. “lack of confidence” and being “risk-averters” could also fall into the category of soft skills. While these are common generalizations, there is considerable variation across universities and degree programs. For instance, it is said that graduates of universities located in and around Colombo tend to be more confident and ‘risk-taking’ than those distanced further away. Other factors such as the pressure for conformity exerted by student unions are believed to play a role in the expression of individuality by students in undergraduate life.

A controlled experiment that could explain soft skills acquisition across social classes, private and public higher education institutions, local and foreign universities, extent of student union power and different degree programs would be useful. A sweeping generalization that academics are not doing their job on this score seems out of place.

Computer Literacy is one area in which the university can play an important role. Even here, many entrants take computer/IT courses prior to university life. Universities typically provide special courses or incorporate them in mainstream degree courses. Its success in the public university system will lie to a significant extent on the quality of the physical infrastructure and human capital funded largely through the government or multilateral aid/lending. The newer universities certainly have been equipped generously. In an environment where low computer literacy in the country is recognized and attempts are being made to expand it in the secondary school system, more rigorous evidence is needed before concluding that the universities have failed.

In sum, one can attribute the lack of competencies to many factors, the significance of each changing over the decades the universities have been in operation. It is certainly difficult to object to raising the salaries of academics on the grounds that graduates lack soft skills.  

(b)   Poor subject knowledge

This is a more serious allegation, as university teachers would be expected to function as facilitators of knowledge-acquisition by students. More information is needed on its extent and severity across universities, programs, language streams and so on before making generalizations about the academics’ demands.

(c)    Unemployment


According to S&W, graduate employability (in “industry”) is restricted to very few such as “…Electronics and Communications and Computer Science and Engineering graduates from Moratuwa University ..” and “..Computer Science graduates from University of Colombo School of Computing …” This finding can have a completely different interpretation, however, to the effect that it is these fields in which the demand for graduates matches or exceeds their supply.

Negative perceptions of graduates by the private sector will certainly lower overall demand for their services. But the type of degree program also matters, which means in effect that higher education authorities have a role to play in guiding the evolution of degree programs.  Highlighting the apparently few graduate-absorbing sectors does not prove that the quality of public university education overall is too low (a graduate may possess a high quality philosophy degree but prove unattractive to industry). Also, while employability is emerging world-wide as one criterion of the efficiency of higher education, the latter’s historical role of contributing critical thinkers and leaders of society has not been abandoned. Finally, apart from specific sectors, the overall growth rate of the economy can also be expected to provide an impetus for graduate employment.     

Unemployment Rate

When S&W pick on rising graduate unemployment and a rate of 12% to infer that university teachers are not doing their job, they ignore evidence in Sri Lanka attributing the following as characteristics of unemployment among educated youth (with graduates as a sub-group).

(i) Relatively high rates of unemployment among females – which should be taken together with the increasing ‘feminization’ of undergraduate education, (ii) preference of job-seekers for “good” sectors (i.e. job-security, work norms, whether it is penshionable, etc.) plus the willingness/ability to be unemployed till a suitable job is found, and (iii) the predominance of external degree-holders among unemployed graduates. (To this list may be added factors such as the relative demand for different streams of study taken together with numbers enrolled, and the rate of growth in the economy, touched upon previously).

Clearly, singling out academics in their role as teachers to explain overall graduate unemployment does not jell with the evidence. Claiming a “negative incentivizing” effect of a salary increase seems preposterous.

4.      Liberalization of the education sector

S&W provide examples of how the entry of the private sector can result in both quality improvement and increased salaries. As far as higher education goes, the entry of “…fee-levying medical, engineering, accountancy, IT and law colleges…” in India is seen to have stimulated the “…cream of Indian higher education sector…” and enabled their academics to receive relatively high salaries. While higher salaries for the public sector were required to retain/recruit staff, it is not clear what revenues were used for that purpose. These may have been raised through a combination of cost-cutting, fee-levying and government subsidies.

How replicable is this model? It is limited to the type of program which would attract the private sector and public acceptance of specific measures proposed for paying higher public sector salaries. Note that there is no guarantee of quality improvement in the public sector because the clientele for the two sectors might differ, thus preventing competition among institutions for good quality students. But if private education can be made accessible to the latter through the provision of scholarships, then this problem will be mitigated.

However, this model will not work for all the fields of study which are covered currently by the public sector universities. Thus it does not offer a complete solution to the academics’ pay demands. Before embarking on this approach some critical thinking will be required on the role of higher education in this country. After all, when S&W claim that the Central Bank and the CEB “…make substantial contribution to the economy unlike non-profit making state universities maintained by tax payers’ money…”, then the public sector universities surely deserve much of the credit for the graduates they have supplied. Perhaps part of the surpluses generated in these and similar institutions should be directed towards university education – including the payment of higher salaries for academics!

5.      Miscellany

The reasoning of S&W is clouded at different stages by inaccurate statements, some of which are briefly responded to below.

Statement I: “A position as a university academic in any country is bestowed with social respect and dignity, say the academics. So the universities, according to them, should take efforts to recruit and retain people with highest academic achievements by offering attractive wages and other benefits.”

Response: Recruiting people with highest academic achievements is not to maintain social respect and dignity, but to keep academic standards high.

Statement II: “… the current demand for higher compensation is not to attract new faculty. If it is for the existing faculty, it would be useful to analyse their past achievements that deserve such a rise.”

Response: The pay demand reflects the past, present and future. Insufficient pay in the past has made it difficult to recruit the ‘best’ always, and has resulted in a large number of vacancies. At present, it is difficult to retain staff. In the future, it will be difficult to recruit staff.

Statement III: “Government recognizes their [i.e. academics’] value by lawfully permitting academics to take research and consultancy assignments, a privilege it does not offer for other public officers, for example, Central Bankers.”

Response: Taking on consultancies may be a privilege, and should be subject to university permission. Doing research is part of the job description and is not considered an additional income-earning activity; rather it contributes to the academic’s and the institution’s standing which has further spin-off benefits to the system as a whole.

Statement IV: “The key to higher living standards of academics is in their own hands…They just have to take more assignments (short term) and sincerely support opening up the education sector like the Indian academics did (long term). Only that will ensure them enjoying decent earning, not resolving to trade union actions of the proletariat.”

Response: Taking on “assignments” would be in addition to teaching, research (including student supervision), and a range of administrative and support tasks (so-called “voluntary” work) such as functioning as Department Heads and participating in committee meetings. Clearly a balance is needed among these tasks to maintain their integrity, to which the proposed assignments will be subject. It is not clear why S&W dismiss trade union actions (“of the proletariat”). After all, academics themselves are reluctant trade unionists, resorting to it only at long intervals. Preservation of this tradition would be helped if the government stuck to its word and interacted with them as professionals.  

6.      Conclusion

In responding to S&W, my intention has been to show that the apparently straightforward arguments they advance are in fact suspect, and as a result do not support their negative view of the academics’ salary demands. The range of issues they cover, however should be of interest to anyone concerned with higher education in this country.

C.R. Abayasekara, Senior Lecturer, University of Peradeniya

Read the article: “Sustainable solution for academic income issue: an economic perspective” in The Island paper of June 07, 2011