Sunday, October 14, 2012

Editorial - How much will the dons get?


Both FUTA and the government have been coy about the deal struck between the two sides to end the three-month long university strike. They’ve been clearly heard proclaiming that the strike is over but have been much more reticent about the actual terms of settlement. FUTA is on record saying it’s a ``truce’’ and government must ``honour its undertakings’’ implying that there is a feeling at least within some of its ranks that such might not be the case. We take the view that the strike was all about academic salaries – and the demand that six percent of GDP be spent by the State on education was strategic, to win the support of a wider constituency for the FUTA demands. That undoubtedly succeeded and some sections of the polity even began daydreaming that the academics had set a regime change snowball rolling. FUTA’s greatest success, we believe, is that university students, who were among those most affected by the trade union action, backed the academics. The strikers did not attract the hatred of undergraduates forced to idle for three months, and most probably have their university stay prolonged as a result of the disruption. In fact, it was alleged that most of those who participated in FUTA’s long march from Galle were students!

It was obvious that the government would not, indeed cannot, agree to an education spend of six percent of GDP in the short term. That is outside the realms of possibility. The best that could have been hoped for would have been a commitment to work towards this objective in the future. As has been the case in many of previous prolonged trade union disputes, the academics will get back pay. That too was a foregone conclusion. Tough talking governments have seldom been able to enforce ``no strike pay’’ decisions where getting the strikers back to work is the prime imperative. FUTA was able to offer loans to those of their members suffering hardship without salaries although how such funds were raised has not been widely publicized. We do know that the CMU donated half a million rupees and pictures of veteran trade unionist Bala Tampoe handing the cheque were published. But the public has not been privy to the identities of the majority of the benefactors. Government propagandists have been at pains to suggest that undisclosed funding of the strike tainted it as an anti-government conspiracy. That argument ignores the fact that most of academia backed Mahinda Rajapaksa for President.

Now that the strike is over, though on what terms the public has not been clearly told, the people are entitled to ask why such terms could not have been agreed upon three months ago. That way the marking of the GCE `A’ level scripts could have been already underway and much heartburn among students and parents avoided. Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera, delivering the Sujata Jayawardena Memorial Oration in Colombo last week, blamed the government, the vice chancellors and student leaders for ``starting something that could have easily been avoided.’’ He was candid enough to say the letter he wrote to FUTA, which was part of the settlement by all accounts, had no numbers – obviously meaning that the salary increases that will be granted to academics had not been quantified. He said that the letter ``contains substance and conveys the commitment of government over the medium term.’’ Obviously Minister Basil Rajapaksa, in separate talks with FUTA, had said (or promised) more than the Treasury chief did in his letter. FUTA leader, Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri, is on record saying he trusts the minister and he seems to have persuaded his presumably strike-weary colleagues to accept whatever assurances that have been offered by the presidential sibling. Jayasundera says the only numbers in his later was the date because he has not yet learned to date a letter any way but numerically!

The Treasury Secretary, more so than a quick fix minister, obviously understands the repercussions of disturbing delicately balanced public service pay structures. The GMOA has already made some noises. Remarks by an unnamed official strongly suggested that doctors will ask for a pay increase in line with what the university dons are granted. No doubt other public service professionals, be they engineers, architects, scientists, administrators, lawyers and perhaps judges will make their claims. It is unlikely that patients will back striking doctors the way that university students seem to have backed striking dons. The academics urged that their salary structure be on par with that of the Central Bank. The Central Bank is in most years a profit making institution thanks to its captive business. The State universities are not. In an illuminating letter published in The Island last week, Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, academic turned national list politician, has provided some telling statistics about the number of hours of teaching per week done by some university dons. He has socked in the point that ``salaries should be paid in terms of work done, and sadly there is no system at present to ensure that university lecturers actually work satisfactorily for the salaries they earn.’’

Wijesinha, judging by what he has written, has obviously been poring over a lot of figures. He has qualified his criticism by making clear that some academics do work hard by offering both good and the bad figures demonstrating that what he has said is in good faith. It is necessary, he says, that the number of hours taught by all lecturers be tabulated and these figures be used as a management tool. He admits that by doing so, it may not be possible to ensure that the work done is actually teaching or merely reading notes for students to copy ``which I know some of my colleagues used to do.’’ Constructive criticism from a ruling party parliamentarian is certainly most welcome and the national list MP must be congratulated for being outspoken. It is not necessary to labor the point that State resources are squandered at many levels right across the spectrum. Such resources are not limitless and cannot be poured without restraint into the pockets of those who demand or strike for better pay. Yet in a situation where the political establishment is too well served, and extravagant government spending is an everyday spectacle, who can blame lesser beings for demanding a fair share of the cake?

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