by Arunadale Wijeratne and Shalika Wimalasena
Minister of Higher Education, S.B. Dissanayake has emerged the rather bumptious villain in the continuing saga of the university academics, their demands and their strike action, which is now in its third month.
The minister has maintained the dons’ issue is a conspiracy cooked up by some alien forces and has termed both their demands and the strike action unfair, unreasonable and unwarranted.
Here, in a hard hitting interview with Dissanayake, Arunadale Wijeyratne and Shalika Wimalasena ask some tough questions about the academics’ demands and the government claims.
Below are the excerpts of the interview.
Q: Will a pay rise meet the demands of the teachers?
A: Not exactly. But at the moment we are very close to meeting the proposal of the Jeffrey-Malik Committee, which is a good thing for the teachers.
Q: Why can’t you work the Jeffrey-Malik proposal to the letter, instead of ‘getting close’ to it?
A: To do that is not possible, because, a Senior Professor gets paid more than the Chief Justice, and the Chief Justice has always been at the top of the pay scale in this country. So, there is an imbalance, and we request the teachers not to demand a pay rise right now, because, it not possible at the moment.
Q: Why do you say a pay rise is not possible?
A: It is not possible because we have already given an 83% rise. For the lowest position, it has been a rise of 39%. We have already granted the university teachers a research allowance of 25%, and they got the 5% allowance given to government servants. Plus the academic allowance was raised by 25%.
Q: But, they are only allowances, aren’t they?
A: Yes; we cannot raise the basic salary.
Q:Can’t you add these allowances to the basic salary?
A: That would be unfair on the other workers. I do not deny the university teachers are special. But, certain allowances they demand cannot be granted. For example, the telephone allowance, because, they are not on-call workers like doctors.
Q:Is it right to treat university teachers this way – they are after all responsible for the future leaders of the country – aren’t they?
A: Are they really? The universities have been under the rule of students since ’89. Have the authorities been capable of changing any of the undergraduates’ decisions since then?
Q: Why didn’t the government intervene to end the issue?
A: For a long time it did not. As a result, the students beat up leaders, including Dudley, Bandaranaike, Iriyagolle, Bathiudeen, and Richard Pathirana. Lalith Athulathmudali’s funeral thorana was burnt.
But, I changed all that. I made the campuses approachable. We started punishing students after a long lapse, in order to bring back discipline. We even brought discipline to noted unruly places such as the Bhikku University in Anuradhapura. There was a fringe group that benefited from this.
Q: What is the fringe group that benefited?
A: Some Professors had been propelled to positions with no dissertations, not even a single article in the papers to their name. I will show you a letter written by Nirmal (Dr. Nirmal Ranjit Dewasiri). In the letter, he brands the lecturers a tribe of lazy swindlers, who had got their positions through favouritism.
Q: Do you agree that all the university teachers can be branded as ‘lazy swindlers’?
A: I do not agree with him. He brands the whole lot of lecturers thus, while I talk only of a fringe group of about 5%.
Q:This letter was written by Dr. Dewasiri in 1999. His views may have changed by now?
A: Maybe. But, he views them basically as a group that holds on to their posts as a way of retaining their middle class positions.
Q: But, was not this the same group that helped establish the government?
A: Well, it’s like this – these lecturers get many benefits including a year’s sabbatical leave to go abroad. But now, no university in the world would invite academics from Sri Lanka to their countries, because, the ratings of our universities have gone down that far.
Q: Who should be held responsible for the low ratings?
A: The universities, of course.
Q: Are you saying the government had no responsibility for the low ratings?
A: We are responsible, partly. That’s why we are working on it.
Q: So, we come back to the earlier question: why have the lecturers taken to the roads?
A: That is exactly the problem I have. They have more holidays than anyone else, including paid foreign travel of 42 days. I just don’t understand.
Q: Well it seems that problems have been accumulating ever since you took up the post, haven’t they?
A: Yes. This is because under my tenure, the Vice Chancellors got back their power and the students were brought under discipline. You may recall that previously, there were around 100 stabbings and hospitalizations each month in universities.
I don’t know why the lecturers crave so much. Dr. Nalin de Silva was astonished to hear that a probationary lecturer earns so much.
Q: But, what the lecturers get is still a pittance when compared with what politicians get.
A: Wait. MPs do not get foreign travels; only ministers do. Plus, as ministers, my colleagues and I now get a cut-down fuel allowance, which used to be unlimited. Also, the salary is not sufficient. And we now get an MPs salary – not that of a minister.
Q: So, you maintain that there is no discrepancy in the salary?
A: There may be a discrepancy, but these people get way more than other government servants.
Q: But, why have they then taken to the roads?
A: The people ‘on the roads’ are actually a small faction. Only about 200-300 of the 5,000 lecturers are on the roads. Yesterday, there were only 189. They were caught on video.
Q: Why were they video-recorded at the walks?
A: That need not concern you. It was done for the sake of the country’s security.
Q: What would you do if the lecturers fail to return?
A: About 80 have returned to work. We know only about 5% actually supports the strike.
To repeated queries of what the government would do if the strike continues, the minister only replied to the effect ‘let us have our way, and you will see.’ courtesy: Ceylon Today