University dons in cuckoo land

Margret Thatcher

By C.R.Chandraprema

University academic staff have now been on strike for one month. This is now the longest strike engaged in by university teachers in this country. Minister Basil Rajapaksa has been called upon to settle the matter.

Last Wednesday, a meeting was held between representatives of the Federation of University Teacher’s Associations (FUTA) and Rajapaksa whose team of negotiators comprised of Charitha Herath, Anura Siriwardene, Damma Dissanayake among others.

Six members of the FUTA including its president, Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri were present. The talks were described by both sides as being cordial. At the end of it Basil Rajapaksa had said that he will consult the President and the Secretary to the Treasury and come to some sort of a settlement.

Hope was expressed that some settlement would be arrived at this week. About expenditure having to reach 6% of GDP, the FUTA representatives had said that this was only a bargaining point and that all they wanted was an assurance that the government will provide more funding for the education sector.

The FUTA representatives had drawn attention to the Mahinda Chinthanaya which aspires to turn the country into an education hub and said that they too like that concept and would like to come to a settlement that would make it unnecessary to have strikes for the next 15 years. They had also wanted to know what the government policy was towards their salary increments. Their main demand was that university teachers be declared a special service like the Sri Lanka Administrative Service.

One point that the FUTA had been very particular about was the insults they had to face from certain quarters with allegations being made that they played games of chance with answer scripts of examinations. While this discussion with Basil Rajapaksa had been cordial, what is a cause for concern is that the core issue of the salary increase was not gone into.

But then again, the FUTA representatives had specifically said that they are not Shylocks demanding the proverbial pound of flesh and that had given the government negotiating team the impression that some compromise formula may be possible. What FUTA had wanted was a clear statement from the government about their salary demands.

After negotiating with the combative and outspoken Minister of Higher Education, FUTA appeared to be willing to talk to anyone who does not say hurtful things to them. FUTA head Dewasiri when asked by this columnist what form the settlement would take, said that one cannot say at the moment and that it all depends on how serious the government was. Dewasiri said that the president had referred to a win win situation and that what was not yet clear was the ‘win’ for FUTA.

Asked about some specific demands that FUTA had put forward, such as that all allowances be merged into the basic salary, Dewasiri says that they are fighting on the basis of the recommendations made by the Jiffery Commission. He said that the other side should tell them what they think about this proposal and that had not happened yet. Asked whether there were any demands in their list which are not negotiable, Dewasiri said that there are no non-negotiable demands. He said that no trade union will say before they arrive at an agreement which demands are not open for negotiation.

He also said that the immediate demands that will need to be dealt with are those that refer to university autonomy. Dewasiri says that as of now, it was not possible for FUTA to hold a press conference in a university as there was a letter issued by Prof Samaranayake, the UGC chairman to the effect that the press could not be called into the university premises without permission. When permission is applied for, the UGC chairman wants to know what is going to be discussed and whether any anti-government speeches were going to be made.

Dewasiri was also saying that the Establishment Code EC) was being misused to control the universities. For example, the EC says that trade union meetings cannot be held during working hours. But in the case of university academics, lectures can be held from 8am to 6pm and given such working hours, no meeting of FUTA can be held during the day. He said that the EC was not meant to apply to bodies like the universities where things are different to other work places. Dewasiri said that to meet most of their demands all that is really needed is a change in the attitude of the minister and the UGC chairman.

The demands

It would be pertinent at this stage to see what the university dons have actually been asking for in this month long strike. The FUTA demands are outlined in a 16 page document and the main demands are categorised into two groups A and B. In the A group are the professional and salary demands of the university teachers and in the B group are the more general demands they have put forward.

The A group starts with a demand that university teachers be recognised as a separate profession like the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS) by setting up a Sri Lanka University Academic Service (SLUAS). With regard to this demand, there is the question whether there is any precedent anywhere in the world for university teachers to be regarded as an SLAS type professional service.

The explanation given by Dewasiri is that this is for the purpose of making it easier for the Salaries and Cadre Commission to decide on their salaries. The purpose in setting up the Sri Lanka Administrative Service is to select on impartial selection criteria, and through a public aptitude test those with the correct skills for jobs in the government administration.

But one has to wonder whether this would serve any useful purpose in the universities where recruitment is on academic merit. Very often the best students are offered jobs on the university staff. Be that as it may, FUTA has circulated to their members a proposal to set up the Sri Lanka University Academic Service which includes the draft minutes of the service. The first item on their list is the demand that the government sign an MOU with FUTA to set up the SLUAS, based on the guidelines provided by FUTA as Appendix II of their demands list.

They have also stipulated that the Ministry of Higher Education, the Ministry of Finance and the Salaries and Cadre Commission should be signatories to the MOU pledging to set up the SLUAS by January 2013. Moreover this MOU will specify in writing that the first draft of the SLUAS service minutes will be provided by the FUTA on the guidelines provided in Appendix II of the document outlining their demands.

The FUTA draft service minutes include provisions for recruitment, promotion, transfer, training, salary, sabbatical leave, retirement, pensions, provident fund and gratuity, the acceptance of consultancies and other such matters that have to do with the regulation of a professional body. In this document is a list of allowances to be paid to university teachers.

Among such allowances is a house rent allowance amounting to 25 to 30% of basic salary for those not living in the university quarters or in a house belonging to him or his spouse. There is also an internet and broad band allowance. In the middle of all this, comes an incongruity – item of the proposed SLUAS service minutes which goes as follows.

“Children education allowance up to two children. The allowance could be varied depending on the category of school attended ie, government school/private school/in hostel.”

No ceiling has been proposed for this as in the case of the house rent allowance which has been fixed as no more than 30% of the salary. However the interesting thing to note is that private school fees have been included in the allowance. Yet, the heading of section B of the FUTA demands list goes as “Safeguarding and uplifting state education” and under this topic, clause 1.1.8 asks the government to put out a “clear statement of the government policy on general state funded education” that includes a five year and 10 year plan for general education, and financial commitment and plan to maintain the general education system.

The incongruity is that FUTA expects the government to uplift state funded general education while asking the government to pay them an allowance to send their own children to private schools. If they were all going to send their children to state funded schools, they would not be needing this Children Education Allowance because government schools do not charge fees.

The question that arises is if other government servants too demand a children’s education allowance, to send their children to private schools, who’s going to be left in the state owned schools? One may assume that private sector employees may prefer private schools in any case, so that may leave only the children of farmers and labourers in the public schools system.

When the present columnist asked the FUTA president Dewasiri about this incongruity, he said that he on principle is against private buses but nobody should blame him if he travels in them nevertheless for the lack of an alternative. There may be more private buses on the roads than SLTB buses, but in the education system, state own schools still outnumber private ones so the comparison does not tally.

Perhaps it would better to simply accept the fact that university teachers would also like to educate their children in private schools preferably teaching international curricula, and that this is a way of trying to get the government to pay for it. Everybody has lifestyle aspirations and there is no shame in saying so publicly.

In fact FUTA should slightly alter their list and demand that the government should increase spending on general education and at the same time encourage the setting up of private schools with proper supervision by the education ministry so that they would be able to send their own children to good private schools with the allowance they get from the government!

The bizarre six percent

This brings us to part B of the FUTA demands list. Part B contains their more general demands and is all about safeguarding and uplifting state education and it starts off with the demand that the govern ment has to sign an agreement with the FUTA to increase spending on education to 6% of GDP by January 2015. At present, (2009 figures) spending on education is more like 2.1%. So this leaves less than two and a half years to triple the share of education in the GDP.

The FUTA claims in their circular to their members that Sri Lanka has pledged to meet this target at the 2009 second Ministerial Meeting of the South Asia Education for All (EFA) Forum held under the auspices of UNESCO.

When we asked Dewasiri about this demand we were told that the government has already pledged to meet this target. Our response was that if someone from the government actually did sign such a pledge, he should have been asked to show cause and if it is found that he actually believed it could be done, that FUTA should have assigned a psychiatrist from among their members to treat that individual free of charge instead of incorporating this 6% demand in their wish list.

When we asked Dewasisri whether the economists among their members had vetted this 6% proposal, we got no answer. Dewasiri’a argument was that as he had told Basil Rajapaksa this was only a bargaining point and that all that they want is an increase in government expenditure on education. But university dons should not bargain like labourers. It’s ok asking for a Rs. 20,000 salary increase with the hope of getting a third of that, but you can’t adopt the same strategy when talking about national policy.

When a body of highly educated people like university dons propose changes to national policy, the not so well-educated should also feel that the demand was reasonable and achievable. To think that Sri Lanka could achieve a share of 6% of the GDP for education two and a half years from now is just insane.

The six percent target itself is daft. According to the latest available UNESCO figures, even the USA has only 5.4% of its GDP allocated to education, the UK has 5.6%, Australia has 5.1%, in Canada, its 4.8%. In all these countries, education is one of the biggest foreign exchange earners and these percentages represent investment by both the government as well as the private sector in education.

The FUTA actually expects the government of Sri Lanka to bring expenditure on education to 6% of GDP on its own without any private sector participation. This despite the fact that unlike countries like Australia and the USA, education is not a major (or even minor) foreign exchange earner in this country.

There are a few countries like Norway, Denmark, New Zealand and Finland, that do have GDP percentages for education which go beyond the UNESCO target of 6% but these are all countries with very small populations, on average about one fourth of that of Sri Lanka’s. The country with the largest population that has gone beyond the 6% of GDP for education target is Belgium which has an 11 million population. None of the larger states with populations above that of Sri Lanka has achieved the 6% target. Australia which has a population roughly equal to that of Sri Lanka and where education is one of the top three foreign exchange earners, still does not have a 6% of GDP share for education.

Thus FUTA expects this country to meet targets not met even by some of the wealthiest countries in the world. Furthermore, none of those wealthy countries is recovering from a war as Sri Lanka is. Sri Lanka did what was considered impossible by all the rich countries mentioned above and within a few years of winning such a war, the government is expected to do what even first world countries have failed to achieve in terms of spending on education. These are not the kind of bargaining points that should be put forward by a body of professionals like university teachers.

Aborting the educational hub concept

When FUTA met Basil Rajapaksa they had in fact said that they like the government’s idea of turning Sri Lanka into an educational hub, but the list of demands put forward by FUTA seeks to destroy the first initiative that the government took to attract foreign students to Sri Lanka. India already has a considerable number of foreign students studying in their universities but there are few in Sri Lanka.

So this country has to build up an international market for itself and the first step in that would be to get some international students into this country. Foreigners do not know that Sri Lankan university degrees are recognised in many developed countries and that since it has that recognition, it would be much cheaper to do their degrees in Sri Lanka than in their home countries.

You have to start the comings and goings somewhere and for this purpose the government initiated a 100 scholarships for foreign students programme where suitably qualified foreign students would be given scholarships to study for undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Scholarship recipients would not have to pay any fees and they would be given a monthly stipend of Rs 30,000 for living expenses. The foreign scholarship holders were to commence their courses from October this year.

All courses were to be taught in English. Now FUTA wants the government to discontinue this scheme. The present writer looked through the courses that are on offer for foreign students in the universities and all of them are marketable. Almost all universities have had English medium courses which are of international standard for decades.

At the University of Colombo, the courses on offer for foreign students include the MSc in Plant and Cell Tissue Culture, the MSc in Mathematics Education and the MA in Economics and so on. Jaffna university has a range of undergraduate courses on offer. The University of Moratuwa has the BSc in Quantity Surveying, and Bachelor of Architecture courses among others, Peradeniya University has the MSc in Biotechnology among a whole host of other undergraduate and postgraduate courses. The South Eastern University even offers a BA in Arabic.

The list of courses on offer is definitely marketable in the 48 countries that have been targeted and if this scholarship scheme was allowed to get off the ground, after a few years when foreign students get used to Sri Lanka this could have become a money spinner for this country. This would have created a bigger demand for university teachers and driven pay rates through the roof. Sri Lanka needs to make the transition to this kind of export industry as the cost of production in this country keeps increasing and it is becoming unviable to keep this country as a primary producer.

Yet FUTA is now engaged in what is obviously an ideologically driven attempt to torpedo this attempt to modernise the higher education sector. When asked whether this is a slogan of the JVP-led Inter-University Student’s Federation that they have incorporated in their list of demands, Dewasiri’s response was that the IUSF was not a body that has come from Mars and that it has roots in this country. Arguing against this foreign student’s scholarship scheme Dewasiri asks whether this is a priority at the present moment. He said that local students get a stipend of Rs. 2,500 a month which is not enough to live on for one week while foreign students are to be given Rs 30,000.

The difference however is that the foreign student scholarship scheme is with a view to turning the state universities into an educational hub and the income derived from these operations will enable the government to increase spending on education. FUTA which is made up of highly educated people does not seem to understand that a resource strapped country like Sri Lanka will have to find the money from somewhere to spend on education and what better way to do it than to earn it through the education system itself?

What then of the crux of this whole issue – the salaries question? The FUTA circular sent to their members states that the present gross salary of Rs 51,316 for a probationary lecturer and Rs 126,536 for a Senior professor which is what it is at present, should increase to Rs 73,038 for a probationary lecturer and Rs 166,964 for a senior professor by January 2013, with the categories in between getting proportionate increases. It’s OK to ask for a salary increase since we all need money to live.

Dons as destroyers

However, the salary demand should be reasonable. The nature of some professions differ in significant ways from others. It may not be feasible to compare completely different professions. The FUTA salary increase proposal seeks to bump up university academic salaries above the pay rates of the Central Bank, which does not seem reasonable at all.

This is based on a recommendation made by Professors M. Jiffery and Malik Ranasinghe in 2008. There is no doubt about the fact that the Jiffery/Ranasinghe committee did make such a proposal which the FUTA is now using to press their claims. However, there is no way to compare a university academic’s job to that of an officer of the Central Bank. You can’t compare an academic job with an executive job.

University academics have a much greater degree of freedom to do what they like without having their shoulders to the cartwheel all the time. For example, the FUTA draft minutes for the Sri Lanka University Academic Service says that university academics should be encouraged to accept consultancies and jobs directing projects and even lays down how the money earned should be shared between the academics and the institution.

No Central Bank officer has the time or the permission to do such things on the side. So the nature of a university job is different and while asking for higher pay is a reasonable demand, you cannot try to bolster your claims with unrealistic and unreasonable comparisons. If that is the case, university vice chancellors will be able to argue that they have thousands of students in their institutions and hundreds of highly qualified staff under them and therefore, the VC’s salary should be equivalent to that of a CEO of a blue chip company.

If the FUTA succeeds in winning their demands that is definitely going to set off a round of strikes by other government servants asking for the same salaries and perks. The country can be completely destroyed through trade union action.

Margret Thatcher had in Britain the image that President Rajapaksa would have today in Sri Lanka. Thatcher was known as the ‘iron lady’ not because she won any wars for Britain, but because she smashed the trade unions and saved Britain from destruction.

The fact that Britain has continued to be first world nation up to now is because Thatcher destroyed the trade unions before the trade unions could destroy Britain. COURTESY:SUNDAY ISLAND

Related: Demands of University Dons: Who’s gone Cuckoo?