The government and the university academics are heading for a showdown which should be avoided lest the university system will breakdown.
Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) has embarked on trade union action where its members have with effect from 9th May, 2011 resigned en masse from all voluntary administrative posts they held and would refrain from participation in GCE A/L Examination related work in August 2011.
The point I want to make in this brief intervention as an academic with the hope that it would contribute toward diffusing the crisis, is that what began as a salary issue has now been extended to a matter of dignity of and respect for the profession. According to FUTA sources, already large numbers of academics from almost all the universities representing all departments, in all the faculties in the university system have tendered resignations and even as I conclude this article there do not seem to be any sign of them letting up. While sister unions that comprise the FUTA keep on reiterating their resolve to remain in the trade union action, even those who were not involved initially are organising themselves to join the action.
The government has threatened the academics with legal action, and portrays their demand for a salary increase as unfair, unpatriotic and politically motivated. .
The government claims that the "university academics were granted 36.25 per cent salary increase in the 2011 budget while only a five per cent increase was granted to other public servants."
The university academics point out that this statement is inaccurate. They argue that while they got the 5% salary increase given to all public servants, and a 25% increase of the existing Academic Allowance which is equivalent to 25% of the basic salary. Thus the increase in the academic allowance is equivalent to a 6.25 % increase of the basic salary.
Academics point out that there is a difference between a salary increase and an increase of an allowance which has consequences for the final salary package one gets. Even if one leave out this issue of the difference between salary and allowance which may be taken to be an academic exercise by some, with the increase of the academic allowance the increase to the total salary is (5%+ 6.25%) 11. 25 %.
Research allowance is not a salary increase
The other 25 percent which government claims a salary increase is NOT a salary increase.
It is a research allowance which has to be earned by each individual academic on a yearly basis with many conditions attached to its implementation.
Moreover the same 25 per cent research allowance has been offered to Senior Level Officers engaged in research work in the public sector, and not only to university academics.
With regard to this allowance so far three circulars have been issued between 10th March and 20th April 2011, two from the Management Services of the General Treasury under the signature of P.B.Jayasundera, Secretary to the Treasury and the Ministry of Finance and Planning and a third one under the signature of Dr. Sunil Jayantha Nawaratne, Secretary, Ministry of Higher Education.
The standards set in the first circular, no doubt with the laudable intention of improving the quality of research in the country to reach international standards (unfortunately, however, lacking in due attention paid to its operability in terms of the historical reality in which our university academics has been located), have been watered down in the letter two, apparently due to political pressure to make it easier for everyone to get the 25 percent research allowance.
The objective of the government clearly is to make the members of the academic community feel that the 25 percent research allowance is equal to a virtual salary increase. The actual reality of this claim will only unravel as these circulars go through its implementation with the modus operandi of the University Research Committees and the Faculty Research Committees, which are to be the approving bodies for research that would qualify to win the 25 percent research allowance for one year.
Obviously, the university academic community does not consider the above 25 percent research allowance a salary increase. What they are demanding through engaging in trade union action is negotiations on what they claim a salary increase the government has agreed they deserve.
Difficult times and negotiations
Minister of Higher Education, S. B. Dissanayake is on record saying that "[W]e accept that university academics need a pay increase. But not at a time the country is facing a difficult situation politically and economically" (Daily Mirror on line, Saturday, 07 May 2011). When the government says that due to economic and political reasons it is not in a position to pay the salary increase that they agree the university academics deserve, then the best course of action to diffuse the situation is to invite the FUTA to a discussion on that matter.
The Minister is also on record saying that the FUTA "can bring their grievances to President Mahinda Rajapaksa or the Higher Education Ministry at any time and resolve these matters." FUTA states that the Minster at a meeting with FUTA "promised that he would arrange a meeting with the President in order to discuss the matter. Although FUTA sent a letter through the Minister to the President in line with this undertaking, FUTA is yet to receive an acknowledgement, let alone an appointment, from the office of the President." It seems it is essential that the mistrust that, the above scenario shows, has developed between the university academic community and the government needs to be diffused immediately by reviving talks between the two parties.
For this to happen it is necessary that the government takes the university academic community into its confidence as a "stakeholder" as it is fashionably said these days, rather than an enemy of the educational reforms it intends to introduce, which essentially should involve the issue of salaries of the academics.
To begin with, it is necessary for the government to seriously address the FUTA claim that the government and authorities have been making statements "that seek to both degrade the credentials and status and to cast aspersions on the reputation and conduct of university teachers, with ill-founded allegations and accusations."
It is unfortunate that the government in its efforts to discredit the FUTA demand for a salary increase has taken the usual path of discrediting the university academic community treating it as an enemy.
University academics are not terrorists. Neither are they rebellious young university students.
The argument presented by the government that "many FUTA members are anti-government" may earn some credibility in the eyes of the public given the appearance of some publicly known personalities affiliated to political parties on the FUTA platform or that the UNP and the JVP are taking an interest in this issue to get some political mileage out of it. But members of university teachers unions across the island which send its representatives to the executive committee of the FUTA know that this is not true. University teachers unions that are members of the FUTA are not politically affiliated. However, it is natural that their members may belong to various political parties or subscribe to political ideologies found in the country. What is important is that FUTA does not represent the views of any or some political parties but the views of its membership.
University academic community in Sri Lanka has a long history. This is not the first time that they have been engaged in trade union action or salary demands. The long drawn struggle fought by University academics under the leadership of Prof. Nalin de Silva to win their salary demands is history now. Never in history have they been treated as enemies by the administration or the government and thereby even in engaging in trade union action, relations between the academics and the authorities and the government have never been on enemy level. As it is mostly academics who hold positions of authority in the university administration, there is never an issue of outright hostility towards each other in carrying out trade union action. It is rather unfortunate if at this juncture such an enmity develops as it would sow disharmony among the academia thus affecting its unity in caring for the advancement of higher education which is their common goal.
If the government is to achieve its vision of turning Sri Lanka into a knowledge hub in Asia and raise the standards of its universities to international levels then it is imperative that it should take into confidence the university academic community in carrying out such reforms.
Hence running down the academic community in the eyes of the public in order to avert the demand for a salary increase may bring about antagonisms not only between the authorities and the academia, but also within the academia as this situation demands the academics to choose political camps on the lines of allegiance to government labelling all those who are involved in trade union action as enemies or traitors of a nation building project.
The writer is a member of the Arts Faculty Teachers Union, University of Colombo.
1. (Management Services Circular No: 44, 10.03.2011 http://www.treasury.gov.lk/BOM/msd/circulardocs/msd-2011-44-eng.pdf
2. Management Services Circular No: 44 (i), and 15.03.2011 http://www.treasury.gov.lk/BOM/msd/circulardocs/msd-2011-44%28i%29-eng.pdf
3. Higher Education Circular No: 1/ 2011) on 20th April 2011. http://www.ugc.ac.lk/en/policy/other-circular-letters/93-higher-education-circular-no-1-2011/866-payment-of-research-allowance-in-terms-of-budget-proposals-2011.html