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President didn’t allow Devasiri to talk


May 28, 2011
The agitation by university dons for higher salaries is another issue that threatens to upset the applecart. The president of the Federation of University Teacher’s Associations Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri complains that at the discussion held last week with the president, he was not allowed to express his views freely with the president interjecting every time he tried to open his mouth. The president had even told Devasiri not to be a ‘Shylock’ (and keep demanding the proverbial pound of flesh).  What really is the issue involved here?  The salaries of academic staff are currently as follows:

Table 1
University Salaries at Present

In 2008, a committee headed by Professor M.T.M.Jiffry was appointed to look into the question of university salaries and it received submissions from the various trade unions and incorporated the representations made by the unions in their report.  What the Federation of University Teacher’s Associations is asking for is the implementation of the recommendations of this committee.  The salary revisions proposed were as follows.

Table 2
The proposed salary hike

One of the arguments of the Jiffry Committee was that university lecturers were drawing lower salaries than employees with similar qualifications in other comparable statutory institutions and private sector organizations.  There however is one major difference between a teaching job and any other kind of employment – paid holidays.  All university dons get at least four full months of the year off, in addition to the weekends when the universities are in session. The lack of paid holidays is something that is felt very keenly by those in all other occupations.  

Even when they are at work, the work load of a university don is not excessive.  For example, a professor would deliver lectures for about 5 to 6 hours a week, a senior lecturer for about 8 hours and a probationary lecturer for about 10 hours per week. Moreover, its not as if the lecturers have to prepare afresh for every lecture.  There is a certain syllabus that has to be taught and the basics remain the same year after year whatever the subject, whether law, physics, or medicine. Great leaps in knowledge do not occur everyday, and once you get into a groove, the job is not necessarily a high pressure occupation.

These factors have to be taken into account when discussing salaries. The Central Bank is one institution that the Jiffry Committee has taken as an example. But the Central Bank does not get four months of the year in paid holidays. Therefore it may perhaps not be very accurate to compare universities with the Central Bank or indeed with any other government or private sector job.  Given the fact that a university job had a lot of paid holidays in addition to being a low stress job would mean that a lower salary than the private sector is called for. But university dons are not entitled to a full government pension, and they have to contribute to the EPF and a contributory pension scheme in order to secure retirement benefits. So in all reasonableness the salaries of university dons have to be higher than that of a government servant holding a comparable position.

It is after weighing such factors that a reasonable salary scale for university dons should be arrived at.  If the Central Bank salaries are to be taken as a benchmark, then it should be the Central Bank salaries with a proportionate deduction for the paid vacations that university dons enjoy.  If the universities get four months of the year off, then their annual salaries should be compared to eight months of the Central Bank pay. It is only those who have worked in jobs with and without paid holidays who will realize the difference between the two.

Then again there is the need to make the university salary scales attractive enough to retain the best.  This has been accepted in principle by the government as well, and they have begun bumping up the salaries.  The budget for 2011 alone increased the salaries of the academic staff by the following amounts. Devasiri the FUTA president acknowledged that these increases have in fact been implemented. The research allowance has to be applied for but can be obtained upon application.

Table 3
Salary Increase through special allowances in 2011 Budget

 Obviously there are limits to which salaries and allowances can be increased in any given year and in a situation where the government itself has accepted on principle that the salaries of university staff has to be increased further, whether it is reasonable to continue to keep away from duties, is a moot point.  Devasiri says that no trade union begins agitating with a minimum demand – they always start with the maximum so that there will be some leeway for negotiation. He also acknowledges that the entire increase cannot be given in one budget. What he says is that the government should give them a time frame within which the salary proposals would be implemented. But there are other implications in giving such pledges to university dons. Because university positions do not get a non-contributory government pension and they have to contribute to a pension fund and the EPF, their salaries have to be higher than that of government servants in comparable positions.  But the difference cannot be such that the government servants feel short changed.

This is a third world country and the salary demands have to take that fact into consideration. It is not as if the government has turned a blind eye to the university salaries question – the increments in Table 3 have already been given this year.  Devasiri even poses the question – how much are ministers paid? But this again is to compare two different jobs. University dons are not required to travel all over the country or deal with constituents and stakeholders from all over the country. Perhaps a less confrontational approach is called for.  The minister of higher education S.B.Dissanayake obviously wants to improve the standards of the universities and he has said time and again that salaries have to be upped. Obviously, he is as anxious as the university dons themselves to recruit and retain the best. Given all that and the fact that a substantial increase has been given this year, is trade union action really called for? Such action may have been called for only if the government had been completely deaf to their demands which is hardly the case here.

The Island

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