‘Matha, Pitha, Guru’ is a trio embedded in the Asian culture. Guru had a high value in society as a learned person and one who shows the path. Disciples were recognized of Gurus & Acharyas for their teachings inclusive of religious and military teachings. Unfortunately the value of this profession has diminished to a job at present. The deeper values of education is not degrees and certificates but the behavior and contributions of the educated and their contribution to the society at large. Literacy is taken as a measure of development by the world not for the numbers who could sign, but to assess the values of human potential in the society to contribute to the development of themselves. But whether that is a reality today is a question. However the teachers remain as the kingpin of education of a school, university or an institute and even today some teachers and their guidance are recognized by the society as a school of a person or thought.
Many complain that the Academic Staff of Universities do not sign in and out as attendance. At the time these were introduced if they had requested for signature of the staff then the entire budget would have gone for OT (overtime) as almost all of the academics worked 24×7. I cannot vouch for it for all staff today, but that is an administrative matter where weeding needs to take place to ensure that the system works best. It is not a privilege but a recognition, not asking signatures.
Academic service and Human Capital
We have around 5000 academics in the state universities in country and of them only a small number have been involved/associated voluntarily in social and community workings. But on the other hand the state had never considered them as a human resource and capitalized on it, where the CVCD( Committee of Vice Chancellors and Directors) becomes a partner in development and when all the state universities could be mobilized. A few may have been selected, not for their skills but for their affiliation more often, political or otherwise. It is time that the CVCD becomes a partner in development in all state projects if the country needs to move forward with the Human capital of the nation, than seeking experts from overseas all the time. It is also true that the grievances of the Academic are initially addressed for them to be free to contribute to the National development, significantly. A separate service as ‘Academic service’ had been recognized by creating a separate Establishment code for Universities in 1984 itself, but had not been a reality to date. In 2012 an agreement was signed between the FUTA( Federation of the Teachers Association) and the State following the 100 day protest by the Universities, to institute a separate Academic service signed by Secretary/MOHE and moderated/mediated by none other than Mr Basil Rajapaksa then the Minister for Economic development. Though salary revisions were implemented the progress in reference to ACADEMIC SERVICE had been stalled for some reason unknown and now may be a best time to implement, as the need of the day. It is broadly accused that the UGC had not been in favour of such move, for reasons unknown, and thus had been dragging it, which may or not be the case. But inaction is evident.
There are many issues faced by the academic staff in the university which have not been adequately addressed and had infested the system, which needs to be healed or amputated.
Recruitment and Promotion
Recruitment qualifications had not changed since 1978 but many additives have been introduced which have in my opinion diluted the requirements, accepting various qualifications to the satisfaction of the UGC at the end. This may be for recruitment, promotion or confirmation which leaves a large space for unfairness and also inappropriateness.
Recruitment, promotion, conformation need a revision accommodating but not compromising academic standards. As far back as 2001/2 there was a workshop by the CVCD, where these had been spelled out and suggested that recruitments of bias and low caliber had affected the system as a whole, but unfortunately no one took any medicine for the cure but let it infest continuously. UGC of yesterday, holds a major responsibility as they see issues administratively and not academically and circulars are issued on their own though there had been may requests made to release them in consultation with the CVCD. Change of attitudes and modes of operation may benefit the Academia and country at large.
There is also a need for the exposure of the Academics globally acquiring qualification from abroad which had been made easy by the funds provided by the UGC, NCAS and the AHEAD project at present allocation between 6-9 million rupees per person. Unfortunately there are limited candidates for these as they prefer to obtain local degrees for their confirmation and promotions for own reasons, which need a review in toto. Even Harvard or Oxford do not recruit their own graduates unless they have a substantial experience elsewhere.
Age of Retirement
Retirement age is defined as 65 in the University Act 16 of 1978, and remains same to date where as the retirement age of others have been increased in the public sector from 55-60, which has been adopted by the UGC in 2016 with associated change in the Act 16, 2016.
The act was revised to accommodate the change of age of retirement of public officers in the University system ( and to change along with the changes made in the public enterprises). They had not at that time considered the amendment of the retirement age of the Academics which is specified in the act. These justify the need for a separate ‘Academic service’ to be established as early as possible. The public administration also allows reemployment up to 67 years of age vide circular 3/2018 of Public Administration, while re-employment after 65 years for academic appointments require cabinet approval.
Retirement at 65 was based on the life expectancy of 68 years in 1978. The retirement age at present along that line should be 75, the life expectancy being around 78 at present. However rationally extension of retirement age to 70 is justified and would be in consistent with other sectors. Extension over 70 may be on contract as appropriate until 75. The senior academics contribute significantly to the university development and research and thus is of significance to the system. At a time when the state plans to op[en many new universities the extended age of retirement would facilitate to fill the cadres of the new Universities with experienced Academics, which would be a great advantage considering the teething problems other universities have had at their beginnings. It is also a fact that if they are on pension then the state will have to offer pension for long periods which is unproductive economy as a whole. Those who do not have pension have been known to spend the money and be with financial difficulties at their last days which too is a bad syndrome. The recent appointment of Professor W D Luxman as Governor of Central Bank speaks of the quality of an aged academic who had been on retirement almost for 15 years, since retirement. On a large scale the present age limit wastes the human potential that could contribute significantly to the higher education. Considering the number of retired officers who are posted to high positions at present, the issue of extension of retirement age of academics seems an issue trivial, but overdue. Recent documentation in 2019 on ageing in Sri Lanka by ADB recommends as follows;
“Extending working lives and increasing retirement age is also key to making the costs of old-age income security fiscally sustainable. Interventions that Sri Lanka may consider include raising the retirement age and linking these to future increases in healthy life expectancy. (World Bank 2016).
There is a misconception that keeping older people at work will reduce employment opportunities for the young. Available global evidence and experience from other Asian economies indicate that this does not happen in practice. Indeed, extending employment in older adults has a net positive impact on employment of younger adults. Evidence from OECD economies and the PRC support this view (World Bank 2016).” In Ageing population – ADB-2019.
Allowance to the Vice Chancellor
Money may not be an issue at all levels but it is an indicative of the importance of a position and also the value to the position. Currently the remuneration of a Vice Chancellor of a University is the same as a Senior Professor plus a Rs 500 allowance for the Vice Chancellor. This is more insulting than awarding. Usually, globally the VCs get at least 4 times the salary of the Senior Professor, even in nearby Asian countries, and we should raise it to at least twice the basic of the senior professor for a meaningful recognition. An allowance which had been approved by the treasury vide treasury circular 3/2015 and adopted by the UGC under finance circular 4/2015, but withheld from implementation, for unknown reasons. It is also known that the UGC Chairman at that time, did get an allowance under the same circular. It is also a myth why Vice Chancellor should retire at 65 while the Chairman / UGC an Academic, were able to go beyond 65, inconsistent with the system. Please also note under the new taxation system the VC gets taxed for the vehicle, quarters and benefits provided by the University. VC’s have paid Rs. 135,000 per month as PAYE TAX at the introduction of the system around 2018 which was unfortunate and in my opinion unfair, as these were granted to the position free by way of the contract of appointment. Such, you get less take home pay at the end of the day trying to maintain the standard of a VC and paying tax on it. Revision of the Salary of the VC is essential and may be easier through the establishment of the Academic service.
Full time Post graduate study
We have 15 state universities which have global Webometric ranks beyond 1895 with University of Peradeniya leading for Sri Lanka on 1895. We may shift a few places forward or backward but are not going to be improve significantly as we have many inherent drawbacks in the system that does not allow us to advance further.
We are all primarily an Undergraduate university with the prime and exclusive responsibility of producing graduates and thus our focus is only on the teaching of subjects and others become subsidiary or optional. Most of the postgraduate studies that are conducted by our universities are ‘weekend’ classes( Friday evening to Sunday afternoon) though claimed as full time given the number of hours per week, it is no where close to a real fulltime study where the person lives in the university to gain more knowledge and also share with many in the system. The university system does not gain much from them as much as it should and they too gain much less from the university. Given the distant modes of teaching that had become very common now with Corona such as Zoom, ODL etc the students need not even go to the university but learn and sit for the examination, even at a Postgraduate level, which would be unfortunate. The world ranking is based more on the research and other activities that stems from the full time students than weekenders and thus the University needs to concentrate on increasing the number of research students and full time post graduate students to at least 25% of population to make it significant for us to even play in the global league. An academic service would be ideal to handle this in essence.
Value of University
UNIVERSITY is considered as a nonproductive sector as there is no revenue, but if you value a graduate at a moderate value of one million rupees equivalent as Human Capital, then the Universities produce around 60,000 graduates a year equaling to around 60 billion rupees in value. Thus this is an industry which needs to be upgraded and nurtured for the best to meet the challenges of the future. The money allocated to this sector per year is only around Rs 50 billion rupees (capital 15 and recurrent 35) on average which is far less than the output, thus a very efficient industry. The potential scholars do not take to universities at present as it is not attractive anymore and thus they leave for Banks and other private institutions which offer a better contract and thus we lose the cream, which used to form the pool of candidates to be selected by the Universities. There needs to be more attractive package as the output is 60 billion per year as at today, thus a need for Academic Service on its own.
There needs to a paradigm shift in the attitude of the State towards the Universities specially its Academic staff for more effective and efficient Universities. I am skeptical as to whether the UGC in the past saw it on the same wave length. CVCD should be playing a more pivotal role as granted in the act ‘An advisory role to the UGC’, which is less seen. Human Capital is going to be the most valuable asset in the development of the country, as seen during the development of the Dragon states two to three decades ago. University reforms and Academic service may be the lead to it. I see a light at the end of the tunnel with the present UGC, whose Chairman had been part of FUTA and Chairman of CVCD and would agree and appreciate the above and also those who mediated the issues are in positions to implement their commitment.
*The Author is the Professor of Botany and former Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University, Sri Lanka and was also a former Vice President of FUTA. He has 44 years of experience in the university system as a whole from 1977.