By Deepal Warnakulasuriya and Malinda Seneviratne –
The Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) appears to have put its own grievances to the proverbial backburner focusing instead on getting the Government to set aside 6% of the GDP for the education sector. Indeed, FUTA has claimed that even if the salary issue is resolved, the larger issue of budgetary allocation will not be dropped. The selflessness is laudable, even though the demand comes as a surprise since FUTA has seldom taken a stand on national issues and since it counts among its members those who have vociferously advocated privatization and cheered the IMF’s structural adjustment conditionalities over the years.
While it is hoped that FUTA’s discussion with high ranking members of the political leadership will bring about resolution, it is not out of place to consider some numbers which might indicate why FUTA’s salary-flag is less colourful than its 6% banner.
The entry level (Lecturer-Probation) basic salary stands at Rs. 26,900, which is higher than in any other state institution apart from the Central Bank any money-making institutions such as banks. A senior Professor earns a basic salary of Rs. 57,755. After adding research allowances and factoring in the increase that will come into effect in October, the first category will earn Rs. 55,775 while the latter’s ‘take home’ will reach Rs. 140,721. The raise is therefore between 3.25% and 16.18% (for the basic salary) and between 36%.64% and 73.88% for the total ‘take home’. To bring perspective to the equation, the Chief Justice’s salary is Rs. 70,000 while ministry secretaries get a paltry Rs. 44,000.
There are other benefits. Senior Lecturers and those in higher categories get sabbatical leave once every seven years. The state pays their airfare and those of their spouses as well, if they take up a position in a foreign country. During this time, they continue to receive their salaries. Some are known to receive salaries from other Sri Lankan universities (where they ‘spend’ their Sabbatical), drawing two government salaries. Those who go abroad for post graduate studies also have their airfare paid by the state which receiving 2 to 3 years or more paid leave depending on the degree. The University Grants Commission (UGC), moreover, has a special program to help meet transportation costs and pay registration fees of academics going abroad for conference.
Academics don’t get overtime (OT) payments, true. They don’t have a 40-hour teaching schedule, the expectation being that apart from the few hours they do teach, they have to read, prepare lectures and engage in research. FUTA might do their cause a big favor by detailing the number of serious and internationally recognized research publications of its entire membership. FUTA could also reveal how many of its members teach external students in various tuition classes all over the island and how much is earned on average. FUTA can go public with the fact that academics get permits to import vehicles duty-free every five years. This amounts to a jackpot of a million or more every five years.
It is also strange that FUTA has been silent about other sources of income such as paper-setting, paper-marking and conducting examinations. Nowhere in the world are university lecturers paid for correcting answer scripts of their own students, but here in Sri Lanka they get paid Rs. 100 per answer script (up from Rs 20 not too long ago) of internal students and Rs. 150 of external students
Despite all this, FUTA spokespersons talk as though they are the guardians of public education and try to make out that they are an impoverished lot. Among the demands articulated is one where the state is asked to spend on the education of at least 2 children of each academic, whether it be in a private school or an international school.
It is par for the course for trade unionists to suppress the embarrassing. The government cannot point fingers at FUTA given all its own negatives including wastage, poor governance, corruption etc. FUTA can and must do better than being a pot calling a kettle black, for the degree of soot will not matter, the reality of soot will. Given its deliberate suppression of relevant facts, FUTA is operating like a third rate trade union and not like a body made of academics with integrity. This is perhaps why FUTA waves the 6% flag, which itself is strange given that the universities return sizable chunks of unused funds allocated for development.
Sri Lanka has more than a handful of world class academics in most disciplines. They are intellectually honest, committed to their chosen vocation and typically don’t gripe about hardships that are laughable compared with the travails suffered by large sections of the citizenry. FUTA is an affront to such dedicated men and women of science.
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