By R S Pathirana Kaluwella –
Are the academics using their benefits of country’s free education system in honourable and fair manner?
In 2012, the academics of the state University system in Sri Lanka and FUTA engaged in a long, hard trade union action demanding 6% of the GDP to be allocated for education. Among FUTA’s other demands, stoppage of politicization of Universities, ensuring autonomy of universities etc, are included. These demands, if realized well, are expected to make sure the state funded, free-education based University system in the country could function in its true spirit and intellectual capacity. The noble idea is to protect the free education system introduced & established by the late, great, Kannangara.
Now we are in 2016, and we have amply witnessed that such allocation has only been a demand; a far fetched dream with the present way of handling national education. However, to address grievances at certain level, remuneration of academics were somewhat increased through various allowances added to the salary, but not to the extent of preventing performing academics joining the private sector for better prospects or leaving the country for greener pastures.
This little write up aims to question a recent activity of some academics, that is not so honourable, not like the sort of academic involvement the country (used to) respect, because it has serious conflicts of interests.
One of the privileges the academics and certain administrative categories in the local state University system enjoy is the sabbatical entitlement, where, upon completion of some specific number of years of service, an academic is entitled for one year paid leave to engage in research and other scholarly activities. This in fact, in true spirit, add value to academics’ profession and to the relevant institution, and the state University system provide even the cost of air passage for overseas sabbatical placements, while the host institution pay handsomely for good academics.
However, due to many reasons, in the recent years, a trend appears to be developing in Sri Lanka, that a considerable number of academics of the state universities system prefer to spend their sabbatical leave locally, in other state Universities. Though for some academics this could be partly due to their lack of sufficient research and related activities that is required to secure a sabbatical placement in a world class university, and for some this is a convenient mode of income while staying close to home. Whatever the reason, this practice is in a way encouraging for the new Faculties established far away from commercial centres such as South eastern University, to get additional support.
In this approach of sabbatical leave, the academics mainly engage in teaching, curriculum development and some even take up administrative duties such as Head of departments or Deans of a faculties. All these, in fact, help the new state Universities to establish more, and become better. As far as academics are concerned, there appear no conflict of interest, and some academics in fact do this willingly to help the system; take one to three month vacation leave from and engage in academic activities in newer Faculties, or allocate weekends for teaching in those places, to help the new Universities, help the students who are supposed to be the cream the country can offer; a deed that should be admired publicly.
Further, the above engagement do not interfere with national higher education system or higher education policies in the country, as all the activities are within public funded state system, and as per the regulations governing sabbatical leave, the academics concern receive salaries from both institutions. UGC even pay an additional Rs 150,000 per month for the academics to encourage such inter-university teaching utilizing vacation leave.
However, recently there was some unhealthy trends for the state University system appears to be developing with regard to academics spending sabbatical locally; in a way very much against the true spirit of sabbatical leave. Which is, full-time academics of state Universities spending sabbatical leave in non-state Universities (education for profit), and engage very actively in development of these places.
Yet, most alarming fact of this poor state of affairs is that senior members of staff who held administrative positions in state University system (Heads, Deans, Vice chancellors etc.) spending their sabbatical leave in non-state Universities, improving the status, profiles, and profits of non-state universities, by way of holding full-time administrative positions such as Heads of department, Dean positions. In summary, these academics engage in building up of non-state universities in many ways, fast track their growth, use all their clout with UGC and Ministries to develop the those institutions, speeding up approval processes, preparing the private universities to obtain global recognition etc (such as accreditations and other global recognitions). In short, what these academics do is serious interference with the policies of education and higher education sector in the country. However, If the above is done while on sabbatical leave in a foreign country, such engagements do not interfere with local policies in education in Sri Lanka, and the arguments here is not relevant.
Majority of the academics in the state University system have received school and University education through the free education system prevailing in the country. For such free education, public money is spent to provide learning environment and education facilities at all levels from grade 1 in the school to University, provide remunerations to staff (teachers, university lecturers lecturers/professors & non-academic staff etc), paid study leave are provided to acquire further educational qualifications (such as MSc, PhD etc, locally or overseas) paid vacation/ sabbatical/ conference and other leave are provided throughout the academic career. If one makes a fair estimate of the likely financial burden to the public/government to keep the free education system in the universities running, to bring a grade 1 students up to the level of a professor, and maintain one professor in a university up to his/her retirement age, it certainly runs into millions of rupees of public money spend annually on each academic.
With the above background, when an academic from state university, who is a product of the country’s free education system, decide to spend his or her sabbatical entitlement in a profit-making non-state university within the Sri Lanka itself, while being on the payroll of state /public funded University, there is a serious conflict of interest, it sounds something is not quite right for many academics who loyally serve the state University system, who will never opt serve profit making universities while in active service in state universities. But then again, teaching is a profession that serve society, so why not do it in a profit making university for a fee is a question that needs to be discussed and answered.
The simple argument of most of the academics who are currently involved very actively with non-state Universities using their sabbatical entitlement, some even condemning the state system in subtle manner, is that ‘we need money’. Aren’t there many honourable non-conflicting ways for knowledgeable senior academics to contribute to the society and earn that requirement of ‘money’ in a gentlemen manner ??
Non-state universities, in very smart manner, use the profiles of the members of academic staff of the state universities (profiles developed through spending public money in every step of the way), to boost up the images and profit, can we blame them ?? Please see the web pages of leading non-state Universities to get an idea on how many academic from leading state Universities serve these place as heads, deans, visiting lecturers, visiting consultants etc. (list may not be complete, but should give anyone a good idea).
It looks as if these academics are given sabbatical leave to build up and strengthen competitors against the State university system, which may be good in a way, however, then there should be a policy to make sure the conflict of interest is handled properly, to prevent sabbatical entitlement being (mis)used against state Universities, against the system that helped those academics, and all other academics, to thrive and become senior professors/professors/senior lecturers and researchers, and do what they do now.
Where is the academic integrity?, where is the nobleness of the profession ?, where are the (crocodile) tears that were shed to protect free educations, some of the very people who appeared as saviours of free education in Sri Lanka, now selling education for business and profits ??.
Senior academics spending sabbatical entitlement in a manner that challenge and affect the policies of higher education system in the country, while being on the payroll of the publicly funded state Universities, needs to be seriously looked into and unethical involvement of some of the academics deserve public condemnation.
Is this the beginning of a new era? – a hybrid system, hybrid policy of higher education in Sri Lanka ?? Can few selfish academics betray the whole system that help sustain the growth of the country?, Aren’t we in need of a code of ethics for those senior academics ?
Please do not let uncaring, unprofessional activities of few senior academics to ruin the good name of many silent, long serving, academics who serve the state university system with care and dedication, please don’t insult their life long commitments.