02 August 2012

Notes on the TU action by university teachers

[University teachers have every right to express grievance and demand redress.  This is not the first time they have agitated over remuneration issues.  Last year too, we saw union action.  Very recently, Liyanage Amarakeerthi wrote about the issues that plague university lecturers.  Last week's editorial touched on the issue.  The tone of his piece echoed that of something he wrote in May 2011.  I responded to him on May 22, 2011 in the Sunday Island. He did not respond.  The issues have been largely the same, the strategies slightly different and the deliberate glossing over of the unpalatable very similar.  Here's that May 2011 piece.]

My friend Liyanage Amarakeerthi, Senior Lecturer, Sinhala Department, University of Peradeniya has written at length about the trade union action taken by university teachers (‘The power of voluntary action: not on TU action by university teachers,’ The Island of May 17, 2011).  Amarakeerthi has stated the case of the academics, outlining the relevant issues, claims, demands and possible consequences of intransigence on the part of the relevant authorities. 

It is an excellent piece written in the true tradition of political polemics, especially those of the trade union genre.  I concur with most of the claims made about felt grievances. Few would be bold enough, after all, to say that Sri Lankan universities are centres of excellence.  There is a huge gap between what is and what ought to be, when considering resources, anomalies, established procedures, policy coherence and learning/teaching culture.  Amarakeerthi has laid them out clearly. 
Amarakeerthi is not just an aggrieved party and a trade unionist.  He is an academic and a fairly respected one at that, I may add, i.e. someone who is endowed with teaching competency, qualifications and has a demonstrated track record when it comes to serious academic output. He is, moreover, a prolific writer, having produced several volumes of short stories and novels in addition to his more academic publications.  This is the very reason why he should be taken seriously. 

One would expect such a person to be ‘academic’, i.e. show a modicum of aloofness and objectivity, admit to the negatives even as asserting the positives of the side he belongs to and whose cause he espouses, but considering that he is playing the self-interest game and is thick with unionism, the absence of such niceties can be forgiven.  This is Amarakeerthi without degree and certificate, Amarakeerthi as unionist, belligerent and unabashed, full of braggadocio and threat.  That’s all understandable. Indeed, considering the manifest sloth of the academic community when it comes to collective action on anything, what he describes even deserves some applause. 
Amarakeerthi speaks emotionally about the solidarity that has suddenly manifested itself in the university, how giving up the voluntary positions has brought the system to a halt, urges authorities to take note that what they’ve done is very small compared to the ‘big’ they are capable of, claims they’ve taken the struggle to a plane above that of petty party politics, and says that they would expect nothing less than a ‘positive response’, meaning probably ‘conceding all demands’.   The self-serving unionist in him sees fit to badmouth the minister, ridicule opponents and drop the decorum he demands from the minister.  On par for the course as far as unionism is concerned of course. 

I am all for academics to have at their disposal a physical, economic and social environment conducive to research and teaching and I hope that action is taken to provide the maximum possible. On the other hand, I think that a dash of sobriety would help give better perspective. 
For all Amarakeerthi’s rhetoric on thanklessness of service, voluntary and otherwise, he fails to mention the fact that much of university politics (among the teachers) centres around jockeying for these thankless positions such a Head of Department, Programme Coordinator, Senior Student Counsellor, Proctor, Dean and so on. He would not dispute the fact that these positions are sought not so much out of a need to use them to make the university better, but for prestige.  It is no secret that there are lots of unstated privileges that accrue to those who hold such positions.  They give social clout. They give power to promote favourites. Those in such positions are better able to secure research projects. Many have their own private research outfits and NGOs, especially those in the Arts Faculty.

So when Amarakeerthi stresses ‘voluntary’ as though it is a virtue, he is only stating half the story.  It is like how politicians run for public office, claiming a desire to serve the people for a paltry salary. We know there are cutbacks.  I am sure university lecturers don’t get to see a fraction of the bucks that politicians touch, but there is touching nevertheless.  Amarakeerthi is right; the financial remuneration is ‘next to nothing or literally nothing’, but the ‘all’ of anything is not limited to the relevant ‘official story’ either. ‘Unseen’ and ‘unsung’ is correct, but these words have multiple meanings and Amarakeerthi knows enough about words to understand this. To say, as he does, that it’s all about ‘goodwill’ is a monumental joke.  Anyone who has been privy to the machinations that take place when appointments to these goodwill-posts come up, will agree. Amarakeerthi too, I am sure, when he recovers his less unionist avatar.
Amarakeerthi says there are ‘numerous imperfections’, but does not spell them out, understandably. And, again understandably, passes the buck to ‘shortsighted politics’. It is all ‘bad politics’ though?

Let’s consider what the ordinary person would expect a lecturer to be engaged in: teaching and research.  Amarakeerthi has on occasion complained about the abysmal quality of the teachers.  While admitting that there are those who have the minds, hearts, commitment and integrity to unfetter themselves of the constraints of resource lack, the university system (especially the Arts Faculties) are full of the slothful, whose academic worth is clearly suspect.  They are good at complaining about the lack of facilities, paltry salaries etc., but hardly ever use the facilities that do exist.  The Peradeniya Library is not the best in the world, but it is perhaps one of the most under-used in the region.  Lecturers hold onto notes they themselves wrote down when they were students and pass them to their own students, year after year, with hardly any amendment informed by perusal of new literature on the particular subject. 
True, there is very little money or encouragement for research. And yet, there are those who add significantly to the sum total of human knowledge in a given discipline and those who are an embarrassment to the word ‘academic’.  The latter kind outnumbers the former and this cannot be attributed to lack of funds alone. Amarakeerthi could, once he wears his academic hat, conduct a study on the research output of each and every lecturer of each and every department in the Peradeniya Arts Faculty.  He can compare and contrast with the output of people of say the fifties and sixties, who too held ‘voluntary’ positions, sat in committees, took notes and wrote reports and did not have the ‘consultancy’ option because no one had heard of NGOs back then.   

Amarakeerthi says ‘committed academics are the most typical of a university faculty’.  The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Amarakeerthi is a product of the university system.  He must have encountered a lot of lecturers and a lot of students they taught.  I think he’s being dishonest here.  If they were as committed as Amarakeerthi says, they would have protested the new promotion scheme that counted newspaper articles as admissible evidence of academic worth in the matter of earning professorships.  If as Amarakeerthi says, their struggle is to ‘help university teachers to hold on to true ideals of university teaching,’ he would add to ‘decent salary’ the necessity to be honourable and therefore to call for members in the academic community to voluntarily give up undeserved professorships.
He says, ‘By resigning from those voluntary positions, we have demonstrated that we can make universities practically non-operational without actually resorting to a full-scale strike. A triumph without even touching the trump card!’  And what’s it all about? Money!  Amarakeerthi is at least honest enough to admit that without financial security they won’t have the mind to conduct research.  That’s rubbish of course.  The committed will work regardless of conditions. This is not to say that the salary hike demand is unjust.  It is legitimate and should be addressed.  The point is that for all the love and longing for things academic expressed by Amarakeerthi on behalf of the trade union, he betrays a disgraceful fascination for crispy notes.  To his credit, however, Amarakeerthi does work.  He should bat for those who work, but if he thinks this includes a need to bat for the slothful, arrogant, incompetent rascals who make up the majority of the teaching staff, he is not doing his cause any favours.

He cites an Island editorial which urges the Government to make the academics work harder by paying them higher wages.  He is correct when he says that the universities are cash-strapped and are therefore unable to recruit the best people in respective fields, especially in the natural sciences.  The onus is on the Government to resolve this problem.  As for academics, if they claim, as Amarakeerthi does, to be virtuous and full of love, generosity and commitment, then they should offer a ‘positive response’ by being a bit self-critical and having a sense of proportion.

He concludes: ‘We love our students and it is in front of them in classes that we really come to life. This time, however, we want to return to our classrooms with our heads held high. We are determined to do exactly that!’
I don’t know about ‘love for students’, but I certainly hope that people can return to their classrooms or wherever with heads held high. In a metaphoric sense, such privileges can be enjoyed only by those can individually and collectively claim to have integrity.

I believe the university teachers have a long way to go. Much further than Amarakeerthi might imagine or want us to believe.



R. U-T said...

In your previous article "No cheers for Govt. or FUTA" you fault university academics for not teaching, not publishing, not creating new knowledge etc. and therefore not worthy of a higher pay or a better work environment. More importantly, however, you question their right to speak on behalf of the education system of this country. Here is a guy, Amarakeerthi Liyanage, who proves you wrong completely in your characterization of academics, by your own admission, and you still don't want him to have the space to express what he believes. Liyanage at least has an opinion. The problem with this country is that we don't question, we don't analyze, we don't form an opinion, we don't express our opinions. And therefore, the mess that is the Miracle of Asia.
What's your opinion?...no, really.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

No, R. U-T, I did not say anyone is unworthy of highter pay. I only pointed out that FUTA is deliberately suppressing some pertinent information. Amarakeerthi doesn't prove me wrong. I did not generalize and I pointed out that Amarakeerthi is not your typical academic. Not all academics are like him. For the record, Amarakeerthi didn't even respond. And what makes you think I don't want him to have space to express what he thinks? Perhaps you should read more carefully? Really!

Anonymous said...

R. U T sounds just like Amarakeerthi Liyanage!
I think the FUTA demand
of 6% is a "political"
line and without broad
set of strategies and
not knowing the priority
areas and problems, for
me the FUTA efforts
seem futile!