SRI LANKA: No dons return after mass resignation

More than two weeks after Sri Lanka's university system came to a virtual standstill, when dons resigned en masse from all administrative positions, not a single academic has returned to administrative duties, the main universities' trade union has said.

The Federation of the University Teachers' Association (FUTA) said last week that more than 90% of academics engaged in university administration functions resigned effective from 9 May from their roles, after tendering letters of resignation en masse on 5 May.

They are mainly deans and heads of department.

Although administrative functions were crippled, causing chaos in universities, academic functions continued unhampered, said FUTA president Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri.

Lecturers are calling for a major salary increase to stem the brain drain and shore up salaries in advance of private and foreign universities being allowed to set up in Sri Lanka.

FUTA said that a salary hike was crucial before the controversial Non State Universities Bill, commonly known as the Private Universities Bill, was enacted by parliament. "If not, university teachers will join these [private] campuses en masse due to their higher salary scales and the whole state university system will be crippled," an academic opined.

Although the salary hike issue has plagued the academic profession for years, Dewasiri described the resignations as "the largest trade union action in 15 years".

As dons prepared to meet President Mahinda Rajapaksa on 23 May, in an apparent bid to resolve their problems, FUTA accused the government of "incidents of intimidation and duress" against individual lecturers.

The union earlier said it would be prepared to commence talks with the government, but has been angered by not being allowed to participate in the meeting with the president, further souring the atmosphere.

"We take [the president's] approach very seriously and after discussing at length we decided to restrain from taking further trade union action," Dewasiri told University World News.

"Although as the official umbrella body for academic trade unions, FUTA should have been invited, the invitation has not been extended to us but only to individual academics."

"Our members are furious. In fact, according to one member from Eastern University, they had taken a unanimous decision and informed their vice-chancellor not to nominate anyone for Monday's meeting, stating that only FUTA should have been invited."

The future of those who resigned is uncertain.

Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education, Sunil Jayantha Navaratne, told the media that those who resigned from all voluntary posts would not be offered any position in the university system in future.

In an effort to pre-empt mass action, the University Grants Commission (UGC) issued a circular on 3 May stipulating that a resignation must be with three months' notice and anyone resigning would be ineligible for reappointment.

However FUTA said the circular was "dubious" as the UGC was appointed for a five-year term, which ended on 18 March. New UGC members were suddenly appointed on 5 May. "Therefore the circular issued by the UGC is rendered invalid and illegal," Dewasiri told University World News.

University academics are demanding a 200% increase in their basic salary. FUTA said junior lecturers get a paltry LKR20,750 (US$200) a month while even a senior professor earns a basic salary of only LKR57,750 (US$525) a month.

The Marxist nationalist party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP-Peoples Liberation Front), which has a significant stronghold in campuses, said that in Bangladesh - which has weaker economy than Sri Lanka - a lecturer is paid three times what a Sri Lankan junior lecturer receives. In India salaries are around five times higher, and in Pakistan a junior lecturer's salary is almost 10 times that of a Sri Lankan.

"It had been reported to the University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka that a staggering number of 500 academics have failed to return to the country after being sent abroad for higher education, despite the fact that they have entered into a bond with the Ministry of Higher Education," said Dewasiri.

"It shows that many are willing to take the risk of litigation to pay that amount as they can easily earn 10 to 15 times the salary they earn in Sri Lanka."

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