Q. The Mahinda Chinthana details plans to make Sri Lanka a “knowledge hub”, what progress have you made on this front after you became Minister of Higher Education?
We see that the Chinese Universities, Indian Universities and European Universities that establish branches in Sri Lanka do so in order to attract students from the Asian region and as opposed to Sri Lankan students alone.
This goes to show that not only do we have the potential to be a knowledge hub but also that the world has recognized the fact that we have this potential.
Something we always say is that Sri Lanka has the potential to be a knowledge hub, an economic hub, a financial hub and a nautical hub. At present in the Asian region countries like Dubai and Singapore have become the centers for these services. However if you consider a country like Singapore it is a country without soil, water or any form of natural resources, if you take Dubai, it is a desert.
Yet Sri Lanka has a complex conducive climate, it is blessed with natural resources and is easily accessible to any Asian country. Therefore we feel that we have what it takes to be a knowledge hub in Asia. The President has taken some steps to help Sri Lanka achieve this goal; firstly to bring the standard of our local universities to that of international institutions and secondly to provide opportunities for private universities to have branches here. We see that the Chinese Universities, Indian Universities and European Universities that establish branches in Sri Lanka do so in order to attract students from the Asian region and as opposed to Sri Lankan students alone. This goes to show that not only do we have the potential to be a knowledge hub but also that the world has recognized the fact that we have this potential.
Q. In order to make Sri Lanka a knowledge hub you need the support and cooperation of University Lecturers but due to recent events the entire university system has come to a standstill. What is being done to resolve their issues?
There is no connection between the two; making Sri Lanka a
knowledge hub and the issues with regards to the lecturers’ salaries are not connected.
I concede that lecturers are vital to the country, but at the moment they are engaged in a very small issue and it will be solved in due course.
How do you intend on resolving this issue?
We are having discussions because at the moment we cannot increase the university lecturers’ salaries.
This is because while we gave government servants in general only a salary increase of five percent we gave all university lecturers a salary increase of 36.25 per-cent, therefore we cannot give them a salary hike.
There has been a salary anomaly for lecturers since the 1970’s, this cropped up during the time of the UNP government, where their salaries are compared with those from similar posts in the Central Bank. An ordinary executive has a salary of 60,000 whereas a university lecturer at that level would receive a salary of 24,000. The government, the treasury and the President have expressed their desire to reduce this anomaly in stages. And therefore I think this problem will be solved quickly.
Q. They have accepted this solution and agreed to stop their trade union action, where they withdrew from all voluntary posts?
They have withdrawn their letters of resignation; many of them have withdrawn these letters and are working normally.
Q. Lecturers took to the streets on Tuesday from the Colombo University to the Public library. And according to the Federation of University Teachers Association around 90 percent of lecturers are involved in this trade union action. How can you say they are working normally?
It was not 90 percent not even 20 percent were involved.
Even after the trade union action on Tuesday they came to my home, dined with me and had a discussion.
Although you say only 20 percent were involved in the strike, we saw that even the lecturers from the Visual Arts University, the only university in the country that had not been involved, also joined the protest march. It would seem that the situation is getting worse not better.
So there is nothing wrong with that.
We all know that University lecturers have a serious problem. After their protest march they came and met with me and we had discussions and dinner.
Q. During these discussions did they agree to stop their trade union action?
There wasn’t a discussion of that nature.
We spoke about the next phase of negotiations and the preliminary groundwork for that.
Q. If you didn’t discuss the possibility of stopping the trade union action what areas were discussed during that time?
No I don’t think I should tell the media what we discussed. We had cordial discussions, thereafter we had dinner and they left, that is all you need to know.
Q. The FUTA says that the increase of 36.25 percent of salaries cannot be counted as a true increase because 12.5 percent of it is dependent on doing research and development. Therefore they don’t accept it as being an increase in their salaries.
Well some will accept it and others will not accept it.
About 40 percent have taken this research and development payment and this salary percentage will continue throughout the year. Some might say that this is not a salary increase but they get the money to their hands.
Q. One lecturer at the Colombo University detailed the process that this money was given out during March. A circular was sent out calling lecturers to present a research proposal the next day in order to claim their salary increase.
No no, about 70 percent of university lecturers already do research work, it is one of their duties.
If a certain lecturer doesn’t engage in research then he or she is not fulfilling one of his/her main duties. But I know that about 80 percent of lecturers do research, they have their research proposal in their hands, ready to be submitted. You can dissect the situation in different ways, but at the end of the day they got their money.
Q.University lecturers have been talking about their salary anomalies since 2008, yet they are yet to receive a satisfactory answer, which is why they are now walking the streets in protest. Has anything been achieved under the term of this government to resolve this issue?
I don’t want to comment on what happened between 2008 and 2010.
All I can say is that we have all accepted the anomaly, the President, the government and we are working towards resolving the situation in the future.
Q. When you say the future do you mean in the next week or month or what is the time frame? I ask this because the lecturers have been taking trade union action for over a month.
When I say future it could be
tomorrow or in a year’s time.
There are issues in a few places, but they are all going to work and that issue I think will be resolved in the next week.
Q. Thereby your answer to the students who are inconvenienced then is that this situation will be resolved in the next week?
My answer is not to the students it is to the media that I am
I am telling the people of this country not just students or lecturers.