Universities are in the news again. But, it is not for any ground breaking research or any other achievement that they have grabbed headlines. They have attracted media attention over yet another protest. The non-academic workers have launched a strike, demanding the rectification of their salary anomalies and the payment of salary arrears immediately.
Their trade union action has dealt a solar plexus punch to the universities struggling to stick to their academic calendars. Examinations have been postponed indefinitely and a protracted closure of universities is likely to be the outcome, if the strike continues, though some university heads claim they can manage with the non-academic workers who are either on contract or probation and therefore have to report for work. That, we have heard before! If universities could do without the strikers, why should they be employed at all?
It looks as if students, dons and non-academics were taking turns to destroy the universities through their protests. Hardly a day passes without the news of a university being disrupted. When students call off a boycott of lectures, teachers go on strike. When both teachers and pupils behave, the non-academics down tools! Radical political elements with anarchical tendencies are exacerbating the situation by using trade unions and student unions as a cat`s paw. They are said to be behind the on-going strike as well to further their political interests.
The warring trade unions insist they have made representations to the university authorities several times during the past few years seeking redress of their grievances, but in vain. The Ministry of Higher Education has apparently palmed off the matter to the University Grants Commission (UGC), which claims funds are available and promises to solve the problem shortly. The strikers refuse to believe the UGC.
Money, we thought, was the biggest problem besetting the cash-strapped university system. If funds are available, why on earth should the UGC drag its feet on the issue without going hell for leather to solve the problem once and for all so that universities could function smoothly? The UGC owes an explanation to the public as to why it cannot settle the dispute immediately.
UGC Chairman Prof. Gamini Samaranayake has said frequent disruption of the state universities will only facilitate the emergence of private universities. We couldn`t agree with him more!
Even if the universities were to function free from disruption, they wouldn`t be able to cater to the increasing demand for higher education. The majority of students who qualify for higher education are left out for want of facilities at the state universities. The state is not being fair by hundreds of thousands of intelligent children, who are deprived of an opportunity to pursue their higher studies. That, too, is a reason why more and more people are demanding the establishment of private universities to accommodate those unfortunate students.
University education has lost its meaning and glamour. Educational standards are fast deteriorating with dons doing more NGO work than lecturing. Moonlighting is the name of the game! Students are more politicking than studying. Perhaps, the only thing they have evinced a keen interest in is brutal ragging as well as rioting.
Some disruptive elements are instigating violence on campuses at the behest of external political forces to engineer the closure of universities as part of their political project to create a build up of pressure and resentment among the educated youth. The progeny of the affluent opt for higher education overseas, while the sons and daughters of the poor and the middle class people are wasting their youth in local universities, unable to complete higher education. After graduation, they launch protests demanding employment in the state sector that is already bursting at the seams, as there is no demand for them in the job market. Having obtained government jobs, they resort to strikes, demanding better salaries.
The on-going trade union action has given a fresh impetus to the downhill journey of the universities.
The strikers and the UGC ought to give negotiations another chance without resorting to brinkmanship, which will only worsen the situation. The Ministry of Higher Education cannot wash its hands of the dispute and choose to be a mere spectator. If there are funds and the government is willing to redress the grievances of the non-academics, there is no reason why anymore time should be wasted. Another round of talks is called for. The unions should be assured of a solution soon and a timeframe set for that purpose. It behoves the strikers to desist from holding the ailing universities to ransom and return to work. And fast!