By Medha De Alwis
The universities came to a standstill during the long islandwide strike by non-academic staff. Fifteen universities, three campuses, and nine institutes in Sri Lanka went on a unanimous strike. What happened, why did it happen, and what is the untold story behind it?
Who are non-academic staff?
Every staff member who does not lecture in the university system is known as non-academic staff. The two main divisions of non-academic staff are below.
Non-academic administrative staff
Some of the non-academic administrative staff includes secretaries, accountants, registrars, bursars, legal and document registrars, and chief security officers.
The hierarchy of one such office would be as follows:
- Registrar (who is the custodian of the property)
- Deputy Registrar
- Senior Assistant Registrar
- Assistant Registrar
Non-academic non-administrative staff
This staff category would include those ranging from management assistants to technical officers to labourers. This category is again divided into skilled and non-skilled subcategories. The skilled subcategory would include all vocations such as plumbers, painters, carpenters, masons, builders, mechanics, supervisors, etc.
The list is endless.
What do they do?
- They do everything other than teach. However, it is not as simple as that.
- In order for the lectures to commence, the halls need to be opened.
- Who opens the halls? The non-academic staff.
Security is a concern, particularly in the current context. Who provides security? The non-academic staff.
Cleanliness is necessary in the large premises of a university. Who cleans and maintains? The non-academic staff.
Well, even if the lectures go on somehow, even if the non-academic staff does not operate, who handles the entire process of the payment of salaries to the academic staff? Yet again, it is the non-academic staff.
These seemingly backstage employees could decide to run the university – to run in partially or completely break down the functioning of the university. Such is the power of the non-academic staff.
The non-academic staff, especially those of the non-academic administrative sector, held a strong sense of prestige since the inception of the university system. “Ours were always higher than the average government salary,” said Padmi Dahanayake*, a registrar close upon retirement in her late 60s.
There is no pension and the employee is entitled to the University Provident Fund, Employee Trust Fund, and Gratuity.
“I joined in 1997 when the pension scheme was introduced,” says Shama Pitipana*, a Senior Assistant Account. “But unlike for other government servants, our pension scheme is maintained by the UGC (University Grants Commission). It has lesser benefits than a scheme that is maintained by the Central Bank.”
Neither here nor there
Working in the semi-government sector, the non-academic staff seems to not be offered the benefits given to either government or private sector employees. Simultaneously fighting for their rights while working seems like a lonely battle, as no other organisation has the same structure. “We are the university, but no one understands us,” says Somaratne*, an officer in the security cadre.
“This is a place where young adults come. Security may not look tight, but has to be very tight. Though they are adults, they still come from homes where they still depend on their parents. For their parents, they are still categorised as children, or maybe mature children. You can imagine how the country will find fault if anything happens to the children,” Somaratne said.
Disparity between academic and non-academic staff
According to internal auditor Sarath Perera*, the disparity in salaries paid is one of the many key issues. “The academics would have salaries equal to us. But they have the luxuriant ‘academic allowance’ which is 151% of the basic salary. If you calculate and see, it comes to a thumping sum.”
Perera and his colleagues question the anomaly, as some of the non-academic staff, mostly in the administrative cadre, are as qualified as the academics.
“All think that universities are run by the academics. We are always in the shadow,” Premila*, a new Recruitment Management Assistant said mournfully. Being in her late 20s, she would need recognition in her job. “When I tell my relations that I work in the university, they ask whether I teach. When I say I do not, they look at me as if I am a misfit of the system.”
Thusitha*, a technical officer of 10 years, had a different view. “I do not mind what my family says. They don’t really know what a technical officer does, anyway. My concern is that the academics think I am not an indispensable part of this system. Not only the academics, there are non-academics too who disregard another person’s discipline. Most are appreciative, but those who are not make life so unpleasant for us.”
Now and then, some construction goes on in some corner of the university – it could be some minor renovation or the construction of a main lecture complex.
Skilled masons, carpenters, and plumbers work in big numbers if the project is large. “You won’t get the pleasure of working on your own here,” says Sanath*, who joined a university due to job insecurity he faces in the masonry industry. “I do not get to talk to the client. Sometimes, I do not even know what the building plan is. I just work as a robot. There is no fun in that.”
“Most heads of institutes and deans of faculties are great academics to work with,” said Fathima Nurdeen*, who says she enjoys her work as a bursar. “There are a few who do not understand and/or are unaware of administrative protocol, and they order us around, assuming that we should do everything they command. But we cannot comply, and then internal politics start.”
A member of the non-academic staff, especially if part of the administrative sector and more so if a senior, would have to come into contact with many other institute officials and maintain relations with them, irrespective of whether one likes it or not.
- Some of the staff would be from the university itself, and some from the UGC and the Ministry of Higher Education.
- Trying to make many ends meet, is certainly not easy.
Transfers can be applied for only when a vacancy materialises. There is no compulsory transfer system after a number of years, like what’s available in the government sector. Hence, if you are unhappy in your current post and are subjected to the politics there, you are likely to have experienced it for many years and may continue to for your entire career.
Differences and more differences
There are two main kinds of recruits among non-academic staff – those who are commissioned from the UGC and those recruited by the university. Circulars and regulations would affect them differently. In addition to this, there is a sector called “Minister Recruitment List” under Circular No. 876.
Certain positions such as that of management assistants are not publicly advertised. It is the Ministry of Higher Education that sends the list.
Unless recruitments are made after evaluating applications received from an advertisement, the skill levels of the recruits is not high when a selected number is requested for through the 876 Circular.
This leads to internal conflict and further disappointments experienced by those within the system.
As far as vehicle permits and sabbatical leave are concerned, they are equally provided to academics and non-academics.
There is opportunity and potential for research, as well as for promotion – most times.
For instance, a technical officer would need to conduct research and invent in order to prove his worth to get promoted, but not all employers would have the required facilities. Thus, this might lead to a halt in their career progression.
Even employees in some of the more recognised positions such as accountants, registrars, bursars, legal officers or the internal auditor, did not display much enthusiasm on doctoral studies. Almost everyone in these categories have master’s degrees, among other qualifications.
“Even if I get my doctorate, so what? There is a limit to how much I can climb the ladder. So, what is the point?” asked Hema*, speaking frankly.
“I was interested in research when I was a university student,” says a senior member of the non-academic staff. “I got a good grading in my master’s degree too. I have always wanted to read for a PhD. But what is the point? I do not have any career progression even if I earn a PhD. It is very different when you are a non-academic. In my job, even though I have a qualification, it won’t take me forward.”
Lack of awareness
“Some cadres are not aware that they are stuck in the system,” says Hema Gunatilake*, a senior administrative officer who has put in nearly 30 years of service. Some are happy with the annual increment they get, and do not think of working for anything beyond that.
“They are now complacent and have accepted that there is no career progression. They are either demotivated or not fully aware of what the future is for them in terms of personal development. This lackadaisical attitude shows in their work and affects the system strongly,” said the concerned administrator.
Academic support staff
There is a category called Academic Support Staff, which is neither academic nor non-academic. Some examples are scientific assistant, programme cum systems analyst, statistical officer, and statistician. They are lesser in numbers (e.g. 10) in a university. Given the limited numbers, they do not have a trade union. That means they do not have the voice the academics and non-academics have.
The purpose of this article is neither to validate the non-academic strike nor to condemn it. It is only to bring to the notice of the reader that it is just the tip of the iceberg we see.
The purpose of this article is to invoke in the reader some sensitivity and empathy towards these workers – the ones you see as much as the ones you do not.
*Names have been changed to protect identity