Attracting and retaining academic staff: Perspectives of junior lecturers

By Udari Abeyasinghe

Last week’s Kuppi column, by Kaushalya Perera, focused on labour concerns at state universities and the impact of measures taken by the government on the recruitment and retention of academic staff. In this article, I specifically draw attention to the factors that affect attracting and retaining young lecturers and their career development in the state university system, especially at a time of economic crisis. To do this, I will use my own experiences and those of junior lecturers in the medical and dental fields with whom I have had conversations across several state universities.

Obstructed career development

Senseless circulars and inflexible schemes of recruitment have cast doubts and fears about career development among junior lecturers in the medical and dental fields.

The recent amendment (Commission circular 08/2022) to the schemes of recruitment for the posts of Senior Lecturer Grades I and II (medical/dental) states that a doctoral degree or an MD (Doctor of Medicine) with board certification by the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine (PGIM), or a master’s degree, in the relevant field, with full time research of at least 24 months duration, will be required. Accordingly, a part time master’s degree, in the relevant field, will not be considered for recruitment, confirmation in the position, or promotion.

This amendment has eliminated the provision probationary lecturers had to obtain the required academic qualifications, while working. Allowing lecturers to enter part-time masters/other degree programmes would enable the university to obtain their service for academic and administrative work, while enabling the lecturer to secure their academic position—a win-win for both parties during a time when new recruitments have been suspended.

The schemes of recruitment do not encourage junior lecturers to explore unconventional career trajectories. The preference for bachelor’s degrees, in the same field, makes it difficult for lecturers to enter interdisciplinary programmes as the latter may not qualify under the stringent first-degree requirements of the schemes of recruitment. Furthermore, some departments consider a PhD as less desirable than a MD in the medical/dental clinical fields, and PhD holders face some challenges as a result. The schemes of recruitment should recognize that different degree programmes bring different skills sets to departments and that disciplinary diversity is an asset.

Foreign training trouble

When probationary lecturers are recruited to a clinical department of a medical or dental faculty, they are expected to do a clinical postgraduate degree in the relevant field. In Sri Lanka, the PGIM, University of Colombo, is the official institute which conducts such degrees. After completing the MD, the candidate is required to go abroad for a year’s foreign training in order to become a board-certified consultant in the relevant field. It is the responsibility of the candidate to find a suitable position abroad for foreign training. Most foreign training positions offered are non-paid positions. As such, trainees are given a monthly stipend for a period of one year.

The recent decision taken by the government to suspend foreign training, using local funds, has wide consequences. Even though completion of MD allows lecturers to get confirmed in their position, without board certification, they are not eligible to become senior lecturers. This situation has directly affected not only retaining but also attracting talented medical and dental graduates into the university system. Why would anyone want to spend years working hard simply to remain in a junior academic position without being able to advance their careers?

With the current economic crisis, junior lecturers are increasingly facing difficulties, identifying guarantors to sign their bond agreements. Any lecturer who avails themselves of study leave must enter into an agreement and a bond with the university, which includes an obligatory period of service. If a lecturer secures a scholarship on their own to study in a postgraduate programme in an overseas university, a third of the scholarship value should be considered when calculating the monetary value of the bond. If the lecturer secures a scholarship through the university to follow the postgraduate programme at a foreign university, the entire value of the scholarship is considered when calculating the value of the bond. Due to the depreciation of the rupee, there are instances when scholarships are valued at over LKR 20 million. Due to the economic crisis, there is uncertainty as to whether academics who leave for overseas postgraduate studies would return. Unable to find guarantors, many junior academics are compelled to resign.

Academic theft

“Academic theft” refers to stealing research ideas, stealing hard work and not giving the actual researcher the credit that should be given. As an example, there are no guidelines on work ethic, acknowledging and respecting the work of academics and protecting the integrity of such work. One’s labour might get passed on as another’s without any acknowledgement. This is pure theft. Such an environment is not conducive to retaining good researchers. Junior faculty will not complain or bring this to light when it happens, for their careers depend on senior academics who are in commanding positions. They depend on senior colleagues for confirmation of their status and promotions.

Publishing a scientific communication requires an enormous amount of labour and time. It requires time to think of a sound scientific topic or a research question, to collect and analyze data, interpret results, read scientific literature, and so on. Ideas being stolen and not receiving the deserved credit, demotivates young academics to engage in research. When it is known that such practices take place in certain departments, or faculties, they are unable to attract young academics.

SGBV and institutional violence

Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) is widespread in universities even though there are university policies and procedures in place to prevent SGBV. Women students and junior academic/nonacademic staff are most vulnerable.

As a woman and a junior lecturer, I experienced sexual harassment by a senior professor against whom I lodged a complaint. After lengthy inquiries at the university, the perpetrator was found guilty of sexual harassment, but the university failed to take appropriate action as the university council chose to reject the inquiry report. During the period of harassment, complaint, and inquiry, I received the same advice from many colleagues: “Leave the university and never come back…” I believe they said so for my own safety (or maybe not). While SGBV survivors often have no choice but to leave the university when the authorities fail to take appropriate action, this form of institutional violence also deters women from joining academic departments where there are known abusers.

Hierarchy and discrimination

Probationary lecturers are at the bottom of the academic hierarchy. They are overburdened with teaching and are, in some departments, at the beck and call of seniors. They are expected to contribute to administrative tasks and research with very little acknowledgement of their work. They have very little time to focus on their own professional development, which in turn makes them less competitive in terms of postgraduate opportunities, reinforcing the vicious cycle of mediocrity in our state university system. Such discrimination has other consequences. For instance, accommodation for academics is provided based on seniority. At the University of Peradeniya, junior academics who are single may request rooms assigned for staff in students’ hostels. However, junior lecturers with children who come from distant areas are not eligible for this type of accommodation. They struggle to find affordable and decent accommodation and usually do not qualify for other forms of staff accommodation based on their seniority. The economic crisis has worsened the situation. Rents have skyrocketed; qualified young professionals are reluctant to apply for academic positions in distant universities.

The bigger picture

In this article, I outlined a few concerns that affect attracting and retaining young academics in state universities. Some matters should be addressed at the highest administrative level, while some may be addressed at the faculty and university level. Higher education policymakers should discuss and consider views of the relevant stakeholders before issuing circulars. The Ministry of Education should proactively intervene to address the problem of skyrocketing monetary values of bonds and the problem faced by medical and dental faculties with regards to overseas training. It is important to increase awareness and support mechanisms to prevent SGBV and academic theft in universities. Having half-baked policies that are not implemented will not help. Mechanisms should be established, and initiatives should be taken where junior academics can make use of these policies to protect themselves and hold the university authorities accountable. Unless these issues are addressed urgently, state universities, including and especially medical and dental faculties, will collapse in time to come.