Lecturers and support staff at the University of Guyana (UG) are bracing for the possible discontinuation of some of the university’s programmes and non-renewal of some their contracts as the implications of the cutting of $450 million for student loans from the national budget begins to take form.
This was the grim message delivered yesterday by the heads of the University of Guyana Senior Staff Association (UGSSA) and the University of Guyana Workers’ Union (UGWU), both of which pledged to shut down the university if attempts are made to cut any of the university’s programmes or discontinue the contracts of any lecturers or support staff to cushion the blow from the lack of funds.
President of the UGSSA Patsy Francis said University Vice Chancellor (VC) Professor Jacob Opadeyi signaled the likely cutbacks during a recent meeting.
Stabroek News was able yesterday to verify that Opadeyi indicated the possibility of cutbacks to the unions but he made it clear that he was not conveying that any such decision had already been made and was only explaining the possibilities.
Francis said Opadeyi announced that if there are insufficient funds to run the university as the result of the cuts, he will consider discontinuing programmes for which there is no heavy enrolment and which, therefore, are not financially viable.
However, Francis noted that the discontinuation of programmes indirectly translates to the discontinuation of the employment of the lecturers and other staff attached to these programmes. She said that the Fine Arts and History programmes are among those not heavily subscribed to, and, along with others, may well be targeted for discontinuation during possible cutbacks.
UG’s Tain Campus, Francis added, might also be targeted since the number of students that apply to the Berbice campus is substantially small, relative to the enrolment seen at Turkeyen. Already, she lamented, the students of Berbice are suffering due to the university’s chronic financial shortages.
Francis explained that lecturers from Turkeyen used to travel to Berbice whenever necessary to deliver courses to students. Recently, however, this has been discontinued and lecturers in Berbice are required to provide instructions in courses outside of their areas of competence, she disclosed. This, she suggested, has caused the quality of education being provided to suffer.
Francis also suggested that the Institute of Distance and Continuing Education may be affected, since there are several programmes offered through this mechanism which are not heavily subscribed to.
The parliamentary opposition APNU and the AFC voted down the amounts for the university during the consideration of the budget estimates because it was tied to more than $16 billion intended for the continuation for the Amaila Falls Hydro Electric Project. They asked that the allocation for UG be de-linked to prevent collateral damage but government refused, arguing that the budget was presented as per the norm. The parties have offered to restore specific amounts if supplementary funding is requested, but government has indicated that it wants all cut amounts restored.
UGWU President Bruce Haynes is convinced that the staff members he represents also stand to lose out big. He told reporters that the university’s support staff are already functioning with limited to no resources in some instances, and he opined that the situation will take a turn for the worse unless cut from the budget are restored.
Opadeyi also reportedly told the unions that there might be a direct reduction in the university’s academic compliment.
Melissa Ifill, Vice President of UGSSA said Opadeyi informed the unions that new contracts will not be issued, nor will some of the old ones be renewed if the revenue is not restored. If this happens, Ifill argued, the entire university will suffer as the vast majority of the university’s academic staff are hired on a contractual basis.
She said that some contracted workers will see their contracts come to an end this year, and now face the possibility of losing their job. The only persons who are safe, Ifill highlighted, are a few senior lecturers, whose numbers are in the single digits.
Francis made it clear that the unions “will not countenance” the cut of a single staff member, nor the discontinuation of any of any programmes. If such action is taken, she threatened, the unions will mobilise and “shut down the university.”
Francis was confident that the cause will find support from her colleagues. She admitted that many of the staffer are tired from the constant fights and are usually reluctant to participate in industrial action, but highlighted that they have a record of avid participation in fights on “bread and butter” issues. She recalled that the staff members mobilised themselves and demonstrated without being prompted by the unions the last time their salaries were threatened.
Instead of taking decisions that will result in the loss of jobs, Francis encouraged UG’s administration to consider alternative ways to address the situation.
Francis says the university’s administrators as well as its council needs to begin lobbying policy makers to take the necessary actions towards getting the $450 million restored. Whatever loan funds are requested, she continued, must take into consideration a fee-hike which now seems imminent. She also suggested an audit of the loan agency, which she says has been operating since the mid-1990s.
Francis said that the loan agency, an organ of the Finance Ministry, has now been operating for a very long time and should by now be generating revenue to help cover the university’s expenditure.
She also said that UG’s administration and council need to consult the academic staff and find ways of adding to the programmes currently offered. She said that many lecturers have knowledge and skills which are not being utilised, but can be used to benefit the university.
Finally, Francis said UG needs to stop hiring more administrative staff, whose salaries are in the hundreds of thousands. She said that the university currently has a plethora of various skills and that the situation has not improved. She questioned if adding more highly paid staff will produce solutions which have eluded the university thus far.
Meanwhile, Francis said she is concerned that the reduction in staff will affect the implementation of the World Bank-funded US$10 million Science and Technology Support Project, which, among other things, is aimed at increasing the capacity of lecturers in the relevant faculties. Francis said that if the lecturers trained in the project are sent home it will defeat the purpose of the project.
Hike in fees
Meanwhile, the hiking of fees seems imminent. Ifill explained that the council has decided that a decision taken two years ago to make the fees commensurate with the exchange rate will soon be implemented. This is likely to push the typical $127,000 paid by most students annually to anywhere between $206,000 and $210, 000. She said that while the unions are not in opposition in a hike in the fees, it must be accompanied by an improvement in the quality of education provided to the students.
Ifill also said she believes any increase should not affect the ability of a prospective student to access higher education. In this context, she proposes that any fee hike be accompanied by a commensurate hike in the loans so as to cover the added amount, at least in part.
Francis also suggested that more scholarships and bursaries be provided to help students who are not financially well-off to afford their tuition fees. She maintained that an increase in fees will not be supported unless these or similar-natured provisions are made.
Ifill also told reporters that the unions requested a meeting with Opadeyi since May 2nd but he is yet to confirm receipt of the request.
She said that negotiations on the general state of the university are not going very well and she threatened that the unions will mobilise and take industrial action unless Opadeyi agrees to have the negotiating teams meet as soon as possible.