UG staffers, student body seek MPs support to replace council

University of Guyana (UG) staffers and students will be lobbying all Members of Parliament (MPs) to support a petition to replace the current university council, which they blame for presiding over the institution’s deterioration.

Representatives of the University of Guyana Workers’ Union (UGWU), the University of Guyana Senior Staff Association (UGSSA) and the University of Guyana Students Society (UGSS), responsible for ‘Operation Rescue UG,’ are optimistic about support for the petition, which is to be presented in the National Assembly today.

Melissa Ifill

At a news conference at the Turkeyen Campus yesterday, UGWU President Bruce Haynes explained that members of political parties represented in the National Assembly need to also get involved, in order to advance the calls made by the groups over the past several weeks. He stated that since the petition was launched on March 10, they have been able to get over 1,000 signatures, aided in part by their efforts online.

The petition asks that the life of the current council, which comes to an end tomorrow, not be extended and that no current non-academic council member be appointed to serve on the new body. The groups are seeking to have the Minister of Education, Priya Manickchand, consult with the civil society groups, like the Bar Association and the Medical Council, to appoint council members on their recommendations. In addition, they ask that new non academic council members appointed as of April 1, be distinguished, experienced and principled individuals.

Haynes said that the petition has been sent to Manickchand, while noting that she is an important stakeholder.

Melissa Ifill, UGSSA Vice-President, said that the unions had spoken with an MP, whom she did not identify, who agreed to lay the petition in Parliament on their behalf. Subject to the rules of the National Assembly, the constitution allows any MP to present any petition.

“Definitely there is movement on that particular front. For the petition, initially our target was 500…we have obviously exceeded that and will exceed it further. We expect several thousand signatures by time the document is laid at parliament,” she said.

When asked of their expectations, if the MP is a member of the opposition, Ifill emphasised that the petition is not intended to serve as an opposition-driven initiative. “We recognise that the problems at UG require a national effort. We are hoping to get support from all political parties in terms of moving this university forward,” she added.

Distressing

Meanwhile, lecturer Thomas Singh, speaking on the dismissal of lecturers, explained that the unions, along with students, had agreed that it is unacceptable for the council to arbitrarily dismiss lecturers.

A major concern, he explained, was that classes by Freddie Kissoon are still not being delivered due to his being fired without a substitute in place.

“Out of that concern, we were on strike. Eventually, Minister of Labour, (Nanda) Gopaul, brokered an agreement that would allow the two parties to talk. In the process, Minister Gopaul mentioned conciliation was required because natural justice itself would require that someone is given a hearing,” he said.

Singh indicated that the Ministry of Labour spoke independently to both parties after two rounds of conciliation talks. Subsequently, the acting Chief Labour, Occupational Safety and Health Officer wrote to the two parties and pointed out that the issues were examined, with payment to Kissoon from May to August 15 recognised. Also, it was noted that there was a review of the mechanism by which his contract was terminated.

The letter, Singh said, further informed that it was the prerogative of the employer to continue to rehire workers after they would have met the retirement age. As a consequence, no trade union can compel an employer to do so. “The employer has the right to terminate a contract of employment providing adequate notice,” he read from the letter.

In response, Singh said they had noted that the issue of the unions was that of the arbitrary termination of the contracts. He explained that the termination was actually in conflict with the provisions of UG’s statutes.

“Further, any agreement of contract issue must be guided by the constitution, by laws, by statutes and by principles of natural justice and it is the violation of these various things that we’ve been challenging. We find it distressing that the Minister of Labour has chosen to respond to our concerns by talking about payment to Kissoon and we reject that position,” he expressed.

Outstanding issues

Lecturer Patrick Katwaru, meanwhile, said that the administration has since indicated which matters it will address and those that would have to be handled by the negotiating team, which consists of the administration and council.

Among the issues to be addressed are the shortage of lecturers, rates for part-time staff and also a number of issues with regards to safety on the campus, including the appointment of a full-time Occupational Health and Safety Officer.

Katwaru disclosed that because of a cash flow problem, the administration was forced to make a choice of paying salaries to staff or NIS and GRA contributions. Salary and contribution payments are not up to date, he said.

Speaking on the physical infrastructure of the Turkeyen Campus, Katwaru said the George Walcott Lecture Theatre, the largest teaching space, cannot facilitate some classes of over 1,000 students.

“We had a larger intake than we can handle in our classrooms… we need to improve that because there is not enough lecturers, so we cannot split it up as we like,” he explained.

He reiterated that the sanitary facilities at the campus are in a dreadful state and have been in this condition for some time. “Our toilet facility is awful and it has been this way for ages… there are issues with water and the actual smell, also a lot of vandalism,” he said.

Meanwhile, with regards to the US$10M World Bank loan to UG, the unions have been told that the project steering committee has been developed, with only one person from civil society still to be named. That issue is currently being worked out by the Ministry of Education. Also, the consultant for the Caribbean Development Bank grant, Trevor Hamilton and Associates, has started developing a work plan and this is expected to be presented in mid April, they were told.

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