By Allieu S. Tunkara
The seeming government’s indifference to the plight of the country’s body of university lecturers shows a naked display of preference for medical doctors to dispensers of knowledge.
Lecturers and medics are equally relevant to national development but the former is much more relevant as no nation can rise above its level of education.
But, government’s attitude towards the two classes has clearly shown that the latter is the most preferred.
The preferential treatment and attention given to medical doctors is unparalled to any category of worker in the civil service.
The importance attached to the medical profession was made quite clear recently when medical doctors staged a sit-down strike action for poor salaries.
The health professionals demanded a pay rise of up to Le10, 000, 000 (Ten Million Leones) per month.
The demand came after the 2021 national budget had been in presented in parliament.
Government was struck and jittery at the striking action of the medics.
The panic-stricken government worked out instant miracles to ensure that salaries of medics were fixed although the doctors’ financial demand was never catered for by the 2021 budget.
The doctors returned to work with smiling faces with hopes of additional pay increases.
The case is different for lecturers in various universities across the country.
Successive governments have failed to treat the academic community with the respect and prestige it deserves.
Government’s contemptuous treatment of the dispensers of knowledge is evidenced by its failure to address emolument concerns and other related welfare issues.
Academic Staff Association (ASA) of the University of Sierra Leone has become synonymous with frequent industrial actions which have not moved government to appropriate action.
About a month ago, ASA staged a strike action owing to government’s failure to meet their demand of 100% pay increase.
ASA’s industrial action came at a time students were taking their exams.
It was a terrible situation for the students, and ASA out of humanitarian concerns showed a human face by calling off the strike.
Halting the sit-down strike was a product of a negotiation between government and ASA with a promise of addressing the latter’s welfare.
But, the promise by government seems to be a hoax for the academic community as the same situation continues.
The lecturers have no alternative but to back to the same struggle.
Now that the lecturers have resumed their strike action, it goes without saying that the students are on the wrong end.
Signs of government addressing the concerns of striking lectures who have gone for six months without salary are virtually non-existent.
This is not the first time ASA has gone on strike actions over pay rise.
The current industrial action has been preceded by a number of strike actions which government has taken with a pinch of salt.
Government’s negligence of the academic community is now a recurrent phenomenon in Sierra Leone, a country once referred as the ‘Athens of West Africa.’
A number of universities and other tertiary institutions have been caught up in the spree of neglect by government.
About three months ago, Njala University in the southern region with campuses in Freetown staged a strike action for better conditions of work.
The strike went for months before government came intervened, but intervention does not mean strike actions are over.
It is only an ephemeral intervention to get situation back on track in the short run.
The same age-old problem of poor conditions of service compounded by government’s neglect would soon showcase itself in the near future.
Towards the end of 2020, Njala University retirees for whom a farewell party was staged went without retirement packages.
University authorities had cause to prevail upon them to exercise patience and restraint as their entitlements would be given them soonest although no specific time was stated.
The university’s failure to offer financial packages to retired workers who have toiled for years in the academic vine yard indicate poor financing of the country’s universities.
The retirees have gone home empty-handed, and they must submit to the passage of time to get their fruits of their labour.
One of the retirees who recently spoke to this press thanked God that she did not die in the cause service to humanity.
“Most of my colleagues died, while I remain alive although I am now a retiree,” she appreciated God.
One with a humanitarian concern would imagine the lives the retirees would live for coming months; if not years, before they receive their money.
The recent shortage of printed currency notes that hit commercial banks could be an issue of grave concern for retirees and serving personnel.
The shortage of money either natural or man-made is one that can frustrate expectant retirees.
The Milton Margai College of Education and Technology (MMCET) is also one of the tertiary institutions known for industrial actions.
For several years, lecturers at MMCET owed backlog salaries running into hundreds of million of Leones forcing them to embark on a sit-down strike action.
Government also intervened, but the intervention could not permanently halt strikes for welfare conditions at MMCET.
The incessant strike actions in universities, no doubt, have the potential to water down quality education in Sierra Leone.
They can also render the New Direction Government’s Free Quality Education as a mere rhetoric.
The New Direction must learn that quality education does not stop in the classrooms of primary and secondary schools, but continues to the classrooms of universities and other tertiary institutions.
Taking of care of education in primary and secondary schools without paying attention to universities and other tertiary institutions makes the FQE a farce.
The spate at which universities in Sierra Leone are replete with industrial actions for improved conditions of service especially better emolument package means much has to be done in the academic sector.
Sierra Leone has come a long way and has seen so much in its education component but very sad stories still continue to characterise the sector.
Lecturers although they are not medics should not be allowed to wallow in conditions in extreme poverty as their contribution to the country’s socio-economic development is second to none.
Experts Sierra Leone takes pride have gone through lecturers before they come out to serve the country.
Lawyers, engineers, medical doctors, economists, accountants, managers, chemists, physicists among others who are today serving Sierra Leone went through lecturers.
Public opinion has shown that strike actions by medics are sensitive in the short-run in anticipation of loss of lives.
But, industrial actions by the academic community weaken the very foundation of the state.
No rational thinker can talk of meaningful development in a society where education is not placed on top of the national agenda.