MONROVIA – The main campus of the state-owned University of Liberia (UL) was a scene of violent actions when scores of Police Support Unit (PSU) officers of the Liberia National Police (LNP) fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of students in the wake of a high level of distrust among authorities of the university and faculty members over the timely and scrupulous implementation of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).
Sometimes ago, Finance and Development Planning Minister Samuel Tweah bragged that the salaries and other aged-old problems and concerns that have been raised by ULFA in the past have been addressed by the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) led-government and the issue of continuous go-slow actions which regularly paralyzed normal academic activities and working activities may not be repeated.
But during the early morning hours of Wednesday, December 1, ULFA announced an indefinite go slow action in demand of the payment of several months of salary arrears the university owed both full and part-time professors and lecturers, and the improvement of sanitary conditions at the UL.
The group claimed that the October 1 MOU which prompted their return to the classrooms following weeks of boycotting classes is not being adhered to by the government.
It maintained that executives and members of ULFA did not sign an agreement with poverty, and as such, government should see reason to implement all of the counts stipulated in the MOU.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with FrontPage Africa shortly after the decision was taken, ULFA Public Relations Officer (PRO), Eric Patten disclosed that the professors and lecturers at the state-run university are among the least paid in Liberia.
“Today marks exactly two months since the ULFA and the government of Liberia represented by the Minister of Finance and Development Planning signed and the UL authorities signed a MOU. This MOU had 21 items count down. As we speak, that MOU is a failure and the UL authorities have refused deliberately to the implementation of that MOU. If you compare our salaries to that of administrators, you got broken. We are supposed to die in poverty? We are demanding seriousness this time around”.
“The President of Liberia has been represented by the Minister of Finance. The Minister of Finance is aware of the university lackadaisical attitude towards the MOU. He needs to advice appropriately on what decision to make here at the University of Liberia. We will ensure that this country is on the right path, until then, the faculty remain disengage. We want to get what we want; until we can get what we want, we remain disengaged”.
Patten pointed out though there were issues addressed by the government prior to the return of the professors and lecturers to the classrooms, government has failed to address the remaining ones.
He named the payment of several months of salary arrears owed part-time lecturers at the university, provision of stipend for internet data being purchased by lecturers for online teaching, provision of quality instructional materials, ensuring a conducive learning environment for both the students and lecturers, among others as some of the issues that have not been addressed by the government, through the UL authorities.
He emphasized that it is quite unfortunate and disgusting for authorities of the UL to play blind eye to the plights of ULFA barely a week to the administering of final examinations for this academic semester.
“The university cannot pay arrears for data that faculty members used to teach online. The labs at Fendell-it was just last week that they put one light bulb there when they are announcing exams for next week; but the President (of the UL) goes on dejavu for one month in Glassgow; he comes and go to Sierra Leone, but when you call for materials to do academics, you find out that they will not pay attention. All they care about is the bankrolling and the DSA at this university”.
Patten further claimed that there exist a huge salary disparity among lecturers and professors at the UL.
According to him, an administrative assistant at the UL is being paid two to three times more than a PHd lecturer.
He alleged that though UL authorities have admitted to the disparity, nothing is being done to arrest the situation.
“They want us to die in poverty at the same time our children should also die in poverty. We call for adjustment to ensure that we are on par. We are not going to be around here begging. They are not going to make us vulnerable or to reduce the quality of this place. We want to be people of integrity and we demand what we deserve. As long as they did not give it to us, we will be out of the classrooms”.
He claimed that government has been consistently “toying” with the plights and concerns raised by ULFA, and as such, the decision reached to disengage from all classroom activities was intended to ensure that the MOU signed is scrupulously implemented by all parties.
“They will pay all arrears of part-timers. We have people that have not been paid for two to three semesters. Four months are for a semester they have not even paid a cent for this semester. They have been deducting monies and not remitting that money to the accounts. We signed an MOU that they were going to pay that money by November; we committed ourselves to ensure that we give our faculty a decent living salary. We are not seen implementation of the first MOU”.
“We have been negotiation and negotiation. This morning, the Minister of Finance and his team came up with a figure, but the faculty are saying in as much as other issues were being toyed around with, they will not believe whatever that is being said until they see the evidence in their accounts at the end of January (2022).In fact, we are not going to come back here in a filthy environment. Bathrooms here are only usable when there is a rainfall”.
He maintained that the previous MOU signed with the government represented by Minister Tweah has been “flagrantly violated” and as such, government cannot be trusted again by ULFA.
Disappointed in Tweah
Speaking further, Patten disclosed that though Finance and Development Planning Minister Tweah was taught and passed through the walls of the UL, he has not done enough to ensure that his former professors and lecturers who are still around are justly paid for the sacrificial services they continue to render in molding the minds of thousands of Liberians.
“Apprentices cannot be greater than masters. The Minister of Finance (Tweah) was produced by people who are still here; some of them are members of the leadership of the faculty. You can’t grow more than your masters and so, these men are here and they are guiding the process”.
He said eventhough professors and lecturers are not opportune to be where they opt to be, those who they have tutored or nurtured should not use their “tricks” on them.
He pointed out that barrage of commitments and assurances given to ULFA by Minister Tweah have not come to fruition.
Patten used this medium to call on Minister Tweah to muster the courage and proffer advice and suggestions to President Weah on the issues confronting professors and lecturers at the university.
“Minister Tweah knows the real issues because we have informed him. Anything short of informing the President, we are not coming back here. We will remain disengage until all of the issues on the MOU are implemented”.
He added that the decision taken by ULFA comes in the wake of multiple failed negotiations between the group, UL authorities and the GOL.
Patten admitted that the Minister of Finance has been making frantic efforts to discourage the go-slow action, but the resolution reached by the general assembly of ULFA supersedes every other effort or negotiation.
Plea to Weah
Patten further called on the Liberian Chief Executive not to taint the image of his government by allowing the ongoing situation at the state-owned institution to escalate.
He emphasized that President Weah must ensure that ULFA demands are met in a timely manner.
He claimed that the current management team at the UL “is not in the interest of academia”.
Patten alleged that some of those at the helm of authority at the UL (who he did not name), are only there to “bankroll” the institution for their personal gains.
He indicated that members of ULFA are prepared to live up to their portion of the bargain signed, but the Liberian Chief Executive should intervene and compel the UL authorities to prioritize their wellbeing and survivability.
Patten expressed the hope that President Weah will listen and adequately intervene to ensure that the plights of not only the lecturers and professors, but also the students at the institution are addressed.
Meanwhile, ULFA has urged students of the UL to see their actions as one that is intended to ensure a win-win situation for both students and lecturers at the state-owned higher institution of learning.
Patten emphasized that the decision taken should not be misconstrued by anyone that lecturers and professors are bent on depriving the children of less fortunate Liberians from acquiring higher education.
In a resolution issued under the signatures of David B. Kwiyarhe, and Edna G. Johnny (PhD), Secretary General and President respectively of ULFA, the group named the payment of back pay for part-time faculty members, and backlog in social security remittance as some of the issues that need to be addressed by government to guarantee their return to the classrooms.
“Wherefore, after extensive deliberations around the above issues by faculty members at the Special General Assembly, the body overwhelmingly resolved to disengage from all academic activities as of the date of this resolution until all its demands are met as stipulated in the October 1, 2021, MoU”, the resolution maintained.
Authorities at the UL and the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning are yet to officially respond to the claims and concerns raised by the aggrieved faculty members and support staff.
Minutes after the decision was reached to disengage from academic activities at the main campus of the UL, scores of aggrieved students, bulk of who were attending classes when the news broke out, gathered before the main entrance of the university.
But PSU officers provoked the students to anger by firing tear gas into the premises of the university.
This prompted the aggrieved students to engage into the throwing of stones at the officers.
Few students were arrested, while normal commercial and working activities were cutoff for few hours as a result of the incident on the main campus and nearby areas.
The incident also prevented the free flow of traffic on the Capitol Bye-Pass and Sinkor areas for a while.
Though it remains unclear whether or not the government will address the concerns and plights raised by ULFA in a timely manner, the current situation comes in the wake of revision at both campuses of the UL.
Examinations have already been scheduled for next week, but the current situation will paralyzed the resumption of regular academic activities at the UL for a while.
The students, however, expressed disappointment over the intruding of their main campus by armed police officers.
They claimed that the constant habit of the government to ensure the payment of their professors and lecturers salaries in an effective and efficient manner has compelled them to overstay at the UL.
“I supposed to be out of this university by now. I came here since 2012. Why you people always doing things to us the poor people children. Your children are attending private universities in and out of Liberia, but you people are doing all your can do to deprive us from learning by refusing to pay our lecturers and improve the learning environment here. Why did we do to your to deserve this kind of treatment”, a female student stated with tears running down her cheek.
The continuous protest and go slow action being initiated at the UL on a regular basis is due to the lack of trust among both the authorities and faculties.
It has prompted the government of Liberia to announce the taking over of the payment of salaries to professors and instructors at the university.
Already, a reform pay scale to end disparity between higher pay UL administrators and PHD professors and other instructors has been reportedly finalized by the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, saving about US$800k.
Though the cost to ensure that this reform works stand at US$3.5M, the government has agreed to find additional US$2M beginning Jan 1 to actualize this reform.
This implies that a typical Master degree holder with about five years’ experience will earn around US$450 if the reform is actualized.
The government also sealed the payment of back pay owed the lecturers under the previous administration headed by Dr. Ophelia Weeks.
The part-time lecturers are claiming that the government owes them the amount of US$850,000.
But out of the total amount owed, the government says it has negotiated and agreed to pay the part-time lecturers the amount of US$700,000.
It claimed that out of the total amount, about US$500,000 has already been processed, while the remaining US$200,000 will be processed and paid by this Friday.
“These were their big demands and they were given this information today but they still decided to lay down chalk. So it appears to be MORE political at this point”, a source hinted.
According to reports, Minister Tweah has called for a transparent assessment of UL revenue and expenditure before next Wednesday.
The reports maintained that all of the revenue streams will be compared to expenditures.
Minister Tweah reportedly assured the faculty members that the government will not only take over UL payroll, but it will also ensure that a certain fraction of the free tuition payment will be assigned to solve some of the issues affecting the faculty.