CAIRO: University teachers are threatening to launch strike action in January 2008 if the Ministry of Education does not agree to negotiate with them over a bundle of grievances.
At their annual conference held last Friday, members of the Teaching Staff of Egyptian Universities Club – a group which represents teaching staff’s interests in the absence of an official union – drew up a number of recommendations on wages, and regulations for the Club’s board. Security intervention in universities and the “unlawful detention of some professors were also raised in the discussions.
Laila Soueif is a professor of mathematics at Cairo University and spokeswoman for the University Autonomy Collective, popularly known as the March 9 Movement, a group of Cairo university professors who came together in March 2003 in protest at the US invasion of Iraq and who now press for university autonomy and academic freedom.
The name commemorates the day in 1932 when the then President of Cairo University resigned in protest at the forcible transfer of academic and writer Taha Hussein from the University to the Ministry of Education.
Soueif told Daily News Egypt that Cairo University professors are pushing for a number of reforms at the top of which is a complete review of pay and pensions.
“The inflation of the last two years has made it impossible to live on current wages. Every year when we get a bit noisy they give us a little bit more here and there, but it’s nowhere near enough, she said.
Teaching staff complain that poor wages, coupled with chronic government under-funding of public universities has led to a deterioration of academic levels. Amr Darrag, a professor of engineering and vice chairman of the Club, insists that teaching staff wages is an issue intimately linked with the country’s wellbeing.
“Low wages are reflected in the quality of the graduates produced by public universities. He told the Daily News Egypt that the government urgently needs to reconsider its priorities by dedicating a greater proportion of the national budget to education, because “the general environment is getting worse and worse.
Cairo University professor of mathematics Hany El-Hosseiny says that increasing privatization and reduction of funds is forcing universities to seek out other sources of funding – including from students themselves – while low wages compel university professors to supplement their income through other means.
“Professors are keen to get money any way they can by making their books more expensive, or giving private lessons – which means that they have less time for students.
The Club is recommending that the monthly income of professors be raised to LE 14,000. It currently stands at an average LE 3,000.
Teaching staff also allege that academic activity is compromised by the constant interference of security bodies, and are renewing their long-standing demand to end this intervention.
“We can’t invite a guest speaker or travel without the permission of security bodies, despite the fact that they do not legally have the authority to do so.
They also interfere heavily with students, and expel them from university hostels for political activity, Soueif told Daily News Egypt. “This includes student union elections. Anyone who is not a government stooge is declared unfit to run, she added.
Aside from financial demands, the Club is calling for the release of nine university professors currently being held in detention awaiting military trial on charges of money-laundering and belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood group.
Darrag told Daily News Egypt that the professors are respected members of the teaching body, some of whom have won national awards for their work. “There is no reason why they should not be tried in ordinary courts or why they should not be released on bail. They have been in prison awaiting trial for more than a year now, which in itself is a form of punishment. This is the government’s traditional way of going after the political opposition.
The Club is also calling on the government to abandon its plans to sell the land on which the University of Alexandria is built (which would involve the demolition of the Chatby Teaching Hospital) as real estate and relocate the university campus elsewhere.
The Club has announced that if the negotiating committee fails to elicit a government response it will convene an emergency meeting to decide which course of action it would take, including the possibility of a protest in front of the People’s Assembly, protests by teaching staff inside universities, and going on strike.
Soueif says that the Club board met with the Minister of Education before the annual conference and he promised an appointment with Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif. The negotiating committee now has two weeks to report back to Club members.
“We’re trying to negotiate but we’re applying a little bit of pressure, Soueif said. “If our demands are not met we will began strike action either during the January 2008 exams – by withholding results – or next semester.
Darrag told Daily News Egypt that the Club hopes to gather as much public support for their campaign as possible. When asked whether he thought the government would respond to their demands, he said, “I hope so. The government is led by university professors – Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif is himself a professor of engineering. We hope that they will see the wage issue as one integral to Egypt’s wellbeing.