Dismissal of UTT Staff: Did the University Explore Other Options?

If you are a top corporate executive or a top government or state agency administrator and you want to get rid of an employee or a group of employees in the context of strong labor laws and trade union agreements, how would you handle such a tough situation?

Dismissal of UTT Staff: Did the University Explore Other Options?

If you are a top corporate executive or a top government or state agency administrator and you want to get rid of an employee or a group of employees in the context of strong labor laws and trade union agreements, how would you handle such a tough situation? Simple, you invoke a concept called "re-structuring," which has become fashionable in industries and government circles and which will also be used to “justify” your action. In this way, you could avoid providing the real reasons for your decision-action, and correspondingly could seek shelter in an alternative but plausible explanation called “restructuring.” If restructuring is precipitated by financial distress which you claim has forced your institution to struggle for survivability and viability, then the gate will open for you to take a number of decisions, including the firing of staff, even if they are deemed competent or of good professional conduct. You can always claim that their positions have become redundant as a consequence of restructuring, and still get support from some quarters. 

The staff at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) are perplexed over the explanation given by the UTT administration for their layoff. They don't believe that the University explored other available options. The assertion by the Chairman of the Board of Governors, Professor Kenneth Julien that there is a 11% reduction in recurrent allocation for the fiscal year 2017-2018 which places further strain on the UTT’s finances, does not resonate with the dismissed staff. There is also the claim that monthly salary payments to staff account for 70% of the UTT’s operational expenses. Well, this is not surprising as in the case of a teaching institution it is expected that the greater part of its operational expenses would be allocated to personal emoluments. It’s rather ironic that the UTT is in financial distress at a time when the country’s Finance Minister Colm Imbert asserts that there has been a turnaround of the Trinibago's economy which is projected to grow (GDP) by  9% in nominal terms in 2018. This means that billions of additional dollars will flow into the Trinbago’s Treasury. Will the government be willing to allocate any portion of this sum to UTT, which is a state institution that it wholly funds?  

But what’s the real reason why UTT has run into financial difficulties? Dismissed staff and observers believe that it was largely due to UTT’s extravagant appetite to construct a Signature Building Complex at Tamana Campus, the brainchild of Julian that has created this financial situation. However, the UTT’s rationale for dismissing the staff was based on low staff-to-student ratio which nevertheless pales into insignificance against the diversion of substantial funds from UTT’s reserves to the Tamana InTech Campus.

It’s rather puzzling to note that another aspect of cost cutting proposal is to reduce the number of campuses! And a new campus is being built at Tamana! Notwithstanding, whichever campus is closed as a result of cost cutting measures will also become the “victim” of the Tamana project. The 11 dismissed lecturers are not alone in this ugly situation, as UTT states that it will reduce the number of Vice Presidents from 7 to 3, and reduce the position of managers from 56 to 36. It's not known if a social and economic impact study was conducted before to guide UTT's cost cutting policies.

Why hasn’t UTT adopted alternative cost saving measures to dismissals, such as offering voluntary retirement packages at age 65 and over? Why not consider putting a freeze on hiring? Why not drop some of the programs like Carnival Studies, Criminology, Aviation Studies, and Marine Sciences particularly since these are also offered at UWI and at Piarco (in the case of Aviation Studies by Caribbean Airlines)? The dismissed lecturers are even calling for the firing of the expatriate President Sarim N Al-Zubaidy, who, along with the Board of Governors, are blamed for bringing UTT to this terrible financial state. "Are we paying him a whopping monthly salary of $(TT) 240,000.($USD 34,000) to bring the University to insolvency?" says a political analyst, who also insists that UTT should fire him and hire instead a Trinbagonian as President, and apply the savings in salary and allowances to the University’s operational expenses.

If UTT is in dire financial situation and this trend was discerned a few years earlier, why did it divert $(TT) 323 million of "unspent funds" to the Tamana Campus project, an action that has emptied its reserves?  "The University has in Year 2016 transferred $(TT) 323,059,056 from its reserves, and concomitantly transferred these funds from operating funds to capital project funds." (Guardian of 12/312/2017). This diversion of funds has been questioned by many people, including by former Minister of Tertiary Education Fazil Karim who asked, ".... why transfer [$323 million] to a project that is incomplete and whose future remains uncertain?" The dismissed staff claims that it has been this diversion of funds from the UTT reserves that has played a huge role in UTT's financial mess. It was because of this move (diversion of reserve funds) by UTT which runs counter to best practices method in financial management, that has made lecturers' and non-academic staff a casualty of the process. 

For the 11 dismissed lecturers who were attached to the Center for Education Programs (formerly the Teachers; Training College) at the UTT’s Valsayn and Corinth Campuses, the past weeks have been very nerve racking. They were issued with dismissal letters on May 11, 2018. They taught courses in Maths, Social Studies, Sociology, Anthropology, Technical, Vocational and Business Studies, among others. 

The lecturers claim that the Head of the Education Program, Dr Judy Rocke, has been sending conflicting messages regarding the criteria UTT applied in the their dismissals. While they ponder their situation and plan their next move, it has been announced that they will be joined by 287 non-academic staff who have also been earmarked for dismissal, as part of UTT's cost-cutting measure. Some observers, like Pandit Satyanand Maharaj referred to the dismissals of 8 Indian lecturers out of 11 lecturers as race-based, and that it has nothing to do with staff-to-student ratio; a charge denied by the Education Minister Garcia.

When dismissed lecturers and non-academic staff look at the broader picture, they wonder also how the government could make a substantial financial contribution (USD $29 million) to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) Trust Fund and can't find a few millions of dollars to offset any UTT deficit!  The Finance Minister states that the economy has made a turn around. What's startling is that Trinbago is not a member of the CCJ, yet it contributes 29% towards the Trust Fund to run the CCJ. Why give so much funds to the CCJ from which the country does not benefit particularly in terms of judicial appeals, but on the other hand, allow an institution designed to promote local indigenous entrepreneurship to stifle financially? This is not only paradoxical but also a colossal contradiction! It is questionable whether restructuring will bring UTT closer to attaining its mission to "discover and develop entrepreneurs, commercialize research and development, and spawn companies for wealth generation" in Trinbago. 

The lecturers and some students say that the dismissals at this time will likely disrupt the academic performance of students, especially those who are nearing the completion of their Bachelor of Education degree program (those at the 4-year level), but that the UTT administration has seemingly minimized this aspect of students' welfare in their haste to make financial cuts. Some of the dismissed lecturers had 4 more weeks of teaching to complete their respective courses.

At the human level, the question of job security is paramount in situations where the labor market is not dynamic and where workers view their jobs as integral to their lives. A person, who believes that he/she has been fired wrongfully, will be tormented by the affliction imposed upon him/her by the UTT administration. For example, what can a dismissed father or a mother who has been the breadwinner of a family unit tell his/her family so as to ease their anguish? How can he/she muster enough courage to tell them that he/she can no longer provide for their upkeep? Wouldn't that person feel hapless, demoralized and even socially inadequate? Wouldn't that family feel that the world is collapsing around them? A person gets his sense of identity and worth largely from gainful employment. 

Government and its various agencies must look beyond cost benefit analysis to make their policies. Institutions that play a strategic role in people’s lives cannot be evaluated by cost benefit analysis alone. An essential component is a community's history and its people's welfare. This is what seems to be lacking in the UTT's decision, as reflected in their failure so far to arrive at any compromise. For example, UTT has not considered assigning the dismissed staff to other campuses but has shown an eagerness to offer them a severance package. UTT's decision will not only negatively affect the 300 employees but also their entire families whose combined numbers are probably over 1,500 persons. And since staff were dismissed not because of job performance or professional misconduct, but because of a nebulous concept called staff-to-student ratio, this sends a chilling message to all Trinbagoan workers. Watch out! Restructuring is making its mark in Trinbago! 

     Despite utilizing various peaceful tactics, like engaging their union (Sanctuary Workers' Trade Union), mobilizing public opinion through fasting as well as picketing at the Ministry of Education, the Prime Minister's Office, and the Cabinet Meeting Center, the administration has failed so far to work on any compromise or to show any compassion. Accordingly, the dismissed staff say that they have no other option but to approach the High Court, the Industrial Court, and the Equal Opportunity Commission to get justice. They have burning issues such as 1) "what criteria were used to dismiss staff; and (2) were these criteria applied across the board," for which they seek answers. 

The UTT should find an acceptable way to resolve the plight of the dismissed staff. If the goals of restructuring are carefully engineered, both survivability and viability could be realized without having to dismiss workers. Redundancy is not an inevitable consequence of cost cutting and restructuring. Both cost cutting and restructuring could be accomplished without dismissals.