Dhaka University, the premier seat of higher education in the country, turned 103 on Monday (July 1). By far and away the most storied and hallowed educational institute in the country, if you were to visit the campus on the day, you may have been surprised at the somewhat subdued atmosphere in which such an important anniversary was being observed. A rally took place in the campus area, and a march led by the vice chancellor along with some staff members and some teachers, was about it.

The reason for the light attendance was that the Dhaka University Teachers Association (DUTA) leaders had chosen not to participate in the rally.

"We are observing work abstention at 35 public universities. We also boycotted the DU anniversary rally today," Nizamul Hoque, secretary general of the Federation of Bangladesh University Teachers' Association, said.

Indeed academic and administrative activities of 35 public universities of the country, including Dhaka University, came to a halt as teachers and employees started an indefinite strike, demanding the reinstatement of the previous pension facilities instead of a scheme under the Universal Pension Scheme (UPS) introduced last year.

But teachers under the banner of the Federation of Bangladesh University Teachers' Association are rejecting the UPS, and the situation failed to be resolved through the end of the week, with a fourth straight day of no classes on Thursday (July 4).

Even libraries were closed. Some students or jobseekers studying for government jobs protested the library closures at some universities, as the library authorities decided not to open the library.

DU Central Library Librarian Professor Nasir Uddin Munshi said, "We were unable to open the library because no one showed up for work. Students must take the present circumstances into account."

Alongside the teachers, DU staff members are also observing the work abstention and calling for the reinstatement of their previous pension plan. "Until our demands are met, we will observe work abstention," Abdul Motaleb, president of the DU Officers' Association.

Headstrong, or wrong?

In August 2023, the Awami League government launched the UPS, under the National Pension Authority (NPA) with four schemes initially - Probas, Progoti, Surakha, and Samata.

A fifth scheme, Prattay, was introduced this year for government employees.

In March, the government announced the introduction of "Prattay", designed for incorporating the staff of the self-governed, autonomous, state-owned, statutory or homogeneous organisations and their subordinate bodies in the Universal Pension Scheme, introduced last year.

The scheme kicked in from July 1, the start of the 2024-25 fiscal, for bringing people from autonomous, self-governed and state-owned enterprises and their subordinate entities, among others, under a sustainable pension system. At present there are 403 self-governed, autonomous and state-owned organisations in the country. Among them, around 90 are maintaining the pension system. The remaining organisations are under the Contributory Provident Fund (CPF). Employees under CPF benefits get lump sum gratuity, they do not get pension.

As a large number of people of the country, except for government, self-governed, autonomous and state-owned organisations, are left out of a secure pension, the government has introduced the universal pension scheme to build a well-structured pension structure for people of all classes and professions.

According to Section 14 (2) of the Universal Pension Management Act, 2023, provision has been made for the introduction of a pension scheme for all the people of the country. All employees joining self-governed, autonomous and state-owned enterprises on or after 1 July 2024 will be compulsorily covered under the 'Prattay Scheme'.

The Finance Minister in his budget speech mentioned that government employees joining on or after July 01, 2025 will also come under the universal pension. All teachers, officers and employees in service till June 30, 2024, will be entitled to pension benefits as before.

Reforming the pension system

Currently, an Unfunded Defined Benefit System pension is in place as 'the government pension'. All pension expenditure is met from budget allocations. For launching the Funded Defined Contributory system in pension management, like in other countries of the world, a fixed monthly deposit system has been kept, paid into from the employee's salary.

Under the 'Prattay Scheme', the concerned organisation will deduct 10 percent or a maximum of Taka 5,000, whichever is less, of the basic salary from the concerned officer or employee and the organisation will pay an equal amount of money. Both amounts will be deposited in the corpus account of the officer or employee.

The Unfunded Defined Benefit pension system increases the financial burden on the government, and is not sustainable in the long run. On the other hand, in the Funded Contributory Pension System, a fund will be formed on the basis of contributions received and investment profits, so it is a sustainable pension system in the long term. The government points out that the Funded Contributory Pension System has been in operation since 2004 in India.

Through the introduction of a new pension system, the government hopes it will be possible to gradually bring people from all walks of life into a sustainable social security framework. It dovetails with the Awami League's aim to ensure Financial Inclusion and Inclusive Development.

How would it work?

If a teacher of a public university is appointed to the same post or a higher post in his or her own university or any other university after applying through the appropriate authority, they get service protection and pay protection, so it is not considered as a new appointment. In that case, they will have the opportunity to remain under their existing pension benefits. Only teachers and staff in public universities who are newly recruited on and after July 1, 2024 will be included in the 'Prattay Scheme'.

One of the key points of difference for how these changes impact teachers is that the Universal Pension Management Act stipulates you can draw your pension from the age of 60. But the government has assured that university teachers will get to draw on their pension for life from age 65, as they go on retirement from 65 years. The government has said it will make the necessary amendments to the law. It has also sought to assure teachers that the Lump grant, PRL and Provident Fund will continue like now.

In order to ensure the social security of participants under the contributory pension system, the government's new scheme prioritises monthly pension, instead of the one-time payoff. For this, the system of gratuity has not been kept, but the system of paying monthly pension several times more than the existing monthly pension has been kept.

If Taka 5,000 is deducted from the monthly salary in the 'Prattay Scheme' and the same amount is deposited by the organisation, after 30 years a pensioner will get a lifetime pension of Tk 124,660 per month. The total deposit from his own income would be Tk 18 lakh and if they receive pension for 15 years, the total income would be almost Tk 2.25 crore - about 12.5 times what was paid in (deposit). Pensioners who survive for 30 years after retirement would get almost 25 times their deposit.

Under the existing system, pensioners get pension for life. In his absence the pensioner's spouse and disabled children get pension for life. In the new pension system also the pensioner will get a lifetime pension. In the absence of a pensioner, the pension is permissible till the remaining period of 15 years from the date it starts for their spouse or nominee pensioner. For example, if a pensioner draws pension for 5 years after retirement and then passes away, his or her spouse or nominee would get to draw the pension for the remaining 10 years.

Failure to convince

On May 26, teachers first started demonstrating against the government decision to include all officers and employees, joining the service of autonomous, self-governing, nationalised, statutory, or similar organisations and their subordinate institutions, under the Prattay scheme.

University teachers are reluctant to part with the current system since no money is deducted from their basic salary for paying into a pension fund, whereas the new scheme mandates a 10 percent deduction from the basic salary or Tk 5,000 (whichever is less).

Teachers currently receive a one-time gratuity after going into retirement, but there is no mention of this facility in the new scheme. These two changes will eventually reduce the financial benefits of the university teachers who would join service on or after July 1, 2024. Or so they say.

Terming the new pension scheme discriminatory, teachers said that many people will not take up teaching at universities if the new scheme is implemented. They are also demanding a separate pay scale for university teachers and inclusion of professors in the pay grade equivalent to that of a senior secretary.

All classrooms and libraries were closed at Dhaka University on Thursday (July 4), as well as at the other institutions around the country. Skipping classes and exams, teachers held a sit-in in front of the arts faculty building for about an hour.

Speaking at the sit-in, DUTA leaders said the teachers of 35 public universities have rejected the Prattay scheme. They alleged that some vested quarters were spreading propaganda over the teacher's movement.

"We have logic behind our demands and the government will have to pay heed to it. We will accept our inclusion in the Sebok scheme [to be launched next year for government employees] if it is made universal [for teachers and government employees]," Nizamul said.

Teachers and students, unite!

In Mymensingh, teachers, administration officers, and other employees of Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU) joined their colleagues throughout the country to demand the cancellation of the "Prattay Scheme". Meanwhile students demanding quota reforms were also out in force, on Wednesday blocking the Dhaka-Mymensingh railway while their teachers abstained from work.

Protesters held sit-ins across the Agricultural Faculty corridors. The BAU Teachers' Association, led by Acting President Dr Mohammad Saidur Rahman, rejected the Finance Minister's statements on the "Prattay Scheme." They vowed to continue the movement until a better pension scheme is introduced.

The BAU Officer Parishad also demanded the withdrawal of the "Prattay Scheme" from autonomous institutions. Officer Parishad's President Arif Jahangir called for a uniform policy and the resolution of officers' scale issues, rejecting any discrimination.

The 3rd Class Employees Parishad, 4th Class Employees' Association, and Technical Employees Association held a half-day work abstention during which they burned an effigy of the Finance Minister.

The students meanwhile held a rally starting in front of the Mukto Moncho in front of the Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin Auditorium, demanding the cancellation of the quota system in government jobs. They blocked the Dhaka-Mymensingh railway from 1:00 PM to 2:00 PM, saying that only quotas for the disabled and small ethnic groups are necessary.

The students leaders remarked that even after 53 years of independence, there should be no need for a quota system. They stated that the field of talent should be equal. At one point they blocked the railway.

"If talented people are unemployed, the country will go backwards. Equality in recruitment to government jobs is a fundamental constitutional right of all. Now, the attempt to bring back the old quota system will disrupt the way to get this basic right."

BAU students were not the only ones demonstrating against quotas of course. Although nothing like the movement that forced the government to abandon the quota system in 2018, some sections of students have been moved to revive the movement against quotas in light of a High Court ruling last month, that declared the 2018 cancellation process illegal and restored the 30% quota for freedom fighters' families.

It meant students and teachers were protesting at the same time, and often in the same locations, although pursuing different ends, on many campuses around the country this past week. It ended badly for the students though, as the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court upheld the High Court verdict on Thursday, restoring the 30 percent quota system for freedom fighters' children in 9th to 13th grade government jobs till further order. This effectively killed off the students' quota movement.

The teachers' movement continued, although they too had a setback on Thursday. A meeting between Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader and the public university teachers demanding the cancellation of the Universal Pension Scheme was cancelled by the AL leader, due to "state affairs of the minister". So the movement looks set to continue into a second week from Sunday. Will the teachers return home empty-handed like their students?

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