23 May, 2022


6% GDP On Education: From A Fantasy To A Real Programme

By Sumanasiri Liyanage

Sumanasiri Liyanage

Of the four trade union actions, the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) has been so far engaged in, in its about three decades of history, the one that came to conclusion last week was the first that ended with no tangible material results. On the other hand, the last trade union action was of great significance for two reasons. First, it was the first strike action by the university teachers. FUTA had resorted to different kinds of protests, namely resigning from voluntary positions that the university teachers held in normal situation. Secondly, extending its 2011 strategy of taking the issue of education reforms beyond the boundaries of the university to the general masses, FUTA this time highlighted more general issues of education reforms than the specific demands of its members. Hence FUTA was able to generate a broader discussion on the educational reforms that the country is badly in need of. Ending a TU action with no concrete results is not an uncommon thing in the trade union history since the trade union action means a struggle between two opposite forces with substantially different interests. Just because the TU action failed to secure concrete and tangible gains, it does not necessarily mean that it was a failure. Similarly, even it is a failure, it is not a ground for a discontent or disappointment if the union membership and its leaders are able to decode the reasons of the failure and take necessary actions not to repeat them in future trade union actions. So it is imperative that FUTA have a critical reflection on the past union actions. Why did it fail to win its demands notwithstanding the fact that it was the trade union action which received the participation and the support of more than 90% of the university teachers and generated support of the significant layer of the society? Was it because that some of the FUTA demands are not achievable in the prevailing economic and social context without far reaching changes? Was there a basic flaw in the frame of struggle? Can the failure be attributed to the fact that although the FUTA was able to build pressure through mass action, FUTA negotiation team had failed at the negotiation table? In my opinion, these are the issues FUTA should discuss and reflect on if it wants to continue as a trade union? Although I have my own views on the above issues, I do not intend to discuss them in this article. My intention here is to redraw the boundaries of the discussion on FUTA demand on 6% of GDP on education.

Fantasies are of great importance and useful in building social movements. It is interesting to note that the FUTA was able to fantasize the demand of 6% of the GDP on education especially among the Sri Lankan internet community that is growing. Keeping the demand at the level of fantasy during the time of trade union action might also have facilitated the trade union action. Nonetheless, in the post-strike phase, it is imperative to reread the demand in the light of the ideas that were flagged in the discussion. There were two criticisms of FUTA demand to which I intend to turn shortly.

1. Critique of the Economists and the FUTA’s failure to respond: The economists reacted negatively to the demand for 6% of GDP on education focusing on the demand’s practicality. They correctly pointed out that the state’s contribution to the GDP had greatly reduced with the introduction of neo-liberal economic policies since 1977. The total government expenditure as a proportion of the GDP has come down to 22 per cent in recent years. So, spending 6 per cent out of this total government expenditure, according to them, is not practically possible. This may be the reason why many economists attached to the department of economics, University of Colombo refused take part in the trade union action. The answer to this criticism of the side of FUTA was not satisfactory. FUTA argued that 6% can be spent if the government was ready to reduce defence expenditure substantially and/or curtail corruption and waste. This argument does not hold water. The main portion of the current defence expenditure is of recurrent nature. If the proposal for substantial reduction of it is not linked with decommissioning with alternative employment, the implementation of such a proposal would create so many new problems. So, in order materialize FUTA’s demand for 6 percent of GDP on education, the demand should be linked with the expansion of the public economy. In other words, it means a reversal of the 1977 neo-liberal economic policies. Without moving towards an economy that is substantially dominated by the public sector, 6 per cent is just an empty signifier. Only such an economy can provide adequate expenditure on education, health, public transport etc. Not allowing room for misunderstanding let me explain what I meant by public economy that is qualitatively different from the statist economy and/ private economy. Services such as health, education, public transport should not be allowed to be controlled either by state bureaucracy or by surplus-seeking capital. Having based on the past experience, it is necessary t design a new system of management for these sectors. FUTA’s demand would be meaningful if and only if it is linked with such far-reaching changes in the prevailing economic system.

2. Teachers would have learned from the students: In the course of the FUTA struggle, a clear difference emerged between the position of FUTA and that of the Inter-University Students Federation (IUSF). While FUTA stood for the defence of ‘state education’, IUSF had the slogan of defending ‘free education’. Is this mere a semantic difference? In my view, two demands are qualitatively different. FUTA’s position implies that it has no objection for the presence of private sector education controlled by the logic of surplus-seeking capital with the state education. Secondly, it also means the continuance of the present system as a system controlled by the state bureaucracy especially in school education. On the other hand, IUSF wanted to continue the free education system originally initiated by C. W. W. Kannangara. In Sri Lankan education discourse, the term widely used to denote public education system has been free education. Why did FUTA change it? No explanation was given. Although IUSF demand is not clear about the system of management of free education system or how the free education system should be freed from the state bureaucracy and put under a democratic control of the educationists, its demand at least emphasize the need of inversing the changes that are now clearly visible in the education system.

What I have said above on public education system can be equally applicable to other sectors like health that need to be freed from two dominant control mechanisms, namely, capitalist and statist. Humankind has come to a stage where it should discover new mechanisms to govern their lives.

*The writer is a co-coordinator of the Marx School, Colombo, Kandy and Negombo.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Good points that FUTA has not lost, but has opened up a larger agenda for SOCIOPOLITICAL TRANSFORMATION and an ALTERNATIVE DEVELOPMENT AGENDA for post-war education and regeneration of critical thinking and trade union and civil society activism in Lanka to combat the Rajapakse dictatorship and its policy of militarization with Chinese and Indian help..
    Academics need to seriously address and FUTA must set up a WORKING GROUP OF EXPERTS in education and the social sciences (including the ‘dismal sciences’ and organizations like IPS) to come up with a COMPREHENSIVE WHITE PAPER FOR EDUCATIONAL REFORM that would utilize the 6 percent investment in education sector to turn Lanka into a real “knowledge hub” for alternative development thinking as well. Clearly the so-called Minister of Economic Development and the uneducated Rajapakses who has not got a basic degree has not got a clue about any this and S.B Dissanaiyake is as unfit.
    Sumane, perhaps you could convene such a working group on how to reform higher education and promote research etc, to support FUTA which seems to be taking a breather having successfully put the issues on the table and in the public domain..

  • 0

    Indeed! Rajapakse’s notion of “knowledge hub” is Chinese technology and satellites for the new Cold War in South Asia between India and China in South Asia!
    This is causing greater poverty and militarization of already poverty stricken South Asian societies – and will be a disaster for Lanka and the region in the long run.
    The uneducated Rajapassa brothers like most of the foolish leaders of South Asian banana republics have not got a clue about how to generate real knowledge and research, nor do they know the meaning of development which is all about EDUCATED CITIZENS and production of useful knowledge for HUMAN development on the ground in Lanka!

  • 0

    I personally sided with FUTA demands of are fair and just.But question of Dons strike, not apprpriate.?
    I think idea at a time when our people is ready for it? The very reson is after end of 30 years WAR, people need more stablity and peaceful atmosphare to REBUILD AND DEVELOPIENG HER ECONOMY BRING BACK TO MINIUAM LIVING ORDER of Nation.
    For such mission need more time.FUTA not consider at public mass of popuation approval for that.The stuggle was isoltate obviously there was no-approval and aggrement of consent masses participate on general strike. The real task of FUTA is not just to understand the thier demands,but to change mind of all major UPPER class of -layers of society as well as general public of Sri lanka.
    The understanding it does,not mean just reading books, Theses of Dons Cerntal Bank annul reports and political party maniefesto Or reading of Mihinda Chitanya documents,that’s helpful for sometimes.Its means
    also leraning.But leran though pricatipation and exprinceses is more important.You (FUTA) learn for pubilc.Leraning form public you are trying to orgnized FUTA demands.Gain exprinces and understanding which make possible to implement demands like such mission of a programe.
    This has to go long way.If that happen by hard enagage and long-term dedicated work.It will give positve result fro the masses of people of Island.
    Sorry to say FUTA leadrship has fail leran, through hard work on long-term basis.
    There is a variant of that which should also be kept in mind,but FUTA lost such vision very begining.If FUTA want to change Education System in Sri Lankan must approch construcative dircation,you better attempt to relized it first.
    Take demand of 6%GDP for Eduaction there has to be no-orginization,eudcation,activism by FUTA side just telling public what to belive.This means lerning things from FUTA.
    University Dons recived better substntial wages and salary Scales are, reliativaly compare with other elties.Of cause Dons need to be improved living conditions as well.
    In certain points I aggred with Mr Sumansiari Liyange,but leadership FUTA lack of vision political idealogy.And it could not lead to a noticeable democartic change in the our political system in near future of Sri lanka.

  • 0

    Sumanasiri Well done

  • 0

    As this article implies this demand for 6% increase is completely political. In this respect, it is by a certain TRADE UNION of University teachers.

    I think, without the greed for money and political affiliation – that political affiliation may not be aligned to any party but just to strengthen their own positions- teachers should have presented a comprehensive program to restructure the university education in Sri Lanka. IF not what happens is both the FUTA, that includes activists in FUTA too, and the govt contribute to the degradation of Sri Lankan university education.

    When FUTA asked 6% and Salary increases that is typical trade union demands – it is very typical of trade unions to make this kind of demands – to their personal benefits and not for others, I mean students or for the country.

  • 0

    Every educated Sri Lankan (professor) tries to show that they are more knowledgable than others. They are talking, talking,……… and do not work.

  • 0

    This is a good analysis about FUTA’s strike. However, I think that FUTA is not entitled to make a demand of 6% of GDP on education based on their trade union actions (This is not consistent with FUTA’s constitution). Trade Unions are set up to bargain on demand for welfare of working. The allocation of 6% of GDP on education is a national level policy decission. No body can use trade union actions to pursue government on national level policy decissions. This is one of the reasons FUTA’s failure.

    Then, FUTA requested government to increase expenditure on state education. At the same time FUTA do not have serious objections on private universities. They approve government led private education system. But IUSF demanded for free education. Thus, I think FUTA was not able to take massive support from IUSF in the future.

    One Last thing is that FUTA leader Nirmal is not a reliable person among the university community. As a student, he reprsented the independent student union who helped to destroy numerous student strikes during late 1980’s and early 1990’s. He is just a theoretical person and he has no practical experience in how to manage this kind of difficult situation. As usual at the end he gave up the strugle. This is what independent student union did in their whole history

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