By Malinda Seneviratne –
The Government could say that FUTA (Federation of University Teachers’ Associations) inflated the numbers. They could say that NGO money frilled it. They could say that lecturers and others were pawns or were complicit in a sinister political game.
Analysts could say that the demands are unjust or else indicative of infantile analytical ability which itself subverts the agitation and robs it of moral authority. Few, it could be said, would have understood what the ‘6%’ slogan signified, even if a cogent argument around that figure could be made.
Some might say, on the lines of that old adage, ‘no taxation without representation’, that ‘rights without responsibility’ and ‘free education without moral obligation to return the favor to society’ just do not make sense.
A lot more indeed has been said about the long march organized by FUTA from Galle to Colombo last week. For example, that just as it was about ‘state education’ and ‘saving’ of the same, it was also an avenue to express frustration, anger, fear and such regarding what the Government has been and has not being doing over the past several years.
Times have changed since this country went through ‘1971’ and ‘1988-89’ and what those years signify. A few decades ago an undergraduate who owned a push bicycle might have been called ‘privileged’. Later, there were scooters and motorcycles. Today some come to campus by car. Many have laptops. They have sophisticated cameras too. The FUTA campaign is all over Facebook. Blogs dedicated to the struggle or else which have adopted it as something that warrants daily comment have mushroomed.
Does all this mean that the general population has somehow been yanked out or has upped itself out of endemic poverty? Does it mean that those who benefit from free education must always look poor? No. The truth is that although things don’t trickle down the way some economics would like us to believe they would, things have got better at the bottom. This does not mean that the ‘top’ has idled. The truth is that gaps have widened. Costs have soared. Just because an undergraduate rides a motorcycle or wields a camcorder or hammers out status updates about an agitation campaign on Facebook, this does not mean that higher education costs have come down or that they have become affordable to the vast majority of the population somehow.
It’s there in the faces of those who braved the weather and the real possibility of having their heads bashed in by thugs deployed by ruling party politicians or even by the Police. It is there somewhere in the enthusiasm and festivity that somehow layer themselves over protests. Just because protests have a ‘fun’ element, this does not mean that they are not serious. It does not mean that those who marched are dumb. It does not mean that the fuel that made them place one foot in front of another, mile after mile, hour after hour, was not made of both fear and hope.
While it is easy to dismiss FUTA and easier still to scoff at or refute slogan and statement, there can be no doubt at all that the Government does not have vision, strategy or even a set of skeletal slogans that can pass off for coherent procedure when it comes to education. While overall allocation for education has gone up, this hasn’t been accompanied by or derived from a comprehensive policy on human resource development that is linked to overall economic policy. Indeed, what passes for ‘development policy’ is unabashed gleanings from IMF policy directives, laced of course with a lot of nationalist rhetoric. Those directives are patently anti-poor or at best designed to toss out just enough tidbits to keep insurrection at bay.
Now it is hard to argue that increasing allocations will automatically translate into pushing education in the right direction unless the entire system is overhauled and infused with some kind of rationality with social justice framing the exercise. However, it is the very absence of reason in policy formulation that buttresses the argument that more money is better than less (and less and less).
This country’s human resource crisis can be traced back to the 150,000 to 200,000 young persons who died during the two insurrections mentioned above and the three decades long conflict. That ‘loss’ manifests itself everywhere, but perhaps nowhere as naked as it is shown in the kinds of people who make it to Parliament. If FUTA looks weak, that too is a part product of the above decimation. Consistent refusal to address this fundamental issue in any meaningful manner by successive governments only tends to create conditions for other such showdowns and an exacerbation of the problem on account of the inevitable losses.
People are falling out. That’s obvious. And politicians really don’t give a damn, not those in power and not those who aspire to hold office. After all, what goes as ‘education’ policy today is the blue version of the green ‘White Paper’ on the subject that Ranil Wickremesinghe came up with thirty years ago. It is slanted in favor of the privileged. True, some from the villages will (as they always have) swing things their way, but that’s what’s called exception.
State education needs to be reformed. Education needs to be reformed. Neither should be done in a way that people get left behind. The sad truth is that people have always got left behind and the current thinking of the regime doesn’t have a clue about getting them on board and worse doesn’t seem to care either!
There is fear. It is written in the faces of many who marched or came for the march-end rally. This is because education still is the only (outside) chance of climbing out of poverty, dispossession and humiliation. Perhaps those who benefit have not appreciated and have not paid their debts in full or part, but that does not mean that it should be scrapped or downsized.
Speaking strictly for myself, I can say without hesitation that I owe free education a debt that I can only strive to repay. I am acutely conscious of the fact that whatever I do there will not come a point when I can tell myself ‘I’ve paid in full’ and be able to sleep well.
The Government might say that it does not intend to touch ‘free education’. The signs however are ominous, even if one brushes off FUTA numbers as being incorrect and inflated for protest-efficacy. Schools being closed are just one indication. Dropout rates increasing must say something. There’s insanity in priority. Hope is running out. Fear is taking over.
Let me repeat. Knowledge is The Doorway that opens out to the avenue that takes a people out of poverty. That was Lalith Athulathmudali. It is being shut. For many. There is a moral obligation on the part of every individual who benefitted from state education to take a stand. For this you need not stand with FUTA. You need to stand on the conscious acknowledgment of what made you and who made you what you are. If money was not invested with circumspection, that’s a different matter. The answer is not to withdraw the funds or systematically cut the allocation in terms of percentage distribution.
Let me repeat. If this country came from nowhere to somewhere, free education had a lot to do with it. IF this country is to go from here to a more robust and wholesome ‘there’, then education is key. It cannot be turned into a luxury in any way. Not by denying access to better institutions and not be restricting popular courses to a privileged few. Tidbits will help tide over crisis, but they won’t stop insurrection.
There were feet that made that march. They were not soft. The faces were lined with the hard lessons of a harsh struggle to get by. They have a point. They have a grievance. They have fear. They are the sons and daughters of our soil. They gave their all to making this country what it is. It is their villages that are dotted with the graves of those who gave their lives to eradicate terrorism, for example. They have already paid for the education their children are not receiving and may not receive. That’s humiliation and ingratitude. Of the entire nation and especially the privileged.
Stand with FUTA if you must, stand along if you will. Stand. I believe it is a moral obligation.