6 December, 2020

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Autocracy In Higher Education And The Impending ‘Academic Spring’

By Laksiri Fernando –

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

There is an impending confrontation between the university academics and the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) as the media spokesman for the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA), Dr Devaka Weerakoon, has very clearly stated that they would go ahead with their continuous strike action on 4th July as their main demands are not only about salaries but primarily on funding for the university education.

The FUTA is asking the government to commit towards 6 per cent of the GDP for higher education, which is the UNESCO benchmark, as the present contribution is abysmally low as 0.4 per cent, one of the lowest in the world. This increase can be gradual, if the government can promise a substantial increase in the coming future, otherwise the whole system might collapse. Out of the annual budgetary expenditure, the contribution on higher education is only around 1.5 per cent, whereas the expenditure on security is almost ten times.

If the present trends go ahead, Sri Lanka might become a military hub, but not a knowledge hub.

There is already a knowledge hub in Sri Lanka and that is the university system. Before Sri Lanka becoming a knowledge hub in Asia or in the ‘whole world,’ this existing knowledge hub should be properly maintained and managed or otherwise the whole wheel of education might collapse. There are indications that the collapse has already started. No one is against the government having lofty ambitions in any of the five hubs declared. But action should match the ambitions, and ambitions should be realistic. Mere rhetoric is not sufficient.

Contradictory Statements

There are three contradictory statements issued by the higher education authorities last week on the demands of the academics, particularly on the salary issue, and their intention of strike action. The first was ostensibly a modest appeal by the Committee of the Vice Chancellors and Directors (CVCD), among other things, stating that “the academics have recently received substantial increases in remuneration and other benefits” without spelling out what they were and when they were granted (Colombo Page, 27 June 2012).

Then came a statement by the Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) saying that “the salaries of the university academic staff will be increased by over 70 per cent with effect from October 1” (Daily News, 28 June 2012) to mean the next October.

Now there is a new statement by the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education, quoting the same figures as the UGC Chairman, but claiming that salaries of academics were increased in 2011! (Combo Page, 30 June 2012). It is also possible that some of the media are also confused as to what the authorities actually state about matters because it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.

The following is what the FUTA says on the salary issue: “The UGC erroneously cites a few increases in allowances as salary increases and includes a research grant, which is given only until the end of this year, as a ‘salary’ increase. Further, even with the addition of these allowances to the basic salary, the current salary structure comes nowhere near the recommendations made by the Jiffry-Malik Ranasinghe committee appointed by the UGC in 2008.”

Even if the UGC and the Ministry statements are to believe, there are intriguing questions arising out of the salary issue. The junior and young academics are completely discriminated and overlooked under the UGC proposed formula. A senior professor will get a 74 percent increase; a senior lecturer 58 percent; and a probationary lecturer only 36 percent. While this can be a complete canard to hoodwink the public and divide the academic community, FUTA argues that all these are proposed allowances, with strings attached, and never to be implemented, judging from the past experiences. Whether this is true or not, what is apparent is the breakdown of trust between the academics and the Ministry of Higher Education.

What FUTA has clearly asked is an increase of 20 percent of the basic salary of all grades of university academics; and not 74 percent for some and 36 percent for others. In addition they have asked for the establishment of a Sri Lanka University Academic Service and the immediate suspension of university reforms now going on without proper consultation with the stakeholders and primarily the academics. They also demand a clear government policy on the ‘free education system’ and ask for the increase of public funding for universities up to 6 percent of the GDP as mentioned before.

Autocracy  

After relating credible information regarding duplicitous actions on the part of the MoHE during various negotiations, FUTA accuses the Ministry and the government of personal agendas and autocratic decisions quite detrimental to academic freedom and wellbeing of higher education in the country as follows.

“The Ministry has withheld funds allocated to universities, and circumvented university procedures to pay for activities. The only explanation we can proffer for such blatant disregard is that the MoHE was fulfilling some personal agendas of persons in the government through these measures. The government has interfered in the areas of curriculum, the nature of student intake and in staff hires.”

Personal agendas and autocratic decisions of the Ministry were quite obvious to the present author before his retirement in late 2010. If I may relate one or two, I was the Director of the National Centre for Advanced Studies (NCAS) under the university system instituted through a Parliamentary Ordinance when the present Minister, S. B. Dissanayake, assumed duties. He wanted me to resign from that position just two months before my term ended, quite unashamedly, without giving any reason which I refused very strongly.

The message was sent through a ‘certain lady’ and conveyed to me by the UGC Chairman as a message. Obviously, the Minister could not do anything to remove me as my appointment was done by the UGC through due process. After my retirement, although I had made all arrangements to recruit a successor, through public advertisement, the Minister somehow appointed a person who is apparently his uncle! I have no objection for the person, but the procedure was quite illegitimate.

During the period of the former Minister, activities of the NCAS were conducted without undue influence of the Minister although he was the Chair of the Council of Regents on policy matters. The administrative matters were handled by the Director who was also the Chair of the Council of Management with the consultation of the Council. While the previous Minister did not at all interfere with my administrative duties, the present Minister was a continuous nuisance to say the least, which I largely disregarded.

Reasons Behind

There are some observers who attribute rather the erratic behavior of the Minister towards the academics to his inferior educational background although he is a university graduate. It is possible that he was appointed to the position to handle the student situation since he was a former student leader. His tactics in fact were akin to a student leader who organized, after becoming the Minister, rival factions within universities and even went to the extent of giving paramilitary training to selected government supporters reminiscent of the tactics used by the military junta in Burma before 2010. There was credible information before I left that even he was interfering with the student lists selected for university admissions.

When he assumed duties as the Minister in May 2010 he in fact stated in Parliament that a university professor should be paid Rs 200,000. He is the very person who set the salary ball rolling perhaps initially to curry favor with the academics. Then the relations became sour when some of his own plans were not realistic or proved hollow rhetoric. He wanted to produce students, as he said, ‘who could see beyond the horizon.’ The University of Colombo joke says that then the students started to go to the beach every evening!

His Vision in the Ministry is “To be the most cost-effective higher education in Asia” (see the website). Therefore, he is in fact ‘logical’ to get the lowest budgetary (1.5 percent) and GDP (0.4 percent) allocation to higher education compared to all other Asian countries. In comparison to 2005 he has in fact cut down the allocations to the universities. Even from the allocated funds, he is accused of running different programs at the Ministry spending colossal amounts of money.

He first went against the students, and then against the non-academic staff, and now he is bracing his fists against the academics. He is in fact capable of doing something nasty who even accused the Supreme Court about its ‘Balu Teendu.’

However, the reasons cannot simply be personal specific to the Minister or the Ministry. He is only a cog in the entire Rajapaksa machinery. Mismanagement in the educational sector had some previous roots, but has reached catastrophic proportions since recently. The entire university admissions are in a mess due to the z-score fiasco. Even after the Supreme Court decision, the system is not proceeding forward due to an apparent tug of war between the UGC and the Department of Examinations. What is apparent is the breakdown of confidence in the entire examination system. Almost half of the candidates who sat for the advanced level examination last year had asked for re-corrections and 2,725 have in fact managed to get their results upgraded. This is not a small number of errors.

There are some who argue that the proposed university academic trade union action on the 4th July is unethical. Under normal circumstances it might be the case that university dons should not refrain from teaching or other duties. But these are unusual circumstances that require unusual measures. Without firm action on the part of the academics, the duplicity of the government and the Ministry of Higher Education might not come to a halt. The most outrages are the ways that the defense authorities tried to intervene in the situation by threatening the President of the FUTA, Dr Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri. This alone is a reason for the university academics to protest and show the government that there are sections in society that could not be silenced through intimidation or harassment.

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Latest comments

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    Nice piece – courageous Keep it coming. The Minister of Higher Education MUST be someone who has a higher RESEARCH DEGREE – a PhD. with a track record of publication in quality journals who knows and understands what research is all about and how it maybe supported and enabled to make Lanka a knowledge Hub.
    At this time students, parents, teachers, and university Dons should get on the streets and ask for the IMMEDIATE RESIGNATION of S.B. Dissanaiyake and Banduall Gunawardena, who are clownish goons and a clean of the Education sector. Also the head of the UGC and all other incompetent political appointees should be forced to resign. It is incredible that the opposition UNP and JVP have not started a satyagraha to get Bandual the clown who said the a family can live on 7500 to resign after the Superime Court judgement on the Z score. The opposition is also disgraceful.

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      Naive suggestiopns but the writer himself is funny as well. He needs to get his facts right first, it is not 0.4% that has to be compared with the demanded 6%, that is 1.8%. Anyway, this NGO minded writers in Colombo write for fun than educating masses.
      But for you to ask for a minister with a good publication record is the most hilarious. It is not the minister who needs a good publication record but the professors in Universities who are protesting. Apart from a couple of letters on JVP troubles and the Dutch period, what publication record Dewasiri has himself? there are some professors who has had their last publication in 1970s, you can learn newer stuff from school books than what they could teach now.
      UNP as a party is cleverer than some academics. It is surprising the government does not take the academics head on in this z-score saga. It looks like the supreme court had ignored the man who devised the new formula, which the supreme court rejected. Prof. Sarath Kulathunge has a very acceptable explanation. Why would the minister resign when the academic stands by his method? The problem is more than politicians, it is academics. For another example, academics are independent and they are fighting to maintain that status. They produce graduates in thounsands every year. But the business community says the graduates are not fit for jobs. They prefer foreign graduates and the local graduates have to protest again as unemployed graduates. Do the academics who produce these unemployable graduates take any responsibility? Surprised they haven’t yet used it as a funding issue in their protests.

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        Rupert the Van Man obviously does not know like his Prof. Sarath K who must be a joker – that you cannot mix two different populations – apples and oranges for example – and find an average among them! This is basic math and not rocket science!

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          Not wanting to answer an idiot but but somehow the opinion of the majority has been corrupted by these Donkey Dolls. Anybody who doesn’t agree with an idiot or his politics is not always a joker for your information. May be you can’t read or understand, hence I’ll summarise what Sarath said in the press conference.
          They calculated the two z scores seperately for the two exams but found the number of students selected to university from one is far more than the other. But when you looked at the 1st shy and 2nd shy candidates entered the universities in the past three years, there was a unique pattern, which obviously was very different to this time when two seperate z scores were calculated. Therefore, taking into account various parameters, the 5 professors worked out a new formula. The university entrance based on z scores calculated with the new formula agrees closely with the old pattern.

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      Thanks you very much! Rajapakse and his Cabinet of Criminal Clowns need to stop militarizing and start educating THEMSELVES! Just leave education to the academics, give them the resources.
      Finally, Rajapakse and his uneducated family needs to keep their dirty hands and pudgy fingers out of the education sector in Lanka.

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      Let’s include more, not only publications but the minister should have supervised 5 PhD students as well. Because then, hardly any university professor will be eligible for the post. The current British Education guy was once just a newspaper man and a previous guy had never been to a university and blind.

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    Quite right, grand rhetoric about “knowledge hubs” is useless when the basics are not in place — also to attract quality teachers, researchers and human resources. The uneducated Rajapakse family dictatorship has no idea about how EDUCATION OR DEVELOPMENT OR RESEARCH works – nor do their political clowns who control the education sector understand any higher or subtle principles.
    Indeed it is time for a discussion about the WHOLE EDUCATION DEBACLE in the ‘miracle of Asia’ with its family dictatorship. We need a COMPREHENSIVE PLAN with EXPERTS who know the issues to sort out the education sector and develop it. It is good to know that FUTA is finally moving beyond the parochial concerns of their salary and looking up at the wider issues and seeing the sky – quite late in life after the university has been beaten and politicized. There should be a COMPREHENSIVE rather than piecemeal discussion and ROAD MAP with a LOG FRAME, INDICATORS AND BENCHMARKS to develop higher education. Certainly more funding for university dons and students is needed including accommodation and facilities for students since students rag and behave inhumanly when they live in sub-human conditions.

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      So the suggestion is the students be given accomodation at Inter continental. The university accomodation is good enough for many but a few who engage in ragging will always rag no matter what!

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    Readers would do well to read the facts that are given by authoritative and unbiased, sincere writers who have experience with the field about which they write. There seem to be several attempts at muddying the waters so that accurate analysis become impossible. To confuse asnd confound, is an age-old tactic used to cover perfidy, rorts and exploitation. One should maintain perspective, a clear mind and not be led emotionally in countering these nefarious manipulations.

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