Colombo Telegraph

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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