The Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo and the Registrar today tried to prevent the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) from holding a press conference at the University of Colombo Faculty Club, by deploying the university security services and Marshalls who prevented journalists from entering the premises. The UGC circular that banned the media from entering university premises during last year’s FUTA trade union action was repealed according to an agreement reached between the Ministry of Higher Education /UGC and the Federation as part of the FUTA’s suspension of their four month long strike. Hence, today’s actions by the University of Colombo authorities was unlawful. This is symptomatic of the increasingly undemocratic and intolerant cultures within universities.
However, the FUTA officials went ahead to address the media outside, near the gate of the Planetarium entrance to the University. The Federation expressed its disgust at the authorities’ treatment not only of the university teachers’ freedom to hold a press conference, but at the way in which the media was prevented from doing its job. The President of FUTA, Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri said in his statement that the last weeks have seen a series o f incidents involving university students and that unprecedented numbers of students have been suspended from state universities.
FUTA said that the Convenor of the Inter-University Student Federation, Mr Sanjeewa Bandara has been arrested and that in almost all universities, student union activities are being suppressed blocking all legitimate channels for students to express their grievances. While academics have often disagreed and critiqued student politics and certain types of student activism, even in the darkest moments of our past, university academics believed in the right of students to have representation in decision making and to form unions and organisations. One of the reasons for this is that these bodies provide students with forums to express and resolve their grievances. The FUTA said, at the press briefing today, that it condemns in the strongest possible terms, the manner in which the authorities are dealing with student issues.
FUTA reiterated that the authorities and especially the Minister of Higher Education and other officials at the Ministry, see students as a threat to their agenda and are seeking to suppress any activism and action from university students. They reiterate that the state must take the responsibility of appointing suitable persons to such positions. FUTA will leave no stone unturned to ensure that the public are aware of these devious agendas and will also take whatever necessary steps to make sure the plans to undermine the national universities are thwarted.
Since many of the Vice-Chancellors of universities are political appointments, it is not surprising that the senior management of the universities also remain indifferent to these problems and are in fact, incapable of responding appropriately to them. After all, they were appointed to these positions not for their ability to further university education in this country, but to serve the wills of their political masters.
FUTA said: “We call for the immediate release of Mr Sanjeewa Bandara and a cessation of hostile moves against student unions and their leaders. We demand that the grievances of students and staff due to short-sighted and distorted education policies are addressed immediately. We hold the authorities responsible for the wellbeing and safety of students and university staff and we will continue to call to account the authorities for endangering the wellbeing of the university community”.