27 October, 2020

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Forget FUTA, Overhaul Education Policy Anyway!

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

About 15 years ago as I was passing the Senior Common Room of the Peradeniya Arts Faculty, I saw Dr. S.B. D. De Silva having a cup of tea. He was alone. I walked in and had a chat. I asked him why the place was empty and if this was ‘normal’. He said ‘If you want to find the lecturers, you have to go to Polgahamulla’. The reference was to a highly successful tuition operation close to Peradeniya where lecturers would teach students reading for external degrees. We discussed other things, including the poverty of scholarship and the fact that the Arts Faculty Library housed one of the most under-utilized collections in the country.

Fifteen years later, we could have the same conversation, roughly. And yet, the Arts Faculty is not the University of Peradeniya and arts faculties are not the university system. There are men and women of exceptional intellect who are also endowed with exceptional sense of dignity and honor. They work regardless of reward and are motivated by the love of scholarship and a strong sense of duty, and they do so in spite of and not because of the particular policy and political environment. If the university system has resisted collapse it is because of them, in the main.

Much has been written about the trade union action of academics, led by FUTA (Federation of University Teachers’ Associations). The Nation has given space to FUTA to express its views. What FUTA would like people not to know has also been covered, in part (see ‘The Story that FUTA does not tell)A lot more needs to be said. It will be said, rest assured, and what is said will not need excessive quotation of the excellent undressing that is “Mage Naduwa Iwarai” (My case is over) written by Dr. Sarath Wijesuriya, Senior Lecturer attached to the Sinhalese Department of University of Colombo.

FUTA wants academics to be placed in a separate category in the public service. It demands autonomy and wants to be spared politicization, even as it is politically compromised and has been sophomoric in refusing to acknowledge the fact that rampant irresponsibility, sloth and other ills make academics unworthy of oversight-free control of systems maintained by public funds.

Still, much of its criticisms of education policy remain valid. The teachers’ association of Moratuwa University (MUTA)’s ‘Save Education in Sri Lanka’ presentation (of slides), widely circulated on the internet, clearly shows that something is radically wrong, even though some comparisons are unfair (they have not factored ‘out’ the large sums pumped into university research for commercial and military purposes in many countries). One doesn’t need FUTA proclamations to understand that education policy is marked by incoherence and devoid of vision in terms of overall development policy (which itself can hardly be called visionary given scant attention to accountability issues and a top-down thrust from thought to implementation that is patently undemocratic).

The setting up of the Rajarata Medical Faculty is a case in point, the institution being ‘created’ to tide over problems created by an error in an A/L Chemistry paper. Academics and doctors have objected to the controversial Malabe Medical College on grounds of standard and procedural deficiency (equally applicable to Rajarata on which FUTA is silent), but more importantly this issue showed up the ad hoc nature of policy planning, the Medical Council having had to be reconstituted to obtain regulatory approval.

I am sure FUTA understands that allocating 6% of GDP is a tough task given development priorities, but wastage, mismanagement and flaws in institutional safeguards against misappropriation in the overall economy certainly indicates that corrections can enable increase in allocations for education. MUTA has shown that there is a drop in the skills of students entering university. This means that education policy needs to be revised. From A to Z. FUTA has baggage but the Government’s policy-baggage is much heavier. FUTA cannot be asked to put its house in order until the Government rights itself. Ad-hoc must give way to comprehensive review and reformulation as appropriate. Right now, a marked aversion to institutional reform, especially those mechanisms that ensure transparency and accountability which alone can be expected to make for informed and sensible allocation of resources is giving FUTA a moral high ground which it does not deserve.

In this context it is certainly laudable that a new Human Resources Policy has been developed. One hopes the public and relevant experts will be called upon to debate it before it gets Cabinet approval. All that is ‘in the pipe-line’ though. As of now, the Government has failed in education. It must do its homework and re-face the relevant examinations, not because of FUTA rants but in spite of them.

The Nation

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    First problem is Politics in Sri Lanka. Second Economy and Third, Education. Next, others. First, we have to bring education qualification for PMs (We knows more than 80 PM lawyers didn’t pass Sri Lanka or London A/L). I think 3 A/L passes (old syllabus 4S) is enough. O/L is enough for all other level politician (at one sitting). If politicians are educated, 60% of our problem will solve. If Sri Lankan economy doing well and income fairly distributes, another 25% problems would solve. Education and all other things are accounted for 15% problems. I don’t think, Sri Lanka’s education needs A-Z change and it needs good administration, proper rules and regulation (both state and non-state educations), and qualified people who love for Sri Lankan education system.

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      PMs should be corrected as MPs (including ministers and PM).

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        This guy MS has clearly lost the plot!
        FUTA has opened a very important debate on a much larger issue – the need for equitable development of which the education sector is a part – and placed it in the public domain. This will not be forgotten!
        Unlike the cowardly politically appointed Vice chancellors FUTA have exposed the Rajapassa’s crude notions of development by putting the need for investment in education and human resource development up front and center. FUTA MUST STAY THE COURSE and not be taken in by Basil’s sweet-talk, committee talk, and delay tactics to break the strike, even though I know that salaries are not being paid and academic families will go hungry.
        Rajapassa should beware – as Bob Marley sang once: a hungry man is an angry man! FUTA should seek the resignation of the 2 education ministers on grounds of incompetence for the job. A few points:
        1. “University Academic Service” to be set up: In Lanka there is a committee and commission culture whereby nothing is done, but there is an appearance of something being done. FUTA must not be fooled by this Rajapassa ploy.
        2. FUTA must stick to the twenty percent salary rise – or all would have been in vain. Rajapassa will not grant this cos they will then have to rise other public sector salaries, and they are broke spending on white elephant infrastructure and sports tamashas in Hambantota.
        3. How can expenditure of sports – car racing, cricket matches, sport advertising and Carlton TV and rugby to keep the Rajapassa sons in entertained and subsidizing their sports businesses be considered ‘expenditure on education’ – This is a joke!
        4. The current “development” model reverses the emphasis on social development and investment in human resources – health and education – that made Sri Lanka the development exception in Asia in the 70s with high social indicators despite low per capita income as Amatrya Sen noted. This development policy has been reversed and what we see today is the poor subsidizing the the rich and transfer of public wealth into private hands in the name of (tourism) development. FUTA’s protest is really about the rights of the working people to a decent wage and a challenge to this neo-liberal World Bank and IMF sanctioned trickle up and land grabbing post-war “development” policy of the intellectually and morally bankrupt Rajapassa regime. FUTA must stay the course and make sure that their demands a met – for more equitable people centered development policy!

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    Malinda S too seems to be saying that all university academics engage in tuition. He is fixating on something he observed 15 years ago. Well even if that is true, Like Mr Chandraprema in his rather misinformed article, observes that unlike officers at the Central Bank, university academics can supplement their incomes from consulting work. This is precisely the problem we face and not a solution he suggests it should be. Universities lose potential high caliber staff at graduation and then again become unsuccessful in retaining those they recruit after they qualify further. Then the few that survive are distracted with heavy consulting, teaching at other universities and even responsibilities of Government posts. No leading international university encourages such activities. They would pay the professors adequate to get their best outputs in research and teaching which is what they are trained for leaving no reason to seek outside work other than for purely professional pursuit. Hence encouraging consulting and external work can be counter-productive.
    However, what Mr. Chandraprema is suggesting is an interesting concept. It is exactly the course of action that led to the collapse of our school education and the formation of the Tuition Class Culture. When school systems were deprived of adequate resources and teachers were denied a respectable wage, then the school education standards dropped. This began in the 1970s. With the supply for universities spaces also not expanding fast enough, the competition among students for qualifying with high grades at the GCE AL increased. Then some of the gifted teachers in schools found and exploited the ready-made tuition class market which has now become the dominant and determining market to compete for gaining university entry. This is exactly what is being prescribed for universities also. If the current issues of the universities are not addressed, then staff in these established universities will be preoccupied with consultancies and led to work part time in the many mushrooming ‘universities’.

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    At least read this before you, ආන්ඩුවට බත්බෑලකම් කරන්න ඉස්සෙල්ල
    http://www.lakbimanews.lk/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=34&Itemid=63

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    Pls read this as well

    Do our Ministers and their operatives have the moral right to demand restrain and discipline from others when they do not deny any luxuries to themselves?
    A friend of mine now domiciled in Australia observed that in such societies no government politician will even dream of going about in huge cars bought with public funds in this manner. They respect the people of their country too much and also are sensitive enough to the fact that public funds are a sacred trust to be applied only under acceptable terms. But in Sri Lanka it is the opposite. Leave alone the hypocritical politician but even his wife and children buzz about in expensive vehicles like Benzes, Volvos or BMWs sometimes with a number of back up vehicles with them, making way for the worthy to travel undisturbed.
    Although they are yet another group of persons clamoring to benefit from public finds, the members of the FUTA seem to have the moral high ground compared to the politicians in this matter. Firstly, unlike the majority of our politicians they have undergone a period of intellectual training. They have to regularly submit to supervision by their seniors as well as peers. A large amount of reading and research is expected of them. None of the members of the FUTA can maneuver their children to professorships. At the end of their long careers most members of the FUTA would probably be struggling financially while almost every politician would have become quite rich. It is such a morally and financially corrupt lot who are now judging the merits of the FUTA demands.

    http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2012/08/12/who-judges-the-futa/

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      The problem is FUTA and most of their members are corrupt as well. They lost the moral high ground long time ago. Anyway, either your friend is ill-informed or you got his/her message wrong, because you got the wrong country to compare and contrast. Australian politicians are perhaps the best paid politicians in the world. While Obama gets paid 400,00 USD, Aus PM’s gets about 500,000 Aus Dollars.The base salary of an MP is over 190,000 Aus Dollars. The other perks are amazing as well, you had better not drag them into this discussion because if our politicians notice them, they will feel hard done by.

      Of course our politicians squeeze the whole lot out but ideally, they should be finishing their term in five years if they didn’t do a service to the public. Unfortunately, the current system encourages irresponsibility, nepotism, corruption and poor quality politics. For this, what we should do is, get them change the system than demanding equal pay to them legalising corruption.

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    Rubert Vanderkoon – whoever you are – are you alleging that 5000 members of staff which comprise FUTA are ‘corrupt’ if so what is your definition of corrupt, what kind of power do these people have and what proof do you have of it? Have you ever stepped inside a university? Or are you just some Govt stooge being paid to post crap on any site that you see the word FUTA? I pity you.

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      Final Year University Student:
      You don’t deserve to graduate if you haven’t realised that “Rubert Vanderkoon” is a paid operative of this govt.’s “Dirty Tricks Squad” which is run by one of its PhD-carrying MPs.

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    1. This former student’s claim that he went into the Senior Common Room for a chat with Dr. SB de Silva sounds unreal. Students normally do not enter the SR for a chat with academic staff because it is a members only club and non-members can enter only with the invitation of a member. It is maintained with the funds provided by the members.

    2. There are some who give private tuition in the Faculty of Arts, but the vast majority do not. And Dr. Silva knew fully well this situation and he would not have said such thing as this writer claims. In any case, do you expect the lecturers to be in the SR in large numbers all the time of the day? Don’t they have other things to do?

    3. Teaching external students even for a fee is not a bad thing. The complain some of us have is that the external students get a raw deal from the existing system. These kids are well qualified to enter the university but due to lack of places they end up as external students of the universities. This is an outdated system and utter waste of time of large number of young men and women. The pass rate of external students at Peradeniya is very low and the majority end up failing their exams. The requirement is that more university academic get involved providing education to these people and bring them up to a level to earn a degree. The student numbers we are talking about is many times the numbers who are admitted to the internal programme. Problem is most academics do not provide this service today. This is because there is no legitimate mechanism to provide this service. The universities need to pay attention to this. It is not a laughing matter. Condemning teaching external students will make matters worse.

    4. All academics in any part of the world are not performing equally well. There are good teachers and researchers, and at the same time there are lousy teachers and useless researchers. At the same time there are a few towering figures who make path breaking discoveries. Good teachers are not always good researchers. We need both these groups in a university. The quality of an academic depends at least partly on the training he/she receives and the opportunities available to do a good job of work. Do you know the teaching aids most classrooms have are chalk and blackboards? Most people talk about students not having appropriate training in computer use and English. I have been running a computer applications lab for the last 15 years without funding from the University. All attempts to secure funds from the university and UGC failed and I managed to get some equipment time time to time from outside agencies. Can we continue to do this? Is it the lecturer’s responsibility to secure funding from external sources for most essential facilities in an academic department of a university. A lot of outside help is obtained by university staff by means f various collaborations or even as outright grants by writing grant proposals. The time spent on these things are not even recognized as ‘work’ by the UGC. We started the course unit system when the UGC promised to provide all necessary assistance. All these promises were broken and we still don’t have even the basic facilities. If we can cut the cost mainting the UGC, using the savings we can expand the universities to admit some more students or to enhance the facilities for better training.

    5. We sometimes give more theory to compensate the lack of facilties. The library is outdated. Most books available in the central library are over 20 years old. We do not have access to research journals. This is essential to develop a research culture in universities. In the 1970s we had more research journals in the Library than what we have now. We do not have access to good electronic resources of journals/books. No research funding is available, even what is available cannot be spent easily due to various difficult financial regulations. Even when you get a foreign grant for research through university spending that money is extremely difficult. This prevents most people doing any research through the University. There is mechanism or desire to help researchers. Universities also can supplement their income through outside consultancies. The main barrier to these things is the difficulty in working with the Financial regulations.

    6. FUTA is the Trade Union of all teachers in universities irrespective of their personal political affiliations. Even members of the SLFP affiliated teachers’ unions are members of a sister union of FUTA. So, is it possible to forget about FUTA and reform/restructure univerisity education in this country? What kind of reasoning is that. Either this writer is totally ignorant of what he is talking about or he paid to do government propaganda.

    Wickramagamage

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    This MS has a personal problem with Univ. of Pera and so with the University academics! This is not a bloody personal deal but a national deal, you mind it Mr. MS!

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