By 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.