By Suren Raghavan –
The gulf of inequality between the haves and have not has been widening during the last five decades. The United Nations human development report points,
Between 1960 and 1989, the countries with the richest 20% of the world population increased their share of the global GNP from 70.2% to 82.7%. The countries with the poorest 20% of the world population saw their share fall from 2.3% to 1.4%. The consequences of income distribution have been dramatic. In 1960, the top 20% received 30 times more than the bottom 20%, but by 1989 they were receiving 60 times more … Even these figures conceal the true scale of injustice since they are based on comparisons of average per capita incomes of rich and poor countries. In reality, of course, there are wide disparities within each country between rich and poor people.
(1992, p. 34)
Architects of neoliberalism have for a long time argued that the free markets without state intervention will bring about the ideal condition for human potentials and social growth (Baumol 2004, 2002, 1986). These prosperity prophesies were relentlessly advanced in the largely industrialist West even while many parts of the world produced diametrically opposite results. With the 2009 world economic crisis, such gurus have gone into hibernation perhaps to reinvent a new thesis.
There were two key areas in almost every society that faced the burning heat of this free market theory. From Argentina to India via Spain and the UK, education, epically the higher education and health sector was dismantled systematically. Global higher education centers like the UK dramatically changed the level of state sponsorship for higher education. Under David Cameron, the local university fees in the UK increased almost 300% from 2012 academic year. Thousands of local /European and international students marched the streets of London to force the government to withdraw such policies but failed as even the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg, who once promised in writing not to increase education fees went back on his words and supported such illiberal policies.
This global trend was adverse in developing countries such as Sri Lanka, where the higher education sector is solely in the care of the state. Now there is enough evidence to prove how the regimes in Lanka – particularly the present rule, have systematically withdrawn the state support for higher education. The majority Sinhala constituencies digested the argument that the war against the separatists should be national priority number one until 2009. However, since the end of the war, regimes immoral spending on secondary, even utterly unproductive and wasteful schemes at the cost of the higher education sector ignited the current trade union action and more importantly the wider socio-political debate of the role of the state in providing a free and fair higher education. In many ways this debate and its social demonstration has provided the window of opportunity to reexamine the direction and the qualitative anatomy of the ‘post-war’ social structure, the majority Sinhalas wish to create. Providing positive hopes for the future, the majority of the Sinhala academia under FUTA, have decided to engage in this debate under a wider education policy banner that re-emphasis the state protection for higher education and to articulate the need that such policy becomes part of the governing socio-political contract of this or any future government From a mere trade union demand the debate spiraled into a policy demand of 6 % of the GDP for education. As such, at local level, the current trade union action and the social dialogue of the university teachers in Lanka becomes a defining moment for the local polity for its ‘path creating’ ability for a newer social discourse. At a regional or international level, this discourse provides a role model for the changed role and responsibility of the academia in a neo-liberal social order where the full time and official political oppositions may have lost their direction and legitimacy. In many ways, FUTA’s ability to stay course and mobilize wider sections of the political spectrum and more importantly to ignite the hearts and minds of the southern Sinhala masses for a broader democratic engagement and recovery, is a slap on the face of official opposition/s that have either self-destroyed by internal corrals or have become subservient to the ruling powers.
Education as a Fundamental Civic Right
The UDHR, to which Lanka is a signatory in its article 26(1) guarantees the rights of free education. It says:
Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
Free education has been the most accessible and viable route for social justice in many countries like Lanka. If there is any sector that grants equal opportunity irrespective of social/racial/caste/regional/religious background to share the opportunity, it is the education system in Lanka, especially the higher education sector. In that sense, protecting free education is not mere sectorial interest, it is a call for a society that will uphold the moral and ethical value of justice and fair play. Therefore, any government as temporary caretakers of the state and society will needs to be responsible to protect such mechanism of social justice.
In Lanka, the JRJ regime played a totally imported ‘Thatcherism’ project destroying the local production chains, destabilizing the political accountability, increasing power at the center and letting the social institutions like the public broadcast and transport to the market forces. Its attempts to remove the higher education form the state responsibilities were fought back with life and opportunity. Then the CBK rule which was overtly liberal in its political ideologies failed to recognize the indigenous priorities in the higher education sector. It neither wanted to dismantle the higher education, nor contributed anything significant even while an unprecedented army of intellectual and academics were backing the regime-at least in its first term.
Unlike recent rules, Rajapakse has always cashed on nationalist and often ethno-religious rhetoric such as ‘ape kama’ and ‘ape miniha’. Added to such cap was the ‘war –victory’, which concretized its ethnonationalist fever. Rajapakse also managed to harvest the opportunistic politics of ultra-groups such as the JHU and bargain politics of the SLMC. Having done such maneuvering, the general expectation was that the regime would redirect the state to discover a ‘post-war’ society leading to the regeneration of a true indigenous path of democracy. Instead, the regime has an abysmal record of corruption, nepotism and militarization in almost every section of the society. The disappointment is even greater for the way this regime has devalued Buddhist identity by misuse and dismissed the respect for the learned. These are significant signatures against to a true Theravādian social order. This regime has more senior academics as paid ministers and MPs than any other does. Yet either they all are made silent sheep or willing collaborates. In short, the Rajapakse regime appeared to have become the willing operator of a Chinese model neoliberalism that is contrary to the fundamentals of Theravādians Buddhism and Lankan social values. Such dismantling has aimed to devalue, neutralize and if possible militarize the higher education sector from which traditionally most new thinking to the society and challenge to any ill-democratic despot may come. The performance based, market viable, and job ready higher educational plan is part of such aim to destroy the traditionally free, open mind professional and intellectual culture replacing them with an institutional focus on performativity, as evidenced by the emergence of an emphasis on measured productivity, performance indicators, quality assurance measures and academic audits. While these are positive tool for improvements, they should not be used to dismantle the core culture of a dynamic freethinking and discourse.
Such newer govermentality generated by the profit-based neoliberalism is against to the meaning and spirit of the UDHR’s position on education as an inalienable right. The blue print of ‘new education policy’ of Rajapakse rule is governed by such commitment to free market, laissez-faire, individual interest than collective development. The Mahinda Chinthana’s desire to be a ‘Knowledge Hub’ is in fact aims at this. Nothing more-nothing less. Minister S. B. Dissanayake is not known for his ability to analyze such issues, with rationale mind in the interest of the country and future. Rajapakse regime thinkers do not want to article such discourse because those will surely obstacle their ‘politics of profit making’ and the official opposition has bastardized its legitimacy under individual power seeking. It is in this context that FUTA’s struggle to reignite the social dialogue has become a turning point.
As I write, I understand that there is a possible compromise via a promised ‘cabinet note’ from the government. Whether it is a compromise, a win- win or all our victory to one party, this trade union action reaching its 100 days has shown few key indicators.
1. Development desired by the present rule is actively seeking to undermine and dismantle the free education system that will promote social equality,
2. Rhetoric such as Rata, Jaathiya and Aagama are all historical slogans for those who collaborate without analytical approach to the issue,
3. Official opposition is not always interested or able to be guardians of democracy and,
4. The role of academia is redefined in the changed world order to one that would lead and equip societies not in mere a particular subject but rather about the context in which any subject knowledge is applied.
In that sense, FUTA has contributed to a new social imagination that is able to encompass the students, lecturers, artists, and political activists, trade unions, the public and the Sangha. As a researcher on the role of the Sangha in Sinhala society, I am glad to witness that the key Sangha influencers have taken keen interest to engage in this process and bring some morale pressure to an otherwise dismissive government. I wish FUTA wins all its demands and the university system begins a true reform within. I wish that this struggle would re-arrange the current rather traditional and passive lecturer–student–society triangle to a more active and responsible newer power contract. A contract on which the lecturers by their own examples becomes true coaches of a free and creative intellectual tradition, the students become challengers of existing boundaries and explorer of newer horizons, the society at large become true beneficiary and the temporary rulers of the state are responsible facilitators of such process. Because as Michel Foucault argued;
We live in a social universe in which the formation, circulation and utilization of knowledge presents a fundamental problem. If the accumulation of capital has been an essential feature of our society, the accumulation of knowledge has not been any less so. Now, the exercise, production and accumulation of this knowledge cannot be dissociated from the mechanisms of power; complex relations exist which must be analyzed.
(1991b, p. 165)
Baumol, William J., Entrepreneurial Enterprises, Large Established Firms and Other Components of the Free-Market Growth Machine, Small Business Economics, Volume 23, Number 1 (2004), 9-21
Baumol, William J., The Free-Market Innovation Machine: Analyzing the Growth Miracle of Capitalism, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2002
Baumol, William J., Productivity Growth, Convergence, and Welfare: What the Long-Run Data Show, The American Economic Review, Vol. 76, No. 5 (Dec., 1986), pp. 1072-1085
Foucault, M., Remarks on Marx: conversations with Duccio Trombadori, Semiotext (e) Colombia University, New York, 1991
Universal Declaration of Human Rights: http://www.un.org/pubs/cyberschoolbus/globalatlas/26sp.htm
United Nation Human Development Report http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/hdr_1992_en_contents.pdf
* Suren Raghavan is an Associate Lecturer at the department of Politics and International Relations of University of Kent-UK, and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Buddhist Studies, Wolfson College of University of Oxford. firstname.lastname@example.org