By Malinda Seneviratne –
The trade union action launched by the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) has entered its third month. The universities are closed. Negotiations between FUTA and relevant authorities do not indicate any signs of quick resolution. FUTA is now threatening to boycott A/L paper marking and has won the support of various teacher unions to keep away as well.
It is heartening that academics have thought fit to embrace the larger issue of education policy, although it is claimed that this was necessary because the salary-hike demand was unreasonable and even indefensible. Indeed, the FUTA thrust is a lot of ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’ with very little by way of giving on the part of the academic community. The focus now is to get the Government to set aside for education an amount equivalent to 6% of the GDP.
Forgotten in the comparison of Sri Lanka’s allocations with countries in the region and those of similar economic status is the fact that the stand out cases cited are currently spending large chunks of the budget to do what Sri Lanka has done over several decades. Such countries seem to have realized (rather late in the day) that basics must be put in place and therefore invested in. Glossed over, also, is the fact that the GDP denominator is growing;Sri Lanka’s growth rate has averaged 8% over the past 6 years and the education-allocation numerator naturally is not keeping pace. FUTA doesn’t have to worry about where the money would come from. The Government would have to either borrow (compromising the other strident demand by all parties to maintain fiscal discipline) or cut budgets for other sectors, for example health. FUTA can say ‘cut wastage instead’, but that’s a suggestion that all aggrieved groups can make, and something that would require solid institutional safeguards that yield good transparency and accountability. The question is, can nothing be done before push, pull, sobriety and risk of losing power yield us better governance structures?
To begin with, even academics themselves have compromised FUTA’s cause in numerous ways, no one will deny that the Government pot doesn’t have the moral right to call the FUTA kettle ‘black’. Incompetence, lack of vision, corruption, lack of integrity, an aversion to checks and balances etc., are common to both parties. It is in this context that the worth of the 6%-demand needs to be assessed.
FUTA has not been unreasonable for the demand-sheet includes a time frame for the increase. Where FUTA is lacking and the Government is silent is on the fact that current allocations are not derived from a coherent and forward-thinking policy paradigm. Whether or not ‘6%’ is feasible or even makes sense, it is important to take into account the utter lack of logic in the overall education policy of successive governments. FUTA naturally wants more bucks for salaries, other benefits and research. More crucially, though, there seems to be total silence by both parties and their respective cheering squads about the details pertaining to the overall crisis in education. In other words, what’s being done (and not done) with the 1.9% or 2.9% (the rupee equivalent as proportion of GDP) is not being talked about enough.
There are gaping holes in the thrust that promises ‘no one will be left behind’. Increasing dropout rates at the primary level, closing down of schools, lack of professionally qualified teachers etc., indicate that the foundational levels are cracking up. Also, this country sorely needs a comprehensive occupational classification as part of overall development strategy which can inform meaningful resource allocation to the entire education system. We have simply failed in the effort to ensure that graduates, say, have the opportunity to secure meaningful and dignified employment. As of now, the mismatch and accumulated incompetency produces thousands of disgruntled graduates few would hire and who are ill-equipped in terms of skill, attitude and confidence to produce high quality performance. They moreover mistakenly believe that the people who paid for their education must also find them jobs and pay their salaries as though it is a constitutionally enshrined right! Getting a bigger slice of the budget-pie without a comprehensive review of the current allocation regime would amount to flushing more good money down the tube.
FUTA, saddled though it is with salary-fixated, self-serving members, is amply endowed with intellectual resources to see beyond trade union action. The Government must recognize and make use of this political moment to engage in the broader and vital discussion on the comprehensive overhaul of education policy. If either party plays brinkmanship, it would be an opportunity lost and this fact will not be lost on the people who probably will give up on both, to the larger detriment of the country.
The Nation Editorial