27 October, 2020

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FUTA Discussions: Some Progress But Not Quite There Yet

By Namini Wijedasa

Namini Wijedasa

Striking academics emerged from a late-night meeting with Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa saying some progress was made—but not enough to call off their five-weeks-old trade union action.

The government had agreed on principle to several of the demands raised by the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA). This includes the formation of a Sri Lanka University Academic Service and the need to raise expenditure on education. However, no time frame was given. The government categorically stated there would be no immediate salary increase. Its position was outlined in a draft document handed over to the FUTA team.

“The ball is in their court now,” said Rajapaksa, speaking to LAKBIMANEWS shortly after the meeting ended on Friday night. “We told them the government’s stand. They got a very positive reply to most of the policy matters they suggested.”

Further talks necessary

Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga was present at the discussion which was attended by seven representatives of FUTA. The meeting was scheduled to start at 7 pm but was delayed by 45 minutes because the academics arrived late from a public rally in Kurunegala. It continued for more than two hours.

Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, FUTA president, said the meeting yielded several points on which further negotiations could be conducted. Everything depends on what happens next, he maintained. He was encouraged that Rajapaksa adopted a different approach—in tone, tenor and substance—to that taken by Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake. Government sources also said a breakdown of relations between Dissanayake and FUTA seemed to have worsened the crisis.

“The outcome was generally broad and non-specific,” Dewasiri explained. They wanted us to take their response to our membership. We said in order to do so, there should be some specifics.”

While the government avoided making firm promises on several issues, its delegation did categorically state that “an immediate salary increase is not an option”. FUTA wants a 20 per cent increase to the basic salary, effective 1 January 2012, in addition to all existing allowances. They want another 16.67 per cent raise with effect from 1 January 2013.

“They (government) implied that this can be included in the broader framework of establishing a Sri Lanka University Academic Service,” Dewasiri said. “We responded that, in that case, we need an agreed time frame for the setting up of such a service which we can take to our membership.”

Rajapaksa once again proposed the setting up of a presidential commission to look into complex issues in the higher education sector, including FUTA demands. Academics earlier objected to the formation of a presidential commission saying it cannot resolve the issues raised by FUTA.  They maintained that this proposal was a “red herring or a tactic to delay finding solutions” to their demands.

At Friday’s meeting, FUTA said they did not want the terms of reference of the proposed presidential commission to include “the very specific demands” academics had put forward. “Even when we met Mr. Lalith Weeratunga on 12 July, we clearly said that there were a number of specific issues for which you don’t need to appoint a presidential commission,” Dewasiri related. “These include obvious matters such as those related to university autonomy. If these are included in the terms of reference, the process will drag on unnecessarily.”

Government agrees on education expenditure

One of FUTA’s most hotly debated demands is this: “Delineate a course of action to increase government spending on education that will reach 6% of GDP within the next two years”. This has been broadly interpreted to mean that university academics want expenditure on education to increase to six per cent of GDP within two years—and has been dismissed as impractical in some quarters.

On Friday, the government delegation contested the manner in which FUTA had defined education expenditure. “They argued that government education for expenditure was channeled through various ministries such as education, higher education, youth affairs, health, sports, and so on,” Dewasiri said. Thus, a high proportion of government spending did go towards education.

Rajapaksa said the government was focused on building a “knowledge economy”. “We said we are not quite happy about the nomenclature,” Dewasiri asserted. “It is a problematic term with ideological implications. When we (FUTA) talk about education, we mean something much broader. This seems to be a narrow, economic and market centric definition.”

While the two sides did not enter into a “philosophical debate” about the term “knowledge economy”, FUTA did raise its concerns. “They might not have expected that kind of response from us but they said they were willing to accommodate our views,” Dewasiri said. He agreed that “overall policy matters cannot be solved at the negotiation table”.

“What’s important is they agreed at the outset there should be an increase in government expenditure on education,” he stressed.

Yes, autonomy is important

Another significant result of Friday’s discussion was that the government delegation agreed, in principle, that university autonomy should be a very important aspect of higher education.

“This issue of autonomy is a crucial one,” Dewasiri explained. It was on this matter that the government and FUTA delegation spoke at length. The academics apprised Rajapaksa and his team about the situation within universities, the behavior of the minister of higher education, officials of the University Grants Commission and various vice chancellors.

“It is important to address the existing situation,” Dewasiri emphasized. “The conceptual idea of university autonomy has to be transformed to day-to-day practice, to the workings of universities. We wanted more details from Minister Rajapaksa about how the minister (S.B. Dissanayake) will handle our issues. For instance, will the minister change his way of doing things if we agreed to this framework and got back to work? What about the UGC and vice chancellors?”

“There are a lot of areas to cover,” he elaborated. “This includes attitudinal changes, how vice chancellors perceive things and so on. You cannot solve these things through presidential commission. Certain authorities, including the minister, vice chancellors and UGC chairman, are violating university autonomy and this is one of the root causes of all problems.”

“I think this autonomy thing was a sensitive issue, especially the minister’s and the vice chancellors’ behaviour,” he reflected, when asked what issues the two sides spent most time discussing. “I wouldn’t say there was heated debate but I think we wanted them to be more specific on that. However, we could not see a kind of focused approach beyond a commitment to the principle of autonomy but that is understandable.”

Unlike Minister Dissanayake, Rajapaksa and Weeratunga did not accuse FUTA of being sponsored or manipulated by disruptive JVP elements. The volatile subject of private universities was not discussed. No date has been fixed for the next discussion between the two sides and FUTA has not decided what sort of response it would give the government.

“They also wanted to get this over with very soon but we said that we should not be too hurried,” Dewasiri said. “We think we should not rush because whatever agreement that will be reached should be a permanent one. We cannot agree to some vague thing, go back to work and return to action in a few months. They understood what we were saying and I think they are serious.”

Come back soon!

Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa urged FUTA to return to the negotiating table “as soon as possible” with their responses to a list of government undertakings handed out during the meeting on Friday.

“We are ready,” Rajapaksa told LAKBIMAnEWS. “Now they should come back soon. They should not delay because that would be very harmful to the country and universities. The gap between the two parties will increase as they keep fighting for their cause. I think they must take our proposals positively to their membership just as we have managed to convince some of our colleagues.”

This was the second round of talks Rajapaksa held with FUTA. After the first round earlier this month, he met all the stakeholders—including vice chancellors, other trade unions and ministry officials. It was after this consultation that the government formulated the list of responses that was given to FUTA on Friday.

“We have given very specific answer to most of their grievances,” Rajapaksa maintained. “We said that we consider education to be one of the government’s biggest priorities and that it is included in the Mahinda Chinthana. We also made specific references to university independence, not only to one trade union, but at all levels including senate. We suggested that the courses be upgraded.”

“The only thing we have not addressed is individual issues such as those related to personalities with whom they have some differences,” Rajapaksa added. “But we have touched all policy matters. We agree that everyone must work together to upgrade universities.”

One of FUTA’s demands is that the government agrees to suspend all existing higher education reform processes until a proper consultative process involving all stakeholders and the public takes place.

Another is that the government agrees to refrain from politicizing and micromanaging universities so that these institutions can thrive autonomously. Rajapaksa admitted that, “the best thing is to discuss”.

“We are saying that the consultation process is very important and that every party must be consulted,” he elaborated. “That is why we have proposed to appoint a presidential commission. It will give some validity and justification to what we are doing.”

Rajapaksa pointed out that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission gave added validity to the government’s post-war programme. “For example, the LLRC recommended that we resettle displaced people as fast as possible but even before the presidential commission gave its report, we had started and finished the process,” he asserted. “But by mentioning it in their report, however, they gave our actions validity and justification.”

“I think it is very rare for a government to offer this type of policy framework to a trade union but we have done that,” he concluded.

Courtesy Lakbima News

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Latest comments

  • 0
    0

    I am affraid, Dr. Devesiri might betray academics this time as Done by Sampath Amarathunga and Rohan Fernando.

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      Or the intelligent bunch among the FUTA will abandon Devasiri like they did in 1990s to Nalin de Silva.

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        Rupert the Vanderkone

        Not only Nalin de Silva but even Sarath Amunugama and Sampath Amaratunga both former FUTA presidents are now on the govt. side. What about Premakumara de Silva, former FUTA ex-co member and AFTA-CU president? He is also on the govt. side. It is these the FUTA membership has abandoned. Rohan is still with the FUTA. Rupert who insults university lecturers now say they are intelligent. Your masters may be dreaming of bringing a division among the FUTA leadership. But they won’t succeed.

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          Bligh me, You do get excited that quick, don’t you? Man, I don’t think anybody would ever identify FUTA members like you as intelligent. Clearly there is this “intelligent bunch” I was talking about, who are helpless among the unintelligible, militant, selfish, greedy lot. Hopefully, that intelligent group will abandon the drama soon and do something useful with their time.

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        Rupert the Vanderkone

        Are you saying that ” Nalin de Silva, Sarath Amunugama and Sampath Amaratunga, Premakumara de Silva, Jagath Wellawatta and them are not the “intelligent bunch” you were talking about?

        By the way, which university in the US you are affiliated to?

    • 0
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      Be of good Courage Dr. Devasiri and FUTA – STAY THE COURSE and don’t 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!

  • 0
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    Rubert Vanderkoon:
    Yours is obviously the pseudonym adopted by someone a few bricks short of a load because you can’t even spell that pseudonym consistently from one of your inane comments to the next!
    Why don’t you have whoever is tutoring you in making these comments write in block capitals the comments you put on this (and other) websites so that there are fewer grammatical and spelling mistakes and your pseudonym gets spelled the same each time?

  • 0
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    How about July, August salaries? will academics receive salaries.. if not strike is a total failure. Devasiri and clan should have been more strategic before going to all out strike..They should have abandon only voluntary duties similar to last time. Then no problem of salary and could have continued strike for ages. Now they are facing some problems because many academics could not survive withought salaries for two months. Government seem to be more strategic than FUTA exco comittee.

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