By Kumudu Kusum Kumara –
The second round of discussions between the Federation of University Teachers’’ Association (FUTA) and the government took place on the evening of 12th July. At the conclusion the FUTA issued a terse one sentence statement which said it all: “The only consensus of the meeting was that there is merit in discussing the proposal.” This isummed up the mood of the general membership of the FUTA to emerge during the next few days. It was one of utter disappointment. Addressing a meeting of teachers of Colombo University president of the FUTA Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri reported that “no really significant breakthrough or outcome” occurred at the meeting. The Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga had been “very friendly and accommodating” and had agreed that the FUTA proposals were very serious and that they ought to be addressed as such.
The government having taken one week to ‘study’ the FUTA demands for education reforms has come up with a general proposal of setting up a Presidential commission to investigate ‘complex issues’ involved in higher education. No one would deny the value of an independent Presidential commission to collectively examine the ills ravaging higher education in the country to develop a white paper for public discussion which could be the basis for a higher education reforms bill and a new University Act. However, membership of the FUTA believes that setting up of a commission cannot resolve the specific issues raised by the FUTA.
In fact they believe that the suggestion of a commission is a red herring, or a tactic to delay providing solutions to the FUTA demands. This lack of faith shared by the general public is based on a widespread mistrust of the motives of appointing such commissions given their findings are never taken seriously and implemented by the government. For example, the Udalagama Commission of Inquiry, the Youth Commission report, and Commissions of inquiry on disappearances etc. are cited by the public. A senior academic commented that a book can be produced on the topic. This is to say that the general membership of the FUTA will be totally opposed to the idea of a commission at this point merely because it is perceived as a delay tactic.
The FUTA position at the meeting which was elaborated in a separate communiqué issued to its membership had been that even though there could be issues that warrant the setting up of such a commission, there are many concerns and demands that could be solved without a commission. Here, it would be relevant to highlight the other salient points in the FUTA communiqué. Secretary to the President had maintained that the government was severely constrained in providing budgetary allocations for education especially due to the need to implement the LLRC proposals and it may require the country to adopt stringent measures. The FUTA membership feels that this is another red herring. Secretary to the President may have referred to the LLRC from his understanding of the issue gained in chairing the committee appointed to implement the proposals. However the government has so far not come out with a plan for implementing the proposals nor has it identified its financial implications. The position of the FUTA had been that under any condition education should be a top priority and that it should not be considered a burden but an investment in the development of the country. The FUTA members believe that the need to implement the LLRC proposals should not be made an excuse not to increase spending on education.
With regard to the government stand on the specific FUTA demands the Secretary to the President had responded that they need further study and discussion: “there is merit in discussing the demands and further discussions should take place to identify those demands that can be implemented immediately.” This indicates that the next round of discussions scheduled for middle of this week will focus on the demands that can be implemented without setting up the proposed commission.
The FUTA has also stressed that the trust its members have in the government at this moment is at a very low ebb and hence the government should take measures to build that trust, an indication of which could be bringing an end to the media campaign carried out by certain players on the government side of the scenario to vilify the FUTA on false grounds using government media hit men and apologists among the academia. An attempt to move courts to force university teachers to go back to work was also mentioned as an option possibly to be adopted by some of those players.
According to the FUTA communiqué Prof. Ranjith Senaratna, who represented the University Grants Commission (UGC) at the meeting had said as an academic he also appreciated that the FUTA had raised many concerns related to overall education and policy. Citing absolute numbers he had claimed that over the past few years funding for universities had increased whereas the academic environment in the Universities had deteriorated resulting in poor teaching and research output. He had suggested that the FUTA rally its members to commit themselves to improve this situation. However, the rationale behind taking the percentage of the GDP allocated to education adopted by agencies such as the UN and the World Bank cannot be nullified by citing absolute numbers an approach adopted by the Ministry of Higher Education as well. The allegation that the academic environment in the Universities has deteriorated has been used in recent times by the Minister of Higher Education in his attempt to silence the resistance of university teachers against ill-conceived ad-hoc university reforms. The present status of quality of teaching and research output in Sri Lankan universities is an outcome of its complex historical development emanating from government policies since independence and therefore has to be analysed in its complexity before jumping into conclusion that it can be corrected by one sided ad-hoc solutions proposed by the Minister of Higher Education and the UGC.
What emerges from the ongoing discussion the FUTA is having with the government is that the priority the government assigns to education in its budgetary allocations is a matter that requires wide ranging public discussion and cannot be left to the decisions of politicians, the bureaucracy and technocracy alone given its utmost significance for the future of the nation. Sri Lanka cannot emerge as a nation unless it takes educating its population as one of its top priorities. No government thinking of building a nation can ignore this.
It is the duty of a government to think of the future of the nation and prepare its policies and allocate national income generated on the basis of collective labour of the masses of people for the benefit of their future generations. Here, in implementing either mega projects such as highways, airports etc. or improving infrastructure facilities such as roads, water and electricity a responsible government cannot ignore education of children of the nation in the name of infrastructure development. It is the duty of a government to lead the people in doing the right thing and not to play for popular support at the expense of a nationally important issue such as education.
(The writer is a member of Arts Faculty Teachers’ Association, Colombo University)