29 January, 2022


FUTA Strike Action: A Pessimist’s Point Of View

By Nedra Karunaratne

Prof. Nedra Karunaratne

The University Teachers are on strike. Who has heard of such a thing? Probably many since the academics are campaigning actively in the print media. Now they are going from town to town collecting signatures for their allocation of 6% of the GDP for education stance. The common man is being educated on the streets instead of the usual lecture halls. The youtube is filled with little clips explaining the various demands made by the academics and why these are justified. The public is being slowly awakened to the reality of the future of education and higher education in the country. The teachers are optimistic that this action will induce negotiations but the pessimist thinks that this is not helping the cause since the government still hears no evil, sees no evil and talks evil or otherwise have not yet borne fruit.

FUTA announced that its members would go on a continuous strike from the 4th of July, and they are still continuing to stand by their word. The government on the other hand has been lukewarm in their acceptance of the need to resolve the problem. The FUTA on several occasions had informed the Minister of Higher Education and the president of the impending strike action with the hope of negotiations but they only received a deafening silence. The government has remained incommunicado on many issues relating to grievances of all sectors and the pessimist finds this to be not so unusual. However, even a pessimist welcomes a streak of light to bring him up from the depths of despair. When will serious negotiations begin?

The demands made by FUTA originated over three years back mainly due to the deterioration in the Universities with respect to administration, teaching quality brought about by inability to retain the best qualified academics and interference in University autonomy. The backbone of a University is the teacher/researcher. Improvement of academic culture results in teaching and research excellence. The quality of students, academic staff and research are the main measures of the ranking of a University in the global arena. Without allocation of funds for research and educational programmes, attainment of academic excellence is a myth. Therefore, the government’s insistence that the Universities are not producing quality graduates is like an arsonist blaming the fire department for not doing its job. Many are unaware that research is necessary for post graduate qualifications. Even at the undergraduate level, special degrees include a research component. Development of the brain, analytical thinking, work ethics and management aspects form a part and parcel of a research project. With the present situation where the Universities churn out degree holders, the majority of whom lack any of the above traits, it is no wonder that we have so many unemployable graduates. Further increasing the intake of students without addressing these shortcomings is like bringing the universities to the level of tutories. The fate that befell the A/L practical examinations in the sciences could well be the future prospect for the Universities.  All the state run universities are grossly underfunded with respect to imparting a wholesome education and training resulting in a poorer product. More the reason why much thought should be directed in this sense before the student intake is finalized this year.

The three main issues to be addressed for improving the output are the upgrading of facilities for recruiting and retaining world class teachers, addressing the student intake with respect to selection criteria to admit the best in the country and cleaning up the administration where political hirings and interferences are rampant. Recruitment of quality personnel obviously brings up the salary issue. Other than an occasional individual whose heart burns for his motherland, so far no one has returned to take up a post unless he felt that the renumeration was adequate. As far as can be seen from most of the cadre vacancies in the regional universities including Peradeniya (which has always boasted of academic excellence in its teaching staff), the filling of existing vacancies have been dismal. A large percentage of these Universities are understaffed for the lack of suitably qualified applicants. The Universities in and around Colombo have not experienced this scenario as spouses of academic staff members are privileged in finding employment in Colombo. Accusing the academics of their inability to find employment abroad will certainly become a reality to some extent in the next decade if an attractive package for recruitment is not forthcoming in the near future. If the salary increase demanded by FUTA is unjustified, we should not expect all our Universities to produce quality graduates in the future. From the pessimist’s point of view, the government does not need to implement any of these since their vision of a knowledge hub is only a dream to be fulfilled by privatizing the education. Increased funding to attain these goals would never reach the budget as was evident in 2011.

Since the attempt by FUTA to gain their demands last year with a half way house agreement, the pessimist was elated that some progress was attained. However, as is the usual policy of politicians, the promises made did not materialize. Give some credit that there was an increase in the take home pay of the academics in the form of allowances, but there was absolutely no significant increase in the salary. The sustained silence from the secretary of the MoHE and others linked to their claim made at the commencement of the strike, that there was a pay increase, confirms that it was only another eyewash to deceive the general public. Again the signature campaign run by the academics has revealed that the public are totally unaware of the realities of the FUTA demands. Restrictions in media coverage and distortion of facts as well as inability to understand the essence of the demands stand out as the causes for this ignorance. Many are of the opinion that the claims of the government are true and that the strike is unreasonable. Added to the boycotting of marking A/L exam papers, the gullible public are very easily hoodwinked into believing the worst of the FUTA strike.

One of the major demands deals with funding allocations to the education sector. FUTA insists that 6% of the GDP be allocated for education. Going by the statements made by the Higher Education Minister in Parliament on the 18th July 2012, Sri Lanka is presently spending approximately five percent of its GDP for education. The minister acknowledges that the UNESCO recommendation of 6% of the GDP is a requirement for developing education, however he disagrees that this amount is the responsibility of the Government. His magical calculation of 5% was arrived at by adding three percent of expenditure borne by individuals and private parties to the bare 2% spent by the government. Thus the pessimist observes that there would be no 6% allocation forthcoming; strike or no strike by FUTA. This further establishes the view that a settlement is very far in the horizon.  The president doubly endorsed this with his statement on the 7th September 2012 that he was not ready to discuss with unions which are on strike action. Is it a case of he who pays the piper calls the tune?

Until now, FUTA continued sporadic talks with the minister for Economic Development and Dr. P.B. Jayasundera which appeared to head in a positive direction. However, a puzzling development arose on the 10th September, where the minister of Labour issued an arbitration notice to FUTA indicating that all is not well with the negotiations. What are the ulterior motives behind this move? Is the government seeing a weakening in the steadfast stand by FUTA? This could be well so with several academics in many universities betraying the cause by claiming they are not participants in the strike action. Is it because they wanted their salaries (striking academics have not received their pay for two months) or because they are looking out for those higher appointments given to sycophants? Such action is an insult to the claim that academics are of a class above the rest. The pitiful behaviour of many have brought disrepute to the high standards maintained by university staff. The Island of the 12th September 2012 has run an article by Prof. Rohan Rajapakse who has tried to explain that the strike by FUTA is not rational. Many of the thoughts expressed are a parroting of the words of the Minister of Higher Education. The arguments put forward in support of the irrationality of the FUTA demands do not hold water. The repercussions of the strike (listed in this article) are points to be dealt with very urgently since delay in settlement is harmful to all the stakeholders in this battle. Further delays in settlement of the issue, with the government sponsored media using academics for propaganda against the FUTA action (as witnessed on Rupavahini on the 12th September) and the hastily formed Patriotic University Teachers Association discrediting FUTA will bring more harm than do good to the future of education in the country.

From an academic point of view this is ultimate frustration. Edmund Burke very simply, but so powerfully stated that “all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men (and women) to do nothing”. In the present day of corrupt politicians and corrupt academics, FUTA has the distinction of not remaining silent- but with what consequences?

*Nedra Karunaratne, Ph.D, Professor, Dept. of Chemistry, University of Peradeniya, Peradeniya

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Every class struggle has its turncoats who are usually bought over by the ruling class.
    Those who sang “sahadukin pelanavun,thang itin nagitiye………….”,
    in the old days,wearing funny uniforms and ‘marching’ on the streets of Colombo, are in hiding,in high echelons of governance,but without any clout.
    FUTA must persevere,for the good of future generations.
    This is their last chance for justice and survival.

  • 0

    Today, there is no. When Sri Lanka was having war spend government money on Education. It was 3 to 4% in every year from 2000-2005.President Kumaranatunge has done good work for education. She established 5 state university and SLIIT for self-financing students. However, this government has not been done significant work for state universities. No new state university was established under UGC. There is no quality private university was established. There is no law for accommodate quality private university system. Government wants only promote technical education. State universities do not have adequate research centers. Therefore, no research publications. It directly badly effect university ranking. No Sri Lankan university within 200 Asian university ranking.
    We cannot blame only to government. UGC is also responsible. UGC follows old fashion regulations for recruiting staff. Now a days, PhD is minimum qualification for lecturers in all over the world. Sri Lanka is the only county gives professorship without adequate research publications. Some professors do not have PhD. We still recruit first class or Second class level degree-holders for university teaching job.
    University teachers also responsible for this downgrade of Sri Lankan universities. They do not do research. They always think large money for research (No money, No research). They do extra works such as doing business, teaching private universities, tuition. They have 2 or 3 month vacation every year. It can be used for doing research. Most of university teachers cannot find foreign university job. Because, they do not have research publications.
    Most of the people believes this strike has political motivation. FUTA go against private university owned by the Sri Lankans. But, they do not go against private institution affiliated foreign universities. Most of these institution eat middle class parents’ money. They do not provide quality education. There is no regulation or monitoring body for monitor them. FUTA go to court against private university owned by Sri Lankan. There is Indian conspiracy and they want to destroy our education system. It is backbone of Sri Lanka, if Sri Lanka become first developed country in South Asia. We hope president will appoint well educated man with PhD for education minister and dismiss all fake professors.

  • 0

    We need an independent professional body, preferably a foreign organization similar to an audit firm to come and research into the total university structure and admin. to analyze, report and advise GOSL as how they should be administered and used for country’s development. FUTA could be used to do a whole heap of research in almost every field to develop (agriculture, engineering,medical,energy, IT and other sciences, arts and social service etc.) in all sector developments and advise govt. We need to think ahead for 21st century needs and to par with international standards.

  • 0

    Whatever happens immediately, FUTA action will have long term good effects. It must persevere for now.

    I remember some readers questioned Prof. Amal Kumarage’s academic credientials when he was writing well researched articles here. Now they can examine the ecedemic credentials of the people, especially the convenor, Mr. Nemsiri Jayathilake, of the Patriotic University Teachers Association and decide whether to take them seriously or not.

    Carefully study the the utterences of the “Academics” who talk against FUTA. In the absence of resources (time, references, etc.) to study an issue at length, one of the criterions for believeing the statements of a person is the consistency of his utterence over time (may be decade or more). Founders of all religions fit this criterion; Buddha preached the same thing all throughout his life (as buddha). If the utterences change over time we have a problem; At what time can we believe him? One must apply this rule to people like Prof. Nalin de Silva too and decide at which point you want to believe him. [I do not deny the right of a person to change his stand on an issue. The issue is on others believeing him.] Also good to think about winning arguments. Does the winner of an argument always represent the reality? If that is so the winner of a debate is alredy desided right at the bigining when assignment of the topic is done.

  • 0

    I think the pessimist chemistry professor has dwelled on the details of the breakdown of relations between the authorities and the university teachers to such an extent that she misses the large mass of phenomena that have fed into this disaster through the years.

    The education system and its maladministration is only one small part of the whole picture. One cannot assign standards to institutions or policies that lack the basic criteria on which to form a credible assessable framework.

    She therefore needs to attempt to connect various social, economic, administrative, ethical, political and cultural phenomena that have contributed to the status quo as it stands, if her points are to be popularly endorsed by wider society.

  • 0

    “The public is being slowly awakened to the reality of the future of education and higher education in the country. The teachers are optimistic that this action will induce negotiations”

    …if this is indeed really happening then members of FUTA should awaken more and more people “to the reality of the future of education and higher education in the country”. They should be holding free lectures every evening for the general public all over the country in order to awaken all of them to “the reality of the future of education and higher education in the country”

    FUTA must also not lose sight of the fact that many members of the government and state employees are their own products…the products of this education system that FUTA wants to protect. If this education system is so widely appreciated and valued how is it that the very people who have supposedly benefitted from it are not in the forefront of the movement supporting FUTA?

    I am personally not thrilled by the education system and my contention is that it has failed to produce the kind of people who can ensure that the integrity of democratic processes are maintained. In fact it can be argued that the education system has produced people who are authoritarian and who support authoritarianism both openly as well as in various guises. It can be argued that this is what results in the worship of authoritarianism that prevails. The education system as it prevails produces people who suffer from chronic PTSD and who have therefore lost the ability to speak to authority and who can do no more than resort to various forms of manipulation and subservience and servitude. How is it that we have systems of governance where there is no ongoing communication between academics and policy makers not just in the field of education but in every field that affects the development and governance of the country?

    Changing this will mean that the entire education system has to be changed and this will mean changing the way teachers teach and what they teach. In fact the entire concept of teaching may have to be thrown out the door. By awakening more and more people “to the reality of the future of education and higher education in the country” FUTA may figure out how to formulate an education system that does not run on authoritarianism.

    I think we need an education system where “the relationship between teacher and student forms the centre and where curricular content and pedagogical methodology are moved to the periphery”. Exams are useful to evaluate the effectiveness of the teaching of the teacher in terms of what the teacher set out to teach. What the students actually learned needs to be evaluated quite differently.

    6% of the GDP is something like 3.6 BILLION US Dollars. Can FUTA please tell me how it plans to use this? If it is to reconfigure the education system then 6% of GDP probably will NOT be enough. If it is simply to deliver more of the same…then exactly why should they be encouraged?

    This is particularly so in the current critical context where we have to come up with enough people who are able to engage the critical issues of our times and transform our global civilization into a more sustainable one if the human species is to survive. How many members of FUTA are aware of this and how many of them take it seriously?

  • 0

    One, may be hard-to-digest fact is that some of the ( approx 40%) Academics hardly do any work other than to repeat year old notes. The rest at leas re-new their noted and curricula. A few are real academics, they learn more and possess a quest for furthering knowledge by creating new knowledge and proliferating it. This few enjoy their work. Other enjoy the perks and relatively ( Island wide) higher salaries. The FUTA action initially started as a protest against salary issues.The Education factor was added so that the issue could be connected to the public and gather support of students and en-mass. the FUTA will have to terminate their strike if the government agrees to the salary issue. The education issue will by default will be dissociated and the IFSU will stand alone in championing it. The fund cut for education is not new. It has been the trend for quite sometime. The FUTA never took it up. It was attached to the FUTA’s salary request to add visibility and gravity to the cause. May be paint a “holy” picture of FUTA. However the process and processions have created muck lacked awareness. Can/will the FUTA discontinue their protest if a solution to the “salary only issue” is provided and leave the education in the lurch?

  • 0

    Good to read another point of view.
    As a layperson could I add the utopian wish that every school in this country be equipped with facilities ie research centres, labs, ( and well-renumerated staff)of equal excellence?

  • 0

    I think we are trying to eat and keep the cake at the same time. We want to safe guard the free education system while seeking facilities and remenuration compatible with fee levying unversities.
    The real problem here as I see it is the attitude and policies of the developed world in stealing our educated without any concern for the country and the people who spent resources to produce them. Also the academics who abandon their mother country,for greener grass! without paying their dues for the education they got. We don’t see any academics suggesting any remedies to this injustice.

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