By Kumudu Kusum Kumara –
University lecturers of the entire state sector university system in Sri Lanka except the universities of Kelaniya and Uva Wellasa have been on a continuous strike since 4th July under the leadership of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA). At Kelaniya while the overwhelming majority of the teachers’ union membership had been demanding to join the strike it is reported that some members of the union leadership had got themselves entangled in the elections to the post of Vice Chancellor and thereby wanted to prevent a strike at Kelaniya to please the authorities. However members of the union have been clamouring for a change of the decision of the union leaders and most likely that they will join the strike any time soon. (In fact while this article was being finalised the news reached us that the teacher’s union at Kelaniya decided to join the FUTA strike with immediate effect from 11th July.) It is reported that at Uva Wellasa which the government promotes as the model university of the future knowledge hub that Sri Lanka is expected to become, university teachers are prevented from forming a trade union. The point is that the overwhelming majority of University lecturers island wide support the strike except a handful of pro government lecturers.
The government had been given ample notice of the strike and cannot claim it is unaware of the demands of university teachers. Early January, 2012 the FUTA informed the Minster of Higher Education that the government had reneged on the commitments it made to university academics at the end of the FUTA trade union action took place in 2011. The FUTA informed the minister that it would “resort to a trade union action to urge the government and the higher educational authorities to uphold the commitments made” none other than by the President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself to university academic community at that time. The FUTA pointed out that the “authorities consistently failed to keep the commitments made to the university academics.” The FUTA wrote to the President in the same vein in April 2012. On June 13, 2012 the FUTA informed the Minister of Higher Education of its decision to launch a continuous strike on the 4th July. After this decision the Minister invited the FUTA for a meeting on the 20th June the outcome of which was described by the FUTA as having “failed to resolve contentious issues.” The FUTA president Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri has further mentioned that “President Mahinda Rajapaska himself had broken the earlier promise to grant them redress through the budget 2012.” Immediately following the meeting with the FUTA the ministry of higher education (MoHE) and the University Grants Commission (UGC) declared a media blitzkrieg on the FUTA. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Directors (CVCD) and pro-government university teachers were brought in as reinforcements. The Minister S.B. Dissanayaka himself lead the struggle from front. The strategy was to portray to the public the demands as unethical perhaps with a plan to crush the FUTA initiative having won over public opinion in government’s favour. While the state media both electronic and print was mobilised for this purpose the FUTA feels that even the non-kept media came under pressure to black out the FUTA perspective not however with complete success. The island carried in its Midweek Review on the July 4th the complete FUTA response to the UGC and CVCD. It is non-traditional media on the internet that helped the FUTA to put across its perspective to the public in a however limited manner. It is inevitable that today when mainstream media suppresses the news and views of the public web based media will take its place. It is that government action that would decide whether people would turn to face book and other web based social media as tools in their legitimate political struggles. Self fulfilling prophecies are made of such stuff.
Who really represents university teachers’ community?
While the FUTA had announced its strike decision media reported that Sri Lanka University Teachers’ Union met with the President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the 1st of July and “made a request from the President to grant them a meeting with him to discuss their problems and issues. Accordingly the President has set up a meeting for the university academics on July 03 under the patronage of Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga.” And secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga invited the FUTA for a meeting on the 3rd on the eve of the strike and two leaders of the Sri Lanka University Teachers’ Union sat on the back benches on the side the government delegation occupied at the discussion.
The FUTA announced that the meeting with the secretary to the President was “cordial and was conducted in a conducive manner” and that Mr. Weeratunga listened to the FUTA demands and the rationale behind them. Secretary to the President wanted a week to study the FUTA demands and promised to consult the stake holders on government side at a meeting to be convened on the 12th of July, 2012. A committee comprising the FUTA and the Ministry of Higher Education was appointed for this purpose. Since no agreements on the demands were made the continuous strike was to be commenced as announced.
Delay on the part of the government to intervene to immediately resolve the FUTA trade union action last year as well as at present and the recently ended strike of the non-academic staff of the universities are inexplicable within the logic according to which the government has time and again expressed concern over the disruption of university students’ studies due to trade union action. Such delays could possibly be interpreted as part of a strategy to weaken trade union action by bringing it to disrepute in the eyes of the public and then by taking it through the process of resolving industrial disputes with the threat of bringing it under the procedure of arbitration. It remains to be seen whether the government is willing to take the risk of antagonising the university academic community by following such a strategy this time around.
Is the salary demand unethical?
Concerted effort on the part of the MoHE in response to the current demands of the FUTA has been to try to discredit it in the eyes of the public as unethical. The MoHE and its apologists argue that the salaries of university teachers have been increased by large percentages since its trade union action last year. Hence, it is unfair to demand more again when the large masses of employees are managing with much lower salaries and when the country needs its financial resources to be diverted to development. The FUTA responds to this criticism from several angles. Firstly, the manner in which the MoHE cites various percentages of salary increases is misleading to say the least as they do not reflect the true picture of the salary increase the FUTA won through last year’s trade union action. Percentages cited are calculated not only taking allowances themselves as salary which is not simply hair splitting as some may want to argue because an increase in the basic salary involves much more in terms of contributions to EPF, ETF etc. and also the status one holds in the world of economics within the structure of basic salaries with its attended benefits or disadvantages than an increase in the take home pay packet. Secondly, research allowance of 25 percent of the salary added since last trade union action as the authorities keep on reminding has to be applied for every year by submitting reports of research and does not add to the salary automatically. Thirdly, even if we consider the increase to the gross take home salary for the overwhelming majority of university academics who are senior lecturers the increase is not the same as that of professors not to talk of senior professors officers whose numbers are less than 200 out of close to 4500 odd university lecturers.
Honesty of the government is in question
But most importantly the FUTA position is that the government has not been honest in its dealing with the FUTA. During the FUTA trade union action in 2011 the government accepted as a basis for negotiations the FUTA salary proposals which are recommended by the Jiffry – Malik Ranasinghe committee appointed by the UGC and accepted by the UGC. These were also was the basis of the discussion FUTA had with the President at the end of which he offered a compromise interim salary and asked the FUTA to work out the rest of the details with government officers. However, later the MoHE began to refer to it as a ‘perceived’ agreement. It is as if even the President’s word is not sacrosanct. What the FUTA requested the Secretary to the President this time is that not to treat the present round of discussions as tactics of a strategy to deflect the demands of the FUTA somehow but to be honest in the government’s response to them. What is at issue here is trustworthiness of the government’s promises. The FUTA expects the government to set aside political tactics and manoeuvring and manipulation in dealing with the FUTA and to be upfront about the response to their salary demands. University teachers wants to know what the government considers the due salary of university lecturers in the context of its desire to raise the standards of state sector universities and if it is unable to pay such a salary to discuss with the FUTA the reasons and the prioritisation of allocating government funding to various sectors.
Increased government funding for education
There is an effort on the part of the government and its apologists to dismiss the other major FUTA demand which is increased government funding for education as a politically motivated move to take government as hostage. It is claimed that trade unions should restrict themselves only to demands that affect their trade mainly meaning salary and working conditions. Even within such a narrow reading of trade union rights we cannot ignore that the meagre allocation of funding to education impacts on salaries of university lecturers. On the other hand if one keeps oneself informed of what is happening around the world as academics should do one would realise to one’s surprise that trade unions in fact do take issues of national interest beyond issues narrowly restricted to interests of their own trades. Moreover, education is the broad field within which university academics operate and how the government invests in this field is their legitimate concern not only as trade unionists but also as intellectuals whose input into public affairs the society expects from them by collectively consenting to grant them academic freedom and autonomy to make their intellectual contribution to society. At a broader level as citizens of the country the academics have all the right to demand that government invests in education without the advancements of which we may not have a culture or a civilisation to fall back on when commercialism promoted by the regime take hold of society. While the conservative position seeks to restrict FUTA to traditional trade union demands that FUTA has taken on national issues impinging on their trade if accepted by society would change the rules of the game which is part of human activity.
What the FUTA demand for spending of 6 percent of Gross Domestic Product for education the commitment to which has been reiterated by Sri Lankan government at the second Ministerial Meeting of South Asia Education for All Forum in 2009 held in Dacca highlights is that the FUTA considers education should be a high priority of any government and that it should never be the least priority. Education is essential for both economic and social development and improvement of political culture of a country and therefore an investment in the future. What the FUTA is attempting to do is to influence government policy on education and it believes that as a trade union of academics it is a legitimate demand to present for consideration by the government. Government budget is a reflection of its policy and hence the FUTA’s request to increase budgetary allocations for education. The FUTA’s 6 percent demand is a guideline based on what the government itself has agreed to and hence it is the duty of the government to have discussion on this with the FUTA. .
Is there government policy on higher education?
The FUTA demand that the government should declare its policy on higher education has been met with responses such as that mission and vision statements of the MoHE and the corporate plans of the UGC are government policy. These only reflect poor understanding of what policy is. While various government commissions on education have been appointed from time to time in the recent past none of them have been able to convince the government to adopt a policy on either general education or higher education. Minister of Education in the 1980s, Ranil Wickremasinghe’s white paper on education is the last known attempt to present a brief for policy discussion on education in recent times. The current parliamentary committee on general education has produced a document for public discussion the final outcome of which yet again seems to have been lost in the legal draftsman’s office. Since Chandrika Kumaratunga was elected as the president of the country educational and higher educational policy of the government have been guided by World Bank studies on the subject backed by heavy funding that came through projects such IRQUE, QEF and now HETC. A cursory comparison of World Bank studies and the government educational policy orientation during this period would bear testimony to this view. The issue the FUTA interested is in asking the government to declare its policy on higher education so that there could be a public dialogue on the subject. What the university community has been witnessing in the recent past is ad hoc policy decisions taken by the Minister of Higher Education being implemented at various levels without due consultations with them to the detriment of the interests of the community. It appears that Cabinet decisions have been substituted for policy making thus overriding the University Act a practice which sets a bad precedence for democratic governance. As is well known an attempt to push a bill to set up private universities through the parliament without due public consultation was thwarted by strong public opposition. It is reported that the authority to grant university status to educational institutes which was originally placed with the UGC has been wrested by the Minister of Higher Education by gazette notification. The FUTA wants the government to put an end to such arbitrary policy making by cabinet and revert to the tradition of collective policy making.
Restoring University Autonomy
The final FUTA demand is to restore autonomy of governance that have been traditionally enjoyed by the university academic community which has come under attack with increasing politicisation and micro management and even militarisation creeping into universities. Hence the FUTA demand that the MoHE gives a pledge to respect and adhere to the Universities Act in all matters pertaining to the higher education sector so that these institutions can thrive as autonomous institutions. The FUTA demands an assurance that the minister shall not interfere in the appointment of members of the University Councils. The assurance must include an undertaking by the UGC that the qualifications of those appointed and the expected expertise each appointee brings in to the respective council to be publicized for the information of the University community and the general public. It also demands an assurance to strictly adhere to the procedure pertaining to the appointment of Vice Chancellors without ministerial interference, at both stages involving the University Council and the UGC a principle recognized by the Supreme Court. It also demands a pledge to allow university councils to be the final decision making body with regard to all university appointments both academic and non academic positions. There are also the demands for a pledge to stop interfering in the allocation of University funds and an undertaking to have the cabinet approved directive (in violation of the Universities Act) to hire the ultra expensive Rakna Lanka security firm for University security rescinded.
The first meeting of the committee appointed under the chairmanship of President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga is scheduled to take place on the 12th July, 2012 evening. It is the earnest hope of the university teachers represented by the FUTA that the government will take this opportunity to engage the university teachers in their desire to preserve and develop the state sector university system in the country a desire which seems to resonate well with the public of the country given the wide public support the FUTA is receiving in the campaigns to sign an online petition and a petition of million signatures under the slogan ‘Save Sri Lankan Schools and Universities!’
(The writer is a member of the Arts Faculty Teachers’ Association, Colombo University.)