2 July, 2020

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FUTA Strike And Its Detractors: A Response

By Kumudu Kusum Kumara

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.)

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    Excellent article and thank god the University Dons have finally woken up and are taking an interest in the world around them and in the need for reform in the policy making and governance process in Sri Lanka which has been hollowed out by a corrupt regime given to cultivating cronies in all institutions. The education sector is the right place to start the reform process and roll back the rot that has been cultivated by the regime in all public institutions.
    The Dons should and are finally is seems taking their role as educators serious and beginning to educate the public on the need for policy and institutional reform in all national institutions given the rot that has set into all public institutions under the rajapakse regime which has appointed corrupt cronies and unqualified family members to all public institutions and are destroying and hollowing them out. The case of Sri Lankan Airlines and its Chairman is a good example of thise. The regime has no concept of social or human development because it is run by 4 uneducated brothers none of whom even as a Bachelors degree.
    Finally, the Dons should demand the resignation of the 2 clowns who are so-called Ministers of Education who cannot speak 2 sentences of English which is the international language of research and global knowledge production and do not know the meaning or process of “policy making” let alone “knowledge production”.

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      Yes, nice piece – keep it coming! WE THE PEOPLE ARE WITH YOU AND THE PEOPLE UNITED WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!
      The regime like the clownish education ministers who also tell lies (eg.a family can live on SLR 7,500 per month), and Gota the goon who is militatrizing universities and threatening to murder journalists must resign. Please if you have the time also educate the people on the need for the RIGHT TO INFORMATION BILL and regime change to rescue Lanka from the Barbaric rajapass brothers!

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      The miltarization of educaton under the Rajapakse regime represents the “banality of evil” today.
      Banality of evil is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in the title of her 1963 work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Her thesis is that the great evils in history were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their State and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal. Explaining this phenomenon, Edward S. Herman has emphasized the importance of “normalizing the unthinkable.” According to him, “doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on ‘normalization.’ This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable(speech)acts become routine and are accepted as ‘the way things are done.’
      This is the ENDGAME of the Rajapakse regime. Lanka needs to be rescued from the murderous brothers. March on Dons – we are with you!

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        Technocrat, That’s a strong anti-government vibe you’ve just spat out. I am sure you have your reasons to be frustrated, many people are for varying reasons. But this is not a fight for changing the government. These guys are not happy at what they are paid and they want more. They have put forward a package that inlude fancy stuff like education budget increase but do they really care about education? Absolutely not. The reason why our education is at such a low ebb is our academia. They don’t want to deliver a good job but want to be paid more. Why do you think Ranil is keeping quiet on this issue? Because the Kelaniya university where his wife is a lecturer has had a hard time convincing their members to join the party. Ranil knows, even if he is the president, these demands are not justifiable under prevailing circumstances, by which I mean the lecturers have to get their act right first. This Kumara and Dewasiri are Arts faculty lecturers, what a tiny job they do! The question today has to be, not spending more but should the Faculty of Arts exist anymore? Does it serve any purpose anymore? They graduate thousands of graduates who queue at the Fort Station protest demanding jobs following the graduation. Do you know what Ranil as the minister said to those people in 80s? These guys need reprogramming, to suit to the country’s needs. whether the country needs to be rescued from this governmet or not is a different issue altogether but a good one to discuss in a different column.

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    A letter full of inane wittering. It however highlights yet another insincere demands FUTA has made in this round of protests in relation to academic and non academic positions. Since late 1970s, after the autonomy was restored, the nepotism and the hegemony of academics has been displayed beyond belief. The instances of taking revenge from students following personal incidents, favourations, offering classes and appointing to the staff their own children, filling non-academic position in libraries, labs, English units etc with their family members have been rampant. Yet they claim moral high ground and demand more. Since the autonomy was re-established, apart from VC appointments, acacdemics primarily control the universities. Year after year they graduate unemployable graduates who are a disgrace to the higher education, while the private sector frequently prefers to hire and train overseas educated graduates.Most lecturers would spend the minimum number of hours at work. There are those who abuse this freedom by working in other institutions during the same working hours and also getting a second pay from the public for just being on the register of a state-owned research centre. If the ethics and discipine can’t be self-maintained, why would they want more autonomy? Criticising those who see wrong in their campaign or labling them as pro-government is easy but self-criticism and being fair will help.

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    I like to heighlight some bad work of these academic people.The instances of taking revenge from students following personal incidents, favourations, offering classes and appointing to the staff their own children and their favourites, ignored the candidates who have PhD and sound research background and filling lecture post from just degree-holders without any publications, ignored eminant professors and researchers who have foreign university experiences due to current lectuerers can not compete with them, filling non-academic position in libraries, labs, English units etc with their family members have been rampant. Many sexsual harresment of female students have reported and past and present students know the many incidents. University is hub for new knowledge and research. Out of 98% or more university teachers do not do any research other than undergraduate research report. These people arrange low quality research symposium in Sri Lanka and publish their undergraduate research reports as papers. Goverment offer research fund though research universities, unfortunately most of them do not apply for it. Finally, these people do not have research papers in indexed journals (such as SSCI, SCI). How they become professor? Group of professors recommened their friend as a professor. Research and publication of papers are very important for university ranking. Without good research background, Sri Lankan universities unable to come within 1000 in world and within 100 in Asian ranking. The times and QS ranking are world accepted ranking. How Sri Lanka can become knowledge hub in Asia? Sri Lanka should change current university recruitment scheme and attract PhD holders with good research publications.

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    Your article supports the strike. What is the stance of the FUTA regarding ragging?

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