By Rajiva Wijesinha –
My attention has been drawn to an article that appeared in Colombo Telegraph on February 8th, entitled’ Jaffna University In Uproar: Govt Reneges, Promotes Tamil Extremism’. I find that I too have been brought into this controversy, on the grounds that
‘Prof. Rajiva Wijesingha the State Minister for Higher Education reneged on these solemn promises by Ranil Wickremesinghe. On 1 Feb. 2015 Wijesingha – Wickremesinghe’s first cousin who as State Minister is said to be charged with looking after the implementation of higher education policy) and was not present at the FUTA meeting – gave an interview to the Sunday Observer. Said he, gainsaying his Prime Minister, that:
“He will not sack the UGC Chairperson Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama but will address many mistakes done by her.”
This is subsequently described as a ‘betrayal’ on my part. The writer is a Mr Kudumban, whose background I do not know. While recognizing much anger on his part, I should however point out some fallacies in his argument.
I am aware there was a meeting with FUTA on January 27th, but none of those present told me what transpired. It is utterly wrong then to talk of a ‘betrayal’ on my part, or to speak of my reneging on a promise, made by someone else, who exceeded his own mandate.
Mr Kudumban refers to ‘minutes of a meeting’ with FUTA, but what a FUTA member sent me were the ‘notes’ prepared by FUTA. In any case FUTA should have noticed that the Prime Minister did recognize the existing system in that he is supposed to have said letters requesting the UGC to resign ‘would come through the Secretary to the President’.
In fact, without telling me, Cabinet Minister Hashim wrote to the President requesting this. Perhaps because he did not get a response, he then took it upon himself to write to members of the UGC claiming that ‘I have been directed by His Excellency the President to inform you to tender your resignation from the chairmanship of the UGC with immediate effect’. I was told by the President that this was not correct.
The second point in the Note (or Minutes) is that Mr Hashim said ‘he requests all Council members of universities to resign’. Mr Hashim had previously told me he wanted me to deal with the universities (and technical education too) because he would be too busy with elections. But even ignoring that commitment, the simple fact is that it is not his prerogative to ask members of Councils to resign. The Act is very clear that, while the Minister has responsibilities, he has no powers except to instruct the UGC (or closure and related measures in the case of ‘serious dislocation’).
The Minister may of course advise, but written instructions must be tabled in Parliament. I have no idea what Mr Hashim thought he might be doing when he informed the UGC to resign, but in any case that is not ‘in pursuance of national policy in matters such as finance, university places and medium of instruction’.
I believe that we must act in accordance with the law, and it is precisely because of excessive interference by the previous executive authority in all matters that the people wanted a change of government. I do not wish to behave like those in power then, and I would not want those I work for to behave in violation of the law either.
The third point in the Note / Minute was about investigating allegations. This I have done when any allegations were brought to my notice that I could deal with, others I have referred to the appropriate authority.
One example of matters I did deal with is the case of Prof Ratnajeevan Hoole who had been retired early in violation of the circular. However the circular is so ineptly drafted that I could understand it being incomprehensible, and authorities taking what is a common sense view. I had to explain the absurdity and say that we must act according to our own circulars, and the error has now been remedied.
I should add that someone who was on the UGC at the time the circular was drafted said that ‘After our approval in principle, Prof. Mendis then wrote it on his own because of the hurry and tabled it after its release. I did notice the poor phraseology but it was too late.’ This is the type of carelessness that must not recur.
With regard to other appointments, it is the Council that must decide. I found that there was no system about appointing Councils. Wickrema Weerasooria told me in 2002 that they consulted the Vice-Chancellors, which is preposterous since the Council is supposed to monitor the work of the Vice-Chancellor. He told me there was no other system possible since the UGC did not know people in the Provinces, which again is careless. This has also led to unwarranted interference by politicians.
I insisted as I took office that clear criteria should be drawn up. These are now on the UGC website. I had hoped that those members who clearly did not fit within the criteria would resign, but this has not happened. I have therefore asked the UGC to reconstitute two Councils, including the Jaffna one, where it seems appointments were at the behest of political authorities. There has been no suggestion that this was the case with the other universities, and I think it simplistic to dissolve all Councils.
Unfortunately there was no UGC to implement my request. I do not think either FUTA or the Prime Minister or Mr Hashim had read the Act before they demanded or pronounced or acted. Over two weeks have passed without there being a Commission. A week has passed since my resignation was effective, though Mr Hashim has kept assuring me of immediate action. He does not call back in fulfilment of his promise, but I do not blame him because, on the last occasion we spoke, he said he too did not know what was happening, despite his clear assurance to the press.
He dissuaded me then from returning the vehicles, and I did continue to work informally, in particular in meeting with the Committee to produce a new Draft Act. I was told last night by the Secretary to the Ministry that the other Committee asked to recommend more flexibility in the system has also reported. The two Cabinet papers I promised the President have been drafted and sent to him, in translation too.
I shall therefore be returning the vehicles this morning. I am grateful for the massive expressions of support I have received from within the system, in particular from students. I am grateful to lecturers who have also written in support, and especially to those at Peradeniya who had asked to meet me and who turned up for a very lively discussion, despite FUTA asking for a boycott on the grounds that I had acted against the against the will of the majority of the academic community, with regard to their demanding the removal (or the resignation, the email uses both terms as though they were interchangeable) of the UGC Chair.
If the majority of the academic community wanted her to be removed without an inquiry, I would be sad, but perhaps then it would be best for me not to try to engage on the much needed reforms, because basic principles of justice and equity must govern those. FUTA now says that ‘If the government wishes to inquire into these allegations, we most certainly welcome such a move.’ I only wish FUTA had made that clear to the Prime Minister instead of allowing Minister Hashim to feel that the pressure from FUTA to get rid of the Chair was irresistible.