By Ruvan Weerasinghe –
The university academics are on strike. Somehow, in the past, that wasn’t news. Even today, it is news only to those who are almost directly affected: the students, some employers, a few organizations that may interact closely with the universities, and of course the academics. It should affect the University Grants Commission and the Ministry of Higher Education, but they seem to have their plates full with the z-score issue to be bothered too much about it.
Somehow, however, this time around there seem to be some differences from the past. There are moderate academics, even those who’ve worked closely and energetically with the government, on strike. In fact, there even are academics, who have been working with the government right up to the point of the strike who are now speaking up in support of the strike. Chances are however, that you’ve not heard about them or realized that the academic trade union action is as strong as it has ever been, owing to the media coverage available to the government version of things.
The problem with the message
There is also another reason for the feeling of unreasonableness of the academics demands among the public on the one hand, and the business community on the other: the nature of the ‘message’. While the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA), and its member unions have tried their utmost to explain the reason for the strike action through various media, their task is an unenviable one. Their message is not easy to explain to a populace that is only accustomed to hearing demands for pay rises as reasons for strikes.
To the public, the part of the message that relates to salaries is also hard to communicate. In a country where the median individual monthly salary is less than Rs. 15,000, the message that a salary of Rs. 27,000 (plus allowances) is insufficient for hiring a fresh graduate to the university system hardly seems the most pressing problem that the country faces. Backing it up with the starting salaries at the CEB, SLT or Central Bank doesn’t help except to make the general public even more perplexed.
To the business community, the part of the message that relates to increasing spending on Education to 6% sounds like a cry for more funds for inefficient and unproductive (semi-)government institutions. Just as the commercial world largely viewed the FTZ protests against the EPF – Pension conversion bill as a nuisance without realizing that their own EPF was at stake, they little realize that the long term effect of declining funding for education will make their workforces increasingly less competent and competitive, drying up their very businesses or forcing them to source human resources from other countries.
What ails Sri Lanka?
Any serious study of any developing country has resulted in a recommendation to strengthen their ‘innovation infrastructure’ in order to become part of the emerging knowledge society1. A central component of this is the strengthening of their higher education sector, a sector that can only thrive if given the autonomy and academic freedom that are intrinsic to its nature.
Much has been already written that clearly shows steadily declining investment in the higher education system from its all time high in 1972. While there is a definite negative trend in state expenditure on higher education, there is also a corresponding steady increase in the student intake to the universities. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that reduced funding and increased student numbers would inevitably cause the quality of the higher education provided to have declined. On top of all this, there is often much pontification about the lack of quality publications by academics, who are expected to perform at international levels with scant disregard to the conditions of their employment, including the red tape that hampers them at every turn.
A legitimate question to be asked then would be, why we haven’t as the higher education sector, and indeed as a population at large, been awakened to this reality much earlier? This is where we most clearly we see the ravaging effects of the 30-year civil war this country endured. The heavy investments in defense have had adverse effects in many areas, education being one of the most crucial and yet least obvious ones. Naturally, education tends to come after the basic need for security. This is also precisely why academics have been silent about their own decreasing salaries with respect to those of other equivalent high intellectual input institutions such as the Central Bank.
Three years have elapsed since the end of the armed conflict.Sri Lankahad all the promise to rise from the ashes of the war to new heights in terms of social and economic development. And yet, what has transpired has been very sporadic investments in the essentials for building a knowledge society, but heavy spending on a few large projects and ventures ranging (among others) from: bids to host international and regional extravaganzas, investment (of EPF funds) in failing companies, risking whatever revenues raised within the country in bad bonds and hedge funds, large scale tax revenue losses owing to the granting of favours to selected people and their businesses, losses owing to issue of permits and licenses without transparency, and disincentives to foreign investment in the local economy and the stock exchange owing to ad-hoc policies dictated by a few.
In the face of this lopsidedness of priorities, is it to be unexpected that the population has to resort to one of two choices: take the next route out of the country, or to remain and demand re-prioritization of government spending. As those whose mandate it is to alert a nation that is on the wrong track, the academia of this country have for the first time in almost two decades decided to take the latter path, in the interest of the nation at large. If we wantSri Lankato have any chance in the fast moving new global knowledge economy, we had better make quick and drastic course corrections today.
As in the proverbial boiling frog syndrome, the people of this country have over the years got accustomed to facing and tolerating hardship for a bigger cause – that of ending the civil war in the country. The problem is, like the frog getting accustomed to the increasingly hotter water, we have got so accustomed to tolerating hardship that we have failed to realize that it is no longer required that we remain in that condition, and that if we do so, we are headed to extinction, just like the frog!
Reason for trade union action
Its time to make each other aware that the water is coming to boiling point, and help each other to get off the pot (or pit) we are in! This is what the academic community inSri Lankais trying to do. It has the full force of the state media monopoly and the difficulty of the message being carried, working against it. What is even more difficult for it to bear is the fact that in its effort to win its long term objectives, it has had to let go of some short term objectives: in particular, the struggle it carries out each year to ensure that each successive batch of students is admitted, coached to its utmost ability and graduated on time using the meager resources allocated to the higher education sector has to be ‘put on hold’.
No doubt this also causes all the current students, whom they are accountable to, often to misunderstand the trade union action currently underway. These present students are, sometimes unwillingly now, paying a price to ensure that their successors will have a better deal than they themselves: something that is hard to swallow in today’s culture of getting the most for ourselves in the easiest and quickest possible way.
What must be understood then, and it is not easy for the general public to do, is that this is no normal strike action for increased pay. That would be easy to understand and to agree or disagree with. Rather, this is a watershed for governments, both the present and future, to realize that there are people in this country who understand and care enough to do something in the long-term interests of the country. They need to engage with them, not sling mud at them. They need to address the issues, not the characters and qualifications of those who raise them.
Among those who have written in support of the present trade union action, there are many who have worked closely with this and previous governments, to ensure that good policies of the government are implemented in the best and most effective ways possible. These are not all ivory tower intellectuals that often the government media these days likes to portray the academics as: many of them have in fact engaged with the governments to make their specialized knowledge work on the ground in sectors ranging from Education and Higher Education to Transportation, Power and Energy, Health, Poverty Alleviation and Policy development among others.
Among them are those that have more capitalist leanings to those who have socialist or communist orientations – but all of them have shed their particular political preferences to come together in the greater interest of the nation in terms of being relevant in the knowledge society of the 21st century. Many cynics may say that we are already past the point of no return in terms of catching up with the rest of the world in this global knowledge economy, but this group of the population continue to stubbornly reject that defeatist story: for how long more one wonders.
Dumbing down a nation
There are many, especially from overseas, who wonder why this trade union action has had to go on this long. The reasons are complex, but primarily stem from the inability of a country that has been so accustomed to being in a state of ‘emergency’ to rise up and see the world of ‘opportunity’ available beyond the war-blinkers we’ve been having on for the 3 decades that preceded 2009. This world of opportunity has beckoned us for 3 years now, and we have refused to look and comprehend to what heights we can ascend if only we are prepared to open our eyes!
How come? Surely this is doing an injustice to our collective intellect? This is where the politicians have been able to successfully ‘put us to sleep’. We have got used to being unable to influence desirable changes for our country by simply expressing our views openly. During most of the 3 decade period referred to above, successive governments got us used to the notion that whatever they were doing was what was desirable for the country – anything else was not only unacceptable, it would be traitorous. In other words, we have as a nation been dumbed down to the level of zombies who had better fall in line, or else be considered a public nuisance only fit behind bars or worse.
A not-so-recent real incident serves to illustrate where this has got us to without our conscious knowledge over the years. Two senior ICT professionals happened to be talking with each other about business including the present economic conditions, at a five-star hotel lobby. A visiting Korean investor had happened to be seated not far from them and overheard their conversation. Apologetically he had told them that he couldn’t help but listen in, since they were talking so much sense, unlike the Ministers he had had discussions with about investing inSri Lanka. He was actually puzzled as to why neither of them were in parliament or government with the level of knowledge they possessed on the nature of the economy and its current needs. In that country at least, it appears that a keen intellect is a pre-requisite to being in parliament!
Aspects of dumbing down the nation have been apparent on many fronts: we cannot govern ourselves, hence the eyewash of pseudo devolution (with the Provincial Council for which the whole exercise was undertaken still not devolved power to), the non-implementation and then abolition of the 17th Amendment which would have made ‘dangerously’ independent commissions run our most important agencies, the flippant tossing away of the Right to Information bill/debate since we, the public do not need to know/cannot be expected to understand the reasons for keeping information secret, the scant disregard to public funds with which elections are spread out in order to ‘prove’ that the ‘majority’ are in agreement with what’s being done, the systematic removal of ‘obstacles’ to the ‘official’ point of view in news media reporting especially in Sinhala and Tamil.
So what shall we do?
Stand up and be counted. There is a point at which the people need to make their voices heard. The academics – those of every political inclination – have made a statement. It is that, in the all important areas of education and especially higher education which are so essential for the future success in the global knowledge society, the country needs to invest far more than it is doing at present. Many arguments have been put about the impracticality of the 6% of GDP figure, but prolonged neglect calls for drastic action if we as a nation are to stand any chance of coming out of our debt-serviced ‘perpetually developing country’ status even in the next decade.
However, education and higher education is not the only thing that ails our land. From Science & Technology to Transportation, from Poverty Alleviation to the Stock Market, all need serious intervention by professionals with integrity, who put the country before self and support whatever government which is willing to harness the highly skilled human resourceSri Lankais bestowed with. It is heartening to note that other voluntary groups such as the National Movement for Social Justice, have taken on this wider task of demanding a country where the law is upheld, an administration that preserves justice and society built on fairness.
Though the FTZ protest served as a wake-up call to all EPF contributors of our land, there are many other more intricate financial operations that the normal population find hard to grasp. This is not to belittle the intellect of the public. It was clear with the fallout resulting from the economic crisis of 2008, that any mechanism for fund generation that was understood by a few owing to its (unnecessary) complication is dangerous to society. The case of oil hedging is a good example fromSri Lanka. Not only has the country lost a lot in the deal, we continue to lose even more by trying to fight it in the international courts at great expense to the public. Similarly, not many understand the nuances of investing even 5% of the EPF in the Stock Exchange in loss-making companies, and its resulting loss to the contributor. Only some Trade Unions of the NSB were able to alert us about the excess paid out from its funds for the purchase of TFC shares in the Stock Exchange.
The lesson is clear: unless we wake up to the realities of the subtle things that are happening right under our noses, by not labeling anyone who makes a protest as a trouble-maker controlled by extremists, we will never be able to hold governments accountable for what they do with the economy and the country in general. A government stays in power only in the short-term – we the public are in it for life – at least those stubborn enough to remain here with the intention of turning things around.
It is only a few who currently fully appreciate the significance of making such a strong case for education and higher education at this important juncture, 3 whole years after the end to hostilities. We don’t have to wait till future generations reap the ill effects of under-investment in education, only to realize that we have slipped from a potential middle-income country status back to a least developed state. The increasing of the salaries of the academic staff is only one of the many interventions needed to stop the rot affecting our bid to be a significant player in the emerging global knowledge economy.
If we act now, in 10 years time, we could reverse the trend of Sri Lankans going overseas seeking greener pastures (even by boat, as is common in desperation these days), to one where those who did leave will return to rebuild this nation again!
* See for example Building the Sri Lankan Knowledge Economy, a World Bank publication in 2008.