5 July, 2022


Rising Up From A Dumbed Down Nation

By Ruvan Weerasinghe –

Dr. 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.

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Latest comments

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    • 0

      Quite right! China is building a communication satellite for Rajapassa but there is NO RIGHT TO INFORMATION or KNOWLEDGE PRODUCTION in the debacle of asia where the fantasy of “development” is being created by Rajapassa. This techno-fantasy needs to be exposed by the academics who should be working overtime to educate the people on the regime’s incompetence and corrupt governance and destruction of institutions.
      It really is a scandal that the strike has gone on this long and the education system is in shambles without the regime feeling that it needs to do something about it..
      Is there REGIME PARALYSIS? It seems fool hardy to play with youth and their teachers, who once mobilized can bring down a corrupt regime very quickly..
      At the same time, the Dons are marginalized because of their own failure to raise the big questions about what kind of DEVELOPMENT PARADIGM is appropriate for Sri Lanka at this time – a question that educated and technically competent people must explore and discuss.

      • 0

        The Dons should stop being so polite and cowardly and demand the resignation of Tweedle Dee and Dumb – S B Dissaniyake and Bandulla G the two clowns in charge of education who cannot speak two sentences in English which is the language of international research.
        They should also ask a body of inter-religious leaders to mediate with the govt and seek a solution to the crisis..

        • 0

          Yes. this sorry state of affairs has gone on long enough and since the universities have been closed by none other than the so called minister of Higher Education it is time for the Dons and students and parents to go on the streets.. Others will join. We will join the long march to send Rajapassa to the Hague for a war crimes trial.
          The dons and all Professionals from the education, health, energy sectors as well as lawyers protesting the Mannar Magistrates intimidation and SEC staff who know how corrupt Rajapassa is should become pro-active and start a public protest with the students and BRING COLOMBO TO A HALT. The evidence is that the high net worth individuals involved in insider trading on the stock market are none other than the Rajapassa sons and brothers, family and its cronies. This stinking corruption and bad governance that is bankrupting the country must stop and the Dons must lead the fight this time and educate the people on the issue of BAD GOVERNANCE and CORRUPTION of the regime!
          All the Rajapassa beautification of the city with the military will be useless when the students shatter some shop windows and a new front of war that Gota the Goon has been preparing for opens in central Colombo and Cinnamon Gardens where Rajapassa has been land grabbing. Lanka will see the true and brutal face of the Rajapassa regime and its military apparatus…
          Let the new war that Rajapsssa has been dreaming about begin! And lets see who wins this time! Let’s pray that it does not go as long as the war in Syria.. LET THE WAR GAMES SIMMERING BENEATH THE SHALLOW PEACE BEGIN let Sri lanka purge itself of the Rajapassa curse this time around!

        • 0

          Yes, the Dons must lead the way and rescue Lanka at this time- this is the task of intellectuals in any country. They must rescue Lanka from being bankrupted by regime corruption, for the Miracle is sinking fast into an abyss of and bad governance and institutional decay due to politicization as the SEC Chairman’s resignation shows.
          The regime claims that it cannot pay better salaries but is hiring graduates to already over staffed provincial councils to win elections! Thus, Sri Lanka’s Election Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya has directed the Secretary of the Public Administration and Home Affairs Ministry to suspend recruitment to public service with immediate effect until after the provincial council election. THe Rajapakse regime stinks to high heaven and must be forced to quit before Lanka DEFAULTS because of the looting of the national economy by the family!

        • 0

          allow me to add my comment to yours: in terms of the English langauge skills that the mentioned ministers are said to possess.

          First, I believe it is not the langauge that blocks them from working properly but their attitudes. Be it president, minister or any other in resposible offices if they are NOT honest by their nature, consequences can be as it is seen today. As any right thinking would see it, in terms of suggestions made by FUTA should closely be addressed and a set of discussions should be held promptly on a regular manner. Ones who are responsible should react with genuine efforts if they are honest and genuine. Politicians, in general, help guiding the nation. Unfortunately, the situaiton in present day lanka seems to be the opposite. If the top leadeship together with many of the ministries remain incapable of fullfiling their responsiblities, only option before the people would be to rally round in forms of massive protests as recently seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Lybia and several other countries.

          Second, alone the fact that the police in general seem to be covering deliberately whatever the wrong doings that powerful politicians are shamelessly invoved in, eventhough deterioration of the law and order of the country has reached to its appalling states. In this regard, if genuine and honest minded senior police officers could fulfil their job properly, they could long convince those corrupted politicians the great importance of respecting the law and order by themselves, these could then become great lessions to their fellow policemen. I believe, now the situation is more like – kenda has become kanda when it goes with the police. These issues have become to the levels of incurable cancers. Not few but considerable numbers of politicians themselves are reported to be running illegal businesses – fully ignoring their responsiblities. Why the oppotion leader incl JVP party heads stay silent is the other crucial question, though they continue with their parliamentary debate rounds. Areas such as Rathnapura, Akuressa, Deniyaya, Galle (Rumassala) and further to Hambantota are said to have infected by Dragon of drugs.

          Further to this, by listening to a local radio sender yesterday, it realized me further lack of qualified specialists in intensive care units of EVEN main hospitals today, some patients have lost their lives that could have though saved easily. There are trainings for medical professionals through post graduate studies.

          In order the qualified to allow these trainings, approvals should be made by responsible officers in health ministry. Postponements of those approvals held them not getting their due trainings. Efforts of geunine efforts of a radio sender have revealed it was the indifference of the responsible officer of the health ministry created this situation. If those authorities did their job heartely, lives of the poor patients could have been saved easily. This is continuing in SL today, though said to be a country with 70% of buddhists.

          Having listend to the similar issues,
          what comes to everyone ´s mind would be the question, what is the role of top leadership of health ministry – minister of health ?

  • 0

    Blaming the failure of Sri Lankans to join the Dons protest on the 30 year war is not enough.
    The fact is that the political and business culture is rotten to the core in govt AND OPPOSITION in Lanka, not because of war but because of greed for power and wealth and the current MODEL OF DEVELOPMENT as pointed out by Kumari. The opposition should have done much more on the crisis in the education system but it seems that one dictator Ranil cannot fight another despite his wife being a so called feminist Professor!
    The academics must start acting with integrity and ethics and EDUCATING the general public and making them aware of the crisis in society at large and the need to be the Change. This article is a good beginning..

    • 0

      The present opposition, particularly the UNP, coming back to power will again be useful for the country as they too were responsible for the deterioration of the state of affairs in the country whenever they were in power. Changing the pillow for the head-ache is not the answer. The head-ache must be treated with proper medicine, and in this instance the medicine is the lesson from the Arab Spring.

  • 0

    Dear Moderator,
    Please publish the following corrected version of my comment:
    The present opposition, particularly the UNP, coming back to power will again will not be useful for the country as they too were responsible for the deterioration of the state of affairs in the country whenever they were in power. Changing the pillow for the head-ache is not the answer. The head-ache must be treated with proper medicine, and in this instance the medicine is the lesson from the Arab Spring.

    • 0

      Yes to people’s power ! No to politicians! All power to FUTA!

      Lanka needs a new political culture and topping the corrupt dictators in the UFPA and UNP would be a start – FUTA lead the way!

  • 0

    See how inefficient our education system is: students in other countries graduate by 22, but here it takes at least 24 years. So the country is already losing a considerable amount of input for the development of its economy there.
    This 2 years can be reduced to 1 year very easily, if not to 0.

    It’s our honor to see university lecturers, a set of people who really loves this country taking the initiative to change this country. You take the initiative and the public will join you definitely. KUDOS!

  • 0

    A great lesson (as always) from Dr. Ruvan. The words need to be spread. Does anyone have a Sinhala translations of this article?

  • 0

    Hat off sir, well said… sinhala translation needed, does anybody have?

  • 0

    Show support by joining the rally part of the following… 4 – 6 pm on Thursday 23rd August.

    As you may be aware the biggest rally ever, pertaining to free
    education in Sri Lanka is happening at Hyde Park on the 23rd of
    August, 2012.This will involve, all stakeholders of
    education such as teachers, students, administrators, and all
    proponents of free education.

    There will be three processions starting at 2.30 pm from three
    separate locations, that will converge on the Hyde Park for the rally.
    The rally will ensue from 4.00-6.00 pm

    Refer http://futa-sl.org/events/event/public-rally-on-the-23rd-of-august-2012-hyde-park/
    for more details.

    • 0

      The organizers of this protest should ALSO reach out to ALL PROFESSIONALS and go beyond the education sector!
      Dons must network with the doctors who have had grenades thrown at them, lawyers who are threatened by Ministers, the SEC employees who know the truth about the stock market corruption and are fed up, EPF and ETF workers whose savings have been used to play the stock market and fatten the Rajapassa family coffers.
      TRUTH OUT!

      • 0

        Lanka’s NEW WAR SCENARIO: Wonder if the military boys would shoot at the university dons and students if asked to do so by their paymasters – the Rajapassa looters on the streets of Colombo?!
        The troops are mainly village lads and will not want to shoot on their comrades @ university or at university teachers and Profs who are highly respected because of their education and knowledge..
        Gota the white van goon’s militarization of Lanka to ensure that the Brothers may rule forever will backfire when this new war within which he has been preparing for begins.. All Gota’s post war preparation for Lanka’s next war will have been in vein and he and his brothers can be packed off to the Hague for a War crimes trial! Unlike the Arab spring regimes this is the only regime that is accused of war crimes even before the revolution has begun! Easy does it!

  • 0

    I wish the written English was bit simpler than this…Anyway good article by Dr. Ruwan that speaks the reality!

  • 0

    Do you believe that DOG spelt backwards would really want to do it after witnessing and enjoying the carnage with ecstasy and passion?

  • 0

    We need to continue the free education system in-order to see all the children gets an equal opportunity in educating themselves. If not the rich shall pay and learn whilst the others are pushed towards manual labor.

    We wish every success for the lecturers who are striving to maintain the free education system despite they being deprived of their salaries.

  • 0

    Considering the country´s finacial situaiton, it must not be 6% of GDP, but atleast to the levels of Malaysia, Australia where comparable populations held. Allocation of more funds to the further development of the universities are imperative.

  • 0

    The Arab Spring is long overdue. It is good patriotic Dons in the academic sector are able to see through the deceptive machinations of the ruling clique. A few Elections here and there in “safe electorates” to tell the people and the world ALL the people endorse
    the “good functioning of the Rajapakse Govt” This is an old trick tried by other despots elsewhere – eventually to blow up on their faces. The arrogant Hosni Mubarak took the entire Egyptian nation for granted. His last major act was to foist his son on that ancient people as his successor in a bogus election. Why, he must have thought, if Assad can impose his son on the Syrian people, why not I? But things took a different turn there.

    In many ways, it is the interference by State in education from 1956 that took us to the path of disunity and dis-integration. An excellent quality of education – one of the best in Asia in the 1950s – now lies virtually paralysed with most of our students only being literate. Health, Education, Transport Budgets should far outpace that spent on Defence in peace time. In addition, people have a right to expect a functioning Govt to provide them the conditions to have 3 square meals daily at affordable prices. When this is absent the Govt has no legitimacy to call itself having acted to fulfill the trust the people placed on them.

    There is reference here to throw out SBD and Bandula G for messing up education. The fact is, except for the 3 Rajapakses Brothers – the entire lot of ministers are excess baggage and a drain on our meagre resources. We don’t need a Cabinet and hundreds of Ministers/Deputy Ministers and the lot. The 3 siblings should be allowed to run matters, as they now do with some hardworking officials like Lalith Weeratunga. How about GR, the Defence Secy, appointing Tilak Karunanatna to the SEC – that comes under the Finance Ministry? That is governance a-la Lankan Rajapakse Way.

    Have the Dons and Academics started something that will grow nationalloy and save the country?


  • 0

    All above is absolute correct. this should go to grass root level


  • 0

    You can cry all you want, but nothing will happen unless you take action, in whatever little way you can. It is not the people in Colombo and Kandy that you have to inform but the people in the villages, who are being misled by disinformation via the Government-controlled media.

    People have to go to them and explain what is happening to them.

    Else, like blind people, they will vote for the same stupid and ignorant MPs once again.

    There is an alternative, the Mahajana Viyawastawa, that removes the power the politicians now have, which they are using to enrich themselves while making the country poorer than it is today. Instead, the power is given back to the people.

    In the Mahajan Viyawastawa, the teachers are in one of the highest paid groups. Politicians have absolutely no power, the country is run by civil servants at various levels, educated people.

    Check the internet for an introduction to the Mahajana Viyawastawa, or send me an email to pvjdes@gmail.com

  • 0

    Well said Sir, But what do we really do? Is there any way out of this rot for not only academics of this country but those poor housewives & providers struggling to meet the essential demands of their families? Think of malnutrition in 5 yrs time, think of those who will not be able to count to 100 when they leave school or not write their name even properly. So, what do we do????

  • 0

    When a fish stinks, it stinks from the head!
    Old Persian saying.

    That is why Sri Lankan shine when they go abroad!


  • 0

    It is not a keen intellect a pre-requisite to being in parliament
    It is a bout of ploughing necessary for premiship
    and bouts of thuggery to being in parliment

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