6 April, 2020

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The Writing On The Campus Wall

By Ahilan Kadirgamar –

Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar

As with most other societies ravaged by civil war, Sri Lanka’s public institutions have all suffered. Beginning in the late colonial period and continuing into the post-colonial era, the state made critical economic and social investments, particularly in universal free education and health care as well as a strong public service. Indeed, it was these investments that held the country together during the decades of war. The end of the war provided an opportunity to rebuild those state institutions and restructure the state to address the grievances of the minorities. Unfortunately, three years after the war, the state including its public institutions, have themselves been deteriorating and polarising society rather than contributing towards democratisation and social reconstruction. Significant among such declining institutions are the state universities. In recent weeks, university teachers have opened a broader debate about state investment in society through their trade union action.

Crisis from the 1970s

In the mid-1970s, Sri Lanka was considered a model developing nation with impressive social indicators of literacy, infant mortality and life expectancy. However, the late 1970s saw the emergence of an intertwined crisis generated by neo-liberal open economy policies and armed conflict. The neo-liberal reforms came with the repression of trade unions and set the trend of cuts in social welfare as market forces were let loose and the costs of the war ballooned. Furthermore, the functioning of public institutions during decades of conflict owed much to the resilience and commitment of teachers, doctors, nurses and public servants who persevered despite meagre resources, a devastating war in the North and East, and a crippling insurgency in the South in the late 1980s which particularly targeted universities and hospitals.

Rather than reversing the trends of those dark decades, the post-war years have seen further politicisation of state institutions under an emerging authoritarian oligarchy along with a second wave of neo-liberal policies. The 18th Amendment — the only constitutional amendment after the war — has given greater powers to the President and undermined the independence of commissions relating to the police, judiciary and human rights. The foreign service and the public administration are increasingly packed with political appointees and former military officials. Under the rubric of development and without consideration of the global financial crisis, widespread financialisation of the economy with the support of global finance capital has taken hold, even as purportedly independent liberal economic institutions such as the Central Bank and the Securities and Exchange Commission are being manipulated by the business elite with political connections. Neo-liberal policies have led to both cuts in social welfare and mounting cost of living. As with the late 1970s, post-war Sri Lankan society is now confronted with the twin problems of authoritarianism and neo-liberalism.

Voices from the academic world

In this context, over the last two years Sri Lanka has witnessed a number of protests and strikes, with the most sustained and organised protests emerging in universities led by both staff and students. The deterioration of the universities began with the cuts to education during the previous governments and policies envisioned by the World Bank on rationalisation and privatisation of education, which then accelerated with increasing political patronage including open support by some sections of university administrators and staff for the current government in the recent elections.

However, it is the aggressive approach of the current Higher Education Minister that galvanised the universities. Persisting low salaries of university staff, repression of student protests, introduction of compulsory leadership training by the military for university entrants, politicisation including political appointments to administrative positions and attempts to railroad in university reforms, which included a neo-liberal bill to initiate private universities while undermining the state university system, have all contributed to the radicalisation of university staff and students. With the government unheeding of their demands last year, the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) initiated a powerful strike starting on July 4 that has been national in character with state universities from all regions of the country participating.

In the days leading to the strike, some of the same forms of attacks and intimidation that dissenting activists and journalists have faced, are now confronting university teachers. FUTA President Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri has got death threats over the phone and suspicious persons claiming to be from the Ministry of Defence had been lurking near his home and inquiring about him and his family.

There are also signs of the law and law enforcement being twisted to pressuring an end to the strike. Such acts of intimidation and attacks in the State media forebode a nasty response from the repressive arms of the state if the strike is not resolved in the near future.

What is unique about the university teachers’ strike is that its demands go far beyond the issue of salaries. They are challenging the increasing politicisation and militarisation of education and calling for an increase in national spending on education from a meagre 1.9 per cent of GDP, one of the lowest in the world, to the UNESCO recommendation of six per cent of GDP. With public meetings and a signature campaign on the streets gaining momentum, the strike is gaining support from the public as the issues resonate with the political and economic grievances of ordinary people.

As two academics recently wrote in the local press, the universities have been waking up from a long slumber with an “academic spring.” Even as university teachers are preparing to face the repression of an authoritarian state, they are also attempting to make this a movement that democratises and transforms the universities. If this movement gains momentum, it could also galvanise other public sector workers and revitalise public institutions. The government, however, has not shifted from its attitude of post-war hubris; its approach is one of repression and breaking constituencies with political patronage. The coming months will show whether the protest movements taking hold in the country can challenge authoritarian rule and neo-liberal policies that continue to weaken Sri Lankan society. Will they succeed in salvaging democratisation and social welfare out of what is left of the diminishing post-war opening?

The Hindu Op-Ed

 

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    Ahilan, There is nothing unique about FUTA campaign. They added 6% demand not as the saviours of the free education but to con the masses like the politicians do to get them on their side.

    “In this context, over the last two years Sri Lanka has witnessed a number of protests and strikes, with the most sustained and organised protests emerging in universities led by both staff and students.”

    You are playing the role of Charlie Chaplin here, making even the kids laugh. University students have launched strikes almost every month since 1970s. IUSF has been made to disrupt university education and they are paid to do so as well. They don’t mean anything. Quite often, IUSF guys get their fair share when they are failed in the exams by the FUTA members. This current protests they launch together, well almost, is a sheer selfish campaign. On the other hand, FUTA has also launched strikes quite often. Prior to last three years,they were somewhat quiet because the situation wasn’t conducive to strikes.

    “The deterioration of the universities began with the cuts to education during the previous governments and policies envisioned by the World Bank on rationalisation and privatisation of education, which then accelerated with increasing political patronage including open support by some sections of university administrators and staff for the current government in the recent elections.”
    Boss, the deterioration began when idiots were recruited as lecturers after 1980s, when the university system began expanding with the economy. Some private institutes that offer degrees are run by academics themselves. The lecturers in some of those centres are often serving academics as well. They work often while working at the universities. I can name some of your friends who are in the business if you want. When the going gets good, they dedicate all their time to the private centres, for example, the APIIT is a private degree centre whose the big man is the former Deputy VC and the Dean/Prof of a Dental Faculty. He wasn’t the VC (but deputy), so not a political appointment, but academics appointed him to those positions. he resigned now from the university to look after the college full time.FUTA or anybody else never seriously intervened when the education was privatised along the lines of international schools or private degree centres. It looks very much like a pattern of FUTA to let problems grow and fight against them only when they have other woes to lament about.
    On top, there are university affiliated degree awarding bodies now who charge extortionate amounts from students and send them to low-quality universities in the west for the final year. The whole academic setup is a mess and it is all because academics are, just like politicians, not prepared to accept criticism, always believe they are right, very dishonest and selfish.

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      Hey van man you do like to talk tosh! The fact is that the Rajapakse regime is borrowing and bankrupting Lanka at high speed – from HSBC for more bridges, From exim Bnak in the US for water systems issuing huge govt bonds on debts for white elephant projects rather than getting their priorities right and investing in education and human resource development. The Don’s are quite right to ask for 6 percent increase – it should be 10 percent and they should also ask Rajapakse to stop borrowing from all over the place to all the white elephant infrastructure in Hambantota and Namal the brat’s sports car rallies. The priority for real development is spending on education and human resources. There are lots of brand new empty buildings in Hambantota and elsewhere, but no qualified and technically expert folks to occupy them and do a non corrupt job. Rajapakse has just hired unemployed graduates in the east to win the election, his jumbo Cabinet is full of goons and fools who are maintained by Lankan tax payers, but he won’t pay a decent wage to university teachers and the nations educators! Time of this trip to end. Thank god for the university Dons who are challenging the regime without any NGO or foreign funds and proving that Sri lankan civil society is not dead!

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        There are no fat kickbacks to be put in Swiss Bank accounts of corrupt ministers when investment is made in the education sector, so no one is interested in building those sectors up and of course the World Bank would like to destroy education in order to claim that it is the Knowledge bank!
        Of all the borrowed money spent on white elephant infrastructure, over priced roads and bridges etc. over fifty percent ends up in the private bank accounts of the Ministers in charge and their acolytes..
        Hence the massive borrowing and spending on questionable infrastructure projects like airports and ports and various govt buildings rather than on education and teachers and Prof’s salaries and upgrading uni facilities..
        This borrowing and spending joke has been on long enough and the Dons have finally woken up and are challenging the whole rotten apple cart that is the Rajapassa regime’s de-development agenda for Lanka!

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      I want to add something to Rubert’s comment. This is truth “there are university affiliated degree awarding bodies now who charge extortionate amounts from students and send them to low-quality universities in the west for the final year”. APIIT, ACBT, SAITM are doing somewhat better job.some private degree offering companies send their students to low quality foreign colleges or universities. On the other hand, some low quality indian degrees (including masters) are offered by some private companies Rs 3-5 lks. The most bad case, there are some private degree offering companies offer so called foreign university degree by on line degree offering centers. These centers do not have any physical exsistance. Hence, there should be proper law to address this issue. Ministry of heiger education have tried to address this problem (quality assurance and validity of degrees by Act of Paliment). However, it has prevented FUTA. Some of FUTA members are doing part-time work in this places? Who are responsible and who will adress this issue? Lot of parents and students have been cheating from these places.

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    Excellent piece and superb analysis! Keep up the good work. Your analysis of collusion between the neo-liberal World Bank led educational “reforms” of the ed. sector and the MR Dictatorship to destroy knowledge production is spot on!

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    You were in USA and Canada you work for Myth of Homeland Project. Now after defetaed of LTTE terrosrit -outfit,you have come with NEW FACE of so-calle secular democracy.But first and formost you should denied SPLIT AND DIVIDED ON RCEASIT BISIS.ACCPECT OUR COUNTRY SOVEIGINITY AND TERRORIAL INTERIGITY.AND ACCPECT TAMILS IS MYTH OF SJV.
    You have still not demarceted from LTTE-terrorist politics– of Myth of Eelam Mr Kadiagaman.If you want to eagage natioanl politics, BE away from narrow chavanist RACSIM politics form beiging.

    • 0
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      Are you drunked? or smoked a joint?

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