By Duleep De Chickera –
Two repeatedly used words in formal and informal conversations in several parts of the country today are education and the acronym, FUTA (Federation of University Teachers’ Associations). Where people gather with seriousness; clarification, explanation and interpretation of the current educational crisis takes place. The media have kept the debate alive with extensive coverage.
The good thing about the three-month long FUTA action is that it is educating the people on education. People are learning that free, quality education from the primary to the tertiary level is a fundamental responsibility of the State ; that good university teachers must be employed, retained with contentment and provided security of tenure if our universities are to flourish; that a governments seriousness in this task is measured by the money set aside for education and the degree of independence that educational institutions are given; and that there are worrying gaps between these primary obligations and existing realities.
Another welcoming feature about the FUTA action is its rare island-wide collaboration. In embracing academics of all communities from north and south, east and west it has demonstrated that the people of our country can rise above sectarian agendas in pursuit of a common cause.
Lessons in democracy
But the learning curve is not limited to education only. The issue is becoming a profitable case study in the pros and cons of democratic governance in Sri Lanka today. For instance, there is a relearning that governments are formed by the people and exist for the people; and that an important test of democratic governance is the extent to which governments are accountable to the people and willing to hear public opinion. People have also been reminded that it is their money (taxed and repayable loans) that governments use to run a country and that this task must be exercised with prudent planning. And many understand that there is therefore a breach of trust if governments stand outside the circle of accountability and arbitrarily reduce expenditure on essential welfare services such as education and health, which impacts initially on those already and most deprived.
Lessons in solidarity
Increasing sections of the people are also learning that if the various issues raised by FUTA are resolved favourably, both, education and future generations will stand to benefit. It is for this reason that there is growing public endorsement of the FUTA action. Sustaining an action of this nature is costly. Those directly involved and their families have come under threat repeatedly. Public endorsement must also condemn these threats and offer moral support. Those directly involved and their families have forgone their salaries for almost three months. Public endorsement must find ways and means of offering appropriate support with respect for the dignity of the person and the person’s commitment to democracy. Those involved and their families continue to go through uncertainty, review and stress. Public endorsement must spill over to befriend, encourage and accompany these courageous but vulnerable persons.
A long term lesson
The crux of the FUTA action questions the assumption that politicians know best when it comes to education. It is the uncontested acceptance of this dangerous principle that has over the recent past led to drastic cuts in spending, inappropriate academic and administrative appointments, careless ‘mistakes in educational routine such as assessments at public examinations, an arbitrary educational ‘policy and the inability of those in authority to engage in self- scrutiny and healthy dialogue.
Consequently the long term lesson for us is the need to shift from this monopoly of education towards an independent and structured discourse on educational policy between policy makers, administrators, teachers and the public. Our most creative educationists drawn from the public and private sectors should be invited to participate. So must representatives of students and deprived communities and groups; who will offer pertinent insights into the harsh realities of life with which education is called to engage. The willingness to learn from creative global trends will further enhance the discourse.
Lessons in social justice
Such initiatives will undoubtedly be more sensitive and better equipped to address the discrepancies and discriminations in the current educational policy. For instance, the rapid closure over the last decade or so of primary schools will then be addressed and poor parents relieved of the extra burden of having to either transport their children to distant schools or be forced to have their children drop out.
Such initiatives are also likely to respond to the anguish of the Tamil plantation community which has had for decades to battle with scarce schooling facilities, especially in the Sabaragamuwa region; compelling this community to face the most unreasonable options of either forcing their children to study in the Sinhala medium or in a Muslim school, and thereby gradually lose their language and cultural identity, or simply foregoing their education to remain trapped on an estate for the rest of their lives.
Since educational challenges, like all social challenges will recur, initiatives of this nature will have to be mandated to continue to wrestle with the vision of an independent educational service which benefits the people most. Such a discourse will do well if it sees itself as a continuing bridge between the mess we keep returning to and the heights to which we are still capable of rising. Such a process will contribute in producing independent institutions and independent thinking persons, so essential for safeguarding the wider democratic ethos of a nation.
Lessons on closure, continuity and change
At the end of the day however any organised action on public issues cannot go on forever. It is hoped that sooner than later this particular FUTA action will be successfully brought to completion. The repeated public position taken by FUTA that they are ready for a compromise through negotiations so long as there is respect and seriousness regarding the issues raised, is encouraging and can be built on.
But FUTA cannot be expected to work alone for these changes. The sustained collaboration of an informed, civic minded public is indispensable and will make a significant difference.
If this collaboration were to include academics and the wider public from all over the Island its’ dividends could well bring a bonus far beyond the educational sector. There is every possibility that it could release a fresh energy for wider democratic change in the country.