22 October, 2020

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Universities In Dead Lock: A Student’s Perspective

By Dilshan Lakshitha Fernando –

Dilshan Fernando

The ongoing university academics’ trade union action has affected the entire state university system badly and the whole country at large and mostly the entire undergraduate community of Sri Lanka including myself. The continuing back-screen mocks and conversations about this strike with a wide range of opinions inside the student community made me convinced to consider it my fervent obligation to pen down a few of my notions about it while involving some of those opinions that I have gathered through those student circles. Especially in the context where the lecturers emphasize more on their demand of safeguarding and uplifting the state education this time around, university undergraduates including myself who are humble beneficiaries of the very free education system have started their own debates and caucuses about free education, its merits and demerits and the room for its improvement. Therefore in giving my opinion on the ongoing strike, I wish to analyze a bit further the demands that the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) has put forward especially on a student’s point of view and thereon will try to arrive at an important inference.

Enhancing recruitment and retention of highly qualified academics

In the ‘FUTA Demands 2012 – detailed’ document containing the demands of the ongoing trade union action, the set of demands are categorized under two premier objectives or two primary demands. First of those is to enhance recruitment and retention of highly qualified academics in state universities. Broadly this demand emphasize on firstly on the need of establishing a ‘Sri Lanka University Academic Service (SLUAS)’ in recognition of their crucial role in the country’s well being and secondly on an increment of their salaries or the pay structure.

On anyone’s point of view, there is no doubt that one would agree that there should be well qualified and good teachers to teach in universities. There is no need of explaining the crucial role a university plays for the progress of the civilization either. From a university teachers’ point of view, even though the individual is keener in researching and finding knowledge and teaching it to his or her students, the person also needs a greater incentive in modern commercial interests to carry out his/her other commitments in life. They also render their valuable labour resource as a service to the country in pursuit of knowledge. Therefore just like other professions or more than other professions better monetary incentive are required for university academics widely considering their extra responsibilities in moulding a civilization.

The present salary scale a university academic receives according to valid statistics as forwarded by FUTA itself is realistically incomparable of that with atleast another South Asian counterpart of his. The opportunity cost lecturing in Sri Lankan state university is so enormous so that ethically no one can compel such a person to merely ignore it by making him convinced that his/her ignorance as a greater patriotic undertaking through rhetoric convictions because in the years to come, with increasing globalization people will see much more attractive opportunities appealing to them backed by higher monetary incentives eventually causing the entire higher education system to collapse due to the lack of better teachers. That is why I believe that this demand is more justifiable in the country’s cause. I also believe that one cannot merely bridge the local pay structure with that of another developed country’s one. But just as the FUTA has compared their pay structure with that of the Central Bank which has a comparatively higher structure in the state sector, and hence as per the deep disparity of salaries as evident thereof, FUTA’s demand for a more formidable salary stands out to be a pretty logical and a fair demand. I endorse this especially in the context that they also demand to establish a Sri Lanka University Academic Service to regulate this bringing a much balance and justification to their demand. Simply the FUTA seems to be demanding for a matching salary for their extremely important academic profile and an efficient regulatory frame work in the form of SLUAS in doing that. Therefore I appeal to the entire undergraduate community to support this for the greater good of the state university system.

Safeguarding and uplifting state education

Having said that, let me further analyze the second broader demand category of the FUTA which is said to be a struggle for the protection of the state education system which contains many more subordinate demands under this recurring theme. Let me deal with them in particular due to certain technical, fundamental and feasibility issues or errors arisen through them on my stand point.

The most publicly claimed and highlighted demand of all is the demand for a written agreement by the government to increase the educational spending to 6% of the GDP by January 2015. Under this main topic from demand 1.1.1 to 1.1.5 of FUTA’s elaborated demand document, they seek for written agreements with the government broadly for increments in educational spending. Namely 6% of GDP for education by January 2015, 2.9% of GDP for education by January 2013, 12% per capita GDP by January 2015 for recurrent expenditure per university student, 0.5% of GDP for higher education by January 2013, 1% of GDP for higher education by January 2015 and to reach Rs. 450,000 as an average of annual university expenditure per student by January 2015. Even though I do not intend to discuss the economic implications and the necessary economic feasibility of these demands as an amateur in the subject, I wish to discuss two essential technical or fundamental errors that I feel have arisen with these demands.

Firstly, FUTA demands for “written agreements” with the government to execute the above increments. I assume that “written agreements” here means legally enforceable contracts so that if there is a breach from the government’s side, the FUTA can seek legal action or simply challenge that in courts. If it is not so, I don’t recall any other reason to my mind as to why the FUTA should demand for written agreements. With that assumption in mind, I wish to state that according to my knowledge, the only way the ‘government’ could alter the expenditure on education or any other area is through the government’s annual budget which is an act of parliament: the Appropriation act. Since it is so, the appropriation bill naturally involves the normal parliamentary procedure before passing as an act. And thus there are possibilities that the appropriation bill with even all these increments failing in parliament irrespective of the political scenario. There are also possibilities of changes happening to the figures in the budget proposals during the committee stages and debates even if the government initially introduces all the demanded increments in the appropriation bill. We also cannot rule out the political contingencies of the time when the budget will be taken out in parliament. There are also legal concerns whether the government can sign agreements with external parties to pass acts in parliament. Therefore I see a high degree of unenforceability of the referred agreements in the FUTA’s demands highlighted in this section which automatically raises the question whether those demands are futile, atleast on paper.

Secondly, the FUTA’s demand for 6% of GDP spending on the entire education sector also develops few concerns in my mind. Even at present out of the 1.9% of government expenditure of the GDP, only 0.3% is spent on higher education meaning 1.6% (i.e. nearly 85% of total government expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP) is spent on primary and secondary educational sectors; basically on schools. Having said that, we are yet to see or hear a practical endorsement of these demands by the primary and secondary education sectors atleast in terms of a trade union action by the school teachers or school non-academic staff or any other group related to schools. Even though people actively participate in the petition campaign of the FUTA, I doubt whether it adequately represents the notion of the majority of primary and secondary education sectors. Without any doubt people support atleast passively in improvements in state education even in terms of demands for increments in educational spending by the government. But I posses a fair question whether the 1.6% or the 85% category of beneficiaries of free education which I have discussed above is effectively represented in the ongoing trade union action by the FUTA. This raises the question whether the FUTA is fighting for someone else’s cause. If so can that be justified, FUTA being just another trade union in the country atleast on government’s perspective?

Government’s policy on state funded education

In the same B category of demands, FUTA asks for a clear statement on the government’s policy on state funded education, a five year and a ten year plan, government’s position of its financial commitments for education, higher education ministry’s policy on universities and so on. These demands from 1.1.8.1 to 1.1.9.3 of the demands list suggest me one significant lack in Sri Lanka’s legal frame work. While endorsing these demands as quite justifiable affirming university academics’ right to know the policy of the institution where they serve atleast, I wish to state that these demands highlights the fact that Sri Lanka lacks a Right to Information act where not only university academics but even an ordinary citizen reserves the rights to know what his government is doing in the country. Realizing this is not the forum to discuss about such an act, I believe the introduction of such an act atleast learning lessons from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh would be greatly appreciated by all citizens ensuring them a right to information as a fundamental human right.

Higher education reform process and Universities Act

Further the FUTA demands the government to suspend all existing higher educational reforms including proceeding with any legislative bills, leadership training programme, agreement with CIMA and similar institutes, foreign student scholarship scheme and all types of other reforms. While doubting whether the FUTA can demand the higher education ministry to suspend drafting legislations which is part and parcel with its role as a ministry, I endorse the fact that university academics should be involved in all reform processes and should be consulted atleast as mentioned in the mission statement of the higher education ministry because who else would be qualified sufficiently to be consulted on educational reforms other than the university academics? And also this consultative process should be done without any political motivations where only government’s sympathizers will only be considered.

The demands from 1.1.11 to 1.1.18 in the detailed demands statement speaks about a written agreement, a pledge and assurances from the government or atleast by the higher education ministry or the University Grants Commission (UGC) to adhere to the Universities Act 1978 and other laws such as certain Supreme Court judgments and circulars of the ministry as sited by the FUTA which regulate the procedure of various appointments in universities, decision making bodies in universities, maintaining autonomy of universities and etc. On my opinion these are quite ridiculous demands by the FUTA due to the fact that since all these are current laws of the country and if the FUTA reasonably believes that any party has breached them, they could easily take legal actions. Therefore there is absolutely no need to sign an agreement with the government to adhere to a law in the country. Remedies for these can be legally sought raising the question whether striking is the right option for these sort of demands.

Conclusion

Considering all the facts that we have so far discussed, I firmly believe that there would have been debates and exposure programmes inside the universities involving the students and the general public at large prior to the engagement in the trade union action. Simply because there can be reasonable doubts pertaining to the content of some of the demands some of which we have discussed above. A gradual process involving more awareness in those issues would have made FUTA’s cause much more penetrative. As a country which seriously lacks civic consciousness in the general public at present times, it seems that FUTA has taken those responsibilities to its shoulders. Many could argue the merits and demerits of that undertaking. But still as a matter of fact the theme that FUTA has adopted especially on a larger perspective on free education in Sri Lanka would have been taken out by the civil society atleast through their political discourse. One cannot deny the fact that FUTA’s actions depict the sleepy and ultra submissive attitude of the Sri Lankan civil society. Amidst of all these thoughts and reasonable arguments on certain demands of the FUTA apart from the demands for salary increments and the government’s policy, while also actively supporting the recurrent theme of all the demands of the strike which broadly demands the civil awareness of the state of free education in the country, let me appeal to the entire general public to open their eyes and perceive what exactly is happening to the status of our country or atleast to education and act aptly by fulfilling their responsibility as citizens in the country because for democracy there is no audience but only has performers.

Dilshan Lakshitha Fernando

Undergraduate – Faculty of Commerce and Management Studies

University of Kelaniya

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