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Awarding Degrees for Visual and Performing Arts is the Result of a Long Struggle by Lecturers and Arts Students

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By Sarath Chandrajeewa

The decision to award degrees for visual and performing arts was taken in 1974 as a result of a long struggle by the lecturers and art students.

Some of today’s main universities were functioning as campuses of the University of Sri Lanka at that time.

Institute of Aesthetic Studies at first was established as an independent institute of the University of Sri Lanka. It was an amalgamation of the Government College of Arts and Crafts of Horton Place, the Government College of Dance and Drama, the Government College of Music at Albert Crescent and the Ramanadan Academy of Jaffna.

After 1978 the first three colleges were affiliated to the University of Kelaniya and the Ramanadan Academy to the University of Jaffna. In 2005, Institute of Aesthetic Studies was upgraded to an independent national university as the University of the Visual and Performing Arts. (UVPA)

This is the only University in this country, to award practical oriented degrees for Visual and Performing Arts. Most famous artists, painters, sculptors, musicians and dancers in this country emerged from this university and its prior institutes.

The majority of the lecturers in this university are actively supporting the on-going trade union action of the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA). There was a massive rally on the topic of ‘Save State Education’ at Hyde Park on August 23, 2012 organised by the FUTA. The giant Stage and backdrop at the rally was designed and constructed by the lectures of the Faculty of Visual Arts, Music was composed by the Faculty of Music and the Percussion Band was organised by the Faculty of Dance & Drama of UVPA.

Expenditure on Art Education

When compared to subject streams like science, commerce and Information Technology, it can be seen that less attention is paid to the field of creative arts and Humanities in this country.

But most other renowned universities the world over, where degrees are awarded for visual and performing art subjects like painting, sculpture, design, music, dance and drama are fully sponsored by their respective governments.

Government’s pressure on our universities is to turn them into money earning institutes. In this regard, we can take Singapore as an example. Many politicians in this country always take Singapore to prove Asia’s rapid development. It also is a country that earns maximum profit by treating Trade and Commerce as No. 1 priority. It’s timely to compare the vision of the government of Singapore regarding the art education with the first demand of the present trade union action of FUTA.

“Our objective is to double the GDP contribution of the creative industry to 6% by the year 2012. This will result in higher demand for creative talents and those who can contribute to meeting the growing market for creative products and services” (Dr Lee Boon Yang, Minister for Information, Communication and the arts – Singapore – www.lasalle.edu.sg)

There is an exact job market the world over for graduates in the fields of Visual and Performing Arts; creative arts, applied arts, fashion, multi-media, theatrical arts and music in the gradually expanding social and commercial structure. They are also treated in most countries as investments for creative and talent based job markets.

Likewise, as these graduates are also considered essential for a country as promoters of culture, the universities of visual and performing arts are sponsored by the respective governments around the world. It is regrettable, that even the University of the Visual and Performing Arts of this country also has established a ‘Center of Distance Learning’ for practical oriented degree programmes for fund raising. As in the case of medicine, engineering and architecture, gaining degrees in visual and performing arts is also not possible through distance learning. These degrees are earned through constant attendance and daily practical lessons. Even external degrees are not applicable for visual and performing art streams.

Asia’s Miracle

‘Sri Lanka is Asia’s Miracle’ is the slogan of the present government. These themes are useless without a substantial investment in the education sector. Recognising that the ‘Renaissance of the 21st century happens in Asia’, countries like Singapore, China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Korea and Bangladesh are getting prepared for this situation. Education comes first as the main force in this regard.

As examples, in the last century, focusing only on visual arts, our attention was always on Europe and America regarding painters and sculptors; on biennales like Venice, Sao Paolo and Havana. But Asia is rapidly gaining attention on Art in this 21st century. Delhi Triennial, Singapore, Beijing, Dhaka, Fukuoka and now Colombo biennales have gained international attention. This can be understood as that ‘Asia is turning to be the new creative hub in the 21st century.’

Considering the geological position of Sri Lanka, we cannot avoid this chance. Strengthening the education system should be priority No. 1 among other development plans including the new airports, harbours, highways, towers and hotels. The slogan Russians used when building the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution ‘save in all other projects, but not in education’ suits us. Investing in a fruitful education will also help to solve the problems that paved the way for the internal civil war and ethnic problems, especially after the 30 year war. Armed with a plan of such a vision only our country will be built as a strong nation.

Save State Education

The first demand of the lecturers this time is to invest 6% of the GDP for overall education.

This is not a demand for only university lecturers, but for the benefit of university academic support staff like instructors, demonstrators, accompanists, technical officers, non-academic staff and administration staff. Not stopping at that, it flows to teachers of the secondary education system, principals and other staff. This is a very fair demand, which covers the whole education system in the country. It also benefits parents who wish to give their children a good education.

The investment of 3.4% of GDP in education in 1995 has fallen drastically to 01.8% in 2011. This requires the attention of all Sri Lankans. This struggle is for the raising of this percentage to improve the quality of our education. This is also a struggle of artists, because the development of the education sector benefits the art market and appreciation of art. This demand is very reasonable and FUTA is asking this percentage to be raised systematically up to 6% in 2015.

Political Interferences

Political interference in the administration and education of universities has increased in recent times. Cronies of politicians are appointed to various institutions at the expense of the experienced and capable officers.

It is also tragic that even high ranking officers of the university administration have become spokespersons for politicians. Therefore, the FUTA demand that political interference with universities be ended is to be commended.

It is an accepted methodology to evaluate a portfolio with creative works or to have an aptitude test to select students for visual and performing art education. This was in use for a long time in this country, but it has been stopped on a directive of the Higher Education minister without any prior notice.

This will deal a severe blow to the process of producing creative artists as selections cannot based on GCE (Advanced Level) marks alone. Interviews are essential. As for Bachelor of Fine Arts or Bachelor of Visual Arts or Bachelor of Performing Arts degrees, candidates’ creative performance needs to be evaluated in addition to their the GCE A/L results, if those programmes are to be accepted by other universities in the world. The Higher Education Ministry directive is bound to lead to the UVPA losing recognition among its international counterparts.

The UVPA student intake for 2011 was doubled by bringing down the pass mark to 40% from 50% at the aptitude test. This has also been done by the Minister and has created many problems due to lack of facilities (Scrapping Aptitude Test: A bad decision – 2012.06.22 The Island).

UVPA big wigs silence vis-à-vis blatant political interference is regrettable. Though UGC is responsible for admitting university students, the universities have a say in matters such as the number of the students to be admitted, the criteria etc. The rights granted to Faculty Boards and Senates of the universities by the Universities ACT are now being violated by the political authority. Artists therefore support FUTA trade union action wholeheartedly.

Salaries of university teachers

If Sri Lanka is to realise its dream of being Asia’s Knowledge Hub, universities have a pivotal role to play. For this, the intellectuals, researchers, specialists and creative artists should be motivated to work in a free environment. They should be satisfied with the facilities they get. But, as regards their salaries and facilities available to them, Sri Lankan universities lag behind their counterparts in the region.

The government has called upon expatriate Sri Lankan intellectuals and specialists to return home and help develop the country, but it has done precious little to attract them. The universities are the ideal place for the returning expats to continue their experiments, studies and engage in creative pursuits but the conditions at local universities are so appalling that even their teachers who go overseas for educational purposes are reluctant to come back.

Establishing an academic service, formulating a suitable salary scale and providing the required facilities are necessary to stop the brain drain.

(Sarath Chandrajeewa is Sculptor/Professor at Faculty of Visual Arts University of the Visual and Performing Arts)

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