By Kumudu Kusum Kumara
By now the overwhelming majority of university lecturers of the entire state sector university system in Sri Lanka except the Uva Wellassa University have joined the continuous strike launched by the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) since July 4th.
It is reported that at Uva Wellassa which the government promotes as the model university of the future knowledge hub that Sri Lanka is expected to become, teachers are prevented from forming a trade union.
Is the pay hike demand unethical?
Concerted effort on the part of the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) in response to the current demands of the FUTA has been to try to dismiss it as unethical. The MoHE and its apologists argue that the salaries of university teachers have been increased by large percentages since their trade union action last year.
They claim it is unfair to demand more again when the large masses of employees are managing with much lower salaries and when the country needs more financial resources for development. The FUTA responded to this criticism from several angles. Firstly, the manner in which the MoHE cites various percentages of salary increases is misleading to say the least as they do not reflect the true picture of the salary increase the FUTA won through last year’s trade union action.
Percentages cited have been calculated by taking allowances themselves as salary—which is not simply hair splitting as some may want to argue because an increase in the basic salary involves much more in terms of contributions to EPF, ETF etc. and also the status one holds in the world of economics within the structure of basic salaries with its attended benefits or disadvantages rather than an increase in the take-home pay packet.
Secondly, research allowance of 25 percent of the salary added since last trade union action as the authorities keep on reminding has to be applied for every year by submitting reports of research and does not get added to the salary automatically. Thirdly, even if we consider the increase in the gross take home salary for the large majority of university academics who are senior lecturers the increase is not the same as that of professors let alone senior professors who do not number more than 200 out of about 4,500 odd university teachers.
Govt.’s honesty in question
But most importantly the FUTA position is that the government has not been honest in its dealing with it. During the FUTA trade union action in 2011 the government accepted as a basis for negotiations the FUTA salary proposals recommended by the Jiffry–Malik Ranasinghe committee appointed by the UGC.
It was also the basis for the discussion FUTA had with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who offered a compromise formula in the form of an interim salary and asked the FUTA to work out the rest of the details with government officials. However, subsequently the MoHE began to refer to it as a ‘perceived’ agreement.
It is as if even the President’s word were not sacrosanct! This time around, the FUTA has requested from the Secretary to the President not to treat the present round of discussions as tactics of a strategy to deflect the demands of the FUTA but to be honest in his approach. What is at issue here is the government’s credibility.
The FUTA expects the government to desist from adopting evasive tactics in dealing with the FUTA and to be upfront about the university teachers’ salary demand. They want to know what, the government thinks, the salaries of university lecturers should be in the context of its desire to raise the standards of state sector universities; if it is unable to pay such a salary, they want it to discuss with the FUTA the reasons and the prioritisation of allocating government funding to various sectors.
Increased govt. funding for education
There is an effort on the part of the government and its apologists to dismiss the other major FUTA demand which is increased government funding for education as a politically motivated move to ‘take government hostage’. It is claimed that trade unions should restrict themselves to demands that affect their trade mainly meaning salary and working conditions.
Even within such a narrow reading of trade union rights we cannot ignore that the meagre allocation of funding to education impacts on salaries of university lecturers. On the other hand if one keeps oneself informed of what is happening around the world one will realise that trade unions, in fact, do take issues of national interest beyond issues narrowly restricted to interests of their own trades.
Moreover, education is a broad field within which university academics operate and how the government invests in this field is their legitimate concern not only as trade unionists but also as intellectuals whose input into public affairs is something society expects of them. At a broader level as citizens of the country the academics have every right to demand that government invest in education without the advancements of which we may not have a culture or a civilisation to begin with.
What the FUTA demand for spending of 6 percent of Gross Domestic Product for education— to which Sri Lankan government has restated its commitment at the second Ministerial Meeting of South Asia Education for All Forum in 2009 held in Dacca—highlights is that university teachers insist that education be a high priority for any government. Education is essential for both economic and social development and improvement of political culture of any country and therefore a worthwhile investment in the future. What the FUTA is attempting to do is to influence government policy on education and it believes that as a trade union of academics it is a legitimate demand.
Government budget is a reflection of its policy and hence the FUTA’s request to increase budgetary allocations for education! The FUTA’s demand is a guideline which is based on what the government itself has agreed to and hence it is the duty of the government to have discussion with the FUTA on this.
Is there a govt policy on higher education?
The FUTA demand that the government should declare its policy on higher education has been met with responses such as that mission and vision statements of the MoHE and the corporate plans of the UGC are government policy. These only reflect poor understanding of what policy is. While various government commissions on education have been appointed from time to time none of them have been able to convince the government to adopt a policy on either general education or higher education. Minister of Education in the 1980s, Ranil Wickremasinghe’s white paper on education was the last known attempt to present a brief for policy discussion on education in recent times.
The current parliamentary committee on general education has produced a document for public discussion, the outcome of which seems to have been lost in the Legal Draftsman’s office. Since President Chandrika Kumaratunga was elected President educational and higher educational policy of the government has been guided by World Bank studies on the subject backed by heavy funding that came through projects such IRQUE, QEF and now HETC.
A cursory comparison of World Bank studies and the government educational policy orientation during this period would bear testimony to this view. The FUTA wants the government to declare its policy on higher education so that there could be a public dialogue on the subject. What the university community has been witnessing in the recent past is ad hoc policy decisions taken by the Minister of Higher Education being implemented at various levels without due consultations with them to the detriment of the interests of the community.
It appears that Cabinet decisions have been substituted for policy making thus overriding the University Act—a practice which sets a bad precedence for democratic governance. As is well known an attempt to push a bill to set up private universities through Parliament without due public consultation was thwarted by strong public opposition. It is reported that the authority to grant university status to educational institutes, which the UGC was previously vested with has been transferred to the Minister of Higher Education by a gazette notification. The FUTA wants the government to put an end to such arbitrary policy making and revert to the tradition of collective policy making.
Restoring University Autonomy
The final FUTA demand is to restore autonomy of governance that has been traditionally enjoyed by the university academic community, it has come under attack with increasing politicisation and micro management and even militarisation creeping into universities. Hence, the FUTA demands that the MoHE give a pledge to respect and adhere to the Universities Act in all matters pertaining to the higher education sector so that these institutions can thrive as autonomous institutions.
The FUTA demands an assurance that the minister shall not interfere in the appointment of members of the University Councils. The assurance must include an undertaking by the UGC that the qualifications of those appointed and the expected expertise each appointee brings into the respective council to be publicized for the information of the University community and the general public. It also demands a pledge to strictly adhere to the procedure pertaining to the appointment of Vice Chancellors without ministerial interference, at both stages involving the University Council and the UGC a principle recognized by the Supreme Court.
It also demands a pledge to allow university councils to be the final decision making body with regard to all university appointments, both academic and non academic. There are also the demands for a pledge to stop interfering in the allocation of university funds and an undertaking to have the Cabinet-approved directive (in violation of the Universities Act) to hire the highly expensive Rakna Lanka security firm for university security rescinded.
Unfair criticism that university teachers have come under from the MoHE and its apologists is indicative of the fact that they are out to discredit the FUTA and its struggle instead of trying to understand the perspective of the FUTA and engaging it in dialogue. In contrast to this, the approach taken by the President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga at his recent initial meeting with the FUTA has shown an attempt to understand the rationale behind the FUTA struggle.
The first meeting of the committee appointed under the chairmanship of President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga was scheduled to take place on the 12th July, 2012 evening. By now the initial government response to FUTA demands would have been made known to them and the direction in which the FUTA struggle would unfold would have been determined to a large extent by that response.
It is the earnest hope of the FUTA that the government will enter into a dialogue with the university teachers in their desire to preserve and develop the state sector university system in the country, a desire which seems to resonate well with the public of the country, given the wide public support the FUTA is receiving for its campaign to collect signature for an online petition and a petition of million signatures under the slogan ‘Save Sri Lankan Schools and Universities!’
(The writer is a member of the Arts Faculty Teachers’ Association, Colombo University.)