by Kumudu Kusum Kumara
The government having taken one whole week to ‘study’ the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations’ (FUTA) proposals for education reforms has come up with one general proposal of setting up a presidential commission to investigate ‘complex issues’ in the higher education sector.
While no one would deny the value of an independent presidential commission to examine the ills higher education is afflicted with to come up with a white paper for public discussion as the basis for a higher education reforms bill and a new University Act, FUTA members believe that setting up of a commission cannot resolve the specific issues raised by the FUTA.
In fact, they believe that the government move is a red herring or a tactic to delay finding solutions to the demands put forth by the FUTA. This lack of faith stems from the public perception that the findings of such commissions are never taken seriously or implemented by the government. The fate that befell the findings of the Udalagama Commission of Inquiry, the Youth Commission report, and the Commissions of inquiry on disappearances etc is a case in point. A senior academic commented that a book could be produced on the topic. This is to say that the general membership of the FUTA will be totally opposed to the idea of a commission at this point merely because it is perceived as a delaying tactic.
The FUTA position made known, at the meeting, which was spelt out in a separate communiqué issued to its membership has been that even though there could be issues that warrant the setting up of such a commission, there are many concerns and demands that could be solved outside the purview of a presidential commission. Here, it would be relevant to highlight the other salient points made in the FUTA communiqué. Secretary to the President maintained that the government found it extremely difficult to make budgetary allocations for education especially due to the need to implement the LLRC proposals and it may require the country to adopt stringent measures. The FUTA membership feels that this is another red herring. Secretary to the President may have referred to the LLRC from his understanding of the issue gained in chairing the committee appointed to implement the proposals. However, the government has so far not come out with a plan for implementing the proposals nor has it identified its financial implications. The position of the FUTA has been that under any condition education should be a top priority and that it should not be considered a burden but an investment in the development of the country. The FUTA members believe that the need to implement the LLRC proposals should not be made an excuse for not increasing government expenditure on education.
With regard to the government stand on the list of specific demands the Secretary to the President responded that the government needed time for further study and discussion. Response of the Secretary to the President to a pointed question raised by the FUTA delegation on the government stand on the demands, has been “there is merit in discussing the demands and further discussions should take place to identify those demands that can be implemented immediately.” This is an indication that the next round of discussions scheduled for middle of this week will now focus on the demands that can be implemented before the proposed commission is set up.
The FUTA has also stressed that the trust its members have in the government at this moment is at a very low ebb and hence the government should adopt confidence building measure, an indication of which could bring to an end the media campaign carried out by certain players on the government side to vilify the FUTA. An attempt to move courts to force university teachers to go back to work was also mentioned as an option possibly to be adopted by some of those players.
According to the FUTA communiqué Prof. Ranjith Senaratna, who represented the University Grants Commission (UGC) at the meeting said as an academic he also appreciated that the FUTA had raised many concerns related to overall education and policy. Citing absolute numbers he had claimed that over the past few years funding for universities had increased whereas the academic environment in the universities had deteriorated resulting in poor teaching and research output. He suggested that the FUTA rally its members to commit themselves to improve this situation. However, the rationale behind taking the percentage of the GDP allocated to education adopted by agencies such as the UN and the World Bank cannot be nullified by citing absolute numbers an approach adopted by the Minister of Higher Education as well. The allegation that the academic environment in the Universities has deteriorated has been used in recent times by Minister of Higher Education S. B. Dissanayake in his attempt to neutralise university teachers’ resistance to ill-conceived ad-hoc university reforms. The present quality of teaching and research output in Sri Lankan universities is an outcome of its complex historical development emanating from government policies since independence and therefore it has to be analysed properly; it cannot be corrected by means of one sided ad-hoc solutions proposed by the Minister of Higher Education and the UGC.
Enhanced education budget
What emerges from the current discussion between the government and the FUTA is that the priority the government assigns to education in its budgetary allocations is a matter that requires wide ranging public discussion and cannot be left to politicians, the bureaucracy and technocracy given its crucial importance. Sri Lanka cannot aspire to nation building unless it takes educating its population as one of its top priorities..
It is the duty of a government to give serious thought to the future of a nation and prepare its policies and allocate national income generated on the basis of collective labour of the masses of people for the benefit of their future generations. A responsible government cannot ignore education of children in the name of infrastructure development.
(The writer is a member of Arts Faculty Teachers’ Association, Colombo University)