by Roel Raymond
Vivimarie VanderPoorten is an award winning Sri Lankan poet. Her first book Nothing Prepares You won the Gratiaen Prize for the best piece of English literary work in Sri Lanka, in 2007.
In 2009 she was recipient of a higher honour; the SAARC Poetry Award, which was followed by the publication of her second book Stitch Your Eyelids Shut, in 2010.
Vivimarie is also a senior lecturer in English language, literature and linguistics at the Open University of Sri Lanka, which puts her firmly at the fore of the on-going strike by academics, spearheaded by the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA). Ceylon Today spoke with Vivimarie to understand her reasons for supporting the strike, factors that led to trade union action by the academics and the nature of their demands.
Q:How is it that you are involved in this massive, on-going strike by academics?
A: I am currently the Assistant Secretary of OUTA – that is, the Open University Teachers’ Association. OUTA is a part of the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA), hence my support and involvement.
Q: What demands are your collective unions making?
A: Our unions are faced with a number of unaddressed issues. However, for the sake of convenience, they can be broken down into two major demands. We ask that the government 1) Enhance recruitment and retention of the highest qualified academics and that it 2) Safeguards and uplifts the State education sector.
Q: What does FUTA mean by ‘Enhance recruitment and retention of the highest qualified academics’?
A: Basically, to make sure the Sri Lankan university system ‘gets the best’. That is, to ensure we recruit those graduates that top the batch; the ones that obtain First Class and Second Uppers, as probationary lecturers (the first rung on the academic ladder). At the moment the university system is unable to attract these graduates as lecturers because the salaries on offer are abysmally low. Even if universities do manage to recruit these top students to their teaching staff, they are unable to retain them as many leave the island to study for their Masters or Ph.Ds and opt to stay abroad, preferring to take up better paying teaching appointments there. This is the ‘brain-drain’ we speak of; our country is being drained of the best of its brains because it has not yet been able to create a university system that will use and look after its best.
Q: You are currently a senior lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka, were you ever offered a post abroad?
A: Yes, I was, after obtaining my Ph.D at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland I was asked if I would be interested in teaching on the Masters programme.
Q: You obviously chose not to. What would you have been paid if you had?
A: I would have been paid about 45,000 GBP per annum as a starting fee.
Q: Why choose the Open University instead?
A: There were, obviously, many reasons for choosing to do so. I had always wanted to teach – I knew that. I had also worked briefly – as a new graduate in English and Economics – for the Social Scientists Association in Sri Lanka. It was there that I began to be socially and politically aware, and form opinions for myself. By the time I had completed my Ph.D, I knew I wanted to give back to the State education system from which so many had benefited, myself included.
Q: How long have you been at the Open University?
A: 15 years now, at the Department of Language Studies.
Q: The second demand the unions are making is to ‘safeguards and uplift the State education sector’ – what does this entail?
A: We have made a number of detailed request to this end, key among them are a call for 1) six per cent of the GDP to be allocated to Education, 2) that politicization within universities is ended and 3) the university community be involved in all higher education reforms.
Q: Six per cent of the GDP is a serious commitment. Do you feel that request is justifiable?
A: Totally. The current budgetary allocation towards education is a meagre 1.9% of the GDP. This is one of the lowest in the world – countries like Kenya (7.1%), Bangladesh (2.1%), India (3.7%), Nepal (3.4%) and Namibia (7.2%) allocate more than that towards education! The budgetary allocation towards education has decreased since this government came into power in 2005; back then 2.5% of the GDP was the commitment towards education, now it is 1.9%.
Q: What do your unions mean when it asks for ‘de-politicization’ of the university system?
A: It means that all government meddling with the administration of universities must come to a complete end. The Minister of Higher Education currently meddles with even the micro-management of the universities and this cannot be continued. We are governed by the University Grants Commission (UGC) – a body that at one time was staffed with impartial academics that recognized their role in safeguarding the interests of the entire university system – teachers, students all. The UGC is now more interested in agreeing to act as a mouthpiece on behalf of the government rather than university representatives.
Q: You say the minister meddles in even the micro-management of universities; can you give me an example of one such incident?
A: Yes, the University of the Visual and Performing Arts that is situated near the NelumPokuna insists that qualifying students sit an aptitude test before being allowed to enter their programme. Recently, some students with ‘connections’ that had not passed the test had complained to the Minister who in turn called the Vice Chancellor at the University and asked that the aptitude test be removed; which he did.
Q: Vice Chancellors; what exactly is their function and are they not independent?
A: Vice Chancellors are the Administrative Heads of universities – like the ‘Principal’ in a school; he or she has the highest authority. A Vice Chancellor is expected to be independent and run the universities autonomously but that no longer happens as all Vice Chancellors are appointed by the President and hence, chosen more for their political affiliations than impartial authority.
Q: The question of privatizing universities has been subject to much debate – what is your unions’ stance on this?
A: We are not against privatization – by all means do set up private universities in this country, but don’t do it at the expense of the State education system – in other words, don’t kill the free education system to embrace the private one. Instead, simultaneously develop both systems – that way both the affluent student and the one that is not have access to education.
There is another way tackling this issue ; the government could invest more in the existing universities – enlarge them, bring them up to international standards and then charge a fee to students that didn’t qualify for free entrance and education. Further still, if the government invested more in the existing universities they could actually increase local intake – ending the cut-throat competition to get into local universities because there are only limited spots open.
Q: Tell me more about the strike action launched by the university trade unions..
A: As of the 4 July 2012 all teaching activities have been stopped and all examinations have been stopped. In addition to not reporting to work we are also conducting a very organized campaign – a one million signature campaign that is going very well. Academics took to the streets and handed out leaflets explain the reasons for our strike action – just imagine that, Professors standing out at street corners explaining to the average man that his actions are aimed at saving free education for our children, for the future. We have currently close to 100,000 signatures and this number is growing by the hour! In addition to that we run an active online campaign on blogs and Facebook – membership currently at 10,000+ and we use that tool to network and raise awareness on the reasons for our collective strike action, and what our demands are in all three languages.
Q: Doesn’t this trade union action affect university teachers themselves?
A: Yes, it does. This trade union action affects our teaching, it affects our day to day lives, it affects our pay; but we mean to continue to the dogged end. It is important to note that we don’t enjoy what we are doing. As academics we are used to looking at things critically, consider all aspects, all sides, looking for the shades of grey and not just the polarized hues of black and white, and yet, with this trade union action we are being forced to look at things in terms of black and white and take a stand accordingly. This doesn’t make us very comfortable, and yet we must, because we have been pushed to do so. It is heartening that many of our students are supporting us and with us because they know this is a struggle for long term benefits and for the common good, not just for lecturers to get a salary hike.
Q: And for how long will your unions’ be on strike?
A: For as long as it takes. We will continue this trade union action until the government gives in to our demands, or at the very least until a compromise, FUTA and its affiliated trade unions can be happy with, is reached. There must be serious and genuine commitment from the government for us to move forward. courtesy: Ceylon Today