By Namini Wijedasa
Striking academics emerged from a late-night meeting with Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa saying some progress was made—but not enough to call off their five-weeks-old trade union action.
The government had agreed on principle to several of the demands raised by the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA). This includes the formation of a Sri Lanka University Academic Service and the need to raise expenditure on education. However, no time frame was given. The government categorically stated there would be no immediate salary increase. Its position was outlined in a draft document handed over to the FUTA team.
“The ball is in their court now,” said Rajapaksa, speaking to LAKBIMANEWS shortly after the meeting ended on Friday night. “We told them the government’s stand. They got a very positive reply to most of the policy matters they suggested.”
Further talks necessary
Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga was present at the discussion which was attended by seven representatives of FUTA. The meeting was scheduled to start at 7 pm but was delayed by 45 minutes because the academics arrived late from a public rally in Kurunegala. It continued for more than two hours.
Nirmal Ranjitha Dewasiri, FUTA president, said the meeting yielded several points on which further negotiations could be conducted. Everything depends on what happens next, he maintained. He was encouraged that Rajapaksa adopted a different approach—in tone, tenor and substance—to that taken by Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake. Government sources also said a breakdown of relations between Dissanayake and FUTA seemed to have worsened the crisis.
“The outcome was generally broad and non-specific,” Dewasiri explained. They wanted us to take their response to our membership. We said in order to do so, there should be some specifics.”
While the government avoided making firm promises on several issues, its delegation did categorically state that “an immediate salary increase is not an option”. FUTA wants a 20 per cent increase to the basic salary, effective 1 January 2012, in addition to all existing allowances. They want another 16.67 per cent raise with effect from 1 January 2013.
“They (government) implied that this can be included in the broader framework of establishing a Sri Lanka University Academic Service,” Dewasiri said. “We responded that, in that case, we need an agreed time frame for the setting up of such a service which we can take to our membership.”
Rajapaksa once again proposed the setting up of a presidential commission to look into complex issues in the higher education sector, including FUTA demands. Academics earlier objected to the formation of a presidential commission saying it cannot resolve the issues raised by FUTA. They maintained that this proposal was a “red herring or a tactic to delay finding solutions” to their demands.
At Friday’s meeting, FUTA said they did not want the terms of reference of the proposed presidential commission to include “the very specific demands” academics had put forward. “Even when we met Mr. Lalith Weeratunga on 12 July, we clearly said that there were a number of specific issues for which you don’t need to appoint a presidential commission,” Dewasiri related. “These include obvious matters such as those related to university autonomy. If these are included in the terms of reference, the process will drag on unnecessarily.”
Government agrees on education expenditure
One of FUTA’s most hotly debated demands is this: “Delineate a course of action to increase government spending on education that will reach 6% of GDP within the next two years”. This has been broadly interpreted to mean that university academics want expenditure on education to increase to six per cent of GDP within two years—and has been dismissed as impractical in some quarters.
On Friday, the government delegation contested the manner in which FUTA had defined education expenditure. “They argued that government education for expenditure was channeled through various ministries such as education, higher education, youth affairs, health, sports, and so on,” Dewasiri said. Thus, a high proportion of government spending did go towards education.
Rajapaksa said the government was focused on building a “knowledge economy”. “We said we are not quite happy about the nomenclature,” Dewasiri asserted. “It is a problematic term with ideological implications. When we (FUTA) talk about education, we mean something much broader. This seems to be a narrow, economic and market centric definition.”
While the two sides did not enter into a “philosophical debate” about the term “knowledge economy”, FUTA did raise its concerns. “They might not have expected that kind of response from us but they said they were willing to accommodate our views,” Dewasiri said. He agreed that “overall policy matters cannot be solved at the negotiation table”.
“What’s important is they agreed at the outset there should be an increase in government expenditure on education,” he stressed.
Yes, autonomy is important
Another significant result of Friday’s discussion was that the government delegation agreed, in principle, that university autonomy should be a very important aspect of higher education.
“This issue of autonomy is a crucial one,” Dewasiri explained. It was on this matter that the government and FUTA delegation spoke at length. The academics apprised Rajapaksa and his team about the situation within universities, the behavior of the minister of higher education, officials of the University Grants Commission and various vice chancellors.
“It is important to address the existing situation,” Dewasiri emphasized. “The conceptual idea of university autonomy has to be transformed to day-to-day practice, to the workings of universities. We wanted more details from Minister Rajapaksa about how the minister (S.B. Dissanayake) will handle our issues. For instance, will the minister change his way of doing things if we agreed to this framework and got back to work? What about the UGC and vice chancellors?”
“There are a lot of areas to cover,” he elaborated. “This includes attitudinal changes, how vice chancellors perceive things and so on. You cannot solve these things through presidential commission. Certain authorities, including the minister, vice chancellors and UGC chairman, are violating university autonomy and this is one of the root causes of all problems.”
“I think this autonomy thing was a sensitive issue, especially the minister’s and the vice chancellors’ behaviour,” he reflected, when asked what issues the two sides spent most time discussing. “I wouldn’t say there was heated debate but I think we wanted them to be more specific on that. However, we could not see a kind of focused approach beyond a commitment to the principle of autonomy but that is understandable.”
Unlike Minister Dissanayake, Rajapaksa and Weeratunga did not accuse FUTA of being sponsored or manipulated by disruptive JVP elements. The volatile subject of private universities was not discussed. No date has been fixed for the next discussion between the two sides and FUTA has not decided what sort of response it would give the government.
“They also wanted to get this over with very soon but we said that we should not be too hurried,” Dewasiri said. “We think we should not rush because whatever agreement that will be reached should be a permanent one. We cannot agree to some vague thing, go back to work and return to action in a few months. They understood what we were saying and I think they are serious.”
Come back soon!
Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa urged FUTA to return to the negotiating table “as soon as possible” with their responses to a list of government undertakings handed out during the meeting on Friday.
“We are ready,” Rajapaksa told LAKBIMAnEWS. “Now they should come back soon. They should not delay because that would be very harmful to the country and universities. The gap between the two parties will increase as they keep fighting for their cause. I think they must take our proposals positively to their membership just as we have managed to convince some of our colleagues.”
This was the second round of talks Rajapaksa held with FUTA. After the first round earlier this month, he met all the stakeholders—including vice chancellors, other trade unions and ministry officials. It was after this consultation that the government formulated the list of responses that was given to FUTA on Friday.
“We have given very specific answer to most of their grievances,” Rajapaksa maintained. “We said that we consider education to be one of the government’s biggest priorities and that it is included in the Mahinda Chinthana. We also made specific references to university independence, not only to one trade union, but at all levels including senate. We suggested that the courses be upgraded.”
“The only thing we have not addressed is individual issues such as those related to personalities with whom they have some differences,” Rajapaksa added. “But we have touched all policy matters. We agree that everyone must work together to upgrade universities.”
One of FUTA’s demands is that the government agrees to suspend all existing higher education reform processes until a proper consultative process involving all stakeholders and the public takes place.
Another is that the government agrees to refrain from politicizing and micromanaging universities so that these institutions can thrive autonomously. Rajapaksa admitted that, “the best thing is to discuss”.
“We are saying that the consultation process is very important and that every party must be consulted,” he elaborated. “That is why we have proposed to appoint a presidential commission. It will give some validity and justification to what we are doing.”
Rajapaksa pointed out that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission gave added validity to the government’s post-war programme. “For example, the LLRC recommended that we resettle displaced people as fast as possible but even before the presidential commission gave its report, we had started and finished the process,” he asserted. “But by mentioning it in their report, however, they gave our actions validity and justification.”
“I think it is very rare for a government to offer this type of policy framework to a trade union but we have done that,” he concluded.