by Mahendra Gunawardane
Everybody knows by now that the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) has been leading an all out trade union action of university academics. However, it has not been so widely known that there are some lecturers who refused to join the strike action. Some of them continue to teach their students without interruption and I am one of them.
Many would find it difficult to understand why some of us stay away from the trade union action while many others are engaged in.
The FUTA and its followers may like to know why some lecturers do not follow them. However, unless they ask why, I have no appetite to give them explanations and I certainly refuse to be apologetic. Nevertheless, I am happy to clarify my stance to my students and to the public who pay my salary.
My students already know very well why I refused to participate in the TU action, as I have discussed the matter lengthily with them intermittently during the long hours of lectures I had with them during the past month or so. Hence, the aim of this piece is to justify my action in the eyes of general public. I would like to point out also that even if the TU action is over by the time this is published, the arguments would always be relevant.
Though many lecturers, including even some who are on strike seem to have no clear idea on what FUTA really is asking for, the demands can be roughly put into three categories.
One demand of FUTA is that there must be further salary increases surpassing the unprecedented pay hikes given since mid 2011 until now. FUTA also demands that the government must spend 6% of the GDP on education. The third demand says that the education sector must be left without any political interference and the decision making in the sector must be left to the lecturers.
I had pre-planned to keep the students in the university by informing them well ahead of the FUTA strike action that I will continue to conduct lectures. My students stayed en masse, and to do them justice for hanging about for a single series of lectures, I had to take whole days of lectures with them without restricting ourselves to scheduled one or two hours. To do so, what had I in mind about the FUTA demands?
Salary and allowances:
I and my comrades who refused to join the FUTA action do not suffer from any allergy to money. If there are further pay hikes, it would be good for us as well. However, my conscience does not allow me to stick to such demands so arrogantly at the expense of my students. To me, it is almost like taking them hostages.
Therefore, I do not feel like resorting to strike action demanding further pay hikes. Nevertheless, if a salary increase is given under an agreement between the government and the FUTA or as a humanitarian overture of the government or as a result of the government knuckling under FUTA pressure, I would accept the increment without any shilly-shallying.
I am sure those of my profession who are on strike will be hopping mad by reading this. How would they be able to stomach the idea of people like me reaping the benefits of their struggle while opposing it completely?
I also believe strongly that one has an obligatory social responsibility to join hands in achieving common good. However, here I have to give preference to serving my students instead of joining a TU action that victimizes the students. I am well aware of the fact that a delay in graduation even by a month or two will be enough to delay the progress in the lives of students by years.
As we have been given extraordinary salary increases during the 2011-2012 years, the priority in pay hikes should now be given to employees of other sectors. I reach that decision as a supposedly educated employee who must thus have a holistic view on the country, its economy and the people. That is another reason for me not to join demanding a pay hike for university lecturers at this juncture.
The FUTA asks for allowances to give private-school education for their children and also to keep their children in fee-levying hostels. I have the self-esteem not to be a part of such wicked demands, which would infuriate the general public if they come to know.
The FUTA also asks from the government to take university teaching as a 24hour job and to give allowances accordingly. This is pure insanity, I think.
6% of GDP on education:
The Gross Domestic Product of a country is the total market value of all the products and services produced in the country within a year. The FUTA demands that the government must spend a 6% of the GDP on education.
According to recent statistics, the government income is about 14% of the GDP while the government expenditure amounts up to about 24% of the GDP.
A 6% of GDP is therefore exceeds 40% of the government income. It is also about one fourth of the total expenditure. If one fourth is to be spent on education, only three fourth would be left to spend on all the other things, including health, agriculture, salaries, pensions, etc. and for development activities. The reader will immediately realize the difficulty in allocating a good one fourth of expenditure on education.
I am reluctant to brand the FUTA officials as morons who cannot understand such simple logic. Having said that, I must admit that the FUTA bigwigs have always been trying to duck the question, when pressed to explain how on earth a government can spend that much on education.
The fact of the matter is that this demand for 6% of GDP expenditure is not at all a reasonable demand that has been formulated after careful analysis by FUTA on the Sri Lankan education sector. Instead, it is a demand put forward initially by the JVP as an attempt to instigate student unrest, if possible, for another round. There are reasons to believe that this demand was something forced down the throats of other FUTA officials by those who are linked to the JVP.
Even those who knew that it would be futile to launch an all out strike on a policy issue like this had to join hands, not to be seen as less enthusiastic in the struggle and thrown out as a result. The source from where the influence comes alone is a good enough deterrent for people like me to refuse joining the TU action.
Sri Lanka has been known as a country that gives much emphasis on education. It is legendary that the education is totally free here. Free education and free health are main indicators of our success story. These are achievements appreciated in the world and achievements we all can be proud of. It has been recognized all over the world that the standards we maintain in our education system are among the highest.
In the majority of other countries, the parents have to cough up money for their children’s education and the expenditure on education is calculated taking that also into account. This is the reason for some countries to show higher figures of expenditure than us, even though their emphasis on education remains very poor. I am unable to disrupt the education of my students going merely by some theoretical calculations that tend to depend on many variables.
Decision making in the university sector and political interference:
Some people may not know the fact that all the decisions in the university education are taken by nobody else but university academics. The Vice Chancellor who administers the university, the Deans of the Faculties and Heads of the Departments are university lecturers by profession. In a university, there are various decision making bodies of widest possible participation such as curriculum development committees, boards of studies, faculty boards, the senate and the council and they all are composed of nobody else but university lecturers. Above a university there is this governing body called the University Grants Commission. Who are the decision making officials at the UGC? They are university lecturers.
So, it is very wrong to say that there is any influence of decision making, other than that of the university lecturers themselves.
Nevertheless, one should not forget the fact that it is the public who spend billions on university education. What the government does is the management of this expenditure. Those who manage the expenditure have every right to monitor how it is spent at the universities. If there are some irregularities, shortcomings or scope for improvements, it is the duty of the relevant minister to interfere promptly, instead of sitting idle wasting public money. The problem, if any, is the lack of interference.
In the United Kingdom, there is no government interference at all on the university sector and as a result, the universities have to find money by themselves for survival. They had to increase student fees by many folds, an action that caused the recent student riots. There has been abrupt closure of many departments of studies of which the graduates have no value in the job market.
The lecturers there are recruited not on permanent basis but on the basis of three year contracts. Unless you bring in money to the universities by doing research on the request of outside commercial establishments, the contract will not be renewed and you will be thrown out at the end of the third year. Many non academic officials are also taken in on temporary contracts.
The education sector in my country is much more stable than that. The main reason behind this is the colossal expenditure the government spends on education, increasing the amount every year.
As university lecturers who know these facts, I and some of my colleagues have pledged not to stay away from our supposed to be noble duty of teaching.
That said, I have to admit that we too would join any strike action if the government is going to ruin our education system. However, it is clearly evident that it is not what this government is up to. Instead, it has ventured into improving the education sector and to make it capable of even earning foreign exchange. This is the exact meaning of the declared aim of making the island the hub of knowledge in the region.
Knowing all these, I cannot refuse to teach my student and, therefore, together with my likeminded colleagues, I refuse to participate in the current trade union action.
(Mahendra Gunawardane is Head of the Department,Department of Microbiology, University of Kelaniya)