University academics are now campaigning with the slogan “6% of GDP for Education”

By Camena Guneratne and Harini Amarasuriya | Open University of Sri Lanka

Almost one year ago, we wrote an article suggesting that there were signals from the academic community that it was waking up from a long slumber.

We wrote about the fact that the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) was moving away from, primarily a battle for salaries, to addressing a range of issues affecting not just higher education, but education in general.

We felt inspired to write another piece after participating in the FUTA march and rally that marked the academics’ token strike on the 26th of April, 2012. After almost one year, FUTA called upon academics from all the national universities to come together for a protest march starting from the University of Colombo to the Public Library where several speakers addressed the gathering.

The proceedings were chaired by Prof. H Sriyananda, a much respected, former FUTA President. What was significant about this rally was that of the many demands put forward by FUTA, explaining the reasons for the strike, the primary focus was not on salaries but on other pressing issues faced by state universities and the national education system. The slogan for the day was, ‘Let’s Protect State Universities’ and one of the main demands was for the government to allocate 6% of the GDP for education. Other demands included a more consultative and transparent policy making process and halting the politicization and micro-management of universities by the Higher Education Minister in violation of the Universities Act. Academics also registered their protests against the suppression of student activism and the instigation of intra-student violence through the Ministry’s open support of certain student factions.

The letter sent by the General Secretary of FUTA to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Minister of Higher Education S. B. Dissanayake giving notification of the token strike was in a sense historic in that perhaps for the first time in the history of FUTA’s trade union struggles, it sent a strong message to the government, that the academic community is no longer confining itself to the issue of university teachers’ salaries and other benefits, but is now taking on the many issues and challenges faced by the higher education sector and that it is holding the government to account on these matters.

Given that salary issues were not the main focus of the march and the rally (and also considering the inclement weather at the time), the turnout was particularly impressive. Almost 800 academics from all parts of the country converged on Colombo that day. Their enthusiasm and energy were palpable and the concerns of academics were eloquently expressed by the stream of speakers at the meeting.

Part of the reason for the success of the token strike on that day could be attributed to the slow and incremental steps FUTA has been taking over the past several months with regard to keeping its membership awake. When the trade union action was called off last year, there was a feeling of shock and even betrayal. Many within the academic community were not ready to call the strike off and were unhappy at the decision. But it is clear that the mobilisation of academics that took place during last years’ trade union action has not diminished and has now been channelled into wider national issues.

The activism of the academic community gained a renewed impetus as a result of the government’s attempt to pass an ill conceived law relating ostensibly to the establishment of non state universities. This Bill was earlier titled the Qualification Framework, Quality Assurance and Accreditation of Higher Educational Institutions Act, and then, in a later version, re-named the Higher Education (Non-State) Act. Notwithstanding its name it is not limited to establishing a (very questionable) legal framework for setting up non-state universities.

While the current Universities Act clearly excludes any political interference in the functioning of universities and limits the role of the Minister in their academic and administrative affairs, the proposed law reverses this position. Under the guise of ensuring quality control of universities, it gives the Minister total control over all academic matters in state universities to the extent of permitting him/her to terminate or suspend academic programmes.

The draft law sidelines the University Grants Commission, which is currently the apex body overseeing the functioning of State universities, including quality control, and takes away the autonomy of university Faculty Boards and Senates to decide on matters relating to instruction, education, research and examinations in universities.

Most amazingly, a ‘secrecy’ clause in the draft law requires all persons involved in the process of quality assurance of universities to sign a declaration of secrecy in respect of any matter which may come to their knowledge in the exercise of their functions. In effect, the law, if enacted would give the Minister the power to terminate university academic programmes without giving any reasons and with no accountability for his/her actions. This Bill was, in fact, drafted in secrecy and to date its origins are unknown. It would probably have been rushed through Parliament if academics had not got wind of it. The swift reaction by FUTA which voiced its strong protests against the Bill has, for the time being, resulted in it being put on hold.

Academics’ concerns are that the establishment of non-State universities is in effect a strategy of the government to abdicate responsibility for university education in Sri Lanka and transfer this sphere totally to the private sector. The draft law was one such attempt. However, over the years the capacity of universities in this country to function effectively and to provide a quality education to students has been systematically eroded, partly by political interference in university matters, but mainly by the withdrawal of funds for education.

A presentation by Prof. Amal Kumarage of the University of Moratuwa at the public meeting demonstrated very clearly the extent to which successive governments had sidelined education and higher education over a period of time. He quoted a World Bank Report of 2011 titled Transforming School Education in Sri Lanka which states, “Public expenditures on education in Sri Lanka are modest when compared to middle income countries and other comparable nations. Education expenditure as a percentage of GDP is 1.9 percent and as a proportion of the government budget is 7.3 percent. This is the smallest share of public investment in education among a cluster of countries that share common features with Sri Lanka. Public investment in education in Sri Lanka falls below the level of East Asian countries such as South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore; Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Columbia and Cost Rica; and of the other South Asian nations such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. It is also well below the share of investment for middle income countries as a whole. In fact, advanced middle income countries normally invest about 4.6 percent of national income in education, which is more than double the share of national income devoted to education by Sri Lanka.”

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics even sub-Saharan Africa spends close to 4.5% on education and it further states that “By far the lowest level of public spending is found in Central Asia and in East Asia and the Pacific – both of which report only 2.8% of GDP.” Sri Lanka with an annual expenditure of 1.9% of GDP on education does not even come close to the lowest. Of this amount, the proportion that has been allocated for university education has been steadily decreasing. In 2005, it was 0.50% and this has decreased to a mere 0.27% in 2010. Universities are accused of not being able to cater to the increasing demand for higher education; with such woefully inadequate investment in university education how can we accommodate larger numbers, let alone improve the quality of higher education?

University academics are now campaigning for greater investment in education and the slogan “6% of GDP for education” has become a central theme in discussions. This is not a random figure plucked out of the air; it is a UNESCO recognised benchmark on what a country should invest in education. There is now far more discussion in Sri Lanka regarding this allocation and this is due to academics taking up this issue as a primary concern. Faculty Boards and Senates in universities have also slowly started taking up matters such as these with more energy, making it clear to university administrators that they cannot ride roughshod over established procedures.

Such bodies exist for the purpose of debate and consultation on all matters relating to higher education and there are signs that they are now becoming forums of intense debate on a range of issues. Academics are beginning to assert their rights and obligations to actively participate in the decision making process.

A related matter of concern for academics is the erosion of university autonomy and academic independence in recent years. Academics themselves have contributed to this erosion by remaining ignorant of proper procedures and not only allowing procedures to be bypassed but by actively by passing these themselves. For instance, the University Grants Commission (UGC) remains the central body that is responsible for universities and academics. This is very clear in the Universities Act. Although, this Act gives the Minister of Higher Education a role, it is an extremely limited one and the Minister has no say in academic matters. It is clear that over the years, these boundaries have been seriously violated. The ‘leadership training’ given to university entrants without consultation with universities is a case in point. The recent concessions provided to CIMA to operate within universities is another instance where Senates and Faculty Boards were bypassed when making decisions that have implications for academic programmes of universities.

It has now become the practice for some academics to deal directly with the Minister and the Ministry, bypassing the university bodies and also the UGC. Of course, the UGC has not helped by actively ceding its role to the Minister and the Ministry, but academics need to insist that the UGC fulfils its mandate. Issues that should be dealt with at university level by Faculty Boards and Senates, are now being decided upon by the Minister. The gradual erosion of established systems and procedures through ceding too much authority to the political leadership is a serious problem in Sri Lanka. We must recognise our own complicity in this process and be aware of its dangers.

Finally, its actions over the past several months have put FUTA and university academics in the public eye. As many speakers on the 26th of April noted, in a way, this is a historic moment for FUTA and for university academics. It is coming forward as a strong voice not just on behalf of itself but on behalf of the broader public interests. This means that it has raised expectations not just among its own membership but among the public as well. When the last trade union action was called off, the public saw it as an admission of defeat by FUTA.

FUTA has decided to resort to trade union action again in the near future. This time around, the stakes are even higher: there are a few signs that the government may be prepared to give into FUTA demands on salary and other welfare issues of academics. The tone with which the Ministry is dealing with the academic community has also changed. There are no longer attacks on the academic community by the Minister of Higher Education like during the last trade union action. There was no doubt that the crudity of those attacks also helped to mobilise the academic community. What does this then mean at this juncture of the battle? Will FUTA and its membership decide not to persist with the broader agenda if its salary demands are met? If that happens, the academic community’s legitimacy and relevance in the eyes of the wider community will be seriously eroded. During the last year or so, the FUTA leadership and the academic community have worked hard to make themselves relevant after a period of long hibernation. This would be wasted if the current momentum is not sustained.

Despite the superficial easing off of the cold war, this government has not in any way shown a serious interest in addressing the broader issues raised by academics regarding the problems in the state university system and education in general. It is important that we remind ourselves that this time around, we are not fighting only for ourselves but for the future of public higher education in Sri Lanka.