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Sunday, May 22, 2011

FUTA demands: another perspective

The Minister of Higher Education has asked university lecturers, currently engaged in trade union action, to not ‘inconvenience’ the government and has made allegations of international conspiracies and hinted that the offices of the Federation of University Teachers Association are engaged in all sorts of wheeling and dealing– not to get higher salaries for FUTA’s members – but to disgrace the Government.

As an educated reader, which of these reasons seems plausible to you? Is it that FUTA has legitimate grievances that they want addressed or that they are going through a circuitous route to disgrace the Government? Remember to weigh in the fact that the present executive committee of FUTA, a body with no political affiliation, was elected by its members in the hope that it would be able to bring to a successful conclusion the seemingly never ending salary negotiations and the fact that among those who support the current trade union activities are many who have publicly endorsed the present government.

In all of this, the general trend of the government’s collective response has been to portray us academics as unpatriotic, selfish, and unsupportive of the government’s endeavors for the greater good of Sri Lanka. I would like to suggest that it is precisely because of the government’s concern for the greater good of this country that they should heed the concerns of academics and that what FUTA is requesting is anything but unpatriotic and that the demands would not only benefit academics but the country as a whole.

The role of academics has been questioned in the past, not just in Sri Lanka. Why should this group of individuals have different employment conditions? Why should academics get sabbatical leave once every seven years? Why do they have freedoms that no set of employees in a business are allowed - to research what is of interest to them? Why is it that unlike teachers at other levels, they have substantial autonomy over what they teach and say? Why?

The answer to these questions lies in a thought-provoking article by Fellgett, of the University of Reading, in 1992. He suggests that universities provide the standards to knowledge on which society depends. For universities to achieve this function they must be allowed to teach, research and disseminate without censorship in a supportive environment. Universities should proactively foster in academics a burning desire to know, to continually learn through research and through collaboration with others. They should provide the space in which knowledge is nurtured and the dynamic nature of knowledge is allowed to be unleashed without allowing it to become outdated. This support should not only include support for research and teaching, so that academics can develop, investigate their area of interest, and disseminate their knowledge at appropriate forums, but also the financial means to keep worries about the fulfillment of basic needs of their families at bay.

Today, however, even within a fairly impoverished environment, this pursuit of knowledge exists in Sri Lankan universities. Universities are a hub in endeavors to develop the ‘indigenous’ knowledge, which is widely talked of by the Government, and contribute to and assimilate the collective knowledge of the world. However, our universities’ potential is far greater and its reverberations in society are numbed by a lack of support from many avenues. The current trade union action addresses one of these sources of constriction – inadequate salaries. As a result of salary scales in Sri Lanka, few return after postgraduate training or remain for extended periods of time once they return. Consequently, departments are understaffed and many remaining academics find themselves over burdened with teaching. Many are forced to seek supplementary incomes to that which they receive from universities. The composite result of inadequate salaries is a body of over worked academics engaged in busy work but unable to fulfill their core duty to society.

A set of short sighted politicians and bureaucrats in Sri Lanka do not seem to understand the core function of the universities and academicians. Fellgett when addressing the implications of short sighted policies in the UK warns "Destroy universities, and it is not just tertiary education that suffers, but every level: the downward diffusion of original ideas dries up, so that culturally, educationally, and eventually economically, we become an underdeveloped country having to take our knowledge stale and second-hand from more enlightened nations that encourage and support their universities’. This warning is pertinent to all of us who are concerned about what is going on around us, whether it be in our schools, our hospitals, in our businesses, in the arts and in any conceivable place where we see the fruit of our collective knowledge. Thus, the concerns of universities embody the concerns of all citizens.

While arguably such worries are somewhat distant and abstract, Fellgett’s views on the nature of decision making about universities create immediate concerns because they are so contrary to what is currently transpiring and how the government is responding to FUTA’s initiatives. He states ‘The value of academic work may not be apparent until after the lapse of ten, fifty, or perhaps one hundred years. Thus no one should try to judge, or have the power to dictate… In other words, power of decision in a university must be widely distributed, and exercised in a spirit of tolerance.’

Today circulars are being released by the UGC almost weekly, each more ridiculous than the previous, each legally questionable, and meant to strong-arm a group of people into doing what in their conscience they know they should not. We know these circulars are not developed with the focus on the long term. They are not developed collectively with a focus on the good of the universities or of this nation. The tactics that have been used are in no way indicative of tolerance to the plight of the academics, the Sri Lankan national university system, or our society in general. It is with deep regret that I watch the events of the last few weeks unfold. True to form, perhaps the natural end to this sordid affair will be a future circular which stipulates an extended course for academics in some army camp.

Shamala Kumar, Ph.D.
Faculty of Agriculture
University of Peradeniya

Link: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=25888