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Saturday, July 9, 2011

FUTA Colombo seminar a roaring success

Daily Mirror 07/07/2011

History was created on one June 21, 2011 when University Academics of Sri Lanka descended upon the streets of Colombo in a magnificent display of strength and unity. There aim was to draw the attention of the government and the general public to their cause: a salary hike in order live with dignity and self respect, prevent degradation of standards in higher education institutes and protect free education. A procession of these Lions of Higher Education and their supporters marched in silent dignity from the University of Colombo to the Public Library. The banners they held spoke volumes:

"BEWARE of Monkeying with Higher Education and Free Education! We are a force to contend with!"
As the procession of the champions of higher education, wound its way towards the Public Library Auditorium, the venue for the Public Seminar organized by the Universities of Colombo, Kelaniya, Sri-Jayawardenapura, Moratuwa and the Open University of Sri Lanka, they were cheered by their supporters and resuscitated by the lions of the University of Visual and Performing Arts. Led by Senior Lecturer Chandrgupta Thenuwara they too joined the procession pledging solidarity with the other academics, and support to their cause. At the entrance to the library the procession was greeted enthusiastically by members of the organization for International Students for Social Equality. In a voluntary display of solidarity with the university academics they distributed leaflets calling for their protection.

Within the auditorium the stage was set for the hitherto silent lions and a lioness to roar their fury and frustration on a government that is dragging its feet on an issue affecting the whole country. The Seminar commenced with a brief and decisive address by Prof. Sarath Kotagama, University of Colombo. He noted with regret that for the first time in his long university career, academics had to parade the streets in order to get what they rightfully deserve and to protect the dignity of the university system. He reiterated: "But, we will not be deterred. We will go forward. Forward we will tread."

The theme of the Seminar pivoted on President Mahinda Rajapaksa's vision to transform Sri Lanka into a "Knowledge Hub" This goal cannot be achieved however without the active participation of those occupying the highest seats of learning in the country. Is not the idea of a "Knowledge Hub" a myth, if in reality, university academics are undervalued and slighted? Do they have to take to the streets like common wastrels to make their voice heard? Prof. Amal Kumarage, Universty of Moratuwa pointed out that the hub of a wheel needs strong spokes connected to the rim for it to run well, so does a Knowledge Hub. These spokes should be the university lecturers. To their dismay they have been designated to man the rim. A position of lesser importance he lamented!

The government awoke the sleeping giant says Rev. Dambara Amila of the University of Sri-Jayawardenepura. Its roar was heard in Kandy and Matara. It reverberates in Colombo and in Anuradhapura. It will be heard in the near future in Jaffna and Kurunegala. "We will take our struggle island-wide from Point Pedro in the north to Dondra-head in the south, from the east to the west of Sri Lanka. We will never waver until our demands are met and the invulnerable status of Higher Education and Free Education is maintained." 

A notable aspect of the seminar was its tri-lingual nature depicting unity, solidarity and awareness of a national problem. Dr. Poobalasundaram, University of Jaffna and Dr. Sumathi Sivamohan, University of Peradeniya waxed eloquent in Tamil and English respectively.

The Seminar ended on a high note with a fiery roar by Dr. Mahim Mendis. The charismatic and outspoken FUTA media representative pointed an accusing finger at the government for failing to chastise the Minister of Higher Education for dishonouring the intelligentsia of the country. He urged us to continue our struggle with a hearty "Jayawewa" that was met with standing ovation.

It is opportune here to echo the sentiments voiced by Dr. Mendis and pose some pertinent questions to the honourable members of Parliament who graduated from our universities. Have the undergraduate years of your lives faded into oblivion? Have you forgotten your teachers of days gone by? Did they not contribute in any way towards your success? Today they are compelled, old and young, to parade the streets of their mother land in the heat of a blazing sun to gain their rights. They are insulted, defamed and degraded by a member of your honourable clan. Yet you turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to their travails. The following verses by the famous Arabic poet and politician Ahmed Shawqi, describing the elevated position of a teacher is worthy of contemplation:

Arise to the teacher and accord him faithful reverence
Almost, the teacher can be a Messenger (of God)
Do you know (one) more honourable and noble

Than he who builds and nurtures souls and minds?

Seven weeks have lapsed since the university academics commenced their Trade Union Action. However, negotiations with the government have reached a stalemate. This does not augur well for the future of higher education and a free education policy in the country. Sri Lanka is on the threshold of the G.C.E. A/L Examination, an event of national importance. University academics have refused to participate in its activities until an acceptable solution is offered to them by the government. New students are eagerly waiting to commence their university careers. Academics have resigned from all voluntary positions. Therefore the authorities will not be able to conduct any activities for the new entrants. The current academic year is still in progress but lectures cannot be conducted nor examinations held until the trade union action is called off. The task of clearing this impasse lies solely with the government of Sri Lanka.

Ameena Cassim
Senior Lecturer
University of Peradeniya