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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

State, us and social justice

The Island 05/07/2011

AN English adaptation of the speech delivered at the mass rally in Anuradhapura organised by Rajarata University Teachers Union on July 1, 2011

Two previous speakers, Prof. Navarathna Bandara and Dr. Prabath Jayasinghe, in their speeches have focused on two elements of great importance in protecting the state university system. While Prof. Bandara stressed how the different acts of higher education since the early 1940s had had an impact on the quality of education in state universities, Dr. Jayasinghe highlighted the importance of autonomy as it can be defined in underdeveloped context in maintaining the quality of university training, teaching, and creation and dissemination of knowledge. In my speech, I wish to focus my attention on the factors that located outside the university system and within the broader sphere of education and higher education. The Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) embarked on trade union action on May 9, 2011 to win four main demands. It wanted the government to:

1. Implement fully the salary revision proposed by a committee appointed by the UGC and approved by the Ministry of Higher Education in 2008, by the end of 2013 (Note that the figure suggested by the committee is significantly less than Rs. 200,000 as quoted by the President, and the FUTA has not asked the full increase in one go but in three phases.)

2. Reestablish the rights the university teachers

3. Take into consideration the special scheme of recruitment and promotion and the fact that services they render include teaching, training, research and administration and therefore treat the university teachers as a specific service in the public sector;

4. Increase in the next three years the budgetary allocation for education and higher education upto 6 per cent of the GDP.

Although nobody is trying to hide the fact that the self-interest of the university teachers to improve the living standards of their families is an issue, these demands are interrelated and when taken in their entirety are closely linked with the future of the education in Sri Lanka in general and the state university system in particular. The banner behind me gives us the theme of this meeting: "Sri Lanka, a knowledge hub of Asia: A myth or reality". I would like to suggest changes to this theme to read it as: "Sri Lanka, a knowledge hub of Asia: Will the idea remain as a day-dream or can it be made a reality?" Terry Eagleton points out: "Ideals are signposts, not tangible entities. They points us the way to go" (Why Marx was Right, 2011)

The transformation of an idea into some kind of reality in this context depends on the fulfilment of inter alia three requirements, namely, (1) the provision of material and human resources at an adequate level; (2) the creation of legal and institutional mechanisms and modalities and (3) attitudinal changes.

It is an unfortunate that nothing significant has happened in any of these areas. Instead, what we have been witnessing is a gradual deterioration of the first and the continuation of all systems, institutions and mechanisms adding more and more rigidities to them. How could an attitudinal change happen when the higher education authorities define the knowledge hub as an achievement of what is called ‘soft capacities’ i. e. communication abilities in English and simple computer skills. With regard to higher education, as Prof Banadara has correctly pointed out the existing Higher Education Act has to be replaced by a new act following the good example of abolishing the higher education bill in 1971. One of the most important elements of the new act should be the autonomy of universities.

The reason why FUTA added a new demand for a significant increase in state expenditure on education and higher education that, in fact, goes beyond the usual trade union practices is that the country that is aimed at achieving reasonable level of economic development should ensure that necessary resources are made available in this sector. At the moment, Sri Lanka’s state expenditure on education and higher education is around 2 per cent of the GDP. This percentage is low when the expenditure on education and higher education of comparable countries in this area are concerned. India is planning to raise its state expenditure on education; some African countries have maintained the expenditure on education at more than 6 per cent. In the last two years, ministerial rhetoric notwithstanding, there have been no changes in the right direction. School education is in total disarray. The much needed reforms that include the setting up of a good primary school system are yet to be realised. When it comes to the university system, the quality of university teachers has declined considerably as it failed to recruit and retain good trained academics in the system. When we argue that the university teacher gets a salary that is sometimes equal to one-third of the salary of their fresh graduates in the private sector, the argument is not based on the jealousy of their students contrary to Prof Gamini Samaranayake’s argument but on the sad fact that the universities have failed to attract these good students. Our proposal to increase state expenditure on education up to 6 per cent of the GDP should not be interpreted as a move to fill our pockets with additional financial resources. Even the full implementation of UGC proposals of salary revision will not cost even 0.5 percent of the GDP. Let me give an example. The Engineering Faculty of the University of Peradeniya was set up to cater to 250 students each year. At the moment annual intake exceeds 400. No additional resources have been allocated during the past ten years. This may be true of all science-based disciplines. As far as human resources are concerned, the situation is far worse. The most recent argument that is not based on reason but on assumption is that the state cannot afford to provide adequate resources to education and higher education so that private sector should be brought in. I am not averse to private sector investments in education provided they are properly monitored. However, considering the nature of private investment in the country, one may surmise that it may not produce expected outcome. Leaving this argument aside, I submit that the point of departure in reforming higher education should not be the setting up of private universities.

Let me finish my speech focusing on something that is closer to my heart. This is not an added reason why the state university system is protected and improved. Rather, it is an essential element associated with the notion of social justice. Had the pre-Kannangara system of education remained, most of us on the stage and audience would have ended up as clerks in the public or private sector. This may also apply to high level public sector officials and top bureaucrats, though it seems that many of them have forgotten this truth. The upward mobility of the sons and daughters of the average citizens was made possible by the state university education. Any attempt to disturb this quintessential element of social justice would create irreparable damage to our social fabric. So, as socially responsible academia, it is our duty to show the country the gravity of this problem.

As far as FUTA is concerned, we can continue this trade union action adding new and more effective methods of struggle. It was with great reluctance and hesitancy that we chose to tread this path. We are sad that our students and other children preparing for the GCE A/L examination would suffer because of this action. We inform the parents and students that this struggle is for the future of higher education in Sri Lanka. It is for social justice and therefore it is as important as the fertiliser subsidy or free health system. So if the President and the Cabinet are interested in and serious about the idea of making Sri Lanka a knowledge hub, they should begin looking at this issue from a perspective that is qualitatively different from their present perspective.

The writer teaches political economy at the University Peradeniya.
E-mail: sumane_l@yahoo.com