There are positive signs in the direction that the trade union action of the university teachers would come to an end soon. However, the fundamental issues raised by the University Teachers’ Association remain unresolved although the government responded positively to their demands on salaries and working conditions. The fundamentals are incorporated in the demand for an increase in state expenditure on education and higher education, a new University Act ensuring academic freedom and institutional autonomy, and quality improvement of the state universities.
FUTA has never ever claimed that the sole responsibility of addressing these fundamentals lies only with the government. The university academia has a bigger role to play in the latter and FUTA is ready to offer its service in starting a fresh dialogue leading to a new University Act. In this endeavour, it will play a role of critical, independent and contributing partner, not a subservient stooge of the government. It is in this light that the academics in all the faculties in the University of Peradeniya have adopted resolutions objecting to planned orientation programme for university new entrants and asking vice chancellor to postpone the registration process scheduled to be held between July 15 to 27. It was reported that the faculty boards of other universities would pass similar resolutions.
It has been a well-known fact that all the best universities in the world organise orientation programme for their new students. The length and the content of these orientation programmes depend on the needs and requirements of the new students. When students of different culture settings are admitted, special orientation programmes are devised taking into account their special requirements. If this is the case, why do all university faculties go against the planned post-registration orientation programme? Why do university teachers want registration postponed as a corrective measure? What is at stake beneath these attempts by the Ministry of Higher Education? These are the kind of questions that are going to be discussed in this note.
In his Colin Cowdrey speech, Kumar Sangakkara, former cricket captain of Sri Lanka eloquently highlighted the significance of autonomy for cricket administration in order to improve Sri Lankan cricket. If autonomy is important for sports, it is imperative for universities. The Lima Declaration on academic freedom and autonomy of institution of higher education adopted by the General Assembly of the World University Service and UNESCO has recognised autonomy as a degree of self-governance necessary for effective decision making by institutions of higher learning. In Sri Lanka, universities are almost totally state- funded. Therefore, it is justified and consistent with the notion of autonomy that the universities be made accountable to the Public Accounts Committee as far as their financial dealings are concerned. Moreover, the university autonomy should be subject to public criticism and well accepted norms. When there are many universities, this process is made easier and manageable through the University Grant Commission or a similar apex body. As Prof. Savitri Goonasekere has correctly noted, ‘the University Grant Commission is not a government department placed under the Minister and Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education. The powers of the Minister in relation to universities are defined by the Act. The Commission is authorised to function as an independent regulatory authority within the framework of the Act, which incorporates the concept of university autonomy, and recognises the distinct powers and responsibilities of the University governing bodies on all academic matters” (Sarasavi Viduravi, Kandy: FUTA Publication, 2011, p. 51). S 15 of the University Act of 1978 has authorised UGC to determine in consultation with the authorised bodies of the respective universities the courses to be provided by the universities. In the opinion of Prof. Goonasekere, “to permit the UGC and Ministry to determine the content of the courses without discussion with university senates violates the provision of the Act on the universities powers regarding aching programs” (Ibid, p. 53).
What is at stake? Two things! First, the Ministry and the UGC have violated the Universities Act of 1978 by overstepping its powers over the universities. Secondly, the autonomy of universities in determining its courses has been questioned. How? When the new students are asked to register at their respective universities, and when this process comes to completion, those students become effectively the students of the respective university in which they register. Ministry and the UGC are then sending those students to centres and institutions that are outside the University for an orientation programme. It was claimed that this orientation programme included information technology, conflict resolution and English. The issue here is not whether the programme content is good or bad. The issue is that the registered university students are sent to outside centres to follow a programme the designing of which has nothing to do with the university senates. The Act specifically states that the courses the university students follow should be designed and approved by the authorised university bodies, in this case Senate.
So, it is justifiably right of the socially responsible university academics to oppose this entire orientation process. The justification goes beyond the respect for the principle of university autonomy. The protest is by the university community against the violation of laws duly passed by Parliament. These are core values of the system of higher education and democratic governance.
This entire struggle also highlights new type of organisations that are emerging. Hence, it appears that FUTA has become a new model for civil society organisation in Sri Lanka. Although it may be presumptuous to delineate the principal characteristics of this new model of civil society organisation at this juncture, as an insider, I would like to list some of them to end this note. First, it is an organisation supported totally by membership fees and special contributions by members. It does not seek funds from outside sources, except limited income from sales of its publications. Secondly, unlike other NGOs, its inner decision-making process is democratic, decentered and bottom-up. Always decisions are made through discussion and compromise and the need rarely arises for voting. Thirdly, it mingles micro aspects with macro issues so that it can accommodate the interests of members who see things from micro as well as macro points of view. Fourthly, its perspective is not democracy or human rights but social justice placing on equal basis redistribution justice, recognition justice and representative justice. Fifthly, it adopts unconventional modes of struggle occasionally mingling them with conventional type of action. I will focus on this issue in detail in a future note.
The writer teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya.