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Free Education: A letter to the President

An Open letter to the President Rajapaksa by the Federation of University Teachers
The accolades that Sri Lanka has received since independence for its impressive social indicators has been the result of the establishment and protection of two basic institutions: universal free health and free education services.

These two sectors have enabled Sri Lanka to meet two fundamental rights of its citizens without discrimination; many of the putative developed countries are still trying to achieve these despite their wealth. Hence this is an achievement of great distinction and one that needs to be protected at all costs.

However, it is with great dismay, that we observe that the current government under your Excellency’s leadership appears to be gradually destroying one of these pillars of post independent Sri Lankan society: namely, free education. As the Federation of University Teachers (FUTA), our intention is to draw your attention to the damage being wrought on the state university system, which constitutes an important institution within the education sector. While we are equally disturbed by the deterioration of the primary and secondary education sectors, recently epitomized by the Advance Level examination related Z-Score fiasco, in this instance, we will focus only on the state of tertiary education.

Your government and the Minister of Higher Education has made quite clear its intentions of supporting private universities, destroying the autonomy and independence of universities and slowly but surely paralyzing the effective functioning of the state university system. We observe the following with grave concern:

    Decreasing investment in education (less than 2% of GDP which is far below the norm for many developing countries, and even less than that of the poorest countries in the world, for instance, sub-Saharan Africa countries)

  •     Slashing of budgets for recurrent expenditure of universities (as high as 30% in some instances)
  •     Diverting funds meant for improving quality of tertiary education for Ministry sponsored events in violation of all accepted university procedures such as the so called ‘leadership training’ conducted in military camps
  •     Facilitating the entry of private institutions through providing subsidies (again from funds allocated for improving the quality of tertiary education) such as CIMA into the university system
  •     Politicization of the entire state funded University system, which has reached alarming proportions where the Minister of Higher Education is playing an increasingly
  •     interfering role in even the most mundane of its affairs (i.e micromanagement).
  •     Creating wide-spread tension and unrest within the university student population by unfairly suppressing student activism
  •     Promoting intra-student violence by inciting certain student groups against other groups
These alarming developments cannot be reconciled with the stated intentions of the Mahinda Chinthanaya of ensuring free education and uplifting university education, even less to the vision of making Sri Lanka a ‘knowledge hub’ for Asia. It is also difficult for us to imagine the Minister for Higher Education is acting arbitrarily without the consensus of the government. If, on the other hand, he is acting without the support of the Executive and the Cabinet, it reflects an even more alarming and unfortunate situation, which we are sure you will wish to rectify immediately.

In the interests of the country and in order to protect one of the greatest legacies of this country, free education, we propose the following recommendations for your kind consideration:

  •     Delineate a course of action to increase government spending on education that will reach 6% of GDP within the next 2 years.
  •     Suspend all existing higher education reform processes until a proper consultative process involving all stakeholders and the public has taken place.
  •     Take immediate steps to improve the physical and human resources of the state funded University system.
  •     Prevent politicization and micromanagement of the Universities so that these institutions can thrive as autonomous institutions to catalyze development of Sri Lanka.
  •     The immediate implementation of the remuneration step outlined in the interim proposal of 7th July 2011 with steps that should have been implemented in the 2012 budget settled without arrears in order to recruit and retain the best qualified academics within the university system
In order to facilitate the demand outlined above the FUTA suggests that academics be considered as a special category of service personnel, based on the crucial role they have in developing the country’s human resource capability and the stringent recruitment and promotion scheme that they have to follow.
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