University students have different opinions about the strike action by the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA). Some oppose it, and went to court to get lecturers back to work. Others have expressed support. However almost all are annoyed at the time lost.
In writing this I do not intend to exhaustively analyse the demands of FUTA. Rather, I want to discuss the issues arising out of two of its primary demands: the salary increase and an increase in government spending on education.
Is a salary increase the solution?
There is a good case in favour of a salary increase. It goes something like this: Sri Lanka will not reach her potential if she does not have a good system of education, and a prerequisite for a good system of education is excellent teaching. As far as universities are concerned, we will produce skilled, critical and competent graduates and advance the frontiers of knowledge through rigorous and thorough research if and only if, we have the best lecturers. To get the best lecturers, we need better salaries.
While I think the above is true, it is also incomplete. A simple salary increase will not solve the problem; for that to happen, pay must be linked to performance. Only if the best work is rewarded as such will the best lecturers, once they are in our universities, be motivated to work at their best. Under the current system one’s performance is only relevant for promotions –to move, for example, from being a senior lecturer to a professor. It has little bearing on how much a lecturer earns within a given salary grade. Speaking to students from faculties and universities around the country, it is clear that this is a major problem.
Students say that there are some lecturers who just read off notes in class and suffocate any interest in the subject, while there are others who stimulate, challenge and arouse their curiosity. There are many who rarely (or never) publish papers or do research, while there are others who, despite funding shortfalls, are at the forefront of their fields and are published in internationally renowned journals. Under the current system both types of lecturers, both the best and worst, are paid the same. What incentive is there for the best to be better, if she will get the same salary regardless?
In universities around the world, this problem is dealt with by linking performance to pay. Performance is measured using transparent mechanisms such as peer-review, student review and research. Of course this will be hard to implement since our universities are part of a state sector to which such a system is foreign. However, that is the direction in which we must go if we are to have a world-class education system. If not we will continue to reward the mediocre and brilliant in equal measure – a travesty.
Challenging the spending priorities of the government
As for the demand that government spending on education be increased to 6% of GDP, I admit that I am not competent to argue about whether GDP is the appropriate measure to base this demand on, or about whether 6% is too much. Instead, I want to focus on the broader implications of this demand, and the potential it holds for Sri Lankan society.
In essence, this demand calls for the government to reassess its spending priorities. It claims that education is important and that the government has failed to recognise this. Of course there are plenty of cynical explanations about why FUTA made this demand. Several students I spoke to see it as a ploy which seeks to give a veneer of selflessness to a strike that is only about salaries.
Whatever FUTA’s motives, there is some value in what they have done. They have brought into the public eye the great problems faced by the state education sector. Now members of the broader public, particularly those who are well off, can make use of an opportunity to do what most of us Sri Lankans do not – they can take an interest and concern in problems and difficulties that do not directly affect them.
This tendency to be indifferent unless we are affected permeates our society. We see it in how Tamils rail against the conditions of the IDPs in the North, but rarely say a word about Muslim IDPs in Puttalam. We see it in how there was widespread reporting in the Sinhala press on attacks on border villages by the LTTE, and yet there was almost complete silence on the attack on villagers in Navaanthurai last year.
I do not deny the bad conditions faced by IDPs in the North, or the vicious terrorism of the LTTE; rather my point is that as groups of people and as individuals, we Sri Lankans often ignore issues that do not directly affect us.
For a society to work, particularly a decent, humane society, people need to care about things that do not affect them. Only then will the weakest be protected; only then will the poor be uplifted; only then will justice be meted out to all alike. A society where no one cares unless it affects them cannot be called a truly human society.
In this case those directly affected are the poorest. If the state education system collapses, the rich will go abroad for higher education and the middle classes will choose between professional qualifications and private degree awarding institutions. It is the poor who rely on state education as their only option, their primary means of advancement. They will be the biggest losers if this demand is ignored. Already they are at a disadvantage because they do not have the English, the wealth or the ‘connections’ needed to get a job. Once their education is put in jeopardy, they will be in even more trouble.
As a society, we are faced with a choice. We can choose to ignore these demands because they inconvenience us, or because we do not care. Or we can, notwithstanding no matter the intentions of FUTA, support its call for an increase in spending on education for the sake of those who are affected. We can, by pushing for an increase on education spending, help ensure that the future of thousands of young Sri Lankans is safeguarded.
We can, by doing so, use this struggle as an opportunity to shake off our sad indifference to things that do not concern us. If we are to be a humane society, and a decent society, then we must speak for those who cannot, and fight for those who cannot, and be concerned about even those things that ‘do not concern us’. We must ask that education be given its due place.
(Sanjayan Rajasingham is an Undergraduate at the Faculty of Law,
University of Colombo)