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March of folly by S.B. Dissanayake down the path of I.M.R.A Iriyagolla

This behaviour, in a way, signifies the approach and attitude of the government in general. Following this general pattern, Minister came up with a big conspiracy theory linking the university teachers and their trade unions to imperialism and

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Tamil diaspora

8 May 2011, /By Sumanasiri Liayanage

Faced with the threat of trade union action by the university teachers, the Minister of Higher Education S. B. Dissanayake and Chairman of the University Grants Commission, Prof. Gamini Samaranayake instead of making an effort to find an amicable solution to the issues raised by the university teachers, seem to be engaged in confrontational strategy deploying threats, intimidations, misinterpretations and absolute lies.

This behaviour, in a way, signifies the approach and attitude of the government in general. Following this general pattern, Minister came up with a big conspiracy theory linking the university teachers and their trade unions to imperialism and Tamil diaspora. When they realised that this argument does not hold water, an attempt was made to connect trade union action to local anti-government forces including opposition parties.

The Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) and its sister unions are essentially non-partisan organisations notwithstanding the fact that some of their members are card-carrying members or sympathizers of various political parties. Ironically, many of them including myself, contrary to the Minister’s claim, have supported UPFA at the last two elections, the Presidential and the Parliamentary. The notion that the university teachers are trying to disturb or overthrow the current regime is not only disproportionate to the FUTA’s limited objectives and capacity, but represents a total misinterpretation of the purpose of FUTA’s TU action.

The second myth being propagated by the Minister and the company is that the last budget gave 36.75% salary increase to university teachers while other public sector employees get only a five percent pay hike. As a university teacher, I can make my salary statements, pre-budget and post-budget, open to the public to reveal how the Minister was trying to misled the general public.

The main argument and request of the university teachers are that the salary demand of the university teachers should be treated not in isolation but in relation to the gradual decline of the quality of higher education in Sri Lanka. This is an outcome of multiple factors that have been at work in the last two to three decades. The university system has lost many people in the last two decades as some have joined other sectors with higher salaries (internal brain drain) and some have refused to return after their postgraduate studies (external brain drain). Higher Education ministry has revealed recently that 550 university teachers who left the island for postgraduate studies have not returned after completing their degrees.

Secondly, many universities are not in a position to recruit their best products as in a highly competitive market situation, they opt for more better paid jobs in other sectors. Let me give an example. The best economic graduates prefer to join Central Bank, Institute of Policy Studies and the private sector. Hence, for people who are in the 25- 50 age range, universities are no longer an attractive place. In this context, if the government is really interested in improving higher education as a merit-good (I am using neo-liberal economic jargon as many in the government bureaucracy understand only that language) rather than a non-merit good, it should take steps to reverse the above-mentioned situation. If the government can come up with an alternative suggestion to improve the quality of higher education without changing the existing salary structure, I am sure FUTA and its sister unions would welcome that although it does not improve the living condition of its members.

Does the government have such a plan? Does it have a magic wand to attract young graduates to the university system and to persuade middle-aged academics to return to universities after their post-graduate or post-doctoral studies and research? In the absence of such a plan, Minister of Higher Education admitted some time back in the Parliament that the university salary structure should be revised by placing university salaries between Rs. 70,000 and Rs. 200,000. Although the university teachers welcome this suggestion by the minister, they came up with a substantially lower salary demand.

Let me pose a simpler question? We are aware that some university teachers joined the government service after the Parliamentary election. Will they voluntarily return to their university jobs? The answer is absolute no, because the market forces operate in the opposite direction. While avoiding these real issues, the Minister and the higher education ministry authorities are continuously trying to terrorise the space of higher education by intimidating university academics. The best example is the recent circular that has been issued by the Chairman of the University Grants Commission. It demonstrates incapacity and inability on the part of the government to understand what the University Act says on the subject. I am sure that FUTA will take necessary legal actions against this circular in the near future.

In fact, the government’s project to terrorise the space of higher education is not of recent origin. The same tactics was practised by various people linked to ruling party many times in the past. What is new today is the Minister and the high officials of the Ministry are directly engaged in this strategy. The proposal to conduct orientation programmes for university students in army camps should also be viewed within this context. It is an accepted norm that the so-called fresher should undergo an orientation programme prior to the commencement of their academic programme proper. But I am not in a position to understand why the government wants to conduct it in army camps?

It was said that the orientation programme includes, inter alia, the English language training, IT training, physical exercises and leadership training. Of course, the relevant expertise available with the security forces may be obtained for such a programme. However, it is no reason for this orientation programme to be held in an army cantonment. I raise this issue as, in my opinion, it demonstrates the misperception among the politicians and bureaucracy as regards the quality of education and higher education.

As I noted in a previous note the quality of education has been reduced to marketability. University teachers are blamed by the Minister and the bureaucrats for unemployment problem of the graduates. Employment is basically demand-driven and depends on the level of aggregate demand. The governments and the private sector in Sri Lanka have so far failed to maintain the level of investment that is necessary for the absorption of the total labour force. Training people for specific tasks is not the principal objective of the university system since universities focus mainly on developing capacities and capabilities that is imperative for specific tasks associated with specific jobs. Although there is a decline in the quality of higher education in Sri Lanka due to multiple factors, it seems that this phenomenon is over-inflated.

The bridges built by our graduates have not yet collapsed except in situations where inferior materials were used in construction because of the corrupt practices of politicians and bureaucrats. Similarly, our graduates in medical sciences perform remarkable service and save lives working in extremely difficult conditions unless low quality drugs are supplied to hospital system because of corrupt practices. Scapegoating university academia is part of the project of terrorising higher education. When the marketability is over emphasised as the prime quality of education, the development of capacity and critical thinking is naturally replaced by the notion of disciplining. The initiative to have orientation program in army camps is directly linked with this objective of disciplining.

Let me conclude this note by making one final observation. As a person who was involved in organising 1970 Kuliyapitiya election rally against then Minister of Education and Higher Education, I M R A Iriyagolla, whose policies and attitudes towards teachers in general and university teachers in particular eventually led to the fall of the Dudley Senanyaka government in 1970 General Election, I see that the Minister S B Disanayaka is moving at increasing speed in the same direction. I am sad about it for two reasons.

Two reasons are: First, I first met Minister Disanayake about 40 years ago when he was a young and quite vociferous student leader attached to the Communist Party of Sri Lanka. We worked together on many issues in the early 1990s. Secondly, I voted for UPFA government at the last elections so that I do not want it to fall prematurely if it maintains its commitment to its program and promises that was accepted by the electorate. So I make a humble appeal to him to reverse his position to his famous Parliamentary speech and approach the issue in different perspective.

(This is a text of speech delivered at the public seminar organised by the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) and held at the Mahaweli Center, Colombo on May 5, 2011)


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