Tuesday, May 24, 2011

University teachers’ trade union action, development and the future of the country

The Island, May 23, 2011, by G. D. R. U. U. Abeyrathne

A statement made by one of my colleague on the salary issue of university teachers, motivated me to write this piece of paper and to add a few of my thoughts into the present discourse on the Sri Lanka University system.

He went on confessing that he has become really disappointed for being an active supporter of President Rajapaksa at the last Presidential and General Elections. The occasion where he made the above statement was at the successful trade union convention held at the Faculty Auditorium, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, in the presence of the entire membership of the academic community of the same university.

It is my duty to add a few qualifications for his disgust, frustration and anger over the government reaction towards the university community. He is a young and a promising academic with a bright future. He has already published in a reputed journal in his field of study and had actively engaged in the propaganda campaign of President Rajapaksa.

His wording of the statement signified the fact they had expected from the Rajapaksa government, proper utilization of public monies, laying of a sound foundation for higher education in the country, etc. Yet, their expectations were in vain. Most academics who supported the government are quite frustrated.

The most important duty of a university is the production and dissemination of knowledge. It is accepted as the role proper for a universities throughout the world. The success or failure of the above role of the university depends on the quality of the academic staff of the university.

It implies that the first and foremost responsibility of a university teacher is to produce knowledgeable a citizen for the benefit of the country and human beings in general. In the recent past, it has become a fashion to blame the academic community for everything wrong with the Graduates of Sri

Lanka’s Universities and they also blame the universities for not producing knowledgeable persons for national development.

I do not agree with the notion that Sri Lankan University Teachers do not produce knowledgeable people in their respective fields of studies. In fact, despite financial constrains, they conduct research. The sad thing is that they do not come in published form, because they cannot afford it without risking the welfare of their families.

In fact, Sri Lankan University teachers are unable to devote time to produce knowledgeable products to the best of abilities and they just disseminate knowledge. There is a structural dimension behind this situation. That is with the rising cost of books, equipment and other factors, they cannot even think of buying a book at least once a month, due to low salaries.

The other dimension associated with the salary structure is the braindrain. The University Grants Commission has reported that there are some 550 odd university teachers who did not return to the country after their post-graduate studies in foreign universities. A good number of able and qualified teachers in Sri Lankan Universities had left their profession and migrated to various countries because they find that the Sri Lankan government does not treat them as they should be treated.

The present government has identified education as one important area of investment and development strategy. If Sri Lanka is planning to become the knowledge hub and make education one key area in their development strategy, it has to prevent the brain-drain associated with Sri Lankan Universities. In fact, most of the university teachers in Sri Lanka are capable and qualified to migrate to foreign countries in search of a decent life. In this sense, they are more patriotic than most politicians, who are taking the common man for a ride.

It has become a fashion for the minister, the politically appointed secretary of the Higher Education Ministry and the Chairman of the University Grants Commission, to blame every wrong (such as lack of soft skills), among the graduates of Sri Lankan Universities on university teachers. The government and higher education and education ministries and the top level policy makers have been unable to grasp the crux of the problem on education policy and policy implementation. As a student of political science, I suggest that this sad situation has emerged out due to government policy on education.

Let us take it issue by issue. One allegation is that university teachers have been unable to produce graduates with soft skills such as literacy in English.

Let us think of the illiteracy of graduates. The government points out that they cannot communicate in proper English. One of the important points is that universities are not training schools for aspiring candidates to learn English. The reality is the lack of proper communication skills of the graduates is not a problem that has to be counted in evaluating university education. A normal Sri Lankan student, before they enter university, is supposed to learn English for at least 12 years. Of course, at the university, we come across students who even do not know the very basics of the English language. This situation has to be understood in the context of the government’s inability to provide physical and infrastructural facilities to the rural areas of the country. There are schools in rural areas which have not had a teacher for English or Mathematics, for years. I want to point out that the so-called lack of soft skills among the graduates of the Sri Lankan University system, is not the failure of university teachers. It is a failure of government policy and implementation. Every successive government has not fulfilled it’s social obligation, to provide good and quality education to the rank-and-file of the rural areas in the country, since the so-called political independence obtained in 1948.

There is also one other dimension that goes hand-in-hand with the above blame heaped on Sri Lankan University teachers. That is the unemployment rate of graduates.

The government and the University Grants Commission boasts from time to time that they had increased the student intake to universities. The comparative data on such occasions reveals that in most of the cases, they had increased the student intake in humanities, social sciences, management and general sciences, but not in applied sciences.

What Sri Lanka needs is a genuine diversification of the education system and training of graduates to exploit the global labour market. If somebody goes through the Sri Lankan Government Policy on foreign employment, it becomes crystal clear that it revolves around unskilled, minor labour.

Politicians, administrators and sadly, the new generation of Vice-Chancellors in the Sri Lankan University system have started to point out that university students are violent and not suitable for the available jobs in the market. The fact is that our society has turned violent due to the actions and words of politicians, the judiciary and administrators. The university students are part and parcel of the violent culture of our society.

Of course, I believe that this is a rectifiable factor, through a proper and well planned educational policy. I suggest that unemployment is caused by the wrong educational policy of the government. A few observations of ground realities

are pertinent here. First is the ‘Patron Client System’ of appointment and the elitist bias characterized in the recent political regime in providing appointments to the public sector and the patronized private sector has to be counted in explaining the student based violence in Sri Lankan Universities.

Trade Unions are very important actors in the public discourse. The social mindedness of a trade union and the implementability of their demands are important dimensions that society takes into account in extending their support.

The proposed trade union action by the Federation of University Teachers’ Association shall be evaluated in the above context. I am really happy to see that the Teachers’ Association of Sri Lankan Universities has come forward with socially minded sets of proposals on education and university education, which are implementable for the first time in Post-Independent Sri Lanka.

The most important demand put forward by them is that the government shall allocate at least 6% of Gross Domestic Product for educating the younger generation of the country. This is a progressive and socially minded proposal, because the post-1977 dictatorial political regimes have heaped burdens on its citizens, rather than providing social benefits.

We should pressurize the government to take necessary action to provide quality education to all citizens in the country. I opine that this is practical and doable.

The other demands put forward by them are also justifiable. The university teachers are highly qualified. They have produced eminent professionals and continue to do so. However, the Federation of University Teachers’ Association has been perceived as an eminent threat to the capacity of universities to produce such able and socially minded personalities in the future.

The other dimension of the problem is that able and qualified university teachers are leaving their posts and even the country forever. The only solution available is to give them their due right to a decent salary and living standards. The demands of university teachers are not difficult to be granted. The citizens of this country know the sort of cabinet that the country has got.

It is also noteworthy that most university teachers were behind the president and this government in previous elections, though they are not going after them begging for something. In this context, I would like to recall what Dr. Manmohan Singh said on the salary issue, when he took initiatives to increase

the salaries of Indian University teachers. He said that without paying a decent salary for university teachers, India could never reach its development goals.

I fervently wish that our politicians attain the level of statesmanship of Indian politicians.