Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Standard-bearers hold aloft the banner of Higher Education

The Island, 07/06/2011, By Ameena Cassim

The flag of Higher Education was at full-mast on June 01st as speaker after speaker waxed eloquent to a mammoth audience at the Kandy Post Office Auditorium. The Public Seminar organised by the University of Peradeniya was a resounding success. The Seminar that commenced at 4pm had people streaming in even at 7pm. Seated and standing, the crowd was mesmerised by the passion and dedication displayed by the participants. The message delivered was; the Trade Union Action embarked upon by university academics is not merely a demand for a salary hike but a sincere and unstinted effort to maintain high academic standards in tertiary education in public institutes in Sri Lanka. This can only be achieved by absorbing the crème de la crème of our graduates into the teaching staff. A large number of them pass out of our universities and seek more lucrative employment in the private sector or go abroad. Many who do accept teaching appointments in our universities, do not return after post-graduate studies due to poor financial remuneration for their services. This frightful brain-drain is escalating and has to be stemmed immediately.

Dissemination of knowledge is the primary objective of university education. It includes teaching and research. However progress in the latter is sadly hampered by the poor salaries received by Academics. They are compelled to seek avenues to increase their monthly income. Research entails writing articles and books of academic value and publishing them. Finances are needed for this, but from where? The sky-rocketing cost of living aggravates matters.

Our appeal to the government is to lend us its ears in consideration of the yeoman service rendered by us to the country. One cannot maintain high academic standards in Higher Education unless the basic needs of those responsible for it are fulfilled. Thus the Trade Union action is only to draw the attention of the authorities that have turned a blind eye to this dire need since the year 2006, whence our agitation began. Deception by so-called ‘Academics’ who beguiled us into trusting them with the banner of Higher Education did nothing to improve the situation. They defiled it for their own personal agendas. It is now vested in reliable hands and carried aloft by men of integrity like Nirmal Devasiri, Prabath Jayasinghe, Ananda Jayawikrema, Terrence Madujith - to name a few - and others.

There is a striking contrast between efforts made at the initial stages of our struggle and now. Two factors at the Seminar in Kandy make it abundantly clear that our Trade Union action is not merely aimed at acquiring a salary hike but also to prevent deterioration of academic standards at university level.

Firstly the participation of Rev. Prof. Hanguranketha Dheerananda of the University of Peradeniya and Rev. Dambara Amila of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. Members of the Bhuddhist Sangha renounce worldly life. Undoubtedly, staging a strike for an increase in salary is an action irrevocably divorced from their code of ethics.

Secondly the participation of Professors Navaratne Bandara, Gamini Keerawella and Sumanasiri Liyanage, senior professors at the University of Peradeniya who have almost completed their tenure at the university. Hence a salary hike can mean little or nothing to them.

Thus their clarion call that day, was to marshal whatever forces possible to protect the fortress they so ardently and painstakingly built over the years in the hallowed precincts of a tertiary education institute, and others of their calibre built elsewhere in Sri Lanka.

It is imperative that efforts be made to maintain high academic standards in the country, especially against the backdrop of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s vision to transform Sri Lanka into the ‘Miracle of Asia’ and a ‘Knowledge Hub’. That goal cannot be achieved without achieving the former. The miracle will be realised then and not manifest itself as a mirage. Or as Prof. H. M. N. Bandara of the Faculty of Science succinctly phrased it at the Seminar: ‘Sri Lanka could become a ‘hub’ sans knowledge.’

Ameena Cassim
Dept. of Arabic
University of Peradeniya