Friday, July 1, 2011

The Lions of Higher Education defend their lair

The Island, 01/07/2011

History was created on June 21st 2011 when University Academics of Sri Lanka took to the streets of Colombo in a magnificent display of strength and unity. Their aim was to draw the attention of the government and the general public to their cause, a salary hike in order to live with dignity and self respect, prevent degradation of standards in higher education institutes and protect free education. A procession of the Lions of Higher Education and their supporters marched in silent dignity from the University of Colombo to the Public Library. The banners they held spoke volumes:

"BEWARE of Monkeying with Higher Education and Free Education! We are a force to contend with!"

As the procession of the champions of higher education, wound its way towards the Public Library Auditorium, the venue for the Public Seminar organized by the Universities of Colombo, Kelaniya, Sri-Jayewardenepura, Moratuwa and the Open University of Sri Lanka, they were cheered by their supporters and backed by the lions of the University of Visual and Performing Arts. Led by Senior Lecturer Chandrgupta Thenuwara, they, too, joined the procession pledging solidarity with the other academics and support to their cause. At the entrance to the library the procession was greeted enthusiastically by members of the organization for International Students for Social Equality. In a voluntary display of solidarity with the university academics they distributed leaflets calling for their protection.

Within the auditorium the stage was set for the hitherto silent lions and lionesses to lash out at a government dragging its feet on an issue affecting the whole country. The Seminar commenced with a brief and decisive address by Prof. Sarath Kotagama, University of Colombo. He noted with regret that for the first time in his long university career, academics had been compelled to parade the streets to get what they rightfully deserved and to protect the dignity of the university system. But, he promised: will not be deterred. We will go forward. Forward we will tread. "

The theme of the Seminar was President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s vision to transform Sri Lanka into a "Knowledge Hub". This goal could not be achieved however without the active participation of those occupying the highest seats of learning in the country, it was pointed out. Prof. Amal Kumarage, University of Moratuwa pointed out that the hub of a wheel needed strong spokes connected to the rim for it to run well. So did the so-called Knowledge Hub, he said. Those spokes should be the university lectures.

The government had woken up the sleeping lions says Rev. Dambara Amila of the University of Sri-Jayewardenepura! Their roar was heard in Peradeniya and Matara as well. It will be heard in the near future in Anuradhapura, Kurunegala and Jaffna. We campaign all over the country. We will never stop until our demands are met.

A notable aspect of the seminar was its tri-lingual nature depicting unity, solidarity and awareness of a national problem. Dr. Poobalasundaram, University of Jaffna and Dr. Sumathi Sivamohan, University of Peradeniya waxed eloquent in Tamil and English respectively.

The Seminar ended on a high note with a fiery roar by Dr. Mahim Mendis. The charismatic and outspoken FUTA media representative pointed an accusing finger at the government for failing to take Minister of Higher Education to task for insulting the intelligentsia of the country.

It is opportune here to echo the sentiments voiced by Dr. Mendis and pose some pertinent questions to the honourable members of Parliament who graduated from our universities. Have you forgotten your university teachers? Have they contributed in any way towards your success? They are holding street demonstrations demanding their dues. Yet you turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to their travails.

Six weeks have elapsed since the university academics commenced their Trade Union Action. However, negotiations with the government have got into a stalemate. This does not augur well for the future of higher education and free education in the country. The GCE (A/L) Examination, an event of national importance, is round the corner. University academics have refused to participate in examination evaluation process until an acceptable solution is offered to them. Students are eagerly waiting to enter universities. Academics have resigned from all voluntary positions. Therefore, the authorities will not be able to conduct any activities for the new entrants. The current academic year is still in progress lectures cannot be conducted and examinations cannot be held until university teachers’ trade union action is called off. It is up to the government to clear up this mess.

Ameena Cassim
Dept. of Arabic
University of Peradeniya