Monday, January 16, 2012

Another Brick In The Wall

The Sunday Leader, 15/01/2012,

  • Education and Sri Lankan Ministers
  • By Nirmala Kannangara

    S.B. Dissanayake, Bandula Gunawardena and Mohan Lal Grero
    Sri Lanka must surely boast the largest number of education ministers although none of them have discharged their duties as expected but contributed to an all time mock-up of the system.
    The recent A/L result fiasco, the public outcry against the government and its education ministers have taken center stage for messing up the future of children.
    Typically none of the five ministers have come forward to take responsibility but instead have passed the buck on to certain government officials. In addition the country’s entire higher education system too is in the doldrums.
    From the time Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake took office university unrest has worsened. Universities are closed for a good part of each semester.
    Considering all these factors questions have now been raised as to why a small country like ours need so many education ministers.
    In the central government alone there are five ministers for education- Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena and his Deputy Minister Vijith Wijayamuni Soyza, Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake and his Deputy Minister Nandimithra Ekanayake and Mohan Lal Grero as the Monitoring Education MP.
    In addition all the nine provinces have their own Education Ministers and their deputies and Monitoring Provincial Council Members. What their duties are and whether they have fulfilled them is the multi million rupee question – which is costing this country and her future generation dearly.
    Eyebrows are being raised as to why such a number of ministers are maintained with public money when they have failed even to regularize a proper mechanism for grade one admission.
    From grade one to grade twelve each year the debacles remain endless. Closure of schools, lack of teachers in remote schools, grade one admission mess, delay in printing government text books or delay in distributing uniform materials, errors in school text books, disclosure of grade five scholarship exam papers, errors in O/L exam papers and the latest being the A/L result fiasco.
    The question is who is responsible?
    With regard to the A/L fiasco, according to the government the preliminary investigations have revealed that it was the data entry operators that have messed up the results but nothing to do with the relevant ministers. Sri Lanka is the only country that puts the blame on officials when it comes to any irregularity but grabs credit to the government for any achievements.
    There were protests all over the country demanding the review of the A/L results as there were instances that students have received results for different subjects for which they have not sat at the examination.
    “This is the state of this wonder of Asia. The vision for the future which is the emerging wonder of Sri Lanka as stated in the bankrupt Mahinda Chinthanaya,” said an angry teacher from one of Sri Lanka’s premier boys schools Royal College Colombo.
    Meanwhile, many universities have been shut indefinitely after university students protested against the formation of private universities in the country.
    Despite the arrests of student leaders last year, and the pending trials, college unrest has returned on a large scale causing major disruption in the country’s higher education system
    Amongst the abuse meted out against the students are – virginity tests that were carried out forcefully on female students by the head of the Sri Jayawardenapura University, providing security to some universities by a private security firm owned by a certain high official in the Defence Ministry and deploying army and police to thwart student protests.
    “Protesting students had been evicted from the Sri Jayawardenapura university last week by a court order following a monument of a killed student being destroyed by the army although they (army) deny the claim,” a university student said.
    Meanwhile these university students claim that the government is interfering in their work and accused the Higher Education Minister who too was a union leader in his days at the Peradeniya University for trying to privatize the country’s higher education system.
    “This is why all these suppressions are meted out against us. The primary and secondary schools are now in the process of closing down systematically. That was why the President clearly stated in his budget speech that selected 1000 schools in the country would be re-organized. If so what will happen to the other 8662 schools in the country. Nearly 300 schools have already closed down and it is estimated that there are 1528 schools in the country with less than 100 students in each school. Sufficient infrastructure has to be provided to these schools together with the required number of teachers. Without concentrating to these lapses they are trying to privatize the entire education system,” a student of Jayawardenapura University told The Sunday Leader on condition of anonymity.
    Meanwhile adding worst to the higher education system in the country the Executive Committee of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA), at its meeting held on January 6, has decided to resort to trade union action to urge the government and the higher educational authorities to uphold the commitments made to the academics in the country.
    As its first move, all members of the unions affiliated to the FUTA will hold a token strike on Tuesday January 17.
    According to the FUTA the government deliberately failed to uphold the promise given to them when they had the discussion with President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2011.
    “The three month long trade union action launched by the FUTA last year was temporarily suspended following the agreements reached between the FUTA and the government through the direct intervention of the President. Since then the FUTA worked tirelessly with University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Higher Education Ministry to reach the goals but however, the higher educational authorities consistently failed to uphold the assurances given to the university academics,” The FUTA said.
    The FUTA wishes to summarize the foremost amongst the commitments that were promised by the governmental authorities.
    “We demanded FUTA representation at decision-making processes pertaining to the
education and higher education- which was one of the key demands to which the
authorities agreed. However we have reliably understands that Quality Assurance Accreditation and Qualification Framework Bill commonly known as the Non-State University Bill which has already received the cabinet approval will be presented to the Parliament this month without a proper dialogue of Vice Chancellors, Rectors, Deans, Heads of Academic Departments, Senate and Council members and academic staff of the universities. As a result the academic staff have deeply disturbed and puzzled over the secrecy behind the purported bill which is against the agreement,” President FUTA said.
    FUTA also stressed the need of proving enough of money on higher education.
    “A recent World Bank report shows that Sri Lanka spends only 1 .9% of the GDP on education although it has to be increased up to 6% of the GDP, the lowest in the region, while other middle income countries spend on average 4.6% of their GDP. To fulfill Sri Lanka’s aspirations of becoming a knowledge hub, FUTA recommended that this has to be increased; however this recommendation too has been neglected,” alleged the FUTA
    Meanwhile they alleged that the right of the Universities to spend even the small amounts of money allocated for the education of the students has been taken away.
    “Even the pittance provided for higher education has been snatched away in order to pay for costly government sponsored projects such as imposing ultra-expensive security firms while the standard tender procedures of hiring and outsourcing have been deliberately avoided,” FUTA President Prof. Nirmal Ranjith said.
    The implementations of the salary scheme in compliance with the Jiffry-Malik proposals of 2008 too have failed by the government according to Prof. Ranjith.
    “Though the authorities agreed to consider the above proposal, there has been no genuine
interest in implementing the proposals while no attempts have been made to address the salary issue of the university teachers from the previous budget,” he said.

FUTA Spokesperson, Dr. Mahim Mendis told The Sunday Leader that the proposed trade union actions followed by the token strike would be extremely serious.
    “Leave alone our salaries why could not the government allocate at least 6% from the gross domestic product (GDP). When the government has allocated much more funds to other unimportant sectors, the allocation for the higher education is far more less than the other countries in the region. This is the reason why the country’s tertiary literacy level is below 7% although the primary literacy level is said to be 90%,” claimed Dr. Mendis.
    Dr. Mendis said that their salaries too have to be increased on par with the Central Bank salary scales.
    “We wanted the government to increase our salaries step by step to reach the Central Bank salary scale. It is the university academics that produce the experts for the national development in the country. As a result of this step-motherly treatment to university lecturers, the brain drain will get accelerated and that was why our universities have failed to retain PhD holders but surviving mainly with the BA and MA holders,” said Dr. Mendis.
    According to Dr. Mendis, there are not more than 25- 30% PhD holders in each university academic staff and accuses the government for its failure to retain them due to poor salary structures.
    “University Dons with PhD leave the country in search of greener pasture as they are not paid well. How could a country produce intellectuals without a proper education given to the university students by PhD holders? In Sri Lanka the university students are taught by BA and MA holders who are qualified to lecture primary and secondary education,” alleged Dr. Mendis.
    When contacted, Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena said that he was able to streamline the country’s education system and has new plans to upgrade the schools in the country specially the remote schools.
    However he got annoyed when asked as to what happened to the A/L examination fiasco and who was at fault.
    Deputy Education Minister Vijith Wijayamuni Soyza after an ‘official’ foreign tour was not available for a comment as his mobile phone was switched off since his arrival to the country.
    Higher Education Minister Nandimithra Ekanayake was away in UK for a world education forum from January 9 to 11 but his ministry officials told The Sunday Leader that he will be back only after January 15. Education Monitoring MP Mohan Lal Grero too was out of the country and not available for comment.

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