Saturday, January 14, 2012

Editorial - Dons feeling hard done-by

Sunday Island, January 13, 2012, 8:02 pm 

Arrogance of power has been the undoing of most governments in this country. The present dispensation does not seem to have learnt from the experience of previous regimes. Intoxicated with power, it is trying to bulldoze its way through. The debilitation of the main Opposition party, the UNP, owing to internal disputes has apparently emboldened the ruling coalition to resort to strong-arm tactics in dealing with virtually everything. But, resistance has emerged from unexpected quarters.

University teachers have threatened a strike in protest against the government's failure to honour its pledges including that of a pay hike. Universities are already in turmoil and unless the situation is brought under control, it is bound to develop into a fully-blown crisis plunging the higher education sector into utter chaos, the signs of which are already visible.

Warring university dons may be accused of anything but conspiring to bring down the government. (In fact, among those at the forefront of their struggle are some ardent supporters of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government.) They must not be treated like terrorists and the government would do well to realise that they cannot be frightened into submission. Surely, there are lapses on their part which need to be rectified but the fact remains that they deserve a better deal.

Some of the university teachers are paid less than labourers in the loss-incurring CEB! Sri Lankan universities cannot be transformed into brain trusts without, inter alia, the tutorial staff being paid decent salaries and their academic freedom guaranteed. If the government can agree to an 18 per cent pay hike for the CEB workers, there is no reason why it cannot grant the university teachers the promised salary increases, take on board their views on its private university project and act accordingly.

Tens of thousands of students' fundamental right to higher education is blatantly violated year in year out as the State universities are not equipped to enroll all those who qualify for admission to university, at the GCE (A/L) examination. Only those who have the wherewithal go overseas for higher studies in case of failing to enter local universities, while the vast majority of eligible children are left out. No country is capable of providing higher education to one and all at the State universities and, therefore, there is a pressing need for private higher education institutions in this country. But, they should not be set up at the expense of the existing cash-strapped, neglected national universities. The government is duty bound to allocate more funds for the education sector and make a serious effort to develop the state universities before making new laws to facilitate the establishment of private universities.

As for student protests which are gathering momentum, the government has blundered by lumping all undergraduates together and meting out collective punishment by closing some universities/faculties indefinitely. Troublemakers are only a microscopic minority but they have been able to mobilise students as many problems in universities remain unsolved. Seats of higher learning must be liberated from the clutches of student thugs, all right. But the government has, true to form, set about that task the wrong way. Instead of isolating the ultra radical elements with an anarchistic agenda, it is unfortunately trying to impose its will on teachers and students alike in a Hitlerite fashion, so to speak. It ought to stop barking up the wrong tree and treating each and every undergraduate or don as an enemy if it is to defeat the real enemies bent on not only disrupting the universities but also destabilising the country.

The government is left with no alternative but to pay university teachers better salaries, address students' legitimate grievances, develop universities and enroll more students before thinking of private higher education outfits. Else, the existing university system is sure to go the same way as the CTB, which is hobbling along, starved of resources and unable to compete with the private bus operators.

All right-minded people will pledge their solidarity with the university dons poised for trade union action.

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