Sunday, July 8, 2012

Arab-like spring in education?

Struggle of FUTA will be futile if it does not counter government’s media mechanism
universities were reopened after the calling off the strike of non-academic staff. Less than one week later, the universities are closed again, and this time around the academics are on strike (I am told that if the demands of the non-academics are not met within forty-five days, they would go on strike again). As a final year undergraduate, already in his mid-twenties with a sorry excuse of an income, I find these developments quite frustrating.

However, last Friday at the Arts theater of University of Peradeniya, a meeting between academics and students was held to discuss the crisis in the education system. I was present at the meeting, which was by any standard, a rare event, given that over the years students have distanced themselves from dons and vise versa. At the meeting, the lecturers who addressed the staggering turnout stressed that the strike of the non-academics is not (only) about better wages, that in fact it had the larger and much nobler objective of safeguarding the Free Education System.

There is one thing that most of us in the universities cannot deny; that we are in universities because education is free. That there is a crisis in the education system also cannot be denied. GCE Advanced Level results of the year 2011 have still not been finalized and 2012 Advanced Level examination is scheduled to be held next month. I personally know many students who are deeply psychologically affected because of the irresponsibility and incompetence of the authorities. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has so far apologized (not that an apology would help, but I like to think that we live in a civilized society) to the students for the psychological agony that the department of examination is putting them through.

Anyway, what we call the free education system, exists only nominally. Education has been, to a very large extent, high-jacked by sundry tuition “sirs” (some have risen from humble tuition karayas to multi-millionaires). Schools are increasingly becoming redundant institutions. It is for this reason that 75 percent attendance is mandatory in all government schools. Let us make this rule defunct and see how many students will still come to school. This rather simple experiment will reveal the level to which the quality of education in this country (which is free) has deteriorated. However, in the case of tertiary education, an equivalent development has not yet taken place. However, if the government’s attempts to establish private universities succeeded, the state-funded universities would suffer the same fate as government schools.

However, after that necessary digression, let me return to my point of departure. Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) has tactfully, and I like to think, in good faith, linked the salary issue to the larger project of safeguarding the free education system. For this, they say, that the government should provide a larger share from the GDP for education (six percent, to be precise, within two years). This is by all means a reasonable demand, given that at present only around 1.5 percent from the GDP is allocated for education. FUTA argues that if the government can spend 20 percent of its GDP on defense, it should be able to spend more (than 1.5 percent) on education, which is also a sensible argument.

FUTA stresses that better wages are necessary to retain the best products from local universities, who are tempted by proverbial greener pastures elsewhere in the World. FUTA, by broadening its struggle to one that concerns the education system as a whole, is countering the government policy of portraying the trade union action of the academics as “selfish”. So, are then the university teachers ready to become martyrs to free education? Well you might wonder where my tongue is when I say this, they sound as if they do.

It should be noted that FUTA has brought its brighter, “progressive” and articulate members to the forefront of their struggle. Respected academic and writer Dr. Liyanage Amarakeerthi delivering a passionate speech stated that a giant had risen from a long sleep. Hyperbole aside, it is true that the university dons, as a collective body, have immense civil power and clout. It is for this reason, that FUTA, as they say, is a force to be reckoned with.

During the discussion that followed the speeches, a student asked if this struggle would end once the salary issue was solved. I guess this question was in the minds of most of us. And in reply we were told that it would end, when the government reaches an agreement with FUTA to increase spending on public education. Well, bona-fides of this response could be tested in the coming few weeks if not months. Another student pointed out that the struggle of FUTA would be futile if it does not find a way to counter government’s media mechanism, which would inevitably class the trade union action of the academics as anti-patriotic. Therefore, even though the number of people that I can reach is relatively limited (given that this is an English language newspaper), I decided to contribute to the struggle of the academics by writing a piece about it (for which I will be paid, of course).

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