Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Enhance autonomy; de-politicize appointments – FUTA demands

Lakbimanews.lk, 19/08/2012, By Namini Wijedasa

Striking university academics last week requested the government to immediately suspend several ongoing initiatives which they said violated the Universities Act – including the controversial leadership training programme conducted by the military. 
They also want the government to discontinue the agreement with the Defence Ministry’s Rakna Arakshaka Lanka firm to provide security to universities; the agreement with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) and other private education institutes allowing the use of university property, 9-1resources and services to conduct their classes free of charge; and the foreign students’ scholarship scheme.

Let’s have some specifics
The proposals are part of a two-page letter sent to Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who is holding crisis talks with the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) to end their protracted strike. This was in response to a three-page document given by Rajapaksa to FUTA on August 10, broadly outlining the government’s position.
FUTA said then that the government’s proposals were non-specific. The document had quoted substantially from the 2010 Mahinda Chinthana which envisaged turning Sri Lanka into an education hub. It said the government hoped to stem the brain drain as well as draw talent back to the country. It pledged to increase investment on education but didn’t refer to FUTA’s demand that 6% of GDP be allocated to the sector. It said it would set up a top class post-graduate university and invite foreign academics to lecture there. 
The government’s submission also claimed that money for education is currently being disbursed through the Education, Higher Education, Health, Youth Affairs and Vocational Training, Sports, and several provincial ministries. It accepted that university contribution is essential to turn Sri Lanka into Asia’s knowledge hub. It said everyone, including academics, must help devise a plan to this end. It acknowledged that independence, autonomy and flexibility were crucial in universities. 
During face-to-face discussions with Rajapaksa, it was also agreed that the government will establish a Sri Lanka University Academic Service, as requested by FUTA. 
In their responses to Rajapaksa, FUTA welcomed the government’s acceptance that it must allocate a higher percentage of GDP for education. But they asked that official expenditure be calculated according to international norms. They also wanted a timeframe for increasing education spending to 6% of GDP. 
FUTA said it is pleased at the government’s acquiescence to establish a special service but again requests a timeframe and a committee to draft service minutes. The committee should comprise of representatives from  FUTA, the Finance Ministry and the University Grants Commission. “The first draft of the service minutes will be provided by FUTA,” they said. 
In their original demands, FUTA demanded a 20 per cent increase to the basic salary, effective 1 January 2012, in addition to all existing allowances. They wanted another 16.67 per cent raise with effect from January 1, 2013.
Now FUTA has requested the government to “give a clear assurance that a permanent solution to the salary demands will be provided through the establishment of this special service.” This, too, should include a timeframe for implementation. FUTA wants an interim solution to their salary demands, pending the introduction of a permanent payment scheme.

Autonomy? Bah!
One of FUTA’s most controversial demands is that the government returns and guarantees autonomy within their institutions in the sense defined by the Universities Act of 1978. On Friday, the civil society group, Friday Forum, added their voice to this chorus.  
Rt. Rev. Bishop Duleep de Chickera, Prof. Savithri Goonesekera - former vice chancellor of the Colombo University, Jayantha Dhanapala - retired senior diplomat, Dr. Selvy Thiruchandran from the Women’s Education and Research Centre, Dr. G. Usvatte-arrachchi - development economist and scholar on education, and Ahilan Kadirgamar - researcher and activist, all decried political interference in university affairs. They called for a de-politicization of the system, an end to “ad hoc policy making by the Ministry of Higher Education” and reported violations of the Universities Act.  They also supported the broader framework of FUTA’s trade union action which envisages an overall improvement in higher education. 
In their letter, FUTA said that to properly protect autonomy, an agreement should be signed between the union, the Ministry of Higher Education, the University Grants Commission and vice chancellors.

Adhere to Uni Act
This document should include a pledge to respect and adhere to the Universities Act in all matters pertaining to higher education; and a promise to use the proper channels of faculty boards, academic senates and the UGC when taking action on any higher education reform process and even circulars. The agreement must reflect a willingness to amend the Universities Act consultatively and transparently to enhance autonomy and guarantee de-politicization of appointments to university bodies including the UGC.
FUTA has sought an assurance that the minister of Higher Education shall not interfere in the appointment of University Councils.  “The assurance must include an undertaking by the UGC that the qualifications of those appointed and the expected expertise each appointee brings into the respective council to be publicized for the information of the university community and the general public,” they stated. 
A promise that the minister will not interfere in the appointment of vice chancellors is also required in addition to a pledge to “allow university councils to be the final decision making body with regard to all university appointments, both academic and non academic.” 
FUTA has then asked for a pledge to stop interfering in the allocation of university funds and the withdrawal of all circular letters hampering university autonomy and academic freedom.

Leadership programme to stay

– sources say

Economic Affairs Minister Basil Rajapaksa confirmed that he had received FUTA’s responses to the government’s proposals. “Negotiations are going on so I don’t want to comment until we go through the whole thing,” he said. “Otherwise the talks might be damaged.”
Rajapaksa also said that, although the last face-to-face discussion took place between the two parties on August 10, there has been a verbal exchange of views in the interim. “I think things will turn out positively,” he predicted. It is learnt that another meeting between FUTA and government representatives (excluding 9-2the minister) is scheduled for tomorrow. It will likely focus on “working out the specifics.”
While Rajapaksa refused to elaborate, other sources said the government did not feel FUTA should hold them to account on policy changes – such as stopping the leadership programme conducted by the military or withdrawing Rakna Arakshaka Lanka from universities. 
It is therefore probable that some of the demands in FUTA’s latest submission would be rejected outright as “matters of government policy.” It would then be interesting to see whether FUTA will take forward their strike action or agree with the government on an “exit strategy.” The academics are not being paid for the period of their trade union action, something they also hope to resolve in future. 
The government also appears willing to set up a high-level committee to implement the proposals that are acceptable to both sides. This could be like the committee that is monitoring implementation of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Headed by presidential secretary Lalith Weeratunga, it consists of an advisor to cabinet, two secretaries and two of Weeratunga’s staff. The higher education committee could be headed by Weeratunga or a senior minister, sources said. However, this is yet to be discussed. 
Some of FUTA’s demands are too complicated for the government to provide timeframes, these sources said.  For instance, the forming of a separate service “is not a small thing.” “Minutes have to be drafted and it has to go through several authorities,” one senior government source said. “How long does it take even to get an act passed?  Approvals have to be obtained, people in various other fields could argue against it, it has to go through drafting and somebody could challenge it in the Supreme Court, and so on.”
Commenting on FUTA’s demands that financial allocations be increased, this source said that the authority over budgetary matters does not lie with the executive but with parliament. “Trade unions can’t just dictate terms like this,” he insisted. “We think the government has given FUTA a good opportunity to settle this within the framework of existing policy as described in the Mahinda Chinthana Idiri Dekma.”
FUTA wants the Universities Act fully implemented. Government sources pointed out that there is a flip side to this. “The counter-argument is that there is no recognition whatsoever in the act of unions of academics!” one source said. “It recognizes only student unions. Meanwhile, the powers of the minister run into five or six pages in this law. What would happen if it’s implemented to the letter?”
These sources predicted that the government “will not touch” the leadership programme. “There will be no change,” they said. “Even the students like that programme. It is one good thing the government introduced.”

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