We are a concerned group of academics fighting to ensure the opportunity of high quality public higher education for the Sri Lankan masses. This blog is intended as a bulletin board to share news and ideas relevant to the cause. The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the FUTA. If you wish to post any interesting articles please e-mail them to uteachers.sl at gmail.com
In Sri Lanka, academics in the island’s state-run universities (except those in the faculties of Medicine) have been on strike for over a month. They call for better salaries and working conditions, demands that visibly fall on completely deaf ears. Their plight is shared by the remainder of dissenting fringes in Sri Lankan society, together with segments of school leavers, senior school students and their parents. The latter groups’ willingness to support the academics stems from repeated problems in administering the Advanced Level examination, Sri Lanka’s prized secondary educational qualification.
The demands of academics are, by any count, certainly justifiable. The able, multilingual elements of Sri Lankan academia rarely decide to work in the island, making their way to greener pastures overseas. The remainder of academics could be considered as the primary constituents of the island’s knowledge base. Many of them have PhDs from overseas seats of learning, have foreign experience, and some of them are multilingual.
Yet another commonality among all of them is that, pace less than a handful of exceptions, they are all alumnae of Sri Lankan universities. For reasons of their choice, they have decided to stay back and work in the system of education that nurtured them.
Academics have been working for low salaries over many years, and it is high time the problem was duly addressed. Unfortunately, the campaign with this objective could not have occurred at a worse time. The executive branch of government is headed by a family with visibly the lowest regard for educational achievement in the entire history of post-1948 Sri Lanka. Yet, one can intermittently notice a willingness to hire reputed academics to work with the ruling establishment, and to solicit the services of educated multilingual citizens. These exceptions have one commonality: they are allowed only as long as the appointees are willing to work for the establishment, and the slightest dissent is promptly dealt with.
The present government of Sri Lanka is largely ruled by Bretton Woods institutions, which are keen on financial discipline, austerity and the curtailment of the public sector and state services. In this context, the system of education represents a major sector in which the state is keen to curtail public spending. None of the offspring of the political elite attend state-run universities, and the ruling class is therefore unaffected by cuts in education. The emphasis on private universities, the appointment of a quintessential village thug as the Minister of Higher Education, of an ‘education businessman’ as the Minister of Education are all steps of a subtle process that leads to lesser and lesser state engagement with primary, secondary and tertiary education.
The phenomenon can be explained by the zest to start private universities. There is no doubt that non-state higher education institutions are a necessity. It is a sensitive issue in the Sri Lankan context. When dealing with such matters, a responsible government adopts a cautious strategy, whereas the MR government has been acting irresponsibly. Instead of a concerted effort, the government has been trying to scratch the soaring wound by encouraging criticism to private education. This creates the impression that the state’s hard work to improve education is being hampered by pitiful detractors. This is all but an illusion. The reality is that the state is interested in developing an education business, to find ways of getting maximum commissions and related profits through foreign investors in higher education.
One could claim the above statement false, citing the Minister of Higher Education’s keenness to reiterate that the public education system will not be compromised by the new trend. This is a pill too hard to swallow. Had a concerted, consistent plan been implemented to address the burning issues in the state higher education sector BEFORE the elaboration of a project for private education, one could have considered the Minister’s claims as sincere.
What is happening is the exact opposite. The state wants the gradual weakening of the educational system. When academics go on strike or go into exile, smart kids go abroad, the Department of Examinations makes one blunder after another, all this culminates to facilitate the ultimate goal of weakening the state education system. This, in turn, would enable concerned politicians to reap plenty in commissions through private investors, and the executive could gleefully ensure the satisfaction of its Bretton Woods benefactors.
The ongoing strike of academics is thus to the tremendous advantage of the ruling establishment. It has enabled the state to portray a crisis situation and close down universities until further notice. This decision would have been a more challenging prospect had the strike not taken place.
The academics, high schoolers and their parents need to understand the following: the ruling establishment will not raise a finger as long as the issue does not affect them. Unless the present strike is transformed into a massive popular political movement that seeks to topple the government, the academics’ strike risks verging on futility.
*Due to a special request of the author, identifying details have been withheld.