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
AN ELDERLY couple sat inside an auto-rickshaw holding a placard with bold red and blue writing: “Don’t mess with our granddaughter’s right to free education”.
The pair, both in their eighties, were among hundreds of protesters who met at Colombo’s Hyde Park on August 23rd to demand a dramatic increase in the government’s education spending. “Darling, I’m nobody,” the old woman said. “But poor people are having trouble getting their kids educated.” And she wanted the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to take note.
Sri Lanka’s state-run universities have been crippled since July 4th, when nearly 5,000 lecturers went on strike to call for a 20% salary increase. The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) said droves of academics were leaving Sri Lanka because of poor wages.
The union’s wish list expanded significantly as negotiations with the government broke down. It now includes a stipulation that the government should increase expenditure on education from the current 1.9% of GDP to 6%. This became the battle cry of a determined—and growing—movement that has rattled the government so much that on August 22nd it shut down all universities indefinitely.
Many demonstrators, most of them university lecturers, wore orange and black T-shirts that said “6% Save Education” and “6% GDP for Education”. They huddled under umbrellas, three to each, when the monsoon rains poured down.
From the stage, Maduluwawe Sobitha, an influential Buddhist monk, urged the public to join their campaign. This wasn’t just a “university issue”, he boomed. This was a struggle to protect free education.
The government is right to feel nervous. Since defeating the rebel Tamil Tigers in 2009, it has gone relatively unchallenged. The ruling alliance won staggered local government and provincial elections (there will be another round on September 8th) by significant majorities, except in the north, which is predominantly Tamil. Hobbled by internalpower squabbles, the main opposition force, the United National Party, has posed no threat.
University teachers realised that their struggle couldn’t be expressed by a simple salary demand when the entire education sector was in crisis, in the judgment of Ahilan Kadirgamar, a political analyst. So they started spotlighting the more sensitive stuff—such as how key appointments and decisions in universities have been made by politicians; about how universities are forced to hire security from a firm owned by the defence ministry; and how it is not normal for university entrants to be administered “leadership training” by the army.
The academics then collected signatures on street corners and held smaller rallies everywhere. What has followed is a heated national debate about the government’s policy on free education. It was introduced in the mid-1940s but is now widely accepted to be “in trouble”.
When FUTA eventually staged its largest protest, they were joined by a wide array of compatriots, not least the saffron-robed Buddhist monks. Among others lending support were members of unions representing industrial workers, health services, railway employees, lawyers, women’s organisations, teachers and principals, telecommunications and electricity workers and unemployed graduates.
For the government, this might lend credence to the theory—expounded in private—that “certain forces” were trying to instigate an “Arab Spring” style revolution in Sri Lanka. S.B. Dissanayake, the minister for higher education, insists that university lecturers are entangled in a plot to bring about regime change.
Another minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “everyone knows a meeting took place about two months ago where it was discussed how to have an ‘Arab Spring’ in Sri Lanka, starting from universities.” He says it was attended by several NGOs (the regime’s usual suspects for this kind of thing), two ambassadors and some opposition leaders.
Snacking on an ice cream after the long march, Mahim Mendis, a spokesman for FUTA, dismissed these allegations as an attempt to stir up hysteria. Whenever the government is unable to meet the reasonable demands of any segment of society, he said, it resorts to conspiracy theories. University lecturers have anyway (perhaps unhelpfully) themselves dubbed their trade-union campaign an “Academic Spring”.
The closing down of 21 universities and educational institutes was strongly criticised, even by pro-government private newspapers such as the Island. An editorial of theirs urged the president to intervene. Others too are speaking up for students whose exams—and graduation dates—are now delayed.
FUTA has vowed to continue its strike till the government gives “a clear, written commitment” on how its main demands would be met. But with students divided on the issue, academics will have to agree on an exit strategy soon. Besides, they have not been paid for two months.
For analysts like Mr Kadirgamar, it is immaterial how and when the strike will end. He knows that trade-union action cannot continue indefinitely, however many noble ideals it invokes. What he finds encouraging is that FUTA has at last got the public talking.