Friday, August 3, 2012

University teachers for excellence in education


By Dileni Gunewardena

There is trouble in the universities and trouble in the schools. While frustrated students and academics have taken to the streets, there has been much posturing among those responsible for the state of education and higher education in this country. This article attempts to counter prevalent misconceptions about the nature, motivation and demands of the Federation of University Teachers' Associations (FUTA) and the academics they represent.

FUTA comprises over 40 member unions of university teachers of the Universities of Colombo, Peradeniya, Moratuwa, Kelaniya, Sri Jayawardenapura, Ruhuna, Jaffna, Visual and Performing Arts, as well as of Wayamba, Rajarata, Eastern, South Eastern, and Open Universities with a total strength of approximately four thousand members. FUTA has been in existence since 1983. Among its current opponents are former leaders of FUTA. However, I believe that there is a significant difference between the current FUTA leadership and its forebears that explains why the current TU action has garnered widespread support among academics, students, intellectuals and leading lights in the country, as well as the general public.

Clever, young and committed

The most striking feature of today's university trade union leadership is that it comprises academics with outstanding scholarly credentials. A search in scholarly research databases for their names reveals them to be authors of international repute, award-winners for Ph.D. and postdoctoral research, with impeccable track records of international research publications. They represent the best in Sri Lanka's University system today. Among the few I know (of) are an internationally published historian, a distinguished young evolutionary biologist, an outstanding macroeconomist with a Ph.D. from East Asia's best university, a brilliant mechanical engineer, Sri Lanka's first Ph.D. in counseling psychology, and two award-wining authors and poets, all of them trained in some of the best universities and post-doctoral research labs in the world. In fact, in terms of research and publications, these scholar-trade unionists have better academic credentials than several present-day Vice-Chancellors.

Many in the FUTA leadership and others who give dynamism to the movement are in their late thirties or early forties. They are recent Ph.D.'s, having completed their doctorates in the last five to ten years. Most of them funded their own postgraduate studies through teaching assistantships and research fellowships, because state-funded scholarships for postgraduate studies have simply not been available to university academics, at least in the last twenty five years. These academics were brilliant enough to obtain admission and funding on their own merit to some of the best universities in the world, and often turned down good job opportunities in developed countries to return to Sri Lanka, to the ill-paid positions in the universities that nurtured them.

These leaders have a vision for university education in this country, precisely because of the excellent overseas training they themselves received. Dynamic teachers and solid researchers, they have in the past few years, engaged in curriculum revision exercises, brought in external funding to their universities to improve teaching, learning and research infrastructure through competitive research and development grants, disseminated knowledge through workshops and seminars, launched new undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes and inspired recent cohorts of students to pursue academic careers and obtain training in good universities abroad. A critical mass of such academics is what helps universities to thrive and become engines of change and promote Sri Lanka as a knowledge hub.

But these same academics have watched with regret as their colleagues have left the universities for academic positions in universities abroad. They know that if this trend continues-as it will, if salaries are not raised and the present political interference and micro-management of universities continues-the universities that they serve with dedication and commitment will no longer be spaces for intellectual growth and independent thinking.

FUTA demands

FUTA's current demands fall into two categories: (A) outstanding salary-related demands and (B) demands relating to the state education. The first set of demands relates to the remuneration scheme required to retain and recruit highly qualified academics. Principally, FUTA demands the complete implementation of the Prof. M.T.M. Jiffry and Prof. Malik Ranasinghe proposals made in 2008 in consultation with the University Grants Commission (UGC), Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE), and FUTA. The second set of demands specifically asks that the Government (1) delineates a course of action to increase government spending on education that will reach 6% of GDP within the next 2 years, (2) clearly states government policy on state funded education, (3)suspends all existing higher education reform processes until a proper consultative process involving all stakeholders and the public takes place, (4) agrees to refrain from the politicization and?micromanagement of the Universities so that these institutions can thrive as autonomous institutions that would act as catalysts in the development of Sri Lanka. [A detailed summary of FUTA demands can be found at ]

What motivates this set of demands? University academics realize that they do not work in a vacuum. They are constantly accused of producing "unemployable" graduates. However, they can only do their best with the raw material -students-they are given. Recent analyses of education standards conducted by government entities themselves have shown that there are many quality issues in both primary and secondary education in Sri Lanka (World Bank, Treasures of the Education System in Sri Lanka, 2005, Transforming School Education in Sri Lanka: from Cut Stones to Polished Jewels, 2011). To be able to achieve the kind of transformation required in both school and university education, quality inputs-training, learning and teaching infrastructure, research facilities and better remuneration-will be needed. The type of inputs and facilities required for education and higher education are spelt out in the Mahinda Chinthana Vision 2010 document. In recognition that the measures that need to be taken to ensure quality education for all (EFA) involve substantial budgetary allocations to education, ministers and high level government officials of eight South Asian countries including Sri Lanka, at the second ministerial meeting of the South Asia EFA Forum in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in December 2009, committed to a public expenditure allocation for education that is equivalent to 6% of the country's GDP (UNESCO, Reaching the Unreached in Education in Asia-Pacific to meet the EFA goals by 2015: A Commitment to Action, 2010, p.6). While none of these countries had spent anywhere close to this target in 2010, data from Sri Lanka's Central Bank report and World Development Indicators of the World Bank show that Sri Lanka lags far below her SAARC neighbours, as the graph taken from World Bank (2011, p.30) shows. FUTA's demand is simply that the government takes steps to meet its own commitment.

Nowhere in the list of FUTA demands is there opposition to the private provision of education. Rather, what FUTA requests is a broad-based consultative process on education reform, and clarity regarding the government's commitment to the continued provision of state education.

Who will suffer if FUTA loses?

FUTA president Dr. Nirmal Ranjith has stated that if FUTA loses its demands, it will not be FUTA that loses, but the general public of Sri Lanka. It has been very clear that (especially younger, qualified) university academics are waiting on the outcome of these negotiations in order to make career decisions. If FUTA loses, over the next few years, the best and the brightest will leave the universities for jobs abroad or in the private sector of Sri Lanka. After all, university lecturers are not just teachers, they are skilled professionals: engineers, doctors, scientists, lawyers, economists, sociologists, psychologists, linguists, etc. who are not restricted to teaching jobs in universities. Eventually, even those with a commitment to stay will leave-not because of the lack of pecuniary benefits, but because of the absence of other colleagues with whom they have a shared vision. Meanwhile, private universities which are not hamstrung by salary structures and patronage will be able to attract some of these academics. Eventually, the only academics who will be left in the universities are those who have few options elsewhere, who possibly were hired to the universities because of their political affiliations.

With the exodus of high-quality academics from the state university system, there will emerge a dual system of higher education in Sri Lanka, a low-quality state system and a higher quality fee-levying system. Who then will suffer? A depleted and poor quality state higher education system is obviously a poor return to taxpayers. Countries with a strong higher education system also had strong state education systems, which provided the backbone of the higher education system, especially in terms of research. But the greatest losers will be the students of state universities-the sons and daughters of the average Sri Lankan. In the future, such students may continue to enter the university, but will receive a poor quality education, while their counterparts in the private sector will have the benefit of better academic staff and better infrastructure. As the gap between these two sectors widens, the social fabric of the country is likely to be threatened. It is interesting to note that in Sri Lanka's history, the highest state expenditure on education (5.2 % of GDP) was allocated in 1972, one year after the 1971 youth insurrection.

Sri Lanka has been called the land of missed opportunities. If higher education officials are unable to grasp the opportunity in this "academic spring", perhaps the Secretary to the Treasury, himself trained in one of the best economics departments in the world, can. Otherwise, sadly, the "knowledge hub" will remain in the sphere of the rhetoric, and the reality that is the education system in Sri Lanka will continue its sad decline from mediocrity to poverty.

Dileni Gunewardena is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics and Statistics of the University of Peradeniya.

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