Sunday, September 23, 2012

FUTA strike action: a pessimist’s point of view

By, Nedra Karunaratne

The University Teachers are on strike. Who has heard of such a thing? Probably many since the academics are campaigning actively in the print media. Now they are going from town to town collecting signatures for their allocation of 6% of the GDP for education stance. The common man is being educated on the streets instead of the usual lecture halls. The youtube is filled with little clips explaining the various demands made by the academics and why these are justified. The public is being slowly awakened to the reality of the future of education and higher education in the country. The teachers are optimistic that this action will induce negotiations but the pessimist thinks that this is not helping the cause since the government still hears no evil, sees no evil and talks evil or otherwise have not yet borne fruit.

FUTA announced that its members would go on a continuous strike from the 4th of July, and they are still continuing to stand by their word. The government on the other hand has been lukewarm in their acceptance of the need to resolve the problem. The FUTA on several occasions had informed the Minister of Higher Education and the president of the impending strike action with the hope of negotiations but they only received a deafening silence. The government has remained incommunicado on many issues relating to grievances of all sectors and the pessimist finds this to be not so unusual. However, even a pessimist welcomes a streak of light to bring him up from the depths of despair. When will serious negotiations begin?

The demands made by FUTA originated over three years back mainly due to the deterioration in the Universities with respect to administration, teaching quality brought about by inability to retain the best qualified academics and interference in University autonomy. The backbone of a University is the teacher/researcher. Improvement of academic culture results in teaching and research excellence. The quality of students, academic staff and research are the main measures of the ranking of a University in the global arena. Without allocation of funds for research and educational programmes, attainment of academic excellence is a myth. Therefore, the government’s insistence that the Universities are not producing quality graduates is like an arsonist blaming the fire department for not doing its job. Many are unaware that research is necessary for post graduate qualifications. Even at the undergraduate level, special degrees include a research component. Development of the brain, analytical thinking, work ethics and management aspects form a part and parcel of a research project. With the present situation where the Universities churn out degree holders, the majority of whom lack any of the above traits, it is no wonder that we have so many unemployable graduates. Further increasing the intake of students without addressing these shortcomings is like bringing the universities to the level of tutories. The fate that befell the A/L practical examinations in the sciences could well be the future prospect for the Universities. All the state run universities are grossly underfunded with respect to imparting a wholesome education and training resulting in a poorer product. More the reason why much thought should be directed in this sense before the student intake is finalized this year.

The three main issues to be addressed for improving the output are the upgrading of facilities for recruiting and retaining world class teachers, addressing the student intake with respect to selection criteria to admit the best in the country and cleaning up the administration where political hirings and interferences are rampant. Recruitment of quality personnel obviously brings up the salary issue. Other than an occasional individual whose heart burns for his motherland, so far no one has returned to take up a post unless he felt that the renumeration was adequate. As far as can be seen from most of the cadre vacancies in the regional universities including Peradeniya (which has always boasted of academic excellence in its teaching staff), the filling of existing vacancies have been dismal. A large percentage of these Universities are understaffed for the lack of suitably qualified applicants. The Universities in and around Colombo have not experienced this scenario as spouses of academic staff members are privileged in finding employment in Colombo. Accusing the academics of their inability to find employment abroad will certainly become a reality to some extent in the next decade if an attractive package for recruitment is not forthcoming in the near future. If the salary increase demanded by FUTA is unjustified, we should not expect all our Universities to produce quality graduates in the future. From the pessimist’s point of view, the government does not need to implement any of these since their vision of a knowledge hub is only a dream to be fulfilled by privatizing the education. Increased funding to attain these goals would never reach the budget as was evident in 2011.

Since the attempt by FUTA to gain their demands last year with a half way house agreement, the pessimist was elated that some progress was attained. However, as is the usual policy of politicians, the promises made did not materialize. Give some credit that there was an increase in the take home pay of the academics in the form of allowances, but there was absolutely no significant increase in the salary. The sustained silence from the secretary of the MoHE and others linked to their claim made at the commencement of the strike, that there was a pay increase, confirms that it was only another eyewash to deceive the general public. Again the signature campaign run by the academics has revealed that the public are totally unaware of the realities of the FUTA demands. Restrictions in media coverage and distortion of facts as well as inability to understand the essence of the demands stand out as the causes for this ignorance. Many are of the opinion that the claims of the government are true and that the strike is unreasonable. Added to the boycotting of marking A/L exam papers, the gullible public are very easily hoodwinked into believing the worst of the FUTA strike.
One of the major demands deals with funding allocations to the education sector. FUTA insists that 6% of the GDP be allocated for education. Going by the statements made by the Higher Education Minister in Parliament on the 18th July 2012, Sri Lanka is presently spending approximately five percent of its GDP for education. The minister acknowledges that the UNESCO recommendation of 6% of the GDP is a requirement for developing education, however he disagrees that this amount is the responsibility of the Government. His magical calculation of 5% was arrived at by adding three percent of expenditure borne by individuals and private parties to the bare 2% spent by the government. Thus the pessimist observes that there would be no 6% allocation forthcoming; strike or no strike by FUTA. This further establishes the view that a settlement is very far in the horizon. The president doubly endorsed this with his statement on the 7th September 2012 that he was not ready to discuss with unions which are on strike action. Is it a case of he who pays the piper calls the tune?
Until now, FUTA continued sporadic talks with the minister for Economic Development and Dr. P.B. Jayasundera which appeared to head in a positive direction. However, a puzzling development arose on the 10th September, where the minister of Labour issued an arbitration notice to FUTA indicating that all is not well with the negotiations. What are the ulterior motives behind this move? Is the government seeing a weakening in the steadfast stand by FUTA? This could be well so with several academics in many universities betraying the cause by claiming they are not participants in the strike action. Is it because they wanted their salaries (striking academics have not received their pay for two months) or because they are looking out for those higher appointments given to sycophants? Such action is an insult to the claim that academics are of a class above the rest. The pitiful behaviour of many have brought disrepute to the high standards maintained by university staff. The Island of the 12th September 2012 has run an article by Prof. Rohan Rajapakse who has tried to explain that the strike by FUTA is not rational. Many of the thoughts expressed are a parroting of the words of the Minister of Higher Education. The arguments put forward in support of the irrationality of the FUTA demands do not hold water. The repercussions of the strike (listed in this article) are points to be dealt with very urgently since delay in settlement is harmful to all the stakeholders in this battle. Further delays in settlement of the issue, with the government sponsored media using academics for propaganda against the FUTA action (as witnessed on Rupavahini on the 12th September) and the hastily formed Patriotic University Teachers Association discrediting FUTA will bring more harm than do good to the future of education in the country.

From an academic point of view this is ultimate frustration. Edmund Burke very simply, but so powerfully stated that “all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men (and women) to do nothing”. In the present day of corrupt politicians and corrupt academics, FUTA has the distinction of not remaining silent- but with what consequences?

Nedra Karunaratne is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Peradeniya.

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