Thursday, October 4, 2012

Editorial - University crisis: Resume talks!


The Federation of University Teachers' Associations (FUTA) is reported to have reiterated, at a meeting with the Maha Nayake Theras who have offered their services as mediators to resolve the university crisis, that it does not expect financial allocations for the education sector to be increased to six per cent of the GDP overnight. It made its position clear at the very inception of its struggle. The government propagandists, true to form, misinterpreted that demand in a bid to make it out to be a flight of fancy. What the university teachers have done is to set a goal for the government to achieve in the national interest.

The FUTA strike is aimed at winning a pay hike, pressuring the government to increase funding for education, putting an end to political interference in universities and asserting university teachers’ right to be consulted when vital decisions are made on the higher education sector, among other things. Now that the FUTA has re-emphasised that it does not seek a huge increase in government funding for education overnight, the government ought to respond positively. There is no reason why it cannot undertake to increase funding for education as its avowed goal is to turn this country into Asia's Knowledge Hub. It could demonstrate its willingness to invest more in education by increasing funds for that sector from the next budget. It must also rid the universities of political interference, which has eaten into the very vitals of the higher education sector. It is puzzling why the government has not yet agreed to consult university teachers when crucial decisions are made on universities. This demand should be granted straightaway as teachers are stakeholders and feel for the wellbeing of universities more than politicians and their bureaucratic yes-men.

The government, in our view, has only one main problem to contend with–the FUTA demand for a pay hike. That, too, will not be intractable if it constructively engages the striking dons instead of trying to force them into submission.

The government is in the habit of adopting a confrontational approach and trying to bulldoze its way through in dealing with workers in spite of having within its ranks respected, veteran trade unionists. President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself is a former trade union leader and as Minister of Labour he mooted the Workers' Charter which President Chandrika Kumaratunga shot down. The government's abortive attempt to ram an ill-conceived pension scheme down the throat of the private sector demonstrated its arrogance and callous disregard for workers' concerns and rights. As for the FUTA strike, the government seems to think that it will be able to wear down the striking dons or engineer a rift in the FUTA. But, if the resilience of the strikers is anything to go by, the government has its work cut out.

As President Rajapaksa said in an interview with this newspaper when he was the Minister of Labour in the Kumaratunga government, in a labour dispute no one wins; both parties lose, for trade union action affects their institution's interests adversely. He often says that he is for win-win solutions to labour problems. But, regrettably, his government does not seem to practise what he preaches. It has allowed the FUTA strike to drag on indefinitely while universities remain crippled with students wasting the best years of their lives. No wonder youth unrest finds expression in violent uprisings from time to time!

The FUTA has not walked away from negotiations with the government or refused to talk. It has shown flexibility and the government should reciprocate by resuming talks with the strikers and going on negotiating as a national priority until a solution is found. It should desist from driving the university teachers to extreme action and labeling them as traitors. That is the only way to bring about a win-win solution in keeping with President Rajapaksa's thinking or Mahinda Chinthana.

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