FUTA trade union action – past and present IV


By Nalin de Silva

The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) twenty years ago submitted the demands as they came from the sister unions to the authorities but the strike decision was taken by the latter and conveyed to the respective Vice Chancellors. FUTA was in effect representing the teachers’ associations that came under its umbrella, and neither FUTA nor the sister unions as they are called did not alter the demands in midstream. A compromise was made, if at all, in the final stages of the struggle in order to come to a settlement still winning a substantial salary increase and some other demands. FUTA at that time never approached politicians, political parties, students, student unions nor other trade unions outside the university sector. Nor did FUTA allow others, be they political parties or trade unions, to approach it. Thus, it convinced the authorities concerned that its struggles were not politically motivated.

However, what has happened over the last one and half years is exactly the opposite. The FUTA took the strike decision and then informed the sister unions. That was not the method that should have been adopted according to the constitution of the Federation. Last year a token strike was held and then the Heads of Department resigned as part of the trade union action initiated by FUTA. There had been discussions earlier and the trade union action was taken without waiting for a discussion that the President had offered. The main demand was the increase of salaries of academics and one of the basic assumptions FUTA used to justify its pay hike demand was that the university academics were a special category and the underlying impression given to the public was that they were the best qualified in the country, if not the crème de la crème of the intelligentsia. It was said that the university academics should have obtained a very good degree at the time of recruitment and that the promotion criteria were very stringent. The government should have conducted a survey to find out how many academics have first class degrees and or Ph. Ds. There are many with second class (upper) degrees not to mention those with second class (lower) degrees. Then there are so many without Ph. Ds and one could easily find out people with better qualifications in other professions. How many of those leading FUTA can claim that they have First or Second (Upper) degrees and Ph. Ds? I do not attach much value to these paper qualifications but I am mentioning them since FUTA is fond of repeating these arguments on stringent criteria for recruitment and promotion. As I have said already none of the teachers have been trained in teaching, though whatever said and done the Sri Lankan universities are teaching institutions. Have the university academics in Sri Lanka adopted any new methods in teaching? As for research, the less said, the better! Research is not confined to universities and one could find many research officers with Ph. D’s in institutes carrying out research in their respective fields. Has any academic come out with a new concept or a theory during the last fifty years?

One could say that it is due to the absence of quality people in the universities that no research of good quality is carried out. This is tallied with the argument on recruitment and retention and if the salaries are increased the universities would be able to recruit talented people. However one could again make a survey to find out how many "better" people joined the universities as senior academics after the substantial salary increase twenty years ago. Matured people join the universities as senior academics for different reasons ranging from a desire to come back to Sri Lanka if they are abroad, and if they are locally employed for the freedom that is enjoyed by university teachers and for the fact that the retirement age in the universities is sixty five. The university academics do not have much work, as I know through experience, and all these talks of the academics working round the clock for twenty four hours are only fairytales. It is wrong to pretend that the university academics are a special category but I am glad that the FUTA under criticism has been compelled to change its stance and say the academics are a special category in the sense that those in various services belong to special categories. There is nothing gained by having university academics categorised as a special service and I would say that in the final analysis it would be counterproductive.

The 6% of the GDP for education was introduced towards the tail end of the trade union action last year, and this year since FUTA could not justify its insistence on the increase of basic salaries they demanded the government step up expenditure on education. FUTA has ignored the increases in allowances granted during the last few years. With the allowances academics are the better paid category in the public sector of course apart from the income generating institutions such as banks. On top of these allowances the university academics are paid a certain percentage of the fee levying courses subject to a ceiling and often the lion’s share is claimed by the teachers. As a result bogus certificate and diploma courses at a level below that of the undergraduate have been introduced and some of these champions of free education could be seen teaching these courses in universities. Neither FUTA nor the so-called Inter University Student Federation has objected in a meaningful way to these courses. In any event, FUTA insists on an increase in the basic salary, which has to be decided by the Salaries and Cadre Commission. It is one thing to make demands and it is quite another to make compromises during the negotiations as no trade union with reasonable leaders would expect to win all what they want. However, FUTA cannot justify its demand for higher basic salaries. It is very clear that insistence on an increase in the basic salary that could not be justified is nothing but an attempt to destabilise the government.

When FUTA realized that they could not proceed with their demand for an increase in the basic salary it changed the tune; it demanded that 6% of the GDP be allocated for education. It was a good tactic by the anti government forces in the FUTA and very soon they were able to obtain the support of the teachers’ union that is mainly responsible for the Z score fiasco asking the UGC to adopt the so called Thattil. This particular trade union attacks the government and the relevant ministers though it is responsible for forcing the UGC to adopt the erroneous Thattil method. FUTA misled the public by claiming that according to a UNESCO report government has to spend 6% of the GDP on education. The relevant section of the UNESCO report is reproduced here. "Education should be given high priority, and not less than 6 percent of a country’s GNP should be devoted to education, as recommended by the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, chaired by Jacques Delors." Nowhere is it said that the government should spend 6% of the GDP on education. In Sri Lanka the total government expenditure is about 25% of the GDP, and it is obvious that this particular demand of FUTA cannot be met. The government has to spend on defence which I consider should get the first priority under present circumstances.

I would not say that the so-called Academic Spring with this 6% issue was introduced by somebody from the NGOs or anti-government lobby but it gave an opportunity for the latter to rally all the anti-government forces from Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thero to Anoma Fonseka against the government. It is not FUTA that organized last week’s rally; it lacks the ability to do so. Those who did so want the Academic Spring converted to another kind of Spring. It is expected that the government will enter into an agreement with FUTA this week, and I understand that the infamous FUTA demand that an allowance be granted to university teachers to educate two of their children in government or private schools will not be met.

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