Let’s not allow the Pearl of Great Price to be destroyed



by Shanie

"There was once a beautiful apple tree,

who refused to shelter even the tiniest bee.

It was a vain and selfish tree,

It would say,"No one is mightier than me!"

One day, as it woke up from its slumber,

It was surprised to see a strange climber.

It saw an army of termites, all ready for a fight.

The tree trembled with fear,

and asked them the reason why they were there.

"You do not shelter the birds’ nests,

you sway in the wind and make them fall instead.

You are a selfish creature and as good as dead", said they.

The tree now fearfully called the birds,

"Help me, I apologise,

I promise I shall shelter you and do my best,

But please save me from these horrible pests."

The birds came, one and all,

for they could not ignore the plea of the tree forlorn,

From that day onwards it would to every passerby call,

for it had learnt a valuable lesson

That pride goes before a fall!"

- Poornima Kamath

For centuries, Sri Lanka has placed great value on education. Buddhist Pirivena educators, theosophists, Hindu reformers, Christian missionaries and Muslim modernists have over the years helped to build institutions of great learning. Compulsory education was introduced in 1911 but it became effective only after the wide education reforms in the mid 1940s. The state provided free education from primary to tertiary levels and also established quality secondary schools in all the districts of the country – from Tellijawela in the south to Nelliady in the north, from Ibbagamuwa in the west to Vantharamoolai in the east, and in Nugawela and Welimada in the hill country. These schools had some of the best teachers in the country. By 1950, there were fifty such schools. There was consequently a quantum leap in the country’s literacy rate from 58% in 1946 to 92% fifty years later. In 1990, over 95% of children of primary school age were enrolled in a school. In 1942, we had just one full-fledged national university. Today, we have universities in almost all districts plus an Open University that has study centres spread throughout the country. University enrolment increased from 2500 in 1950 to over 50000 about fifty years later. The Kannangara reforms provided equitable access to quality education up to the University level. It was the Pearl of Great Price.

It is this Pearl that all right thinking people need to safeguard from unthinking and arrogant politicians and their sycophantic bureaucrats. Access to free education from the kindergarten to the university must be available to all. That is not all. It must be access to quality education. Quality education can only be provided by top quality teachers at all levels. Such quality teachers need to be retained and that would be possible only by the state providing adequate resources for it. The trade union action by the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations is all about providing such resources to the Universities, safeguarding equitable access to education and maintaining the University traditions of autonomy and academic freedom.

The need for a revision in pay

The trade union action began with the academics requesting a pay rise in keeping with their academic and professional qualifications and positions. When this demand was made last year, the government accepted this as reasonable and promised to deliver. But like many a promise made to others and broken, the promise of a pay rise was contemptuously ignored. But the academics would not take this lying down and continued their agitation. They still had not launched on strike action. The government’s response was typical. There was a volley of abuse hurled at the FUTA and its leadership. Perhaps, it would not be fair to say that the government as a whole was responsible. There were many within the government and indeed within the cabinet who were embarrassed by the shameless breaking of a solemn promise. Even among the academics, there are many who have politically supported the President and UPFA who were angry that the government had let them down.

There were Ministers who were willing to negotiate with the academics for a reasonable resolution to the pay rise demand. They did talk to FUTA and agreed to convey this reasonable demand to the government. But it appears that their efforts were scuttled by the Ministers in charge of education who perhaps found, in their arrogance, that their pride had been hurt. There were also the political sycophants in the UGC and even among the academic community who supported the Minister. These were the self-styled patriotic university teachers. Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel and recent history has shown us that playing the patriotic card is resorted to by those bereft of ideas and a belief in justice. To this was added another well known gimmick – the conspiracy theory. It is laughable to even think that there can be a conspiracy to overthrow the government by university teachers.

The conspiracy theory was effectively demolished by Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda in a recent article in The Island. He stated: "(The FUTA trade union action merely) seeks policy changes with regard to education. It challenges the government’s positions on education, allocation of public expenditure, and, the role of the state in social issues. It critiques the government’s policy priorities. It actually argues for policy reforms on education, particularly in higher education." He went on to add: "It appears that the government has two parallel tracks to deal with the FUTA strike. One stresses a hardline approach with no concessions to, or compromise with, the striking academics. The conspiracy story seems to emanate from the faction which advances this hardline track. The other is for a negotiated settlement though compromise. When the negotiation track has begun to show some positive directions, the other line seems to be determined to undermine the possibilities of a compromise. That is why they appear to be trying to re-define the FUTA action as a national security issue."

Public expenditure on education

The FUTA trade union action has had a radical shift from the original pay rise issue to the future of higher education in our country. They have demanded greater allocation of resources towards education. Education now accounts for only 2.5% of government expenditure. The expenditure on defence is 400% more than on education. The government repeatedly assures the people and international community that they have successfully eliminated terrorism and there is peace in the North and East and the rest of the country. The priority then is now to spend more on education, health and social services. Is there not something sinister in defence spending continuing to take precedence over education and welfare services?

Creeping Militarisation

One of the grievances of the university teachers is the creeping militarisation in the universities. Last year, all new entrants were subject to what was euphemistically called leadership training in camps. There was no consultation with any of the university academic bodies and the UGC meekly acceded to political directives. Some kind of training and orientation may be good for new entrants but this and the curriculum for it should be worked out in consultation with the academics. In the end, the curriculum was based on promoting the ideology of the ruling class within the government. What also was the need to have this "leadership training" in army camps and not in the universities.

Another aspect of the militarisation and the loss of academic independence was the UGC directive to the Universities, in clear violation of the Universities Act, to employ a security agency linked to the Ministry of Defence. This came at a huge price too. Earlier, each University called for tenders and evaluating all the bids chose the security agency that was most appropriate. The UGC’s illegal directive meant that the statutory bodies of the Universities did not have the freedom to evaluate the quality of security service nor any choice about the enormous difference in costs for employing the Defence Ministry related security agency, Rakna Lanka. The natural suspicion is that this agency is engaged not only in providing security services but also in spying on activities within the universities.

Political Directives

The quality of our educational services, both higher education as well as the schools, used to be the pride of Asia. We maintained that quality by establishing the healthy tradition of autonomy and academic freedom, and avoiding political interference in university affairs. But over the last couple of years, there has been a marked decline in the quality of our education services. This has been accentuated in recent times. The deterioration of standards is directly attributable to the Minister of Higher Education, the Chairman of the University Grants Commission and some of the Vice Chancellors flouting the traditions of academic autonomy and making political decisions and political appointments to the universities. All of them, in their arrogance and pride, are fond of attributing political motives for FUTA’s trade union action. The Chairman of the UGC, when confronted, denies any politics in his decisions and denies having issued any directives in violation of the Universities Act. The circular directing the Universities to hire Rakna Lanka for security services was one such. More recently, he has reportedly issued another circular that the UGC representatives on the Selection Boards would have a right of veto when selecting persons for academic appointments, etc. The Vice Chancellor of the Colombo University has reportedly, addressing a workshop this week, accused the FUTA leadership of having a political agenda. Academics, she is reported to have stated, must not be involved in politics. She probably does not remember (like politicians who conveniently do not remember after they have committed crimes) that she along with the Chairman of the UGC and some other Vice Chancellors appeared at a Press conference and urged support for a particular political party/candidate at the last election.

Universities should be liberal seats of learning where study, research and teaching, diverse opinions, dissent and legitimate challenges to authority should be encouraged and safeguarded. People with authority in the university system must respect the Universities Act and remember that their primary loyalty is to the university community, teachers, students and non-academic staff, and not to the political establishment. They must have the humility to dialogue with the university community and resolve issues through consultation and negotiation. Arrogance and Pride surely goes before a fall. When that fall comes, all the King’s horses and and all the King’s men will not be able to put them together again.

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