Dr. Devaka Weerakoon,
FUTA is dismayed by the statements issued by the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the CVCD (Committee of Vice Chancellors and Directors) on the trade union action of a continuous strike called by the Federation of University Teachers (FUTA) from 4th July, 2012. The statements suggest that FUTA has undertaken this trade union action in wilful disregard of the welfare of students and the larger society, without any attempt at negotiation, without the consensus of the academic community, and despite the government’s desire to accommodate the needs of the academics. Nothing can be farther from the truth. FUTA wants to register its astonishment at this blatant disregard for all veracity on the part of the UGC and the CVCD. We wish to enlighten the public regarding these allegations.
(1) FUTA’s trade union action is a campaign to protect State universities.
FUTA demands an increase in Government spending on state universities and education in general. FUTA is concerned that the government, by gradually decreasing spending on education, is slowly destroying education and free education. The data we present below clearly show a dramatic decline in funding for universities since 2005 (in spite of an over 20% increase in student intake).
Further, actions by the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) seriously contravene the cherished ideals of university autonomy enshrined in the constitution. The universities have become subject to politicized interference by powerful people in the country and fly in the face of academic autonomy and freedoms. What has happened to a vast number of other public institutions is taking place now with Universities. We have repeatedly requested the MOHE to desist from the blatant disregard of procedure and reasonable conduct in university matters. We are deeply committed to protect higher education in the country, improve education and to save the country at large from forces that attempt to destroy the fragile democracy that we possess today. In spite of the accusations of the UGC and the CVCD we have only the interests of students and society at heart. We are embarking on this strike action for these commitments and not for any narrow personal benefit. The UGC and CVCD know this quite clearly. And yet, they decide to spread these canards about us. Where was the CVCD when the MoHE and the UGC were contravening clauses of the University Act of 1978 and acting against the interests of their own institutions?
he UGC in its statement claims that University academics were granted substantial ‘unusual’ salary increases. We contest that and assert that for 16 years now there has been no significant increase in basic salary. The UGC erroneously cites a few increases in allowances as salary increases and includes a research grant, which is given only until the end of this year, as a ‘salary’ increase. Further, even with the addition of these allowances to the basic salary, the current salary structure comes nowhere near the recommendations made by the Jiffry-Malik Ranasinghe committee appointed by the UGC in 2008. Again, even these recommendations are outdated today if one makes adjustments for inflation.
(2) The strike action was a last resort, when all negotiations failed.
The FUTA action in 2011 galvanized the academic community and drew it out of its slumber of many years, resulting in an unprecedented Academic Spring. It was after 15 years that this community resorted to trade union action and the energy and feeling that was generated, which was later called the Academic Spring, was a result of the frustration that the academics felt at what was happening to the Universities. The trade union action of last year was a response to the sheer lack of heedfulness to our demands on the part of the Minister of Higher Education and those who supported him. Later when we suspended it, we did so, on the basis of promises made by the government regarding the concerns raised by the academics. However, we have noted, with shock and dismay that the government was abjectly insincere regarding its promises. The actions promised by the government were not instituted in 2012. After a series of meetings and two formal letters by FUTA to the Ministry, on January 9 and February 19, 2012, FUTA was informed that the agreement on which FUTA suspended the 2011 trade union action was only a ‘perceived’ agreement, implying that it was not real and the government was never serious about the promises it had made. In fact, in stark contrast to what we anticipated based on this agreement, the Ministry of Higher Education instituted a series of activities which further impeded the universities’ capacity to perform their mandate to society. The Ministry has withheld funds allocated to universities, and circumvented university procedures to pay for activities. The only explanation we can proffer for such blatant disregard is that the MoHE was fulfilling some personal agendas of persons in the government through these measures. The government has interfered in the areas of curriculum, the nature of student intake and in staff hires. This form of political interference spells death to higher education and its independence from political manipulation. Education is a vital part of our democratic fabric of society. We are compelled to take action to protect it.
(3) Strike action is unanimously supported by all the unions in FUTA
The decision to strike was not made by a few but was a collective decision that was endorsed unanimously by the unions that make up the Federation. While FUTA and the academic body respect the rights of individuals to express their opinion, as should all democratic bodies, this decision is supported by the larger community of academics. This will be evident on the 4th of July, when the Continuous Trade Union action is launched.
(4) The Government has actively, overtly and covertly, attempted to disrupt the trade union activities of FUTA and has done little to address the fundamental concerns of the universities.
The Minister of Higher Education and those whose positions depend on his political patronage have done little to address the lack of resources at the universities. Instead, a series of policy changes have come about, which are often legally questionable, have eroded the capacity of universities to function smoothly and which in the long run will create universities with persons in positions acting as the puppets of those in power. The statements by the CVCD and the UGC, which are both constituted by nominees of the government, reflect this puppetry and sycophancy at work. Their positions are a consequence of their past actions and sometimes blatant support of the government at the expense of their responsibilities. We must put a halt to such obvious exchange of favours. We must protect our institutions from becoming vulnerable to such threats. To save Sri Lankan universities we demand the following:
- Increased allocation for education. To achieve 6% of the GDP expenditure on education in times to come. If we can achieve this, we would be able to strengthen the entire educational sector and enhance quality of delivery to very great heights.
- Preserve the autonomy of universities from undue and personalized political interference. Universities should be allowed to maintain and improve their roles as educationists, academics and collaborators in community building, serving the people.
- We also demand that the university community be involved in all higher educational reforms
Appendix: Immediate Demands of FUTA:
- Assurance be given to safeguard and uplift State Education
An MOU be signed between FUTA, the MOHE and the Government that will:
• Delineate a course of action to increase government spending on education that will reach 6% of GDP within the next 2 years.
• Clearly state the government policy on state funded education
• Include an agreement to suspend all existing higher education reform processes until a proper consultative process involving all stakeholders and the public takes place.
• Include an agreement 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.
- Measures taken toward Recruitment and Retention of Highly Qualified Academics be granted
• Considering the crucial role that academics play in developing the country’s human resource capabilities, their specialized duties, and the stringent recruitment and promotion policy that they undergo, establish a Sri Lanka University Academic Service (SLUAS).
• The immediate implementation of the remuneration step outlined in stage 2 of the interim proposal of 7th July 2011:
• A.2.1 Provide an increase to the basic salary by 20%, to be paid with effect from 1st Jan 2012. All existing allowances should be paid with no conditions attached.
• A.2.2 Provide an increase to the basic salary to be introduced in item A.2.1 above by 16.67%. This increased basic salary should be included in the 2013 Budget to the parliament, to be paid with effect from 1st Jan 2013. All existing allowances should be paid with no conditions attached.
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