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'Mahinda Chinthana’ and the University Crisis

24 August 2012 06:44 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By Laksiri Fernando

21 August 2012 will go into the history of Sri Lanka as a Black Day for the whole education system. The Minister of Higher Education, SB Dissanayake, has decided to close down all universities, except medical faculties, exposing the government’s complete inability to resolve, clearly, a straight-forward salary issue and a policy dispute with the academic community.


Academic strikes are not usual in any country let alone Sri Lanka. The academics would not have resorted to trade union action if there were other avenues to resolve their grievances. They are one of the most temperate sections of our society. The grievances that led finally to the current strike have been accumulating for over three decades. All the negotiations before and after the strike have failed, due particularly to the intransigence of the Minister.
It is not a long time ago that an overwhelming majority of the academics decided to support the present government at the last national elections in 2010, presidential and parliamentary, considering the circumstances, and believing that the government would deliver the promises that it gave in the Mahinda Chinthana, the election manifesto of the current President. I vividly recollect the mammoth meeting of academics attended by over 3,000 at the Temple Trees makeshift meeting hall in January 2010 prior to the presidential elections.



Mahinda Chinthana
Mahinda Chinthana 2010 talked about five hubs, one of which was a ‘Knowledge Hub’ that has now become a standard joke. In explaining this hub, a whole section was devoted from page 75 to 77 on university education, admitting correctly that “University is the centre of generating and disseminating knowledge.” The ‘Chinthana’ however was not truthful in saying, “I provided the necessary infrastructure and human resources to establish new universities and to develop the existing local university system during the past four years.” No new university was established under the incumbent President and the last one, Uva Wellassa was established in June 2005

Previously, the funding difficulties were understandable given the war situation in the country, and the academics in good faith believed that the promise in the second ‘Chinthana’would be fulfilled with ‘necessary infrastructure and human resources’ for the universities. However, the situation has deteriorated by commission and omission.



 FUTA Demands
Without depending on mere demands, FUTA has even come up with a policy formulation. That is to increase the allocation of funds to education up to 6 per cent of the GDP. In this respect the present leaders of FUTA have been quite constructive. If one goes through the promises of the Chinthana on education in general from page 70 to 75, with expanded infrastructure for science and language laboratories and libraries, even this allocation might not be sufficient. It also talks about giving postgraduate training for all principals and education administrators!

It is true that there is a considerable gap between the present allocation of 1.9 per cent and the demanded 6 per cent of the GDP for education. But the present allocation is a pathetic result of keeping the education in the backburner throughout years or decades for various reasons and on a multitude of excuses. That is mainly why we have all the problems in education at present from A to Z. In the 1970s, the allocated percentage was not far behind and often exceeded 5 per cent. What is necessary at present is the political will. What the academics are asking in fact is to convert the promises of the Mahinda Chinthana into actual practice.
The demand for allocation of 6 per cent of the GDP for education should be a common demand of all teachers, universities and schools alike. It should be the demand of all parents and students throughout the country especially considering the deteriorating standards of examinations, increasing mistakes in exam papers, Z score fiasco and other ailments in the education sector. It was good news to hear that the Commissioner of Elections has taken firm steps to prevent the ongoing A/Level examination being disrupted by partisan election campaigns. The country is fed up of senseless electioneering without much attention to social and citizens’ needs.
Of course FUTA has placed other demands as well. All of  them, except the demand for scholarships for the children of academics, appear reasonable and rational.
The Minister and many government politicians have accused the present academic strike as politically motivated. It may be, or may not be. If it is political, it is definitely different to petty party politics. The academics have now learned a lesson and that lesson has taught them that without major changes in governance at least in the education sector, the whole education system is in danger and would collapse. If this strike fails, the main loser would be the country and its education system.
There is concern expressed that the academic strike is not that popular among the people or effective. Of course it is not ‘effective’ like a strike in the transport sector for example. That is in fact not the purpose. Since 4 July academics have clearly shown to the country, even forgoing their salaries, that things are not quite right in higher education. This is loud and clear. The whole academic community is around 4,000 people. The Minister initially said that only 30 per cent were on strike. But now he has closed down all universities admitting the strike as an unqualified success. There was a time when even the victimisation of the FUTA President could not move the academic community into action. Those days, the academics were a lethargic community. But now it has changed because of the pressing needs. The next stage of the struggle perhaps should be to bring the whole education sector into action and force the government to resolve the crisis without harming the education of university as well as other students.
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