President of the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) Dr. Chandraguptha Thenuwara spoke to Dailymirror on the revival of the academics’ struggle, the deterioration of the education sector and of how the government as well as the public have contributed to the present downfall
Q: When FUTA called off the three-month strike in 2012, it was accused of exploiting the 6% figure to merely attract public support for the academics’ struggle to increase wages. With such a past, do you feel the public will rally around FUTA this time?
Calling off the strike didn’t mark the end of our struggle. We were compelled to momentarily give-up the trade union action as the students were suffering due to falling behind the course work for three months.
Our fight to win the 6% GDP allocation for education was genuine – the establishment of the National Steering Committee on education comprised of students and trade union representatives in 2012 was to ensure the continuation of the struggle to uplift the local education sector.
We are the first trade union to raise public awareness on issues that are not solely focused around the sector we represent and it was recognised by the public. I can say with certainty that the public support for our cause has not reduced. We only need to refresh the awareness. Negotiating with the government is no longer effective, which is why we believe empowering the public is a much better use of our time.
Q: How fair is it to expect a developing country like ours to allocate 6% of the GDP for education?
Even if we agree with the government’s excuse of being unable to allocate 6% off the GDP due to economic restraints, how will they explain the annually depletion of funds to the education sector?
Even during the conflict period, budgetary allocation for education was close to 3%. Today it has dropped as low as 1.8% despite celebrating the fifth anniversary since the end of the war. The plight of the education sector raises serious doubts on the rapid development the government claims Sri Lanka is undergoing. Are they merely manipulations of figures? It is vital for the government to revisit their education policies and increase funds as the majority of the masses do not possess the economic capability to spend for private education.
Admitting children to government schools too has not been easy over the past few years as money collection during admission itself has mounted to Rs. 20,000 – Rs.800,000 per student due to depleting education funds.
The z-score system has also significantly contributed to the deterioration of the higher education sector. Students opt to select subjects they are least interested in to obtain a high z-score, which has led to a group of uninterested undergraduates being included in certain courses.
Q: Would you say the government misled the academics?
The government is no longer listening to our grievances nor keeping their promises. It has been proven by the President when he said that figures of funds allocated to the education sector were irrelevant to its development.
When we called off the strike, we were well aware that the six percent GDP demand could not be immediately implemented. But the solution to that failure is not to conveniently forget it, but to initiate a dialogue with stakeholders of the education sector on measures that can be taken to improve the situation.
The academics were deeply misled by this government; no measures have been taken to effectively address any of the issues we highlighted during our 2012 trade union action – in that sense we believe we have been misled. Frankly, the present situation with concern to the education sector is worse in comparison to the pre-strike period.
Q: What are the main issues that are in need of dire attention in the local education system?
Issues in the education sector run deeper than the inadequate budgetary allocations. There is a need for a formal education policy through which, clear educational goals can be set and new institutions can be established that would not be restricted to mere name-boards. We can provide our fullest assistance in this regard but without government support for the university sector, it has become tough to stretch our resources to assist other fields.
There are grave issues in the general education sector with concern to issues on the curriculums, student – teacher ratios that have resulted from the lack of clear visions in existing education policies. Most subjects, particularly in the arts stream are not formulated in a manner that prompts analytical thinking. They are more like story telling exercises that have led to the formation of myths, particularly concerning the country’s history.
The reality of student- teacher ratio in reality is approximately 50:1 in schools. The plight in national universities is similar due to insufficient cadre positions. The standard student-teacher ratio in universities is considered 15:1 but for practical subjects such as art, the figure should ideally drop to about 8:1. Moreover, lack of training for academics, slow updating of curriculums and scarcity of scope for meaningful research have contributed to the dumbing down of the local higher education sector.
A good university whether in a capitalist or socialist country, has to concentrate its focus on the progress of students. That is why it is important for each university to decide on their requirements and facilities instead of external bodies determining such necessities on behalf of the university.
Q: What are your comments on the developments within the Jaffna University during the past few weeks?
It is appalling! The university was abruptly closed for several days, its Academics Association President Mr. Rasakumaran was summoned to the TID for questioning and death threats were distributed within the university premises.
Worst of all, the military makes direct involvements on the activities of the university. Under such circumstances how can we expect university autonomy to flourish? These suppressive actions carried out against the university staff and undergraduates merely due to their ethnicity and the language they speak is most unfortunate. They are also extremely damaging to the reconciliation process because these intellectuals have a vital role to play in bridging the gap between the North and the South.
Q: The government accuses universities of failing to produce employable graduates. Do you believe universities should bear responsibility for unemployment among graduates?
I am not certain whether the government and I have the same understanding about education and employment. For me, the job market and employability are two distinctively different factors.
A university should produce graduates with a set of skills and an education that is employable – not graduates cut out for specific jobs because the university would then just be a factory. For example, the country needs doctors as well as medical researchers. This is why developing research units in universities are vital significant for the development of the higher education sector.
The government also circulates another myth; the hyped role of English fluency. If that was true, why are there so many unemployed youth in UK? Countries such as Japan produce highly sought after employees but they are not necessarily extremely fluent in English.
Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, not even our mother tongue is spoken fluently. This is why being educated on our culture and local languages are important. Parroting facts is not learning. Preserving the culture and language are not facets protectable by the military – it has to come from within the people.
Q: Local university ratings have dropped sharply in global ranking systems. What has contributed to this deterioration?
Global ranking represents the quality of the teaching process and students’ performance of a university. How can the local universities perform on par with other universities when the students are not even facilitated with basic human and infrastructure resources? For example the Rajarata University Medical Faculty is still not equipped with a professorial unit. Buildings alone do not aide in the progress, the students have to be properly facilitated too. The z-score system has also significantly contributed to the deterioration of the higher education sector. Students opt to select subjects they are least interested in to obtain a high z-score, which has led to a group of uninterested undergraduates being included in certain courses. Such developments have proven detrimental to the quality of courses such as Fine Arts. The provincial quota too has deprived students with real talent from pursuing their interests.
The prevalent system should change. Universities should be open systems that offer equal opportunities to all. Students should be able to apply for whichever course they are interested in if they fulfill certain basic education qualifications. Selections should be carried out by each university so that the calibre of students they recruit is better regulated.
Great literary figures such as Martin Wickramasinghe studied only up to Grade 8 - it shows the high standards of education prevalent in the country those days. Ultimately the public are responsible for the present downfall because it is their passive attitudes that have encouraged the government to belittle the education sector.
Q: Isn’t it time the universities turned more proactive and raised the necessary funds for their management without completely relying on the government?
The lack of recognition given to the research field has led to the abandoning of many research projects.
Instead of wasting finances on leadership training for university freshers, why not channel that money into providing facilities for students? It would in turn prompt a system through which students will be more involved with university activities.
Q: Why is FUTA against private universities?
Why is the government so reluctant to expand existing national universities or open up more state universities?
However, if there is an absolute need to establish private universities, the government needs to ensure that an effective regulatory system is in place to guarantee their quality. The recently legalised system through which the Higher Education Ministry Secretary is entitled to grant permission for the establishment of an education institution without the recognition of its professional body, cannot be accepted.
Even during the conflict period, budgetary allocation for education was close to 3%. Today it has dropped as low as 1.8% despite celebrating the fifth anniversary since the end of the war. The plight of the education sector raises serious doubts on the rapid development the government claims Sri Lanka is undergoing.
Q: Have you observed any marked difference in the conduct of new graduates following their leadership training?
The conduct and attitude among students towards education is even worse. In the University of Fine Arts the students boycotted examinations several months ago when it was announced that 80% attendance rule will be strictly implemented. Why can’t they respect the university regulations and continue their studies without creating issues? As beneficiaries of state education, they are meant to be fulltime students. But it seems the students have failed to grasp this concept.
Q: FUTA demands increased funding for universities. What about the brain drain and the losses it incurs on the country’s economy?
Sri Lanka presently only markets the labour of women instead of generating wealth through the knowledge of its educated population.
There are two sides to every story so it is important to probe into its root causes, which mainly are economic instability and lack of recognition. The development in the country is in the pockets of a handful. Even with the citizens being subjected to grave suppression and injustices, we have turned into a silent nation. Eventually, the government has to bear the responsibility of the brain drain.
Pix by Nisal Baduge