Kath Noble

A tale of two patriots

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 11, 2012

On the dangers those who challenge the Government have to face

The threats to senior academic and trade union leader Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri have been condemned by a wide range of individuals and institutions in the last week. He is a well known personality in Colombo. More importantly, as the representative of the national body of university teachers, he is part of the mainstream.

Also, it is clear that the struggle in which his organisation is engaged is in the national interest.

The Government has done its best to present the dispute as being purely about salaries, which it claims have already been increased ‘unusually’. What it does not mention is that these ‘unusual’ increases are nowhere near what was recommended by the University Grants Commission back in 2008 after an in-depth study. Sri Lankan academics are amongst the lowest paid in the world, which is a major problem in recruiting and retaining the best – so many promising young scholars go abroad for postgraduate education and never return. How is Mahinda Rajapaksa thinking of turning Sri Lanka into the ‘knowledge hub’ of Asia when universities in so many other Asian countries – never mind the West – pay their academics so much better? Even when they choose to stay at home, rather than focusing on their research and teaching, they are compelled to search for other opportunities to earn.

The increases are not even as ‘unusual’ as the Government promised when FUTA called off its earlier trade union action in July 2011. Ridiculously, the Ministry of Higher Education is now suggesting that there was no more than a ‘perceived’ agreement, whatever that means – perhaps the Minister had his fingers crossed under the table?

One of the issues the FUTA strike has brought out very successfully is the abysmally low public spending on education in Sri Lanka. Their demand for 6% of GDP is now well known, along with the fact that Sri Lanka currently spends 1.9%, down from 2.9% in 2005. If this trend continues, the country will be on par with the Central African Republic by 2015 or thereabouts. Within the education system, universities are particularly underfunded, with spending down from 0.52% of GDP to 0.27% under Mahinda Rajapaksa. While standards are still high – at undergraduate level – this is only because Sri Lanka has a strong history. It has to be maintained, and of course further developed. Universities need facilities, and they need money to send their academics to conferences and for both short and long courses abroad – this is how globally available knowledge can be brought to Sri Lanka.

The other key demand was for a consultative mechanism. Academics are concerned that decisions affecting both the future as well as the current functioning of universities are being taken without their knowledge, never mind input or agreement, despite the fact that their autonomy is guaranteed by legislation.

This was certainly the case as regards the ‘leadership’ training the Government suddenly decided all students needed to receive from the Army. But there are many other examples.

Perhaps the most important is the Private Universities Bill, legislation that is being pushed for the purpose of attracting investors – foreign and domestic – into the education system. The Government seems to think that there’s no difference between training a country’s doctors and providing its citizens with a range of attractive footwear – the profit motive will act as both an incentive and a guarantor of standards. The fact that this is not the case anywhere in the world doesn’t seem to matter – many countries have very few private universities (e.g. the UK), while even in places where private universities are common, they are often almost exclusively not-for-profit institutions (e.g. the United States). Where for-profit institutions are significant, a strong oversight mechanism is needed to prevent corruption.

Oversight doesn’t seem to be a strong point of the Ministry of Higher Education, as the recent debate about the Malabe Medical College has demonstrated – who wants to be treated by a doctor who hasn’t done any clinical training because his or her school didn’t have an attached hospital?

Easily workable alternatives, such as offering paid places in state universities to the best students currently denied seats, are ignored in favour of SB Dissanayake’s money-making scheme. For example, for every 1,000 students currently taken to study medicine, the district quota system that is so important for promoting equity among the differently-served regions of the country means that 2,000 students with equally good if not better marks are rejected. Just Rs. 1.5 million would cover the cost of their education in state universities, whereas they have to spend Rs. 10 million at the Malabe Medical College.

Some argue that what is needed is not expanding the number of graduates, which is more or less adequate for the state of the economy, but developing vocational training. But apparently that isn’t a field that interests people with money.

It’s not a matter of being against the private sector, but recognising its strengths and weaknesses, and its capacity to upset the whole higher education system if not handled with care.

FUTA wants the Government to restate its commitment to free education. It would be hard to find anybody who would deny the contribution this policy has made to the country’s development and in particular to its  record in social indicators. This is what makes it so difficult to understand why the Government is so determined to change direction now. FUTA is doing everybody a favour in raising these issues.

Its strike comes after months of discussions with the Ministry of Higher Education, and numerous disappointments. One of the triggers was the Government’s failure to accept in full the Grade One admission lists for members’ children – FUTA officials were treated in an appalling manner when they went to discuss the matter with the Ministry Secretary. Now the threatening phone calls have started, and FUTA president Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri has complained that people claiming that his daughter has applied for a job at the Defence Ministry have been asking neighbours about his family’s movements.

This kind of treatment is apparently now the norm in Sri Lanka. People at the forefront of any and every campaign of even mild significance should expect to be harrassed. And they won’t know how far it will go.

I don’t know if the Government is responsible – maybe it’s just an extraordinary coincidence that the targets all constitute some kind of challenge to the administration?

When a similar thing happened to an old friend of mine a few months ago, I asked virtually everybody I know what to do. Nobody had a clue (other than writing about it), but not even the people I asked who are members or representatives of the Government suggested that there was no danger. Indeed, they all feared the worst.

Herman Kumara, convenor of a national organisation of fish workers, came under threat after protests against the hike in fuel prices in February 2012. These were actually spontaneous, since the fishing community wasn’t exactly thrilled to see the cost of their main input go up by nearly 50% – genuinely ‘unusual’ – but the Government decided to blame Herman. He is a prominent activist in the area where the main protests took place and on issues related to the fishing community. The Government knows him well, since his organisation often puts forward suggestions for the development of the sector. Facing strong criticism from both within and outside the country due to the shooting of a protestor, the Government announced that it was all an NGO conspiracy. Rajitha Senaratne named Herman.

Of course what the Minister should have done was name the Special Task Force. Or maybe the IMF. In the end, it was the Government that had decided to increase fuel prices and the Government that had failed to manage the reaction this generated.

Herman believes that Rajitha Senaratne was unhappy with him since he had earlier organised protests against the landing of sea planes on the Negombo Lagoon, one of the Minister’s money-making schemes that benefits only a handful of people who can afford to hop from one water body to another in a jet while jeopardising the livelihoods of a whole lot of other people who spend all day and sometimes also all night trying to catch something they can give their families to eat.

This effort too was in the national interest.

Herman was followed from the airport on returning from an international conference. Having managed to lose the car, he decided it was too risky to go home. Indeed, the same car was later seen moving around his village. His neighbours were questioned about his family, job and vehicles by people claiming that he had applied for a bank loan.

Since he is not an establishment figure, his plight did not interest very many people. He went into hiding.

University teachers are lucky that their trade union president has so many individuals and institutions willing to back him up, to stand up for their right to disagree. They are engaged in an important struggle, and they should continue with it. In addition to ensuring the future of higher education in the country, FUTA must teach the Government that it cannot rely on intimidation to get its way, and that it must act to forever banish the climate of fear that continues to envelop Sri Lanka three years into its hard-earned peace. They should do it not just for themselves but also for those who do not enjoy their status, who will never be heard if they speak up alone.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 11th July 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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