Kath Noble

Target practice

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on May 22, 2013

On the attempt by the Minister of Higher Education to get rid of one of his most consistent and effective critics

sb dissanayakeDealing with ‘inconvenient’ people is one of the Government’s main talents. Upset somebody important and you will be made to suffer. It is only the form of punishment that is to be decided, according to who you are and what the Government imagines you will do to save yourself.

Last week, it was the turn of Anuruddha Pradeep, a lecturer at the University of Sri Jayawardenapura.

Pradeep was sacked for not completing his Masters within the specified amount of time after his appointment. Except that the only thing standing between him and the completion of his Masters is the university, since he has submitted his thesis and is waiting for them to approve it. Indeed, he submitted it nearly three months ago.

Every other lecturer in this position – probably in the entire history of the university if not also throughout the university system in Sri Lanka – is granted a temporary appointment until the matter can be sorted out. Once their thesis is approved, their permanent appointment is backdated to the date of submission. Even people who haven’t finished their research are granted this facility, since it is commonly accepted that universities should help their young researchers to develop their capacities, rather than obsessing over deadlines.

Given the difficulties in retaining talent, this is understandable.

The Government is desperate to encourage the thousands of academics who have left the country in despair at the state of the university system to come back, to establish its as yet purely imaginary ‘knowledge hub’, so why does it want to get rid of Pradeep?

To facilitate his removal, the university has even stooped to the level of falsifying the submission date of his thesis in the papers the Vice Chancellor presented to its council meeting.

Why go to such lengths?

Because the Minister of Higher Education is obsessed with establishing private universities, and Pradeep has consistently and very effectively raised doubts about the policy and the manner in which it is being implemented.

Of particular importance is the Malabe Medical College.

Towards the end of last year, Pradeep and FUTA president Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri, together with Dr Sankalpa Marasinghe and Dr Upul Gunasekara of the GMOA, filed a fundamental rights petition against SB Dissanayake regarding the Malabe Medical College, otherwise known as the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine.

Curiously, when it was established in 2008/9, it was called the South Asian Institute of Technology and Management.

At least they both start with an ‘M’.

The Board of Investment approved the project on the condition that the approval of both the Sri Lanka Medical Council and the Ministry of Health would be obtained prior to starting any courses related to health, but they are yet to get around to that ‘detail’. They are also yet to fulfil any of the targets included in the gazette notification issued by the Ministry of Higher Education when it granted the Malabe Medical College the right to award degrees under the University Grants Commission.

In any case, it is not clear whether this gazette notification was legal, since the rules of the University Grants Commission require the approval of the relevant professional body for all of its courses, and this has not been given.

Silly doctors, not yet convinced by SB Dissanayake’s master plan.

How very irresponsible of them, for example, to think that medical students should be trained in an established hospital so that they can see for themselves how the most important ailments in Sri Lanka present and gain experience of treating actual patients.

The Malabe Medical College has managed to turn out seven batches of young people without troubling itself with such concerns.

The case was dismissed by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it was brought more than a month after the gazette notification, but the petitioners argue that the violation is ongoing and progressive in nature, albeit having begun some time ago. They also stress the fact that the issue is of widespread public interest, in the sense that it affects the two vital social services of health and education.

It would certainly seem to indicate how ineffective regulation of private universities is likely to be.

Pradeep has written a very useful book on private universities (‘Private Universities: Fashion and Reality’, Ravaya Publishers 2011) that explains the likely fate of the university system if SB Dissanayake is allowed to continue his crusade unchecked. He has studied the situation in other countries, concluding that many have no or very few private universities (e.g. the UK), while in places where they are common they are often almost exclusively not-for-profit institutions (e.g. the US). Where for-profit institutions are significant, a strong oversight mechanism is essential to prevent corruption.

But SB Dissanayake is confident that corporations – both domestic and foreign – have people’s best interests at heart, so why all this fuss?

It’s only education and health.

These were among the issues stressed by FUTA during its three month long strike last year, and Pradeep was one of its more visible participants.

The Minister of Higher Education made his displeasure absolutely clear in an article in Lakbima, in which he announced that ‘Pradeep can be expelled from the university any time’.

How exactly, when universities are supposed to be autonomous?

Well, SB Dissanayake has packed their councils with his supporters, including both his relatives and people eager to set up private universities. At Sri Jayawardenapura, the Minister of Higher Education appoints nine members, while eight come from the university. Even the university representatives are under tremendous pressure.

FUTA has issued a media statement condemning the dismissal of Pradeep, complaining of political interference. It says that it has received reports from several other universities of similar incidents, especially in the North and East. Perhaps the willingness of Pradeep to come forward and challenge his treatment stems from the fact that he is also an office-bearer of the JHU, giving him some protection from the full weight of the administration. He is fortunate. If he were a member of the TNA, he would have been labelled a Tiger and that would have been the last of him.

According to FUTA, political interference in the university system is now reaching unprecedented levels, as Shanie reported in these columns on Saturday with special reference to recent developments at Peradeniya.

This is hardly surprising.

The one thing that the Government is absolutely committed to is getting its own way. It doesn’t matter what you do, only total commitment to its goals and to the specific objectives of its key personalities will be enough to keep you out of trouble.

This article was not published by The Island.

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Getting Sri Lanka to work

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on May 15, 2013

Why the Government must find a better solution to the country’s unemployment and foreign exchange problems than sending hundreds of thousands of its people overseas 

Rizana NafeekJust when sanity seemed to be prevailing over the Bodu Bala Sena, following the various vigils, rallies and protests that have been organised in the last month, the Government found yet another imaginative way to agitate people – it had Azath Salley arrested. Apparently, the Police are so busy scouring the pages of limited circulation magazines in other countries for potentially disturbing statements by Sri Lankan Muslim politicians that they don’t have time to listen to the bilge that some Buddhist monks are repeating at full volume on a daily basis on the streets of Colombo.

Fortunately, Mahinda Rajapaksa was in a good mood on Friday and Salley was released.

Salley says that he was misquoted. He asserts that he would never advocate or support the taking up of arms against the State since he is all too aware of the consequences, Sri Lanka having only just come out of its three decade long war. Very wise.

Meanwhile, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has proclaimed that there was more to it than an interview – we await his efforts to prove as much beyond our absolutely reasonable doubts.

When people are not so agitated, they focus on their immediate problems.

The electricity tariff hike was enough of a shock to generate a reaction, and the strike planned for next week should give us an indication of how much trouble the cost of living is going to be for the Government.

But what of other issues?

I was bemused the other day to read an article by a prominent economist suggesting that there was no shortage of jobs in the country. He was arguing that the Government might soon have to ban migration, on the basis that the Sri Lankan economy is near full employment. He was concerned about the implications of such a decision on the Balance of Payments, since remittances from workers overseas are the most important source of foreign exchange for the country.

Of course the Government couldn’t ban migration even if it tried. People would continue to leave the country with or without its blessing.

Why? Because they aren’t satisfied with the employment opportunities at home.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the unemployment rate in Sri Lanka was over 15%. In the 1990s, it was over 10%. Now it is under 5%. However, the most important reason for this ‘improvement’ is the departure of hundreds of thousands of people. In 1990, only 50,000 people left the country for work. Now the figure is 280,000.

The 1.8 million workers currently overseas correspond to 22% of people employed in Sri Lanka. Every year, more people migrate for work than enter the labour market.

If this were to stop, the country would be firmly in the grip of unemployment again.

The Government no doubt understands this very well indeed, and I am quite sure that it has no intention of banning migration. That would lead to a serious increase in dissatisfaction, especially among young people, which the Government knows is dangerous.

But not doing something unhelpful is not the same as doing something helpful. Where are its plans to generate decent jobs at home?

At the moment, the Government’s idea of job creation is maintaining an unnecessarily large military and periodically recruiting unemployed graduates to do anything and everything – or most likely nothing at all – in the public service. Keeping people in non-jobs may be good for them and good for the country in some ways, in the sense that they are less likely to get involved in any more uprisings if they are employed by the State, and they will probably spend their salaries on goods and services produced at least in part in Sri Lanka, but this is not good for the country in other ways. While non-jobs occupy so many people, the economy simply cannot reach full employment.

And the country’s development suffers.

While the reconstruction of the conflict areas has generated a certain amount of employment, this won’t last. And it is clear that the Government’s plans don’t go beyond the building of infrastructure to considering how people in the North and East will actually use it to make a living.

What happens if Sri Lankan refugees come home? That’s another hundred thousand people in Tamil Nadu alone.

The Government doesn’t need to recruit them, but it should ensure that they will be able to work.

In the Vanni, the only businesses that seem to be growing at anything like the required rate are banks, which primarily exist to channel remittances from migrants.

Very few people would go overseas to work if there were satisfactory alternatives. The difficulties that migrants face are well known. Even more importantly, everybody understands that families do better when they are together. Tragedies like the execution of Rizana Nafeek have pushed the Government to introduce more checks and balances in the recruitment process, raising the minimum age for migration – especially for women – and to negotiate agreements with receiving countries that try to guarantee better working conditions. However, while these steps are clearly necessary, they are nowhere near sufficient. Most people would rather the Government made it possible for them to live at home.

Although the Government may think that it can safely ignore this issue, since Sri Lankans are now used to the idea of travelling thousands of miles if they want to earn a reasonable income, doing so is putting the country in a vulnerable position.

In 2009, remittances became the single most important source of foreign exchange for Sri Lanka, overtaking exports of textiles and garments. Now textiles and garments exports earn only $4.0 billion compared to $6.0 billion in remittances, with exports of tea accounting for a mere $ 1.4 billion and tourism receipts amounting to just $ 1.0 billion.

Banning migration is not on the Government’s agenda. But what if it were adopted as an objective by receiving countries?

The Indian press has been full of such concerns in the last month, following the implementation by Saudi Arabia of stricter laws on what it calls ‘Saudisation’. Passed in response to the Arab Spring, which made the authorities in Middle Eastern countries think a bit harder about the well-being of their people, they require all companies to employ a minimum percentage of their citizens, as well as to pay them a fairly substantial minimum wage – exemptions for companies with under ten employees have been removed. Also, a new system that may do better at ensuring compliance has been established.

Kerala expects to be badly hit, with an unusually large share of its population working abroad, and its Chief Minister is already talking about establishing a rehabilitation package.

This is probably an overreaction, but at least they are aware that they are exposed.

With 2.3 million workers abroad out of a population of just 33.4 million, Kerala’s numbers are similar to Sri Lanka, except that it has the rest of India to back it up if required.

Although keeping people’s minds off such problems is no doubt awfully time consuming, it would be nice if Mahinda Rajapaksa could spare one or two members of his administration to come up with a few solutions.

However, the rest of his followers will have to intensify their search for the next Azath Salley. The way things are going in Sri Lanka, the Government is going to need to create a lot more demons if it is to continue distracting people, since every distraction is a reminder of just how far off the right track it has swerved. And each demon has to be more extraordinary than the last. Only a few months ago, people were thinking that it couldn’t get much worse than the absolutely reckless impeachment of the Chief Justice, and then along came the Bodu Bala Sena.

This article was published in The Island on 15th May 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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