6% GDP on Education: From a fantasy to a real program

SUMANASIRI LIYANAGE

Of the four trade union actions carried out by the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) in the three decades of its existence, the one which ended last week was the first to conclude with no tangible material results.

On the other hand, the last trade union action was of great significance for two reasons.  Firstly, it was the first strike action by the university teachers. FUTA resorted to a different activity frame in comparison to the previous three occasions, namely resigning from voluntary positions that the university teachers held under normal circumstances.

Secondly, extending its 2011 strategy of taking the issue of education reforms beyond the boundaries of the university and to the general masses, FUTA, this time highlighted more general issues of education reforms than the specific demands of its members.  Hence FUTA was able to generate a broader discussion on the educational reforms that the country is badly in need of.

Concluding a Trade Union (TU) action with no concrete results is not an uncommon thing in the trade union history since the trade union action means a struggle between two opposite forces with substantially different interests.  Just because the TU action failed to register concrete and tangible gains, it does not necessarily mean that it was a failure.  Similarly, even it is a failure, it is not a ground for discontent or disappointment if the union membership and its leaders are able to decode the reasons for the failure and take necessary actions not to repeat them in future trade union actions.

So it is imperative for FUTA to have a critical reflection on the past union actions.

Why did it fail to win its demands?

Notwithstanding the fact that it was the trade union action which received the participation and the support of more than 90% of the university teachers and generated support of the significant layer of the society, this is difficult to comprehend.

Could it be due to the fact that some of the FUTA demands are not achievable in the prevailing economic and social context without far-reaching changes?

Was there a basic flaw in the frame of struggle?

Can the failure be attributed to the fact that although the FUTA was able to build pressure through mass action, the FUTA negotiation team had failed at the negotiation table?

In my opinion, these are the issues the FUTA should discuss and reflect on if it wants to continue as a trade union.

Although I have my own views on the above issues, I do not intend to discuss them in this article. My intention here is to re-draw the boundaries of the discussion on the FUTA demand of 6% of GDP for education.

Fantasies are of great importance and useful in building social movements. It is interesting to note that the FUTA was able to fantasize the demand of 6% of the GDP on education especially among the Sri Lankan internet community that is growing. Keeping the demand at the level of fantasy during the time of trade union action might also have helped the trade union action. Nonetheless, in the post-strike phase, it is imperative to re-read the demand in the light of the ideas that were flagged in the discussion. There were two criticisms on the FUTA demand to which I intend to turn shortly.

1. Critique of the Economists and the FUTA’s failure to respond

The economists reacted against the demand for 6% of GDP on education focusing on the demand’s practicality.  They correctly pointed out that the state’s contribution to the GDP had greatly reduced with the introduction of neo-liberal economic policies since 1977.  The total government expenditure as a proportion of the GDP has reduced to 22% in recent years. So, spending 6% out of this total government expenditure, according to them, is not practically possible.  This may be the reason why many economists attached to the department of economics, University of Colombo refused take part in the trade union action.

The answer to this criticism on the side of FUTA was not satisfactory. FUTA argued that 6% can be spent if the government is ready to reduce defence expenditure substantially and/or cut down corruption and wastage. This argument does not hold water. The main portion of the current defence expenditure is of recurrent nature. If the proposal for substantial reduction of the former is not linked to decommissioning with alternative employment, the implementation of such a proposal would create so many new problems.  So, in order to materialize FUTA’s demand for 6% of GDP for education, the demand should be linked with the expansion of the public economy.  In other words, it means a reversal of the 1977 neo-liberal economic policies.  Without moving towards an economy that is substantially dominated by the public sector, 6% is just an empty signifier.  Only such an economy can provide adequate expenditure on education, health, public transport, etc.

In order to reduce possible  misunderstanding, let me explain what I meant by public economy that is qualitatively different from the statist economy and/or private economy.  Health, education, public transport and such services should not be permitted to be  controlled either by state bureaucracy or by surplus-seeking capital.  Based on the experiences of the past, it is necessary to design a new system of management for these sectors.  The FUTA’s demand would be meaningful if and only if it is linked with such far-reaching changes in the prevailing economic system.

2. Teachers would have learned from the students:

In the course of the FUTA struggle, a clear difference emerged between the positions of the FUTA and that of the Inter-University Students Federation (IUSF). While FUTA stood for the defence of ‘state education’, IUSF had the slogan of defending ‘free education’. Is this a mere semantic difference?  In my view, these two demands are qualitatively different.  FUTA’s position implies that it has no objection to the presence of private sector education controlled by the logic of surplus-seeking capital with the state education.

Secondly, it also means the continuance of the present system as a system controlled by the state bureaucracy especially in school education. On the other hand, IUSF wanted to continue the free education system originally initiated by E W Kannangara.  In Sri Lankan education discourse, the term widely used to denote public education system has been free education. Why did FUTA change it? No explanation was given. Admittedly the IUSF demand is not clear about the system of management of the free education system or how the free education system could be freed from the state bureaucracy and put under a democratic control of the educationists. However, its demand at least emphasizes the need of inversing the changes that are now clearly visible in the education system.

What I have said above on the public education system can be equally applicable to other sectors such as health that need to be freed from two dominant control mechanisms, namely, capitalist and statist. Humankind has come to the stage when it should discover new mechanisms to govern their lives.

The writer is a co-coordinator of the Marx School, Colombo, Kandy and Negombo. Read more of his writings here

All images are credited to Kalpa Rajapaksha

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