Crisis in University Education in Sri Lanka – Would it lead to undesirable consequences ?

MCM IQBAL

Among all the fundamental rights mentioned in the Human Rights Charter, the right to education stands out as a key right any human being should have. It is the educated who have brought about many social changes in society. It is perhaps because our leaders of that time thought of the importance of education that they introduced free education during the early days after Sri Lanka became independent. It is those who benefited from free education who contributed most to the welfare of the country in the days following independence. That should have spurred the leaders of Sri Lanka to foster and promote the system of free education in the country. Unfortunately, that is not what happened.

Recent events show that the levels of education in the country have steadily declined in proportion to the importance that successive governments have paid to measures that brought in quick support for electoral candidates. The short terms benefits such measures brought in helped them to harp on the ‘get more votes’. Consequently the proportion of funds allocated for education in the annual budgets saw a steady decline. This decline was accelerated after the current government came into power and diverted its full attention to militarily end the conflict. Even after the conflict was brought to a close, spending on the military did not show any decline. When President Rajapakse assumed office in 2005 the amount allocated for the promotion of education was 2.9 per cent of the Gross National Product and it has now dropped to 1.9 per cent of the budget. On a closer look at the manner in which this 1.9 per cent is allocated to various areas of education it could be seen that only 0.52 per cent has been spent on tertiary education, namely the Universities. Therefore it is no wonder that those in that sector of education became restive.

The upshot of it is the current crisis where the University staff and related employees have gone on strike. It has continued for months now with no visible and serious attempts by the government to end the crisis. They have chosen the apparently easy way out by closing down the universities in the hope that those agitating will get tired and give up their struggle.

This crisis has been brought about not just by the reduction of expenditure on Universities but by a more devastating consequence of political interference in the administration of the Universities which has stifled the development of academic interest in research and study in general and on the issues facing the country, in particular. Eventually the standard of education imparted at the Universities declined. Many academics left the country seeking greener pastures. The social sciences and humanities sections have been the worst affected.

Political influence in the administration of the Universities has resulted in most of the Vice Chancellors being persons of questionable academic levels to hold such esteemed positions. Many of them lack intellectual sensibility, integrity and the kind of leadership qualities needed to lead the students of today.

All these factors coupled with the absence of any meaningful recognition of the demands of the academics for better remuneration and recognition of their vocation has driven them to the point of taking trade union action. They are asking for six per cent of the GDP be set aside for education and them to be, rightly, consulted in decision-making that has to do with the education sector. Such a thing is not only reasonable but necessary. The demand for an increase in their salaries is something that every member of the public service in Sri Lanka wants today. But the demands of the academics are specific and exceptional as they have not been given any meaningful salary increase for quite some time.

However the government has demonstrated an attitude that shows a marked hostility towards FUTA’s demands. They have also started vilification of its leaders openly and some have been blatantly threatened. This does not augur well for the future of University education in the country. The series of protest rallies and the marches they have organized could lead to undesirable consequences. It would be worth to remember that academics and university students around the world had brought about changes in the rulers in their respective countries. Let us hope the reaction of the government to the moves of the academics does not lead the country to face such a calamity.

Featured image above photocredits : Kalpa Rakapaksha

 

Mr. Iqbal retired from the public service of Sri Lanka after nearly 40 years of in different positions. Among them were the positions of Assistant Commissioner of Co-operative Development in Jaffna, Mannar and Colombo, Deputy Secretary at the Secretariat of Governor Western Province, Secretary to several Presidential Commissions of Inquiry, etc. He was also a visiting lecturer at the Co-operative Training College in Kandy, at the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration and at the Institute of Human Rights in Colombo.

After retirement he served as a Consultant at the National Human Rights Commission and later in other International and National Institutions for almost ten years. He has also followed an advanced course of study in Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at the International Service for Human Rights in Geneva. He has made presentations at seminars and workshops on human rights related issues in several countries and has also written to various journals on matters concerning human rights in Sri Lanka and other topics.

 

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