Sri Lanka’s education system, particularly the higher-education system, our great socialist dream, is perhaps one of the very few things we got right – at least to some extent. It remains a fact of pride for us that any student in Sri Lanka who qualifies for University entrance can attend university and receive higher-education of a very good quality, regardless of their socio-economic background. It remains our success story, that we built an education system that enables any hard-working, intelligent student to become a graduate from a state-based credible institution. It remains our trump card that we created and maintained an education system in which class-divide – effectively – had no place. Sadly however, since post-Independence, our higher-education system has been riddled by problems of unemployment, and with violence, political machinations and a strong feeling of class-divide; the bloody Marxist uprisings in the South of Sri Lanka had their roots firmly in Sri Lanka’s universities.
In more recent years, universities in Sri Lanka have suffered from severe political interference and oppression: they are no longer places where one can teach and learn freedom of thought. In 2011, a talk to be given to university-students by an award-winning Sri Lankan Human Rights activist to commemorate Human Rights Day in an event organised by the University of Colombo and the United Nations jointly was cancelled at the last minute. It came from higher authorities that the said activist should not be allowed on campus – the said activist being a vocal critic of the current Sri Lankan government and human rights violations committed under its watch. But this was just one incident that foreshadowed things to come. Most worrying lately has been the infamous ‘leadership training programme’: a new programme implemented by the Sri Lankan government that makes it compulsory for every batch of university entrants to undergo a militarized training programme that’s meant to instill ‘disciplines’ and ‘values’ in them. The fact that these training programmes are carried out by the Ministry of Defence is especially worrying, and the content of these temporary military camps have been highly controversial. In addition to this, academics’ grants are taken away from them, books written and published by university professors are prohibited from being put on sale, universities are governed by severe moral-policing. Academics and academic freedom have been continuously threatened and attitudes of dissent continuously crushed – both in students and teachers. Universities have had little opportunity to conduct their affairs without interference and are told what to think – and in turn what to tell their students to think.
Since July 2012, FUTA (the Federation of University Teachers’ Association in Sri Lanka) has been actively engaged in a series of protests that constitute a larger struggle with the government of Sri Lanka. These protests and strikes have been a part of a campaign to raise public awareness about FUTA’s demands. FUTA, which represents more than 4000 academics employed by the government’s higher-education sector, has been successful in drawing not just national but international attention to their issues and demands, and in securing significant public support within the island, not just from other teachers and academics, but from students, civil society activists and the general public as well.
FUTA claims, in its online petition:
‘In 2005 the government’s expenditure on education was 2.9 % of the GDP. In 2012 it is a miserable 1.9% of the GDP. In 2005, the government spent 0.52% of the GDP on the Universities. It has declined to 0.27% of the GDP in 2012. It is a grave concern of FUTA that education is such a low priority for the government.’
1. The government allocates the UNESCO-standard 6% of GDP to national education
2. De-politicization of Universities and grant Universities/academics independence from political interference
3. Salary increases for lecturers/professors
Though university lecturers resumed work earlier in August, the island-wide strike came to a close officially on the 28th of September, with FUTA’s ‘last march’ – a final attempt to draw the government’s attention to the urgent issues that face public/free education in Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan government, typically, in response, branded the FUTA as traitors attempting to ‘topple the government’. University lecturers have not been paid salaries in months, and universities across the island were repeatedly closed down on government orders. Further, the professors and lecturers involved were accused of doing this with selfish motives; to simply get a raise in their own salaries. It would be clear to anyone observing the campaign closely for the last three months that FUTA’s persistence and commitment to the cause proves beyond a doubt that they are not merely doing it for a salary raise. However, the government and government-controlled media in Sri Lanka have sadly chosen to label the entire campaign and key figures within it as ‘conspirators’.
Prof Jayadeva Uyangoda writes this in an article published originally in The Island – apparently after posters calling him and others in FUTA ‘traitors’ and saying, cryptically, ‘May God bless their children’ were pasted on the walls of his home:
‘If the government resorts to outright repression, as some in the government appear to insist, then it may generate further opposition in society. Then, the government will also be compelled to be more repressive, producing a new logic of repression-resistance-repression-resistance. But, prudent governments do not usually handle trade union issues in that fashion, as Mr. Jayewardene did three decades ago, on the argument that the government should not give into demands from trade unions. Actually, the government of President Rajapakse has ample reasons to listen to FUTA demands, because many university academics, who are in the strike now, –except a very few — have been in the forefront of the campaign to elect and re-elect him in 2005 and 2010. Prudent governments also usually listen to their constituencies, instead of antagonizing them.’
Not only is the government’s reaction foolish and petty, it is tragic – it is tragic to think that we have a government that does not care at all about education and therefore does not care for the youth of Sri Lanka, nor about the people whose job it is to educate this youth. A government that does not care about education is one that does not care about thinking, but believes that people – like itself – should know only to act and react. Such a government, then, is one that that does not care about creating, exploring, discovering and examining. It is one that does not care for a people who ask questions and challenge ideas – it does not care for ideas at all. It is one that does not wish for us to think critically, analytically – one that does not wish for us embrace the world outside as well as within ourselves, confront our opinions and emotions alike; to acknowledge everything, deny nothing.
Somehow, it is most disheartening – more disheartening even than a government that is corrupt to the core and a government that we know could be responsible for committing large-scale atrocities on its own citizens. More disheartening, perhaps, even than a government we know is responsible for massive lies and robbery. More disheartening than a government that threatens, frightens, attacks and imprisons dissenters with impunity. It is most disheartening because it means that we have a government that – in addition to being all those things – simply does not about the future. And a government that does not care about the future, does not care, at all.
Support FUTA’s struggle in any way you can. Though the campaign was officially brought to a close a few days ago, FUTA’s fight goes on – they will not rest until each of their demands are met. You can sign their ‘Million Signature’ campaign online and join any future marches or events that they organize.
We must view the FUTA struggle against the backdrop of the bigger picture: the issue of continued political oppression in every sphere of life in Sri Lanka, the question of prisoners of war languishing in jail without clear sentencing and trial, the delicate matter of torture and disappearances, the diminishing of media freedom and the freedom of speech, the menace of political power reigning supreme in matters of law and order. Therefore, a fight for education is a fight for so much more – it is a fight against political oppression, ignorance and propaganda. It is a fight to say ‘We will not be lied to; we cannot be fooled’. It is a fight to say: ‘We know what we’re worth, what we deserve, what we’re each entitled to, what our rights are.’