The ongoing trade union action by the Federation of the University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) has drawn the attention of the entire nation. Cutting across the ethnic boundaries which have hitherto divided them on many issues of national importance, especially the minority question, the academic staff of the universities in the North and East have joined hands with their counterparts in the South in a common struggle for pay hike. Reports from the different universities in the country inform us that the resignation of academic staff from voluntary positions is gathering momentum day after day with more and more academics and teachers’ unions coming out in support of the trade union action initiated by the FUTA.

Privatization of higher education in Sri Lanka is a cause for concern for students coming from underprivileged background. Free education at both secondary and tertiary levels has played a pivotal role in increasing the living standards of low-income families. In spite of its low per-capita income, Sri Lanka’s Physical Quality of Life Index is nearly as high as that of the developed world owing to the availability of free education and free health care services to all citizens. The trade union action that the FUTA has embarked on coincides with the crucial move made by the government to establish private universities in Sri Lanka. While the government is preparing to allow the establishment of private universities, students from disadvantaged sections of the community continue to regard the state-run universities as places that ensure their upward social and economic mobility. Private universities might entice the teaching staff of state-run universities sooner or later by offering them attractive salary packages. If the demands of the academic community of the state universities are not addressed in a sensible way, students who come from not-so-affluent families may have to pursue their higher education at state-run universities under academics of low caliber disqualified by private universities or deemed unfit for teaching at private universities. In the end, the government’s persistent refusal to increase the salaries of the teaching staff at the country’s state universities may put the common man’s children at the risk of losing access to quality education. As we are expecting the establishment of private universities at any moment, failing to meet the demands of the academics will cause a situation of “inter-sectoral/intra-state brain-drain” which would adversely affect the future and aspirations of the poor of this country. Though I do not see this trade union action as one that stems from a larger concern for the future of the educational opportunities for indigent students or the poor citizenry of this country, we need to transform this action into a significant component of a political program to contest the haphazard neo-liberal policies of the present regime such as privatization of higher education.

In the context of escalating cost of living, the salary paid to the academics employed at the state-run universities is not adequate to cover their routine expenditure. We should be mindful of the fact that an academic utilizes her salary not only to fulfill her daily needs, but she also invests part of it in her research and higher educational ventures. Given the lack of funding for research and higher education outside Sri Lanka, the salary paid to an academic is an important source of human resource of development in the university system, which, in turn, becomes a source of national development. If the present salary is barely sufficient to meet one’s day-to-day expenses, how can an academic develop her research skills or present her research at international conferences which charge exorbitant amounts of money as registration fee, let alone the travel expenses the academic has to bear?

Teaching at a university is not a walk in the park, though the lack of commitment of some in the academia towards teaching and research has regrettably produced a repugnant image of university academics. Teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students involves rigorous preparation. Evaluating student assignments, moderating and making question papers, evaluating answer scripts and providing guidance to research students are tasks which consume huge amount of time and require a high degree of scholarship, expertise, training and patience. Besides these academic tasks, teaching staff at our universities are burdened with innumerable voluntary chores ranging from mentoring students to providing administrative assistance to the functioning of academic departments, faculties and the entire university system. In many respects, the academic staff of our universities actively deliver their services in their non-academic capacities as student counselors, heads of departments, deans, vice-chancellors and members of various committees, besides their mandatory responsibility of teaching. We need to ask the authorities whether all these services—academic and non-academic—are valued in determining the salaries of our academics. Do we see a logical connection between the services rendered by the academic staff and the salaries they are paid? Academics who are in support of the trade union action have also argued that the salary paid to Sri Lankan university teachers is far less than the salaries earned by their counterparts in India and other South Asian countries. Hence, the trade union action launched by the FUTA cannot be dismissed as irresponsible or unneeded.

Despite the fact that the trade union action of the FUTA is justifiable for important reasons, the government has shown little interest in engaging with the demands of the academics. The University Grants Commission, in a hasty move to snub the trade union action, has issued a circular, the legal validity of which is now being questioned. It is unfortunate that the government has chosen to respond to the academics’ call for pay hike in a nationalist diatribe calling the trade union action unpatriotic. It may be true that the crisis that besets Sri Lanka’s economy will be a hindrance for the government to concede to the demands made by the FUTA immediately; but it does not warrant the government to belittle their grievances or project the trade union action of the academics in an unfavorable light, as a threat on the national interests of the country.

Trade union action in the recent history of Sri Lanka does not have many success stories. However, in any society, trade union activities are necessary for the protection of labour rights and to harness the arbitrary and exploitative practices of the state and capitalist forces. The thirty-year-old ethnic conflict has overshadowed the hardships and struggles of the working people. In a militarized society where war-heroes have been celebrated, the contribution of the working people towards this country’s progress has not been duly recognized or remembered by the state. Trade unions have lately become less independent and ethnically polarized in Sri Lanka. May Day rallies have been manipulated by the state and its aides to whip up nationalist sentiments among the public and to create a cult of personality for political leaders. The resignation of university academics enmasse from their voluntary positions as a key trade union measure to demand the introduction and implementation of a revised salary scheme and their persistent refusal to compromise their demands will hopefully rejuvenate the emaciated spirit of the trade unions belonging to the different sectors of Sri Lanka’s economy.

The support given by the United National Party and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna to the trade union action of the university teachers is commendable. However, I sadly note that political parties representing the minority communities seem to remain silent over the trade union action started by the FUTA, as though it were not their concern or responsibility. On several occasions, political parties identifying themselves with minorities have been accused by leftist political parties of conniving with imperialist forces. Though one may argue that it was the failure of the traditional left to back the minorities’ struggle for their rights that moved the minority parties closer to political parties and movements propagating the ideology of neo-liberalism, political parties speaking for the rights of the minority people should consider the role they could play vis-à-vis trade union activities such as the one that has been organized by the FUTA. Supporting this trade union action would broaden the scope of their politics and may offer them an opportunity to work with multi-ethnic groups, and garner their support to address the political aspirations of the minority communities. In the absence of strong left parties, minority parties need to realise that the task of bolstering the rights of the working people is their responsibility too. At the same time, it is time that trade unions such as the FUTA to come forward to re-evaluate their position on the minority question and render their support to the cause of the minorities.

The hegemonic structure of the nation needs to be contested from multiple-fronts. The proletariat, minorities, oppressed castes and women are the peripheral, marginalized subjects of the nation. Each of these groups relies on the others to move forward in their quest for power and emancipation. In charting its future course of action, the FUTA or any other activist movement or political party needs to consider a Sri Lankan context marked by multi-pronged struggles and the manner in which those struggles are inextricably intertwined. The success of any political action aiming at better freedom for the oppressed is contingent on the ability and willingness of the political movements and trade unions involved in that action to accommodate struggles of different kinds under a common political program. The struggle initiated by the FUTA and the support extended to it by academics from all regions of the county remind us once again of the importance of mass-based, multi-ethnic political movements to overcome the political challenges that lie before us.

  • Great article Thiru.

    Three quick points:

    1. While its important to broaden the agenda to articulate this struggle as one against neo liberalisation of higher education, i think we should also broaden this as a struggle against partisan political domination of universities (facilitated by state control) that hinders academic freedom in Universities. The struggle is against both neo liberalisation and against those (state) forces that undermine academic freedom.

    2. While you are absolutely right as with regard to the correlation between free education and the good life quality that we enjoy in SL this is not necessarily a link between free higher education and quality life. (i think its primary education/secondary education that are more relevantly linked to enjoyment of quality life). While resisting neo liberalisation of higher education we also need to think of how we can, by only relying on state funding, expand availability of financial resources to universities and increase student intake. As you know we are depriving so many young people from university education in this country. You are right to warn us about intra-sectoral brain drain (from public to private universities) but inter-sectoral brain has been happening too (a career in universities vs a career in non governmental organisations). We need to arrest that situation as well.

    3. I completely agree with the point that parties representing minority communities have to support this struggle. But as you know we could see a repeat of what happened with TNA’s support for SF – how their support was used to undermine SF’s campaign by characterising it as unpatriotic. But this should not be an excuse for minority parties from not backing cross ethnic movements. We need to take bold actions.

  • Thiruvarangan

    Yes, while primary and secondary education contribute towards living standards, tertiary education is linked to social empowerment and employment. In a way tertiary education would give one access to better facilities.

    The establishment of private universities is, of course, a debatable issue. What we need to ensure is that the opening of these universities should not bring down the quality of education offered by state universities. It is a “possible” danger which the government should be willing to address. The interest the government shows in avoiding this danger should not be less than the interest it shows in establishing private universities.

  • Travelling Academic

    Nice article. The final comment and the spirit you report resonates with my thinking very much: “…once again of the importance of mass-based, multi-ethnic political movements to overcome the political challenges that lie before us.” Take part and fight the common problems of ALL islanders first.

    Aachcharyya’s comments also make sense, but on TNA’s support for SF backfiring, my impression (travelling a lot in SL during the campaign and talking to lot of random people) was that the effect was second order. MR was so far ahead that SF had no chance, with or without TNA on whichever side.

  • NP

    Wholeheartedly agree, Thiru. Just one point to add. Seems to me that the momentum towards private universities is part of the overall campaign to make university education more ‘relevant’ and market-friendly. Is it any wonder that the faculty we both passed through has long been considered an anachronism with its hordes of infamously unemployable graduates? Private universities go hand-in-hand with the (to borrow a phrase from a mutual friend!) the numerous consumerist post-doc degree programmes on offer today.

  • Travelling academic, I agree about the second-order nature of the impact that the TNA had on SF’s electoral defeat. (there is no way of establishing this in psephology.) But since its much talked about, participants in such worthy causes, like the present, for strategic reasons also probably think it is best that parties like the TNA dont support them. But as i said we should regardless break the shackles and support these causes. Otherwise we get caught up in this vicious cycle

    Thiru, I did not argue for establishing private universities. We could look for other alternatives and ways of bringing in private sector investment (for example the model of Public Private Partnership – PPP). There are some areas that the private sector is going to be immediately interested in (like Science, Engineering & Medicine) The savings that the State makes in those areas can be then pooled into the social sciences, arts & humanities. The important thing of course is to make sure that academic freedom is protected (both from the clutches of the state and the private sector)

  • jayampathy

    A nice article.One of the most attractive features i noticed in the article was the leftist approach of the author.Elitism of the Tamil bourgeois politicians has a history which runs back to the days of Chelvanayagam.I remember there were some important remarks made my Sivasekaran in his book radical notes regarding this issue.Though this is a question out of topic- I would appreciate if the author can enlighten us on the current space which exists for a left oriented political movement with in the tamil community – after the so called victory of the Rajapaksha hegemony over the LTTE.

  • Thiruvarangan

    Aacharya,

    The lines “While resisting neo liberalisation of higher education we also need to think of how we can, by only relying on state funding, expand availability of financial resources to universities and increase student intake” clearly indicate that you do not argue for the establishment of private universities. Sorry for getting your point wrong.

    I agree with your point about PPP and the need to protect academic from the state.

    Jayampathy,

    Sadly, the Tamil community or its spokespersons—here I mean the electoral representatives of the community—do not show much interest in leftist politics. They are hesitant to approach the minority question from a leftist perspective. The majority opinion about freedom among Tamils, in my understanding, rests on two premises: (1) they think their right to freedom stems from the idea that they are different from the Sinhalese; they speak a different language, and they have a separate homeland. (2) they have been discriminated by the state continuously. Unfortunately, continuous discrimination by the state against Tamils, the indifference of the majority community to the oppression of the Tamil community by the state, chauvinistic feelings among Tamils of their culture and language, the unwillingness of the Tamil community to accept discrimination within the community along lines of class, caste and gender have obstructed the space for leftist politics in the Tamil community. The emergence of leftist politics within the Tamil community is possible only (1) when the Tamil community gets rid of its ethnic chauvinism, shows its willingness to fight forms of discrimination inside the community and joins hands with all communities in the country to overcome problems that are common to all communities (2) when the majority Sinhalese accept that the character of the Sri Lankan state is discriminatory and show their solidarity with Tamils in dismantling those discriminatory structures of the state (in other words, when mainstream Sinhala politics makes a radical shift towards leftist politics). At present, I don’t see these two happening, though I consider them as the best possible options we have to move towards building a state on the principle of equity.