FUTA’s “6 percent for Education” in Sri Lanka: Sensible or Sensational?

Original photo courtesy Vikalpa

“It was mainly symbolic”, is how FUTA President Dr. Ranjith Dewaisiri characterized the group’s demand of “6 percent of GDP for education”, which has now gained national attention. This was in response to a question posed by an audience member during ‘THE FORUM with Eran’ held this week (26th) featuring Dr. Ranjith Dewasiri, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha (M.P.) and Eran Wickramaratne (M.P.). The FUTA President’s comments were quite revealing, and in a sense alarming.

Much has been written already about the strike action of the FUTA and the trade union’s demands of wage hikes but also higher government spending on education (i.e., “6 percent of GDP”, according to FUTA). Questions were raised from Dewasiri on, “how did you come up with the 6 percent number, and what are FUTA’s thoughts on how to spend it?”. For both, the answer was quite non-specific and non-committal and this is disconcerting.

It is clear that FUTA has now assumed moral leadership and authority on this issue – the issue of the gross underinvestment in education in Sri Lanka. So, the fact that the group does not have any clear ideas on how a greater spending on education would actually be utilized is worrying, especially in a context where even the meager 1.9 percent current spent is allocated and spent inefficiently.

On the question of how FUTA came up with this 6 percent number, there is an important debate to be had. Unlike many other countries that are often benchmarked against Sri Lanka on the indicator of “percentage of GDP spent on education”, Sri Lanka “front loaded” a lot of its education expenditure (especially on capital investment expenditure) very early on in the post-independence period. Countries like Nepal, which one can compare against Sri Lanka to say that it spends 19 percent of GDP on education, is only now beginning to devote extensive resources to build up education. So there is a debate on who does Sri Lanka benchmark against? Is it as simple as comparing against other countries to demonstrate that we spend less? Of course, having spent large sums on education before (for which the country is reaping dividends now) is no excuse to not spend and invest any more now. Education needs are constantly evolving as economic demands and competitiveness factors change. But the nuances on numbers are worth debating and dissecting, especially with a issue like this that’s become so contentious, garnering nationwide interest.

Another issue is that the “spending on education” that FUTA refers would not, in practice, be just tertiary education. The bulk of it will be, in fact, primary and secondary education. So any demands on increasing education spending would necessarily be a concern of teachers/principals in the primary and secondary education sector as well, and is not the preserve of university academics. Is FUTA representing the thoughts of those sectors too? Are they being taken along as key partners in this debate, representing the interests of these sectors and the staff as well? Because if it isn’t, we shouldn’t expect FUTA to assume the rightful leader in this education debate, as seems to now be the case. Tertiary education is just one part of a much larger system, a system we all agree needs fixing.

Another point raised by the audience was on the role of private higher education. As readers would recall, a bill to regulate and recognize private degree awarding institutions was introduced and then shot down amidst protests by students and academics in state universities. With a growing middle class that is increasingly able to afford more private spending on higher education (not to mention other social services like health care), allowing more fee-levying private degree-awarding institutions would help free up the critically constrained state resources. These freed up financial resources could then be diverted to supporting those who most need it most – through grants, loans, scholarships, etc. to more students, and free up valuable slots in state universities for those who would otherwise have been “queued out”. A question was raised from Dewasiri on the specific objections of the FUTA to that bill, but received only a tentative response.

Another issue is that of efficient usage of existing resources – even the meager 1.9 percent. It is widely accepted that existing resources are often either wasted or allocated terribly. Improving management practices in schools and universities can help make better uses of the current meager resources. Take a simple example of teacher training programmes being scheduled during schools hours (!). This should be also part of the “education in crisis debate”, and not be limited to the sloganeering of “increase government spending to 6 percent”.

If FUTA wants to be taken seriously as the leaders in this education debate, they need a better answer on what they think would be a good way of spending a higher government allocation on education – how would they propose improving university facilities? How much would then be spent on expanding primary and secondary schools?

Why not open up the discussion on how universities can raise more money themselves and be more financial independent? FUTA also needs to answer questions on whether university academics are doing enough to help graduates be more employable, with better analytical skills and soft skills. If salary increases, as currently demanded, were granted on a performance-linked basis, would FUTA be agreeable to it?

In summary, this writer went away from The Forum on the education crisis with two key questions.

One, as highlighted above, is about the 6 percent for GDP argument – If FUTA has brought Sri Lanka’s state universities to a grinding halt for three months, and is leading a mass public movement on the education crisis, isn’t “What would you do with the 6 percent?” a very legitimate question, worth a solid answer from FUTA?

The second is – “did FUTA make a mistake by lumping up the education spending demands with their wage demands? Did they bite off more than they can chew, and is now stuck with a situation where if they get the salary hikes but not the policy changes, it will seem as if their strike action was actually just about salaries? The salary debate is a trade union issue, but the policy debate can be seen as more of a policy issue – is holding students, universities, and the government to ransom on not just the wage issue but also a policy issue the best strategy? Could FUTA have gone a better way in triggering a change on government policy towards education investment? We must remember that governments don’t like being backed-up against a corner either, especially not on hot-button policy issues. The President has clearly said he will not negotiate unless and until the strike action is called off.

But overall, we must recognize that the FUTA action is part of a broader effort of popular participation and democratization is an increasingly authoritarian governance environment. And regardless of the clarity and credibility of FUTA’s pushing of ‘hot-button’ education policy issues, the “6 percent for education” debate has raised the voice on what is possibly one of the most critical public policy matters of our time. The meagre public investment in education and the current debate surrounding it says more about state policy priorities than about how much the actual spending should be, how it should be spent. For that, FUTA must be commended.

“Our role was just to open up the debate, people can’t expect us to have all the answers”, Ranjith Dewasiri later added, in defense of FUTA’s seemingly shallow position on what is clearly a big policy matter. Although it certainly left this writer frustrated and disappointed, he does, in a sense, make a fair point. If FUTA hadn’t opened up this debate, it may have gone undebated for years. But it may be unfair (and potentially unwise) to expect FUTA alone to take this to the next level and trigger a widespread rethink of education and our broader development priorities. It now time for others to contribute. FUTA has kick-started the conversation, but what can others do to march forward? And not just with paa gamanas, but through informed analysis and debate.

  • NM

    if the writer’s knew a little bit more about the three month trade union of action that FUTA has had so far, s/he would know that the debate has already been broadened beyond universities alone. For example the teachers union have refused to involve themselves in paper marking and come out in support of futa. Also if the writer had stuck his/her head out of the well s/he is in instead of making assertions based on a single event, s/he would know that the students have been marching from Kandy to Colombo in support of FUTA and in the process two students have been murdered as they raised awareness about the need for education reform. The writer who makes such a large hue and cry about “informed analysis and debate” might do well to do some of this him/herself before pontificating on the fact that it is “now time for others to contribute”

    • Academic

      You have said: “isn’t “What would you do with the 6 percent?” a very legitimate question, worth a solid answer from FUTA?”

      Yes, it’s a legitimate question, but one which should be asked from the the institutions in charge of education – the ministries of education and higher education and the UGC. FUTA is fighting for more funding to be allocated to improve the dismal state education is in today. How it must be allocated within the education sector is a question for policy makers at a higher level.

      HOWEVER, for an insight on to what at least SOME of the 6% can go towards in the higher educations sector, read this and be enlightened on the REALITY OF HIGHER EDUCATION IN SRI LANKA: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=62850

  • P.L.J.B.Palipana

    I have written a comment to the conversation of Mr.Chandraguptha Thenuwara sometimes ago taking into account the University of Peradeniya as an example.I remember my days in the Nugawela Central College during my OLs and the Labs were equiped perfectly and my teachers in Chemistry,Physics,Pure mathematica and Applied mathematics were excellent teachers I could find in the world.They conducted afternoon classes also with out any fees and sometimes we were provided with buns from their pocket.The reason behind their MOTIVATION was the Kannangara education reforms of the 1940s.Any village man now could understand the NEED for the REFORMS and UPDATE of the EDUCATION SYSTEM at present. I reject personally the private Tertiary Education(university)in SriLanka but we could establish COLLEGES such as SURREY COMMUNITY COLLEGE in VACOUVER,CANADA(FEE LEVYING).
    The 6% demand of the FUTA is very reasonable at this juncture.Our innocent people managed a 30 years war from their Tax money and why the GOSL allocated 5% for the difence now.She needs not to maintain a huge MILITORY FORCE now.There must be a handsome conpensation package and a pension scheme for our heroic soldiers if they wish to retire voluntarily.
    The GOSL must find an HOLISTIC APPROACH to this problem instead of unneccessary boastings via the MEDIA.

  • Navin

    I have one request for Dewasiri, Amila Thero, IUSF and all other FUTA guys. Please leave the students in our universities alone.

    You are simply making use of these hapless students for your political games. If you don’t find your salaries good enough, please leave the country for good though its unlikely history buffs and political “scientists” we see so often participating in these agitations will find positions in universities elsewhere.

    IUSF is the bane of our university system. Their last president now a JVP activist was a faculty drop out! What right do such students with dismal academic performance have to speak for other students? These people will do well to remember that their education is paid for by tax payers many of whom could not enter national universities.

    It would do this country good to kick out these IUSF nutters who enter university and then dabble in politics and admit students even those with less marks but dedicated to their studies nonetheless in their place.

    Free education may have been feasible and necessary at the time it was introduced and for many years thereafter but in today’s context, the state alone cannot take on the responsibility of funding education.

    More importantly, people ought to ask why give medical or engineering degrees for free? These graduates are more than capable of contributing back to the education system. Hence, without a delay the government should introduce student loans where students after they graduate pay back for their education. Free education is not the only way where students without financial resources can get the education they deserve.

    If students cannot find jobs and are unable to pay back their loans, then we should seriously look whether its is worth continuing such degree programs and perhaps let go of stuff in such departments and hire faculty for programs where there is greater demand.

    An across the board increase in salaries of professors at this juncture is an utter waste of public money. Increase in salaries should be consistent and tied to performance and demand. It would only lead to more agitation from other trade unions demanding higher pay disrupting not just education but all services in the country.

    There is no argument that our politicians are fools but only an even bigger bunch of selfish idiots with nothing better to do would even contemplate disrupting the education of 10,000+ students for 3 months for union action which would not bring about any difference in the system other than some increase in salaries at the end.

  • sunila Mendis

    Futa cry for allocation of 6% for Sri Lanka’s education system did not fall from the sky.Every country in the world other than war mongering dictatorships grant a fair size from their GDP for education.This is not something that FUTA created All countries in the World including Sri Lanka made a solemn declaration at the Education For All forum initiated by UNESCO in 1990 and renewed the pledge at the Dacca forum and subsequently in Bangaladesh again by this Govt.What FUTA is now demanding is to implement the UN sponsored Declaration EFA where Sri Lanka is a signatory.Don’t be fooled by the lies and half lies of the GOVT which is spending 290 mn for Defense and urban development.

  • Travelling Academic

    True, there is inefficiency in the spending of even the 1.8% currently allocated, but you only have to interact with Sri Lankan universities for a few milliseconds to figure out that this is a direct consequence of politicization of their administrations. There are cases of universities returning allocated funds unspent because their VCs think that is the way to be in the good books of their political masters. Moreover, there are rules and regulations, in the form of almost a thousand circulars from the Grants Commission (some of it, probably mutually contradictory) specifying how anything in excess of 2000 rupees may be spent, restricting even the more committed Vice Chancellors.

    One of FUTA’s demands is greater autonomy in the governance of universities, and greater consultation with the academics in matters relating to university policies. If this is met, Heads of Departments, Deans and (depoliticized) Vice Chancellors will be able to answer your questions on how best to spend the current or increased allocations. IMHO, doing those calculations is not Dewasiri’s job.

    • A concerned citizen

      It is clear for anyone the % of GDP allocated for education is on the way down gradually. As far as I know FUTA is challanging that trend. It needs an upward trend. Otherwise the country will be full of uneducated thugs and criminals. Any civilized citizen will agree with FUTAs request.
      Writer’s and some other’s main concern is how to spend funds on education. FUTA members were doing thier job all this time teaching in respective fields etc and not working on this sort of a broader topic. So, it is unfair to ask each and every thing about education from them. It is the duty of all of us (20 million people in the country) to discuss and find the best way of developing education. (There are hundreds of things that can/should be done in education sector) Probably FUTA can act as a mediater for such a forum.

  • http://nirmalan.wordpress.com,planetaryguidance.org Nirmalan Dhas

    The fact that FUTA has been silent on what it wants done with the 3.6 Billion US Dollars that constitute 6% of GDP, does not mean that those involved in the university system are unaware of what must be done. What must be done will probably cost far more than 6% of GDP. The fact that the Universities Grants Commission has failed to advise the government of these needs is an indication that this body is incapable of performing the tasks with which it has been entrusted or that those appointed to this body have no clue as to what their responsibilities are or that they are personally incapable of discharging their duties for various reasons.

    Inefficiencies in spending is not the fault of the teaching staff and is squarely the responsibility of the Universities Grants Commission. This commission has consistently failed to come up with a policy that will either take the education system to the scale required to accommodate all those seeking an university education or restructure it in such a manner that it is capable of reaching out to all those who wish to be educated.

    Sri Lanka does not need to ‘benchmark against’ anyone. We are perfectly capable of conceptualizing our own path forward in the field of education. In this task no one organization can hope to assume ‘moral leadership and authority’ and in fact morality and authority have nothing toi do with the task at hand. The doors must be opened to democratic interventions and free democratic debate on the question of what kind of education system is required in order to produce people who can engage and respond to critical issues and governance must be firmly based on the premise that we are part and parcel of a dynamic and evolving world and as such we have to constantly change the objectives, structures and processes of the various systems that support the life oif our human species.

    Some of the tasks on which those 3.6 Billion US Dollars may be spent are outlined below and they are only SOME of the tasks ahead…

    1. Formulating, initiating, supporting and sustaining an ongoing process of examining and developing national education policy in consultation with all sectors of society such that the national policy on education is relevant to the need to produce human resources able and willing to engage and respond to the critical issues of our times which are Rapid Resource Depletion (RRD), Pollution and Global Climate Change (P&GCC), Global Monetary Collapse (GMC), and the Growth Model of Development (GMD) which issues have begun to lead to the collapse of our global civilization and to the potential extinction if the human species and life as we know it on Earth.
    2. The retraining of teachers throughout the education system in order to equip them with the ability to produce such human resources.
    3. The restructuring of structures and processes that make up the education system and the ensuring that the Universities Act is revised from time to time in order to accommodate required changes in the education system.
    4. The upgrading of infrastructure and research facilities in order to engage the critical issues of our times and to ensure that they are compliant with environmental standards. (How many are aware that the teaching hospital in Peradeniya discharges sewage that ultimately gets into the drinking water of those in Kandy and this because the hospital has not been developed to accommodate the numbers of patients it is currently called upon to deal with and which numbers it was never designed to accommodate? So while those in Kandy do not eat meat because it is a heritage site they all eat Sh..!!!)
    5. Increase the budgetary allocation for each student to at least Rs. 500,000/= per annum.
    6. Provision for visiting lecturers from abroad.
    7. Provision for the upgrading of English language skills for all students so that they can participate fully in the life of the world and not only that of their respective ethnic communities.
    8. Provisions to increase students language skills to include Hindhi and Chinese.

    Given the above I would like to make it clear that while FUTA has been very weak in its articulation of the tasks for the accomplishment of which 6% OR MORE of GDP is required this does not mean that the university system is bereft of those who do know what these resources must be used for and how they may be used to achieve these goals.

    FUTA has initiated a process that concerns every thinking citizen of Sri Lanka and not just university and other teaching staff and for this we may well express our appreciation.

  • http://nirmalan.wordpress.com,planetaryguidance.org Nirmalan Dhas

    for the information of your readers…..this is THE MAIN reason we need the funds for education….to learn how to respond to this and teach as many people as possible how they can do so. If the government stands in the way then we are going to have to find a better government…


  • http://nirmalan.wordpress.com,planetaryguidance.org Nirmalan Dhas

    ….we need the funds and the freedom to work on the task of rendering the following vital systems sustainable:

    1. Power Generation Systems
    2. Communication Systems,
    3. Agricultural Systems
    4. Waste Recycling Systems
    5. Transport systems,
    6. Social Support Systems,
    7. Training, Education and Research Systems,
    8. Health Systems,
    9. Surgical and Medical Systems
    10.Rapid Response Systems.


  • Sanath

    “six percent” is a good slogan but need to come up with an itamized spending sheet along with indicating what changes are we going to see because of that cost item. I am sure, FUTA is revolvimg more around university education. But I am sure the crisis is more at school level education. Do our children have time to express their innovations? All are running after competitive exams. No time to think. All urban schools are crowded. More than 50 in one class. Rural schools are closing day by day. You can only expect that one enter university is a product of this rat race. In universities, thay do the same thing. study only for geting a certificate. No one in universities for them to see as a role model acedemic. No new knowledge is produced. They just transfer the knowledge they get by reading. Academicas say they do not have facilities for research ( However, Newton and Einstain did mamoth research with no facilities -It all depends on the creativity and passion – not facilities, often). Universities must engage in changing the country through knowledge revolution. Anyway, this is big story.

  • Jagath163.

    Why no private Universities, if we can have private sector buses,private sector schools, private sector hospitals? It is not a seacret some of these current university “political” profs are not worth the word and they will never be hired by International Universities.
    Profs who have the qualification already left the country. JVP will not be allowed to do student politics in private sector universities.So why not we have private universities?

  • P.L.J.B.Palipana


  • Kumar

    I wrote to GV on this issue some time ago & now it has come to light that apparent demand is nothing but 20 % salary increase to Uni. dons & 6 % GDP was only a front for this, more over real issue could be political, that is to topple the Govt. democratically elected , re elected , re confirmed several times & as late as a few weeks ago in 03 PC elections to NCP, Sabaragamuwa & EP , undemocratically such as Arab spring methods used in Arab dictatorships / kingdoms / sheikdoms.

    This was very much evident with the inclusion of political parties / politicos repeatedly rejected by people had become participants in FUTA marches, wonder if FUTA front liners are on western NGO payroll & working on a Western agenda, to topple govt. re-elected by people, by creating havoc / suffocation/blood bath, unseen in terror free Sri Lanka for last 03 years.
    It would be better ,if any patriotic university teacher who followed this FUTA agenda unknowingly it’s hidden agenda for last 04 months to report back to work now in the name of our motherland & future generation, without being pawn to sinister agendas of foreign countries.

    What I wrote to GV on presentation of some teachers of Moratuwa University one & half months ago was as follows;
    This document is misleading.
    It’s core is % spent & takes pains to argue Education Expenditure as a percentages of GDP & Govt. total expenditure , 6% , 1.9% of GDP etc, What is the whole meaning of this ?
    If there is any resource problem in Education (note, this % applicable to entire education , not only Higher education or Universities ) these guys should come out with real facts , not statistics as % of GDP or GOSL expenditure but any resource shortages in education, responsible by govt. , such as
    1. No. of school buildings,
    2. No. of Desks/Chairs / Libraries / library books Science labs & equipments /Toilet facilities for schools ,
    3. No. of repairs not done to above by Govt.
    4. No of Hostels for Universities
    5. No of lecture halls / furniture / labs & equipments / libraries & books / reading halls / toilets / canteens for universities.
    6. No of repairs not done to above by Govt.
    7. Increase ( quantify) of Scholarship, Mahapola etc. handouts to students / or extension of those to cover total student population.
    8. Recreation /sports facilities for both schools & universities
    9. Mid day meal for school children
    10. Dons may add more material facts
    Then only any body can see if these demands have any validity or not.
    It doe not make any sense of talking about % GDP or % of Total Govt. expenditure allocated for education ?
    Sri Lanka’s GDP might have gone up considerably due to the War on terror unleashed by GOSL during last 30 years, since Govt. Defense expenditure is taken in as part of Gross Domestic Product of an Economy. all over the world.
    For example even the thousands of expensive state of art missiles fired by SLAF to LTTE hideouts some of which had cost millions of rupees each, had become part & parcel of GDP.
    Govt. s’ Total expenditure too went up due to billions of US$ spent annually for the War on Terror & this Presentation’s Miracle # 3 itself says it all, with % for education nose diving after 2005 when GOSL went all out war against terror.

    So, % of GDP or Total Govt. expenditure for education in a volatile country like Sri Lanka just raising its head from ashes of destructive war & comparison with those % of other countries won’t give a clearer picture.