FUTA and Free Education in Sri Lanka: Question of Social Justice and Democracy in an Oligarchy

Photo courtesy Vikalpa

The results of the so-called ‘mother’s examination’, or the year five scholarship examination of this year, have once again sturdily testified for the importance and significance of preservation and continuation of the free education system of this country. The two students who have achieved the first places hail from two divergently opposing social classes, but the duo being educated in the same, state sponsored, free education system. When the boy student from socially affluent strata, attending a high ranked school scored the highest marks, the girl student attending a low ranked, poorly facilitated rural school could produce the same result under more difficult conditions than the conditions the boy student had to face. Both of them have made their schools proud and won the hearts and mind of the people equally; but if it weren’t for the free education would the underprivileged rural student ever have got that opportunity to be equal among unequal? I have just contemplated on this case at the beginning of this piece, because the narrow attempts at labeling the struggle being launched by Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) as a conspiracy against the government or its Ministers of Education are rightly debunked with this story. Further, the success story of the girl student of Thalathu Oya Kanishta Vidyalaya speaks volumes of why we should protect free education for further assuring and protecting social justice of this country.

Unfortunately, the much clichéd patriotism that this government continues to preach long after the end of war never distinguished the raison d’être behind the system of free, state sponsored education that has historically guided Sri Lankan society, after the independence, towards a more equitable and just society. The pillars of social justice, democracy and equality have remained the immaculate tenets of the philosophy behind a free education system and visionaries like C.W.W.Kannangara could correctly perceive the historical importance of this system in founding a united nation. However, the oligarchic and authoritarian tendencies that the post- war Sri Lanka has begun to experience currently has made the well-wishers of this majoritarian system keep their mouths shut and remain silent, still having some remorse towards a regime which violently defeated the LTTE. Conversely, the most educated strata of this country, the University academics, under FUTA Leadership, have displayed their character and power of knowledge and sent warning signals to the ruling regime that it has to conform to the norms of social juice and democracy by preserving the state education system

Now, three months have passed since the FUTA started a continuous protest campaign demanding, mainly, a 6% allocation of GDP on Education and autonomy of education sector. The progress of the FUTA protest campaign has flourished amazingly during the last couple of months and disproportionate to the response from the government. And today, it seems, the FUTA struggle is reviving an unresponsive opposition and attracting the support of left parties while converting its struggle into a large scale national and social movement of people from various sections of the society, who have realized the value of free education for social justice and democratic governance.

The five day foot-walk that FUTA begun at Galle, beating rough rainy weather conditions, now has culminated in a far stretched chain of people united for one goal, the freedom of education sector from the clutches of neo-liberal reforms that the current education ministers have jointly moved to introduce in the school and the University system. The FUTA has shown that it is determined to save the ill-fated education sector from the mismanagement and bad governance of the politicos and bureaucrats who are advised by a bunch of so-called intellectuals upholding neo-liberal policies. The very calculated process of making free education a marketable commodity, a process that would ultimately deprive this country’s poor people the opportunity to climb the ladder of social status through justifiable means, is now being battled at various fronts by University teachers, students, opposition parties, civil society movements and average masses. The message has reached the government that, despite its huge success at every election largely depending on the accomplishment at the battlefield, its public policy is what mostly hated by the educated sections and the civil society which raise concerns on behalf of the large sections of underprivileged masses of this country.

The Ministers, bureaucrats and their advisors who have upheld the virtues of righteous management of the education would have never imagined that the FUTA struggle would ever grow into a large social movement filling the vacuum of a responsible opposition in this country. The ideas of social justice and democracy are thoroughly etched in FUTA demands that have transcended the mere bargain for salary increases that not only University teachers but all the other sectors of employment are currently in urgent need in the face of sky rocketing cost of living.

The government which largely amassed the support of masses of rural and semi-urban Sinhala-Buddhist sections has not carefully analyzed the needs and wants of the very people which elected it into power in many times. Free education and free health have been the two major pillars that have historically uplifted the rural masses and poor of this country and paved the way for them to set their foot in a competitive open economic environment. The welfare character of the state showed its declining phase in the post-war era, and it seems that government was misconceived of the importance of further preserving the welfare image and embarked on an illiberal development process that only looked at the requirements of the Multinational Co-operations and wealthy classes. The ground reality of a war torn country was not carefully realized by the government and it suddenly attempted to close down all the access points open for average masses to participate in and benefit from the welfare-oriented state.

Today, FUTA’s long march has forced the government to think of what it has been doing in the name of large scale economic development and infrastructure building, allegedly accruing huge margins of profit for those undertake the contracts of such projects. While the state education and health sectors that historically founded strong pillars of equitable social justice and democratic governance were crumbling the government has tried to cherish the dream of making Sri Lanka the ‘wonder of Asia’. No wonder that this could be a noble dream of visionary thinking, but if it is to be realized while the social identity that Sri Lanka inherited from free education of welfare state is left for destruction, the future that this regime is making will not belong to the ordinary citizen of this country.

The path of neo-liberal development has been proved to be a failure in terms of assuring social justice, and democratic governance for larger masses of many states in the world and, unfortunately, the war ravaged Sri Lanka is mistakenly taking that path with a strong determination of ending the era of welfare state. The FUTA struggle and the ever growing support for it, has suggested that neo-liberal path would only lead this state to a tragedy of social unrest and authoritarianism, once again making the ordinary citizens bear the brunt of waging rebellions in the name of eliminating social inequality with class hatred. If the government correctly reads the message that FUTA is sending it with long marches, and many more to come in future, the future of this country would be safe with democracy and social justice guiding the way forward.

  • P.L.J.B.Palipana

    Thanks Kumara! We have expressed this situation to the GOSL several times and unfortunately she has already created subjective and objective factors for a Social Uprising very near future. Very sad indeed.

  • Fr. Lasantha De Abrew s.j.

    I fully agree with Athulasiri. The grade 5 girl from Thalathuoya could shine with the boy from Richmond College with an affluent social strata because of the gift of free education.

    From the inception of Free Education concept by Dr. CWW Kannangara (eventually he too got a scholarship to Richmond and thought compassionately of all the poor students of Sri Lanka) was opposed by oligarchy in different levels. The Land owners, caste-conscious political leaders and even Christian denominations including the Catholic Church of that era governed by missionaries.

    These elements are still on war with free education. It is not foreign enemies but our OWN.
    It is sad to note those who have benefited by the gift of free education in our bureaucracy and policy making are the strong pillars of opposition to FUTA struggle for safe-guarding Free Education.
    Why? Have they become another class?
    Long Live Free Education in our Land where the Poor will have an opportunity – only opportunity to be dignified

    Fr. Lasantha De Abrew s.j. – Kandy

  • Kumar

    I totally disagree with this writer.

    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.
    If there is a real cut down on state funding for entire education system in US$ terms or constant rupee terms from 2005 onwards, why don’t they should come out with that?, Be it as it may, is there any other country which provides free school books, free uniforms, free mid day meal/lunch (in outstation schools) apart from free education up to university level, including prestigious MBBS degree & added to that university hostels for a minimal service charge & students given a monthly dole, with subsidized food available at uni. canteens ? Never to forget all the technical diplomas including high demand NDT diploma too are given free ?

    Did present govt. cut down any one of those to make a such a hue & cry ? perhaps added free lunch anew to the betterment of outstation school kids ?

    Why these guys on protest marches cannot come out with real issues / shortages of facilities other than % of GDP ? Are they dumb & deaf? or fear they would get exposed if they talk sense ?
    After all what moral right main opposition which governed this county for a log time to join this FUTA march? Had they done their part during their time?
    CAT IS OUT OF THE BAG :
    This writer says…”.And today, it seems, the FUTA struggle is reviving an unresponsive opposition and attracting the support of left parties while converting its struggle into a large scale national and social movement of people….” Isn’t this political ? to unite Bankrupt opposition to topple popular govt. which defeated Western NGO baked LTTE terrorism ?

    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.

    • Anura

      Consipiracy theories will only take this issue from bad to worse. One has to realistically view why free education has rooted so strongly in Sri Lanka. The system is serving all citizens across the classes and cetainly qualitatively above the private education. And Sri Lanka’s majority has not reached the middle class status and cannot afford fee paying education. The recent trends in the system has shown that funidng is drastically cut and quality is degrading. Therefore, immediately the public should intervene and realise what FUTA is telling all these days.

      • Kumar

        Hey Anura , My question is also same as yours, What these FUTA guys say ? If you or it’s leaders can answer one point by one what I have raised, then it will make sense.

  • Safa

    These are seperate issues 1. Social Justice 2. Equal Opportunity 3. Quality of Education.

    1. Social Justice – Provide tertiary education for the best and most talented irrespective of race, language, region, religon. A bright student with good marks cannot be deprived by standardising marks etc. A merit system with quota for economically disadvantaged students needs to be in place.

    2. Free education system should enable all students achieve their potential. This is not limited to secondary education or tertiary. Should begin in formative years.
    Cannot be achieved by Grade 5 exam alone. Govt should provide grade 1 schools in all main towns. Good primary schools in villages. Grade 5 transplants a few students to Colombo schools but doesnt affect the majority of students.
    Provide alternate route through technical / vocational training for those not entering University.

    3. Quality of education – Provide funds and resources to uplift education from primary to tertiary. Needs a budget and action plan with participation of intellectuals, academics and experts. Cannot be achieved by simply having military training or simply throwing money. Reasonable salary increases on par with similiar segments of society. Levy fees from those who can afford and scholarships for disadvantaged students.
    Allow Private Universities for those who can afford. Competition is the way to uplift the system. Universities need to turn out employable gradustes not just numbers.