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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.