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News Features  


 

It could be a fatal mistake to ignore the stifling cries coming out of the state universities. The benefits and privileges of state sponsored university education enjoyed by thousands of doctors, engineers, lawyers, civil servants and many other professionals alike need to be protected for the benefit of future generations. Therefore, without isolating the academic community in the struggle to defend their professional dignity and the dignity of the entire system of state sponsored higher education, the other stakeholders, including beneficiaries past, present and future, need to join hands with a sense of calling to intervene with assertive action before the degenerating process crosses the no return point

 

Ignoring the stifling cry of academics

A fatal mistake

By Dr. Asoka Silva, Department
of Legal Studies, Open
University of Sri Lanka


The academic salary issue, central to the on going trade union action, is only the tip of the iceberg. There are much larger resource and mismanagement problems that have been, among others, retarding the progress of state universities during the last thirty years or so.
Some believe that these problems are engineered as part of a larger political strategy. The political adamancy and open insensitivity in dealing with grave issues affecting higher education, gradual removal of autonomy of universities, imposition of suffocating administrative measures, centralised mismanagement via a commission consisting largely of political cronies, systematic curtailment of cadre positions, abandoning of infrastructure development, implementation of arbitrary financial regulations without prior notice, non provision of essential library and lab material indispensable for ensuring quality of the teaching and learning processes, deprivation of a descent salary for workers, denial of dignity for teachers, other workers and students alike, inhibition of personal as well as professional development of staff, perennial complaint about the poor quality of graduates produced, etc., are nothing but factors that strongly support the position of skeptics.
No doubt, the cumulative impact of above-mentioned action and measures would ultimately make state universities unattractive not only to qualified academics but even to the poorest among poor parents who would not want to see their children become ‘kalakannis’ (I use this word with permission from the incumbent Minister of Higher Education who owns the patent for inventing this term in the context of university education in Sri Lanka). Despite the fact that providing education free of charge has been an unbearably expensive affair, no government has so far had the political bravery/foolishness (please note the fine line that divides the two words) to upfront make fundamental changes in the system and make education full fee levying in order to relieve the treasury of its so called monumental burden. Obviously it would be catastrophic from the point of view of the nation and also would amount to political hara-kiri to make school education fee levying.
Moreover, there is a universally accepted fundamental human right to education until fourteen years of age and the governments are hesitant to do things that would bring them into collision with international obligations and antagonise international community. This left successive governments desperate to bring public expenses under control with the only option of chopping the higher education budgets.
There are some who take the position that the universities need to perform first to meet the expected standards before they become eligible for funds and other forms of support from the government. The paradox here is that it would not be possible to maintain standards without sufficient and appropriate resources. Obviously the people who take up the above position have got the cause and effect confused. The fact that only jack plants and nothing else but jack plants grow out of jack seeds is not a conspiracy. Also, attributing blame on soil for the outcome of what has been planted is simply hypocritical. Those who sow peanuts must not expect to reap gold or, for that matter not even a tiny piece of rusted iron.
It is no secret that most of the university academics equipped with high quality academic credentials obtained from reputed universities in the world have chosen to remain in their present jobs consciously sacrificing many other economically more beneficial employment opportunities. They are proud of the choice they have made out of gratefulness to the state universities for making them what they are today. It is a choice made without much importance being attached to the remuneration and benefits they get in return to the services rendered.

In spite of the meager and degrading remuneration, the academics have shown great courage and resilience to prevail strongly over political scheming, insult, intimidation and misdemeanors of misguided agents of successive political regimes.
Whenever needed, the university academics have also provided a firm and inspiring leadership to the struggles to safeguard the system of state sponsored higher education. The strength and energy for their action have derived from the realization that the universities belong to the Sri Lankan State and its people and are not the private property of any political regime. Undeniably the system of state sponsored higher education has, since its introduction, become a cornerstone of the Sri Lankan state. Political regimes that hold peoples power in trust for limited periods of time must not meddle with and make fundamental changes, not even positive fundamental changes, to cornerstones without a clear, direct and informed mandate from the people.

It would be a grave mistake to consider a political mandate with an excessive majority as a carte blanche. More often than not such mandates express the magnitude of the people’s disgust in the available political alternatives. Whatever the size of the mandate, people hand over political power to rulers in trust that the latter would exercise the power without directly or indirectly transgressing the framework within which the power has been handed over and, return it when people so demand in the same form and shape it was handed over. Transgressions as well as unauthorized change and/or damage that would alter the fundamental nature and structure of the framework will breach the public trust and remove the legitimacy of rule making the rulers equal to a bunch of criminals usurping political power.

A horse is hired to pull the cart and its goods to a destination determined by the owner of the cart. What happens if the horse hired boards the cart and demands that the owner pulls it to a destination chosen by the horse? On their part the people as the owners of the state and all its assets need to be alert and vigilant in a responsible manner. Whenever there is long term under funding and mismanagement of a public sector enterprise, the people who own public enterprises, should take careful note of it without being apathetic. For, the process would, unless intervened with corrective measures before it is too late, invariably culminate in making the enterprise an unsalvageable liability and a headache to the nation. The biggest danger of this is that when it happens it leaves people with very little or no choices. It is a shame of inexplicable proportion if apathy results in the farmer being compelled to live with his family in a rented home after selling his farm land to a property developer.

Finally, it could be a fatal mistake to ignore the stifling cries coming out of the state universities. The benefits and privileges of state sponsored university education enjoyed by thousands of doctors, engineers, lawyers, civil servants and many other professionals alike need to be protected for the benefit of future generations. Therefore, without isolating the academic community in the struggle to defend their professional dignity and the dignity of the entire system of state sponsored higher education, the other stakeholders, including beneficiaries past, present and future, need to join hands with a sense of calling to intervene with assertive action before the degenerating process crosses the no return point. Not even the gods will be able to help us if we are not willing to help ourselves save from the wrath of future generations for allowing the state sponsored higher education to suffer a politically engineered death during our life time.