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Saturday 25 August 2012

FUTA trade union action – past and present –II

Twenty years ago FUTA did not consider the University academics to belong to a special category, and the demands that were made to the authorities on salaries and other benefits were not based on that assumption. It is true that the University academics perform duties that the others do not but that does not make them a special category. If they belong to a special category then all the others not only ion the Universities but also in other places of work could claim themselves to constitute special categories and when each category consider themselves as a special category then the meaning of the word special category is lost. Except for the demand that a 6% of the GDP should be spent on education in general, all the other demands are based on the special category claim and as a result the demands cannot be justified. The Universities in Sri Lanka are mainly teaching universities and unfortunately no training is given to them in this field. When I joined the then University of Ceylon as an assistant lecturer forty five years ago I had no training in teaching except for the experience I had as a teacher for six months at Wadduwa Central College instructing students preparing for University Admissions in Pure and Applied Mathematics immediately after I sat for my University Preliminary (Entrance) examination n 1962. Some of the students in my classes were older than me but that did not give me any experience in teaching. I do not consider myself to be a good teacher, and many students kept away from my lectures in all the three universities I have taught as most probably they did not have anything to learn from me. One student who was taught by me at Wadduwa was unfortunate enough to find himself in my classes at Peradeniya! I have cited my experience at Wadduwa only to show that there was a dearth of teachers in most of the schools in Sri Lanka fifty years ago even in urban areas and over the years the situation has improved though there is much to be done especially in the rural areas. Just as much teachers in schools should be trained the University Lecturers are in need of training in teaching. It is true that some are born teachers but that is only a very small percentage that is negligible. It has to be mentioned that when this question came up twenty years ago many senior academics in the Faculties other than the Faculty of Education did not like the idea as they thought they had better qualifications than even their colleagues in the Faculty of Education. I do not want to go into details at this juncture as it would be embarrassing to some of them who are still living. If FUTA is interested in the improvement of university education it should take up this matter with the UGC and the ministry of higher education.

There has been an improvement in education in general over the years but parties with vested interests have been trying to show that there is a crisis in education at present. They are politically motivated as seen from the cry over the Z score problem and the mistakes in the G. C. E. (A/L) question papers this year. Some of these politically biased leaders of teacher unions and some journalists try to sling mud at the two ministers concerned as if they are responsible for the errors. The Z score problem is nothing but a creation of some University Academics and Journalists and of course some political parties and their leaders. The UGC had appointed a committee of experts drawn from the Universities to come up with a recommendation on admission of students to the universities as there were two sets of students who sat either for the new syllabus or old syllabus question papers. The Examination Department issued the Z scores of students calculated according to the formula recommended by the UGC, which itself was recommended by the committee of experts. The committee most probably recommended a formula that they had taken from a book, but unfortunately it was wrong conceptually. However the error was marginal in practice and I am told that the application of the formula did not alter the percentages of students admitted to the universities in each stream from students who sat the examination for the first time and those who repeated. The politically biased teacher trade unions, politicians in the opposition and some journalists unfortunately encouraged by Prof. Thatil were able to create a public opinion against the adoption of the formula of the experts drawn from the Universities. It is interesting to note that the committee was not criticized for the method adopted but the two ministers concerned. That was nothing but politicalizing an issue, and it should be realized that it is not only the government that is responsible for politicalization. The student bodies in the universities are politicalized, and unfortunately even FUTA is now engaged in politicalized issues as seen from the current trade union action.

The politically motivated agitations over the Z score was followed by litigation, and the Supreme Court decided that the Z scores should be calculated separately in the case of first times and the repeaters for the purpose of admission of students to the universities. The UGC instructed the Examination Department eventually to calculate the Z scores separately and arrange them in descending order as had been suggested by Prof. Thatil. All hell broke loose and it was found that the repeaters who sat the question papers in the old syllabus had been penalized as a result. For example in the last few years of the students who were admitted to the Faculties of Medicine about 56% had been from the repeaters, but this year with the adoption of the Thatil method it had come down to about 24%. Now the repeaters have gone before the Supreme Court and it appears that Supreme Court had said that the UGC had not carried out the instructions given by them. If that is so it has to be investigated and the UGC should be punished if they had failed to implement an order of the Supreme Court. Already a leader of the UNP has said that the present problem is due to the non implementation of the Supreme Court decision, and the Minister of Higher Education should initiate action to obtain the Supreme Court decision if it is legally possible. Apparently some 8000 students have been affected and it is the duty of the government to obtain the method recommended by the Supreme Court, if there is any recommendation as such and implement it. However, it is unfortunate, to say the least, that FUTA as a body is silent on this problem and has not thought of giving the expert opinion of the academic staff who are members of the unions that are affiliated to FUTA.

It has been found that there have been mistakes in the question papers set for the G. C. E. (A/L) examination this year and the very same teacher trade union that politicalized the Z score issue is up in arms against the government. It could be claimed that the Minister of Education is ultimately responsible for the mistakes but it is only a lame theoretical position that can be adopted by the relevant trade union to criticize the minister. What these critics do not mention is that there have been mistakes in question papers over the years and this year is not an exception. It is certainly not due to a so called crisis in education, and the setters, moderators, controllers in chief of examinations in each question paper are university academics who are adequately remunerated for their efforts. Though it is desirable to have question papers without any errors the work done by the academics have to be appreciated and we have to admit that human errors are always possible. I myself have been involved with this work for a few years, and I know the amount of time and effort that go into setting of question papers and that very often the academic staff available is very minimal. I know of a situation where there were only two academics available for setting, moderating and proof reading of four question papers and though question papers without errors is the most desirable the creep in of human errors have to be treated without political motivations. It is the practice for the board of examiners to get together and device a marking scheme taking into consideration the errors and to see that the students are penalized minimally as a result of the errors. What is bothering me is the silence of FUTA over this problem and the agitation of one of their mates that happens to be a politically motivated teacher union in the “struggle” to improve the education in general. (To be continued)

Copyright Prof. Nalin De Silva