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Saturday 1 September 2012

FUTA trade union action – past and present –III

I read with interest the article by Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, a member of the Faculty of Arts Teachers’ Association of the University of Colombo on Education Policy and FUTA’s mandate published on 20th August 2012. I know that he is not referring to me but I must state that I have no objections to the agitation by FUTA for government policy changes regarding higher education or education in general or any other matter in general. My objections to the present demands by FUTA are on other grounds. FUTA is a stakeholder in any matter in general and especially of higher education and education. However, FUTA should realize that when it comes to government policy, increasing the salary of academics also being a government policy, there are other stakeholders as such and whether we like it or not there is only one decision maker. The government of the day, irrespective of whether it is controlled by the officials of the Ministry of Finance/Treasury and/or other such bodies, is the decision maker and nobody else local or foreign. It applies not only to education but to other areas including Tamil racism.

Once the people elect a government until it is defeated by democratic means/revolution the government decides on policy and not any other body, NGO, INGO, trade union, so called civil society or Maranadhara Samithi. They can be agitators, opinion makers and what not as long as they act within the purview of the constitution of the country. The other stakeholders have the right to oppose demands by trade unions and pressure groups whether they are so called educated or not. As indirect tax payers, citizens, electors with our names on the electoral lists are all stakeholders in any issue and it is not the prerogative of well financed bodies, influential people to be opinion makers. If a trade union thinks that as it sees in the public interest it should oppose demands by another trade union it should be free to do so, letting the government decide what it should do. Let the people decide once in five or six years whether the government in power had made the correct decisions. However, having said all that it has to be pointed out that the government cannot sign memoranda of understanding with FUTA on matters connected with education as it is not the only stakeholder in the field of education.

Though some teachers and teacher’s associations in the universities now agitate for what they think is a better deal for education it is unfortunate that they have no advise to be given to the government on the Z score problem which unfortunately is a creation of the academics themselves assisted by anti government school teacher unions, and on the mistakes in the question papers set for the A/L examinations. The latter problem is not something unique to this year though some media attempt to project a picture blaming the examination department as if the problem has arisen for the first time. If one goes through the files one would come across mistakes in question papers during the time Ranil Wickremesinghe was the minister of education, and if a Parliamentary Select Committee were to be appointed to look into the work of the examination department it should be given the mandate to cover the period to date commencing from 1977, the year J R Jayawardhane came to power.

It is also unfortunate that twenty years ago when I was dismissed from the University of Colombo neither FUTA nor the teachers’ associations at Colombo took any action against the decision by the Council of that University. It is ironic at that the time I was dismissed I was the President of FUTA, the President of the Science Teachers’ Association at Colombo and a member of the committee of the University Teachers’ Associations of the University of Colombo. Some of the teachers at Colombo who agitate now for a better deal for education did not allow me even to present my case to the two teachers’ associations mentioned above. They did not want to listen to me though the Minister and the UGC were listening to me on the demands for a salary increase for the teachers and other benefits. As I have already said I continued to be the President of FUTA though I lost my membership in the two teachers’ associations, thanks to the English Instructors’ Union that elected me as one of their representatives to FUTA. Perhaps these valiant members of the teachers’ associations who now fight for free education in the country thought then that I was a barrier to free education. Of course at that time there was no Faculty of Arts Teachers’ Association at the University of Colombo and the University Teachers’ Association covered all the Faculties of the University.

I must say that Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri, the current President of FUTA was an Assistant Lecturer at that time, and he and a few others wanted to take up my case but they were a powerless insignificant minority who were steam rolled by a combination of Socialists and Liberals who thought that they were dons among dons. I am sure that Prof. Uyangoda remembers this incident and if he has forgotten it he could consult very senior academics at that time who later became Vice Chancellors and Chancellors at various universities. As a result of the trade union struggle the lectures got a very substantial salary increase though I was denied of it due to my expulsion from the University of Colombo.

Even twenty years ago there was a discussion on boycotting of setting, moderating question papers and marking answer scripts at the G C E (A/L) Examination. However saner council prevailed and FUTA did not decide to go along with the proposal. A trade union can take a decision to withhold, withdraw the services labour rendered to the relevant institution but not to others or other institutions. It is true that the Department of Examinations usually appoints university lecturers and retired lecturers as controllers in chief, setters moderators etc. but it has to be emphasized that it is the Department of Examinations that appoints them and not the relevant university. The services rendered to the Department of Examinations do not come under the purview of the letters of appointment of the lecturers issued by the Universities and no university teachers’ association has the right to withdraw the services rendered by the lecturers to the Department of Examinations. The lecturers though appointed as examiners of the G C E (A/L) examination by virtue of being lecturers, they do not serve the Department of examinations as lecturers. It is a voluntary service offered by the lecturers in their personal capacity for which they are remunerated and any lecturer has the freedom to refrain from working as an examiner at the G C E (A/L) examination, whereas a lecturer cannot refuse to work as an examiner at an examination conducted by the university after he/she is appointed as an examiner by the senate of the relevant university.

Would FUTA decide to debar university lecturers being appointed as secretaries of ministries, chairpersons of statutory bodies etc., as a course of action in respect of trade union struggle? It is an infringement of the individual rights of university academics and it is advisable if FUTA restricts its trade union action to university affairs without getting involved in court cases over human rights of members and also of the right of the public to obtain the services of the university lecturers whenever a need arises, of course with the consent of the lecturers concerned. The public as a body obtain the services of the university lecturers through government departments and FUTA should not be a hindrance in respect of this right of the public. The irony is that while FUTA claims that it is fighting for the improvement of free education in the country it debars the university lecturers from working as examiners at the G C E (A/L) examination which is part of free education, but allows the academics to serve private institutions that prepare students for degrees awarded by foreign universities. I am not saying that the teachers’ associations should take action on the latter as well, which they cannot do for the reasons I have mentioned above. The teachers’ associations could say that they are private institutions and not public departments and that their struggle is with the government and not with these private institutions, but the contradiction is illuminating. (To be continued)

Copyright Prof. Nalin De Silva