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Saturday 1 September 2012

FUTA trade union action – past and present –IV

FUTA twenty years ago submitted the demands as they came from the sister unions to the authorities but the strike decision was taken by the latter and conveyed to the respective Vice Chancellors. FUTA was in effect representing the teachers’ associations that came under its umbrella and neither FUTA nor the sister unions as they are called did not alter the demands in midstream, and certainly did not introduce new demands nor made the existing demands stronger. If at all it was a compromise that was made in the final stages of the struggle in order to come to a settlement still winning a substantial salary increase and some other demands. FUTA at that time never approached the politicians, political parties, students, student unions nor other trade unions outside the university sector. Neither FUTA allowed the others whether they were political parties or trade unions to approach the Federation. It was a principled struggle that convinced the authorities concerned that there were no political motives behind the struggle.

However, what has happened over the last one and half years is exactly the opposite. The FUTA took the strike decision and then informed the sister unions which is not the method that should have been adopted according to the constitution of the Federation I knew. Last year a token strike was held and then the Heads of Departments resigned as part of the trade union action initiated by FUTA. There had been discussions earlier and the trade union action was taken without waiting for a discussion that the President had offered. The main demand was the increase of salaries of academics and one of the basic assumptions that was made use of to justify the salary increase was that the University Academics were a special category and the underlying impression given to the public was that they were the best qualified in the country if not the cream of the intellectuals. It was said that the university academics should have obtained a very good degree at the time of recruitment and that the promotion criteria were very stringent. The government should have conducted a survey to find out how many academics have a first class degree and a Ph. D. There are many with second class (upper) degrees not to mention those with second class (lower) degrees. Then there are so many without Ph. D’s and one could easily find out people with better qualifications in other professions. How many in the leadership of FUTA can claim that they have a First or a Second (Upper) degree and a Ph. D? I do not attach much value to these paper qualifications but I am mentioning them since FUTA is fond of repeating these arguments on stringent criteria for recruitment and promotion. As I have said already none of the teachers have been trained in teaching, though whatever said and done the Sri Lankan Universities are teaching institutions. Have the university academics in Sri Lanka adopted any new methods in teaching? As far as research is concerned it is better that it is left out of the discussion. Research is not confined to universities and one could find many research officers with Ph. D’s in research institutes carrying out research in their respective fields. Has any academic come out with a new concept or a theory during the last fifty years?

One could say that it is due to the absence of quality people in the Universities that no research of good quality is carried out in the Universities. This is tallied with the argument on recruitment and retention and if the salaries are increased the universities would be able to recruit talented people. However one could again make a survey to find out how many “better” people joined the Universities after the substantial salary increase twenty years ago as senior academics. Matured people join the universities as senior academics for different reasons ranging from a desire to come back to Sri Lanka if they are abroad, and if they are locally employed for the freedom that is enjoyed in the universities and for the fact that the retirement age in the universities is sixty five. The university academics do not have much work, as I know from my experience, and all these talks of the academics working round the clock for twenty four hours are only fairytales. It was wrong to pretend that the university academics are a special category but I am glad that the FUTA under criticism has been compelled to change its stance and say the academics are a special category in the sense that those in various services belong to special categories. There is nothing gained by making university academics belonging to a special service as the other services and I would say that in the final analysis it would be counterproductive.

The 6% of the GDP for education was introduced towards the tail end of the trade union action in the last year and this year since FUTA could not justify its insistence on the increase of basic salaries they demanded the government should give prominence to higher expenditure on education. FUTA this year at first insisted on a basic salary ignoring the increases in allowances that were made during the last few years. With the allowances academics are the better paid category in the public sector of course apart from the income generating institutions such as Central Bank, the Electricity Board. On top of these allowances the University Academics are paid a certain percentage of the fee levying courses subject to a ceiling and very often the maximum is claimed by the teachers. As a result bogus certificate and diploma courses at a level below that of the undergraduate have been introduced and some of these champions of free education could be seen teaching these courses in the universities. Neither FUTA nor the so called Inter University Student Federation has objected has not objected in a meaningful way to these courses, when one could have talked of digging the grave of free education. In any event FUTA insisted on a increase of the basic salary, which had to be decided by the Salaries and Cadre Commission. It is one thing to make demands but another thing to come down during the negotiations as no trade union with reasonable leaders would expect to win all what they want. However, FUTA could not justify their demand for higher basic salaries and it was very clear that insistence on an increase in the basic salary that could not be justified was nothing but an attempt to destabilize the government with demands for salary increases in the other services in the public sector.

When FUTA realized that they could not go forward with their demand for an increase in the basic salary they switched gears and insisted on the spending of 6% of the GDP on education. It was a good tactic by the anti government forces in the FUTA and very soon they were able to obtain the support of the teachers’ union that is mainly responsible for the Z score fiasco asking the UGC to adopt the so called Thatil method of calculating the Z scores separately of the students who sat the GCE (A/L) examination in 2011 for the first time and those who repeated and then prepare lists on the descending order of the scores, which led to the present disaster. This particular trade union attacks the government and the relevant ministers though they themselves are responsible for forcing the UGC to adopt the erroneous Thatil method. In any event FUTA misled the public by claiming that according to a UNESCO report government has to spend 6% of the GDP on education. The relevant section of the UNESCO report is reproduced here. “Education should be given high priority, and not less than 6 percent of a country’s GNP should be devoted to education, as recommended by the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, chaired by Jacques Delors.” Nowhere is it said that the government should spend 6% of the GDP on education. In Sri Lanka the total government expenditure is about 25% of the GDP, and it is obvious that this particular demand of FUTA cannot be met. The government has to spend on defense of the country which I consider should get the first priority under present circumstances with the TNA, dispersed Tamils, the NGOs and the western counties that are behind the others demanding more and more power to the Northern and Eastern Provinces with their agitation for the removal of the armed forces from those provinces. For the benefit of FUTA leadership I quote from Wikipedia on GNP and GDP. “Gross National Product (GNP) is the market value of all products and services produced in one year by labour and property supplied by the residents of a country. Unlike Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which defines production based on the geographical location of production, GNP allocates production based on ownership.” I know that a pundit would say that Wikipedia is not authoritative but I invite anybody to give a so called authoritative definition of GNP or GDP that contradicts the above.

I would not say that the so called Academic Spring with this 6% issue was introduced by somebody from the NGOs or anti government lobby but it gave an opportunity for the latter to rally all the anti government forces from Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thero to Anoma Fonseka against the government, except I suppose the TNA tactically. It is not FUTA that organized the gathering of the last week, it has no organizing abilities to do so, and those who are responsible want the Academic Spring converted to another kind of Spring. Probably they wanted to bring the TNA at the “correct” moment. However, the gathering is the end of the spring and autumn has fallen without going through a summer. It is expected that the government will enter into an agreement with FUTA this week, and I understand that the infamous demand of FUTA to give the university teachers an allowance to educate two of their offspring in government or private schools to support free education will not be met.

Copyright Prof. Nalin De Silva