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Professor G. H. Peiris

Three months of agonising wait is finally over for tens of thousands of youth in the higher strata of our educational system, now that the so-called ‘university crisis’ is deemed to have ended, and our dons have decided to resume their routine duties. Many among them would like us to know that had it not been for their patriotic zeal they would have left Sri Lanka to sell their brains in far more lucrative markets. Mighty decent of them.

In fairness to this fraternity I should say that it has seldom resorted to politically confrontational trade union action, and, until a few weeks back, never took to the streets to win their demands. This time around, they mobilised considerable public support for their cause, mainly by misrepresenting their case and camouflaging their objective. They appear to have been so persuasive that even some of the sternest critics of higher education including those of the media did not (as far as I am aware) really challenge the legitimacy of the FUTA agitation for higher salaries, leave alone its other demands and claims relating to imperilled free education, inadequacy of government spending on education, university autonomy, and the brain-drain.

The FUTA strike, however, did produce a vibrant public discussion that extended over some of these demands and claims. Among the contributions by the university staff to the discussion (some of which vividly but unintentionally illustrated the crux of the real crisis in higher education) there were the attempts to present the university teachers’ perspectives on issues such as the loss of scholarly talents due to low salaries, how enhanced university grants could be used for elevating the quality of higher education (Jayadeva Uyangoda in The Island of 3 October 2012), and why politicians should not interfere in university affairs. There were, in addition, the more focused inputs by intellectuals outside the university system which undoubtedly enriched the quality of the discussion. Those among them that were particularly useful were the commentary on the ‘Trade Union Action by FUTA’ by Jayantha Dhanapala and Savitri Goonesekere (The Island, 8 October 2012), and Usvatte-aratchi’s clarification titled ‘Expenditure on Education’ (Sunday Island, 14 October 2010). The frequent references by the FUTA to large numbers of unfilled cadre vacancies in the universities, presumably as evidence of the inability of the universities to attract suitably qualified persons to their staff, were placed in proper perspective by Rajiva Wijesinha (The Island, 10 October 2012 https://rajivawijesinha.wordpress.com/2012/10/14/wasting-the-money-allocated-to-education/#more-5374) whose data indicated that, at least in some of the faculties and departments of study he has specifically referred to, the need of the hour is retrenchment rather than recruitment. And, had the FUTA heeded the advice given by Erik de Silva fairly early in the proceedings (The Island of 13 September 2012) it could have avoided persisting with the blunder of demanding an increase of government expenditure on education to 6% of the GDP.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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