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 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.

It is in the hope that this discussion will continue and reach greater depths, as it surely must, and also be free of personalised vested interests including those of electoral politics, that the present paper is being written. I am conscious of the possibility that its contents will not please my former colleagues some of whom I hold in high esteem. I fully agree with Rajiva Wijesinha’s demonstration (referred to above) that, in most matters, it would be unfair to generalise on the university teaching community. Since I expect to venture into some of the less well known features of our university system, I should, in addition, make it clear that the paper is based very largely on my intimate association with the University of Peradeniya for well over half a century. My interactions with the other universities in Sri Lanka have been confined throughout to informal contact with a few members of their staff and a few of their graduates – mostly those in the Social Sciences.

Government Funding of Education

It is, indeed, quite amazing that spokespersons of the community representing the highest levels of educational attainment in Sri Lanka in which graduates in Economics probably outnumber those with advanced qualifications in any other academic discipline have continued to persist with the patently absurd demand that the government should allocate 6% of the Gross Domestic Product – note that the phrase “equivalent to 6% of the GDP” was never used by the FUTA leaders in their oral or written representations. Certain persons outside the university system, extending qualified sympathy to the FUTA cause (‘Arthika Vishleshaka’ of The Nation of 14 October 2012 comes to mind as an example), with intentions, no doubt, of protecting the university teachers from public ridicule, have explained to us that what is really being demanded is a much needed change in the government spending priorities which should involve, among other things, a higher level of resource allocation to education. In yet another display of ingenuity, the Editor of The Nation suggested that the “6%” is a brilliantly conceived slogan – symbolically, a resounding ‘No’ to the rampant corruption and lawlessness in the ranks of the government. And then, there was this fig-leaf titled ‘Six percent of GDP on education: From fantasy to reality’ (The Island of 17 October 2012) by Sumanasiri Liyanage according to whose rationalisation, FUTA’s demand could be considered meaningful “if it is linked with such far-reaching changes in the prevailing economic system” – that is to say, a socialist revolution, he being a Marxist and that kind of thing. In the picture adorning this article (obviously not Liyanage’s) we see this delightful little kid leading the procession of the “Saviours of State Education” from Moratuwa, carrying the “6%” banner, and wearing a red T-shirt embellished with yet another banner, the ‘Stars and Stripes’. It seemed as if the picture was depicting unseen things that were really happening? I now prefer to think of it as one of many displays of insensitivity – like the salary demand.

The plain fact is that the “6% demand” was nothing other than a blunder kept alive through cupidity by those of the university community who should have known better (I am glad that Liyanage has exonerated a small group of Economists of the University of Colombo from this charge). This is not to deny that it attracted support ? it did, from a whole array of disparate forces that see the university system as the Achilles Heel of this powerful regime.

It was finally left for Usvatte-aratchi, our expert on Public Finance and aficionado of Education, to educate the public on the difference between the GDP and Government Expenditure, and to show that the latter was equivalent to only about 21 % of the former in 2011, an year during which the government expenditure on various fields of formal education was about 9% of its total expenditure (1.8% of the GDP). In simple arithmetic based on 2011 values, in order to ensure an educational expenditure equivalent to 6% of the GDP (without an increase in private expenditure on education) it would have been necessary for the government to raise its financial input to education from 9% to about 29%. Such a scenario would have meant a drastic curtailments of expenditure on other things the government is required to do such as debt servicing, payment of salaries to its employees, and capital expenditure (which, in 2011, accounted for 25%, 17% and 48%, respectively, of the total government expenditure).

Milton Rajaratne, the ‘Management’ expert from Peradeniya, attempted (Sunday Times, 7 October 2012) to show how the government, with sound management of the economy, could meet the “6% demand”. Having prefaced his thesis with an unfortunate falsehood that the allocation of “6% of GDP for Education was advocated by the government itself”, he argued in more reasonable vein that what the government needs to do in order to meet this demand is to: (a) eliminate waste, (b) re-prioritise expenditure, and (c) improve tax collection. Yes, there could be no serious disagreement on these necessities.

There is, in fact, a great deal of almost criminal waste associated, not so much with incompetence, but with the “boast of heraldry and pomp of power” which we see at all levels of government activity including the universities. Here is a little story to illustrate what I say. A few years ago the authorities of the University of Peradeniya, acting on instructions of the UGC, set about the task of formulating a long-term plan for its development. Having gathered information for this purpose from various sections of the university (but not, apparently, setting plan targets), what do they do? They (a fairly large group consisting mostly of academic staff) shifted their planning venue to luxury hotels ? over a spell at Ahungalle, and thereafter at Kandalama. Is this the way to set about planning for a university which cramps 4 students to a room in its Halls of Residence? Is this not the same mindset that makes the President of the country take an entourage of some 160 (the number reported in the media) to New York in order to address the UN General Assembly which, as everyone knows, is a massive yawn of a ceremony? The world over, it is not only the kings and queens who squander tax-payers’ money for personal joy and splendour. That apart, it is also relevant to note that even if all our leaders were to suddenly embrace a Gandhian way of life, the resulting saving will make up only a tiny fraction of the “6%” the FUTA demands. There are ways in which far more substantial savings – not only of money but far more important things ? could be achieved, the most urgently necessary among which is the abrogation of the Provincial Council system foisted on us whimsically by the government of India to cater to its own needs. It didn’t solve any, but created many problems. But that is a different subject.

There could, I think, be no serious dispute on the need advocated by Rajaratne for certain changes in the government’s spending priorities, although the view that the prevailing focus on socio-economic infrastructure represents a misplaced priority is debatable. What I think Prof. Rajaratne has meant when he says “reprioritise expenditure” is merely that government should spend more than it does on Education. OK, we agree.

Improving tax collection? The ‘Rajaratne formula’ could be summarised as follows. The 2011 “tax revenue” (not confined to income tax) was 12.4% of the GDP. If it could be raised to 16.9% of the GDP, the government will (he says) have at its disposal an additional Rs. 272 billion which, if spent on Education, will make the total educational expenditure of the government approximate 6% of the GDP. It requires expertise (which I do not possess) to consider whether the Rajaratne proposal is feasible. No expert, as far as I am aware, has hitherto commented on it. But assuming it is worthy of serious consideration, I have a better idea. Why not introduce into our system of taxation an ‘Educational Tax’(involving, inter alia, the extraction of a flat 10% of income from those with annual incomes of over Rs. 600,000, without any exemption from the usual income tax, but with a P.A.Y.E. system designed to minimise evasion), the entire revenue from which would be channelled to educational development. Needless to stress, the university teachers, all of whom are within the highest 10% of income-earners of the country even now, and are so totally committed to educational development, will gladly contribute to this tax.

 The Island 31 Oct 2012 –