The State Minister for Higher Education Professor Rajiva Wijesinha maintains that the promises made during the presidential campaign period have taken a backseat with the general elections in the offing. At an interview with the Dailymirror Prof. Wijesinha was candid on the reasons that led to his resignation, on the reforms he planned in the higher education sector. He has expressed negative views on the progress of the 100-day programme of the new government.Excerpts of the interview follow.
Q. Was it solely the resignation of the UGC Chairman – a subject on which you claim you weren’t consulted – that led to your resignation from your portfolio?
Last week I attended the portrait unveiling of Mr. Kadirgamar at the Peradeniya University. One of the first questions directed at me by an academic was why I was defending this lady (UGC Chairperson). I said I’m not defending her because no-one has attacked her. But we are here for good governance and a lot of principles have been violated.
“Appointing the Cabinet and ministers was delegated to Ranil and Chandrika. Chandrika took care of HER SLFP while Ranil simply did what he had to do: look after the interests of the UNP”
The first principle on which my resignation was based was a simple one – if someone is in charge of a subject and you are their superior, you do not interfere [with what they do in office]. When I was appointed as a State Minister I registered my disappointment with the President, but said I would continue to work because it was an interesting subject.
But, one week later, Kabir Hashim was appointed the Cabinet Minister and he told me that even he was not informed of it [ appointment] beforehand. But he told me that he did not have time to look into ministry matters since he would be busy with election work and for me to take on the responsibilities.
However, on Friday (13) I found that he had been ordering my secretary to do things without telling me. I was cross about that. I wrote to him and said it was unethical and that if he wished to get any information he should have asked me.
Meanwhile, I got an e-mail from the UGC Chairperson Professor Kshanika Hirimburegama saying that Minister Hashim had asked her to resign and she thought I knew. I was never consulted on the matter and when I attended work on Tuesday (16) I found she had resigned. I was in a fix because the Act does not give the minister any powers, only responsibilities; and the minister can only act through the UGC. Incidentally, on that day for the first time I discovered prima facie evidence of corruption, which I ordered my secretary to inquire into. The Act states ‘Chairpersons shall work until successors are appointed’; so I informed her to continue work until her position was filled. I was told it might not be a good idea because the FUTA will be annoyed that I’m trying to keep her when I was only trying to get the work done. I decided I cannot operate under such circumstances and wrote to the President informing I would be resigning with effect from February 17 or to appoint me as the Cabinet Minister for Higher Education. The second reason was due to the demand for the UGC Chair to resign that would result in a violation of the principles of justice. If people make allegations I will definitely investigate them. But I have not received a single official complaint about her.
During a discussion, in Peradeniya, I mentioned that we must have systems to stop university officials getting involved in politics. It was decided that perhaps the best step is to have a rule that says university officers don’t have political rights. I never mentioned anything about dons because they have always wanted political rights. They pride themselves in it and why not. They are brighter and more aware etc. Of course they should engage in politics. You and I know that during the previous regime, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa did wrong when he simultaneously engaged in politics while being a secretary of a ministry. But it was not so clear cut about the UGC Chair because she was not a public official but an academic.
Q. It seems you have a grievance on not being appointed to the Cabinet?
You see, when we were all appointed as State Ministers, many people were not entirely happy. But we all decided to work. People like Rosy was not pleased. She is a very able person but without warning, a Cabinet Minister was appointed [ over her].
“One thing about good governance is that it should be swift. Justice delayed is justice denied: likewise governance delayed is governance denied “
Ranil’s Cabinet portfolio is absolute crackers! Policy planning, youth, cultural and women’s affairs and investment promotion-but no- one knows where reconciliation fits in. Some people think Ranil is in charge, some think its carried out through a presidential task force but nothing has been done. This government promised to have a ‘scientific’ Cabinet. But guess under which portfolio, the divisional and district secretariats are? When they should clearly be under public administration they are with the Fisheries Ministry!
Look what happened with Faizer. If you don’t want to make them Cabinet ministers it’s fine, but why put them under Cabinet ministers because the Constitution is clear that the President can appoint Cabinet ministers and assign them their jobs. The President can also appoint non-cabinet ministers. Cabinet ministers can allocate anything he/she wants to a non-cabinet minister but the non-cabinet minister is not under the Cabinet minister. They are supposed to have an independent existence but none has it. I can think of half a dozen in the present Cabinet, who should not be in it.
The task of appointing the Cabinet and ministerial portfolios was delegated to Ranil and Chandrika. Chandrika was to look after the interests of SLFP-ers and she took care of HER SLFP. Ranil simply did what he had to do, which is look after the interests of the UNP. Who is in the Cabinet? Who should not be there? Faizer, Wasantha, Nandimithra, Radhakrishnan- none of them were considered. What we have is a UNP Cabinet.
If this continues, much resentment will brew not only with us but also among the people who we could have been given leadership. This government is divided between people who want reforms and those who don’t. The UNP by and large didn’t want reforms, they wanted to come into power and continue what the previous guys were doing.
Q. During the past few years, every other university was having issues and students were protesting. How are you planning to resolve them?
The basic problem is that these problems should have been solved within the university by the councils. But the universities have reached a stage where the councils are not trusted because they are the tools of the VCs of politicians.
There are issue prevailing mainly in four universities: one is in Jaffna, the other in the south eastern university where it seems there had been financial corruption. I have requested the Bribery and Corruption Commission to probe into it. Former minister SB Dissanayake’s brother is a member of the council of this university. Prima facie evidence points to financial misappropriations. The audit reports are pretty damning too.
Then there is the Eastern University where I appointed a new council. Issues in the Colombo University are mainly due to the ego trip between the FUTA and the Hirimburegamas. I believe Hirimburegama should never have stood to be appointed as the VC, I told this to Kshanika as well.
“I have noted seven things we must implement before the expiration of 100-days. And there can be no compromises. That is what we want; not an election”
Q. Students are still protesting over the use of Rakna Lanka for security in universities.
I think the problem was a too-close relationship between the Defence Ministry and the Higher Education Ministry. Once a contract is given it has to run its course and expire. I have been clear – the universities can decide on whom they want as their security. Its wrong for the ministry to interfere. We are not here to follow the dictates of another ministry. When I questioned the orientation programme run by the Ministry of Higher Education I realised there was a much deeper link with the military. I have to start making arrangements to enable the UGC and the students to give me ideas on how to set up a new structure. I am determined to give a programme to students through which the 18 months they spend between school and university, could be spent developing soft skills such as English, computer science etc. based on a credit system.
Q. What is the response to the demands that have been made by FUTA?
We need to look into salary anomalies. When I assumed duties, I was also cross about the manner in which non-academic staff members were deprived of a salary hike. As soon as I was appointed, I made sure the budgeted amount for paying salaries to workers were given to them. A six per cent GDP allocation will be implemented systematically. All student unions should also be reinstated in universities. QWhat became of the allegation against Namal for influencing the admission of a student? Unfortunately in our political life whether it was Namal or the coordinating secretary, people get nervous. Many ministers have written to me asking for favours or requests to ‘look into’ certain matters but I have responded saying, ‘don’t interfere’. If anyone writes to me and says there is an injustice I will ask for a report. What I gathered is that basically there had been anomalies [in admissions]. My view is that if there had been an anomaly it should be corrected as long as you are not depriving another person.
Q. What you think about the 100-day programme?
It’s a complete disaster because no-one is concerned about the programme. I have noted seven things we must implement before the expiration of 100-days. And there can be no compromises. That is what we want; not an election. I heard today that this so-called ‘Council’ has not met for a month.
Q. What are you planning to do after your resignation?
I have no idea! According to the information gathered so far, the President had instructed Kabir. Unfortunately he had thought he needs to consult the PM who had then turned to CBK. When I spoke to the PM about the situation, he told me to read Butler’s ‘Art of the Possible’. I don’t need to read that; I need to start work.
On Monday I cleared my desk. I have a simple rule, you have to do what you say you are doing, if not you have to explain why you are not doing it. I find it appalling that on three occasions they have promised to let me know about the position but nothing has happened. It is not good governance.
One thing about good governance is that it should be swift. Justice delayed is justice denied: likewise governance delayed is governance denied.
Q. After the upcoming general elections, what is your plan?
We decided as the Liberal Party and write to the UPFA asking whether we could have a formal alliance. Although I hope that we are on to a new system, we would ask for a national list. I now believe more than ever that you need national list MPs because all other MPs are running after politics and votes. In every other presidential systems in the world, Cabinets have been outside the party. In every other country, there is a core collection of people who don’t have to run for election either because they have the Raja Sabha system or they are nominated as in Thailand or in the UK: they have safe seats. You must have people who can do work.
There is a notion that if you don’t get voted in you are not fit. But in other countries that is not the case because there are people who are expected to deliver for the executive side of things.