Another failed olive branch

Thursday, 13 September 2012 01:07 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

THE Government’s move to use the Labour Commissioner to arbitrate for a solution to the academics strike ended in yet another dead end, prompting questions of whether the Government is prepared to take a serious step to solve the crisis.

The offer was rejected for two reasons. One is that the academics insist their grievance should be solved through a policy change rather than industrial arbitration. The second is that the question over salaries is part of a much larger issue including the national education budget and privatisation of universities.

Since 4 July, universities have all but come to a standstill, with not only undergraduate but post graduate students who have paid for their education being left to stagnate as the university teachers took the fight to the Government. Against the odds they have continued to wage a battle to ‘save’ the education system of the country, but the stalemate between the two parties seems to be pushing learning standards into a further abyss.

According to Minister S.B. Dissanayake, the situation has become the main barrier for the progress of the students and to maintain a peaceful atmosphere in the universities. The Minister says the strike by the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) is politically motivated since the Government has taken maximum effort to find a solution to FUTA’s demands through several rounds of discussions. The Minister has noted that although final decisions were arrived at these discussions on agreements, the lecturers’ trade union has not shown a positive response to solve the problems.

The Government has agreed to all demands submitted by FUTA, except the one for a 20 per cent salary increase, he has said, adding that the salaries of the university teachers had been increased by between 36 to 83 per cent. Further, increase of salaries will completely complicate the salary structures of public servants, the Minister has noted.

Meanwhile, academics on strike are not receiving their salaries. They are also distrustful of the Government after measures to increase their pay was not entered into the 2012 Budget as was agreed to in the aftermath of the crippling strike last year. The Z-score fiasco, inaccurate Advanced Level papers and FUTA’s refusal to mark them is threatening to push the issues even more out of control.

As time passes, the problems become more and more convoluted, to the extent that finding a solution becomes all the more impossible. As more and more strata of education become embroiled in this devastation, hope becomes more dimmed for everyone.

At a recent meeting with heads of newspaper organisations, President Mahinda Rajapaksa had insisted that he would not give in to the academics’ strike, calling for an end to trade union action before they re-commence negotiations. FUTA rejected this call as well.

As far as GDP ratios for education are concerned, FUTA has strong backing from United Nations statistics that point out Sri Lanka’s current 1.8 per cent budget is the lowest among South Asian nations, falling alongside Pakistan. Even countries such as Kenya and Namibia spend 7-7.2 per cent of their GDP on education, showing that it is not Sri Lanka’s economy but its policymaking that is providing the bottleneck.