Ending the standoff

Tuesday, 10 June 2014 00:14 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

UNIVERSITY teachers have demanded an end to harassment and threatened to go on strike as relations hit another low over the Deyata Kirula row at the Rajarata University. Old woes are being dragged up again and broken promises are returning to haunt the Government. Undoubtedly, the worst part of this situation is that students will once again get caught in the melee and the casualty will be the country’s future. Despite professing to be a “people’s Government,” Budget allocations for healthcare and education continue to reduce each year. Not only is Sri Lanka well behind international norms for State investment in healthcare and education as a share of GDP, it is well below even South Asian standards. Continued interference, lacklustre policy engagement and meagre allocations of funds have crippled a once-celebrated sector. Police were severely reprimanded in court after they brutally suppressed a student protest, arresting them and assaulting them while in custody. There is indeed gripping irony in the fact that the repression comes just weeks after President Mahinda Rajapaksa presided over a world youth conference and delivered a speech peppered with platitudes  to youth, even going so far as to staunchly declare heads of state as having the greatest task in empowering the next generation. He even said institutions need to be restructured to include young people and make room for their aspirations. The gap between word and deed could not be wider. University teachers are mulling an indefinite strike after the 2012 agreement was disregarded by the Government. With the Government keen to promote private universities but avoid troublesome standoffs with student unions and dons, it is likely that it will rush through with crucial legislation that should empower the public higher education system and regularise their private counterparts. Lack of transparent discussions and growing concerns over corruption will also make stakeholders insecure about the direction of the country’s higher education sector. The recent rolling-up of a commission headed by Higher Education Minister’s son to provide accreditation to private degree awarding institutions is a case in point. It overlooked enforcement of standards, causing much consternation, especially among the medical fraternity. Students, tired of being caught between a rock and a hard place, would probably welcome the option of getting an accredited degree at home. But without proper monitoring and standardisation, the hard-earned money of their parents could be wasted. On a larger level, Sri Lanka needs technology and knowledge transfer to foster economic growth. On the surface that seems like an argument for private universities, but knowledge needs to be matched with intelligent minds, at present the best crop is funnelled to public universities. The fear that State universities will become the destination for poor students while their richer colleagues opt for private universities should not be allowed to become reality. The ideal of universal higher education opportunities must be upheld. In such a morass of challenges, it is imperative that the university system is guided on the ideals of fairness and equality, but past experiences do not bode well for the future. The Government continues to dole out small allocations for the education sector and has basically laid the foundation for yet another standoff with university teachers and students that bodes ill for everyone.