Friday Forum on FUTA trade action

Wednesday, 10 October 2012 00:56 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Following is a statement issued by Friday Forum on FUTA trade action:

Some time ago the Friday Forum held a press conference on issues of public concern relating to what we considered a crisis in the education sector in Sri Lanka. We also referred to the trade union action by FUTA, and the urgency of resolving the dispute through a negotiated settlement based on consultation with all the relevant stake holders.

The FUTA trade union action has continued for almost three months and virtually paralysed the State universities. The failure of the traditional agencies and individuals within the university system such as the UGC and Vice Chancellors to facilitate a negotiated settlement between university staff unions and the Government has led to the involvement of third parties – most recently Minister Basil Rajapaksa.

Students, parents and the public hoped that his involvement would ensure an early resolution of the outstanding issues. This has not happened. There seems to be apathy within Government and an inclination to ignore the FUTA trade union action, in the belief that striking academic staff will eventually return to work.

There is also a growing campaign of vilification of FUTA leaders in the State media, and an effort to create an impression among the public that this trade union action is an anti-Government project by a radical and fringe group of academics in the university system.

Relevant and timely campaign

We urge the Government not to disregard what is clearly a strong campaign of trade union action that has growing support from the academic community. Religious dignitaries have also expressed their concern and offered to negotiate a settlement.

FUTA’s trade union action is not merely a campaign to increase staff salaries. It has raised critically important issues that must be addressed by the Government in the interests of the higher education sector and the state university system.

If the issues are not resolved, students and parents will be faced with a situation where the universities will be compelled to function without the best teachers and researchers, or a disgruntled and frustrated community of academic staff who cannot possibly contribute to strengthening the teaching and learning environment within these institutions.

FUTA’s campaign on allocation of adequate resources and strengthening university autonomy and institutional structures and administrative procedures is both relevant and timely. These matters must be addressed if the state university system in this country is to survive and develop further.

Consensus building

The Friday Forum in a spirit of constructive engagement would like to highlight what we consider practical measures that can be adopted so as to arrive at a consensus. Academics must be persuaded through consensus building to resolve this dispute and recommence academic activities in the universities in the interest of their students and the public.

1. Resource allocation

We hope that FUTA will be flexible in regard to its demand for an immediate allocation of 6% of GDP for education. The Government on its part should put forward a plan that will incorporate commitments on progressively increased resources, with a time frame and specific goals and targets.

2. Staff salaries

The issue of salaries should be determined having regard to the Jiffry/Ranasinghe report. The late Professor Jiffry was a former Dean and Deputy Chairman of the UGC, and at the time of his death a member of the LLRC. Having been senior academic administrators, Professors Jiffry and Malik Ranasinghe were aware of the need to balance pressures faced by the Government in the allocation of financial resources, and the need to provide adequate support for universities to retain qualified staff.

3. University autonomy

There are several issues relating to university autonomy that can be resolved immediately.

(a) Appointment of Vice Chancellors and Deans

S.34(1)(a) of the Universities Act 1978 as amended 1985 clarifies that the UGC must recommend to the president the person to be appointed as vice chancellor from the panel of three names recommended by the Council of a University. The Chairman UGC has stated that the names of all three Council nominees are sent to the President, who then makes the selection and decides whom to appoint as vice chancellor. We wish to point out that such a procedure is a violation of the Universities Act.

The inadequacies of the current procedures on appointment of Vice Chancellors have been highlighted repeatedly in discussions on reforms to the Universities Act. A draft Act forwarded by the National Education Commission to the previous Government proposed a new procedure that would enable the governing body of universities to adopt the practice accepted in most other countries including in our region and select their vice chancellor.

Many universities today do not advertise the post but identify candidates through search committees of the governing authorities of universities. Given the limitations of the current procedures it is important to ensure that the best possible Council nominees with the confidence of the university community are nominated as candidates for the post.

We suggest that Senates nominate a pool of five candidates to the Council through the Senate representatives in the Council. The Council should as in the past choose the panel of three names by consensus rather than secret ballot. No vice chancellor or dean should be permitted to hold office in violation of statutory provisions because of external pressure.

(b) Appointment of members of the Council

S.44 of the Universities Act as amended in 1985 states that the non-university members of a Council “shall be appointed by the Commission from among persons who have rendered distinguished service in educational professional commercial industrial scientific or administrative spheres”; the UGC should therefore develop guidelines in consultation with university Senates to ensure that only persons who have achieved recognition and eminence in these fields are appointed to Councils.

Such guidelines can prevent the appointment of persons without suitable qualifications and experience to the governing bodies of universities. Information on the qualification and experience of Council members should be provided on all university websites and be available for public scrutiny.

(c) Aptitude test

S.46 (1) of the Universities Act clarifies that the Senate “Shall be the academic authority of the University” S.15 (vii) and 15 (v) of the Act give the UGC the power to select students for admission to Universities, and to determine in consultation with the Council, the governing authority, the courses to be offered and the degrees to be awarded. S.15(x) (c) as amended in 1985 states that the UGC can determine the subjects or disciplines of study to be provided or taught in universities. It is therefore clear that the academic requirements for a particular course, such as an aptitude test must be determined by the Senate as the “academic authority”, recognised by the Act.

If abuses are alleged in regard to the administration of the aptitude test, these allegations should be referred to the University Councils and Senates for investigation, and remedial action. S.15 (xii) of the Act as amended in 1985 gives the UGC the authority “to investigate into matters relating to academic administration and take remedial action,” but the UGC is also required to consult the Senate and Council and respect their powers under the Act.

Clearly the UGC and/or the Ministry has no authority to unilaterally eliminate the requirement of an aptitude test for students seeking to follow courses such as architecture, design or aesthetic studies. Aptitude tests are a recognised method for determining whether students have the capacity to follow a professional course.

(d) UGC Circular No.991 of 6/08/2012 on appointments of university staff and Other Circulars

During our representatives meeting with the Minister of Higher Education, they referred to the importance of the UGC withdrawing a recent circular under which two UGC nominees will be appointed to all selection committees, and also have a veto power in the selections. Circular No. 991 states that “In order to regularise selections of university staff, “at least one member of the two UGC nominees who participate in the relevant selection committees should agree with the selection” and that “in case both members are not in agreement with the selection, such appointment should not be recommended by the selection committee”.

The exercise of a veto power on appointments by either one or both UGC nominees is an unprecedental erosion of a University’s autonomy and independence in selecting staff for appointment to these institutions.

S.15(ix) of the Act as amended in 1985 only gives the UGC the power to formulate schemes of recruitment and procedures for appointment of the staff, and determine the grades of staff and the numbers comprising each grade.

The exercise of a veto power by UGC nominees in selections of university staff amounts to interference with the actual selections and is contrary to the statutory powers given to the Council as the governing authority, and the Senate as the academic authority of the university. Currently these bodies nominate members to selection committees and the selection must be approved only by the Council of the University.

It is critically important that the UGC avoids promulgating ad hoc circulars that do not conform to the concept of university autonomy incorporated in the Act and in the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court. A transparent consultative process which permits the academic community to express their views can help to ensure respect for university autonomy. Such a consultative process that referred matters to university Senates and Councils was adopted in the past when major policy changes were contemplated by the UGC.

4. Leadership Training Program

We raised our concerns in regard to this program and appreciate the concern to provide a “life skills” programme for students with a component of physical training and social skills, given the varying facilities available to students in secondary schools. However a military orientation in a leadership program is in conflict with the environment of teaching and learning in universities. Such institution must create an ethos of intellectual curiously and freedom rather than military regimentation. We therefore repeat our request that the program is conducted by universities as part of their orientation course for new students, on University Campuses.

These courses can be held as they often are, before senior students commence their study programs. Alternatively the course could be conducted district wise in secondary schools with the best facilities for conducting an orientation programme that focuses on physical training and life skills, but without the involvement of the military. The suggestion in some quarters that the military has contributed to efficiency in the delivery of services in education in Pakistan, and that this experience should be replicated, is hardly relevant for Sri Lanka, as we seek to reform our education system.

Our Constitution requires commitment to democratic and not military governance.

Jayantha Dhanapala and Professor Savitri Goonesekere

On behalf of Friday Forum, the Group of Concerned Citizens