An Academic Spring in Sri Lanka?

by Camena Guneratne and Harini Amarasuriya
Open University of Sri Lanka

(July 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) has called off the trade union action it launched more than two months ago, somewhat unexpectedly. The blogsphere is buzzing with comments, reactions and analyses of the suspension of the trade union action. This reaction itself shows the degree to which FUTA had succeeded in mobilising university teachers. It now appears that the FUTA membership may have been a few steps ahead of the FUTA leadership; thus, the unexpected suspension of the union action, without sufficient consultation with the sister unions has created a storm. The intention of this article is not to analyse FUTA’s decision or the reaction to it, but rather, to offer a perspective on the recent mobilisation of university teachers which evolved during more than two months of university wide trade union action.

Although the FUTA trade union action originated in a demand that the government honour its undertaking to increase salaries, it has metamorphosed amongst the membership into a movement of much greater significance. After decades of invisibility the academic community is now asserting its place in Sri Lankan civil society. Emboldened by the strength and commitment of its membership FUTA’s platform has also broadened from the original demand of a salary package to ‘attract, recruit and retain’ academics within the state university system. Today the academic community is not merely demanding a salary increase and other emoluments but is questioning the fate of higher education in Sri Lanka, university autonomy, academic freedom, student rights and the need to protect democratic spaces. This signals something more than the anger of a disgruntled, under paid and unappreciated professional body, but also an awakening of a sense of social awareness and responsibility. This movement has brought together university academics from different universities, disciplinary backgrounds and political affiliations in ways not seen in recent times. FUTA suspending the trade union action when many of these demands including that of salary have not been satisfactorily addressed, has certainly shocked many university teachers who supported the union action passionately.

This activism and resurgence among the academic community has been compared to the awakening of a sleeping giant, of academics proving that they have vertebrae, of a community emerging from a long, largely self imposed silence. This suggests that prior to the events and activities of the past two months, Sri Lankan academics (by and large) have been not just asleep but somewhat irrelevant for society. University teachers who have spoken out in the recent past have done so based on political party affiliation. We have not been making ourselves heard as independent social commentators and analysts in our own right. But the signs are there that this is now changing. Picking up a newspaper in Sri Lanka during the past few weeks or browsing the web, it was evident that academics had (and will continue to have) plenty to say on a range of issues. Our intention in this article is to consider the role of the country’s academic community in this broader context and to try and understand the recent activism as well as the past silence of Sri Lankan university teachers. The changes that we have observed in our community recently, we hope, signals a reawakening that will lead us towards a critical reflection of our role in society and the establishment of the kind of university culture that would help us fulfil this role.

Role of Higher Education

If we follow the recent ‘official’ discourse on the role of higher education in Sri Lanka, one may be forgiven for believing that the sole purpose of higher education (and therefore of academics) is to solve the unemployment problem in the country. In other words, what we are expected to do is to create ‘employable graduates’. Universities and academics are under enormous pressure to produce ‘marketable’ graduates and programmes. However, this is an extremely narrow and short sighted vision of higher education. According to the Bonn Declaration adopted at the UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development 2009, higher education has three core functions:

1. Research,

2. Teaching

3. Service of the community

Service of the community includes generating knowledge and advancing the understanding of issues that challenge the sustainable development of society. Our core function of teaching relates to producing ethical citizens who are committed to the values of peace, human rights and democracy. This clearly is a much broader vision of higher education than that envisaged by successive Higher Education authorities in Sri Lanka recently. The suppression (at times with the complicity of academics) of this broader mission for higher education is what has also kept Sri Lankan academics asleep and in exile during the past few decades.

The importance of academic freedom and university autonomy needs to be considered within this broader understanding of the role of higher education. In order to be able to fulfil our core functions with responsibility, universities and university teachers need to be independent and critical. They must develop the kind of culture which encourages debate and discussion, rewards academic rigour and intellectual curiosity and, most importantly, a sense of social responsibility. If we understand the role of higher education and the responsibilities of those involved in higher education in this context, then the role of academics is far removed from the mere pursuit of knowledge. Research cannot be only for the sake of promotions and career development. Teaching cannot be merely about regurgitating notes that have circulated for years among students. Our role calls for an active engagement with society, especially with our students; in fact, it calls for academics to take the lead in speaking out on issues concerning wider society. Academic freedom and university autonomy are rights that the university community enjoys in order to fulfil its social obligations in a responsible manner. We cannot fulfil our core functions if we are restrained and kept under control.

Autonomy & independence

The academic community in Sri Lanka today has recognised the need to fight for its autonomy and independence and its relevance in civil society. However, we will not be successful in our efforts to do so, if we imagine that this fight is only with external forces. This fight has to also take place within our universities. Just as much as we call upon the authorities to refrain from undermining our freedom and autonomy, we need to reflect on university culture in contemporary Sri Lanka and attempt to understand how and why we silenced ourselves and contributed to our irrelevance during the last several years. How did we get into a situation where different political regimes were able to interfere in our institutions with such impunity or politically controlled Vice Chancellors and the University Grants Commission could influence our academic spaces to the extent that they do now?

This is where it is important to consider how we should continue to mobilise and remain active outside of trade union activity. While FUTA gave us a spur, the changes we seek cannot be achieved through it—or certainly not through FUTA in its current shape and form. We need to reform our institutions, including FUTA to be in line with this broader agenda. Firstly, we need to reflect on our past silence and inaction. University culture often reflects broader cultural and political contexts; they present us with a microcosm of life outside the universities. And the politicisation of institutions as well as the growing authoritarian nature of governance systems, which has taken place in other institutions in Sri Lanka, certainly did not spare the university system. However, in this article, we would like to consider another factor which contributed to the erosion of university autonomy and academic freedom.

Feudal character

Even a cursory analysis of Sri Lankan society reveals its deeply engrained feudal character. Despite 60 years of independence and democracy, as a society, we still remain largely dependent on feudal relationships to negotiate our everyday life. Knowing the right person, having the right connections, establishing the necessary patronage linkages is what helps us get through life fairly comfortably. Those who do not have access to those links will be left behind. This has become so much a part of our lives that we are unconscious of it. Of course, networking and building the right social connections in order to get by in life is not something that is unique to the Sri Lankan culture. Networking and relationship building form the core subject of many self improvement and professional development courses. But there is something unique about the insidiousness of the need to ‘know’ the right people and to be part of the right social or political networks in Sri Lanka, which deserves some thought. And that is the particularly feudal character of these networks and alliances. This means that establishing and maintaining these relationships include unquestioning and uncritical loyalty and obedience. Whether this is based on respect for age, authority, status, position or even friendship, these networks and social connections are highly personalised and form close, incestuous circles. The networks that exist within the universities are also based on similar relationships of patronage. Most of us working within the Sri Lankan university system are only too aware of this. While we want to ensure that we retain the best and the brightest of our graduates within the university system, this also reinforces relationships of dependence and patronage that stifles creativity, independence and that most important quality of all, autonomy. The teacher-student relationship survives far longer than necessary within Sri Lankan universities. Relationships between colleagues are mediated by the desire to please the powerful and to be aligned with the influential. Intellectual exchanges are circumscribed by the need to respect hierarchy and the fear of the consequences if you don’t; which ideas get challenged by whom depends on the guru kula you belong to rather than the legitimacy or importance of the thought. In recent times this cycle of networking and patronage becomes more ominous when it links the university system to the political sphere. This is unfortunately evident in the appointments of those holding high office in universities and related institutions.

These are perhaps some of the reasons the giant was sleeping and the academic community was in exile. The gradual erosion of academic freedom and independent thought led to situations where maintaining a low profile and not stirring up trouble became the main preoccupation of university teachers. This translated into apathy in the face of sometimes outrageous abuses of power by those in authority. In the past year or so we have seen a Vice Chancellor sending female students for virginity testing, another banning a human rights activist from speaking at a function of the university (which incidentally is a public space), yet another acquiescing in the illegal appointment of a Dean who had retired from service (the same Dean who now claims to derive his intellectual inspiration from supernatural forces), university Senates awarding honourary doctorates to politicians bypassing correct procedures. All this without a murmur of protest from the academic community at large! And we ask ourselves, "why?" Perhaps, another reason is that for many years, younger academics didn’t have role models to show them what it meant to be a part of a vibrant, energetic and intellectually stimulating environment. Those of us in the senior ranks, too, failed to adequately mentor the juniors and lead by example. Many of us were advised not to draw unnecessary attention to ourselves; to be discreet; to turn the other way if we see something wrong. If this was what was expected of us within the universities, how could we draw attention to ourselves outside?

Giant asleep, not dead

But, what this current resurgence has shown is that although the giant was asleep it is not dead. The impulses that led us to seek employment and a career within academia were clearly not economic. We all walked into the university system with our eyes wide open as to what our economic condition would be. Most of us took the plunge because we hold on to an ideal of university life where ideas matter; independence and critical skills are valued, not feared. We have listened wistfully to stories of the past of fiery debates and arguments in senates and faculty boards, of brilliant and colourful personalities stalking our corridors, of their intellectual achievements and eccentric exploits. These legends also inspired us to choose this career path. We chose academic careers because we believed in a certain way of life, a certain form of engagement with the world. Over the years what we got was under-funded and under-resourced institutions coming under increasing political control by governments to whom education was no longer a priority. Given their environment, combined with the impossibly low salaries offered, the universities no longer attracted the best minds and inevitably took a turn towards mediocrity and apathy. And with a few exceptions and while trying to maintain some standards of excellence, most of us went with the tide!

We are all responsible for the current state of the university system in Sri Lanka. But, in spite of our frustration, lurking inside all of us was the hope for something different. And it is that hope which is being stirred today. Within the last couple of months, leaders have emerged from all sides from within the different universities. Academics are beginning to show that they will no longer be silent. Academics are taking on authorities who are attempting to circumvent university procedures, influence academic decisions and interfere with teaching responsibilities. They are also supporting each other. The public protests in which university teachers marched on the streets in the past few weeks (a phenomenon unthinkable a year ago), their willingness to travel literally from one end of the country to the other to support their colleagues and the sense of solidarity and community this has generated have triggered a new found feeling of liberation. The last rally took place in Jaffna, where close to 1,000 university teachers from all parts of the country marched on the streets much to the bemusement of the local people. At that meeting a question asked by a union leader summed up in one sentence all our past failings – "Where was FUTA in thirty years of civil war?"Now academics are resisting when VCs and Deans go beyond their authority. We are finally learning that that is not the way; that we have to stand up to be counted; that VCs are also accountable to their institutions and their impunity must be challenged; that senate and faculty board meetings are not just held to rubber stamp decisions made by others, but are forums where matters are debated and decisions taken by a responsible community of people.

What next?

This is not the first (and will not be the last) regime to use political power to interfere with the autonomy of universities. But safeguarding that autonomy requires academics to take their rights and privileges seriously and to fight to protect it. We reiterate that these rights and privileges are intrinsic to our ability and our obligations to fulfil our core functions in civil society. It is important that we do not forget that this fight has to happen within as much as outside the universities. As the UNESCO Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education says, university autonomy is what enables the academic community to speak out with responsibility and independence on the ethical, cultural and social problems of their time. The current FUTA trade union action has enabled us to reflect on and act on these issues both inside and outside our institutions. The trade union action being suspended does not mean that our fight to protect our privileges and fulfil our responsibilities need come to an end. It is up to us to also hold FUTA accountable for the challenge they laid before university teachers at the seminar in Jaffna when one speaker asked us what we were going to do when our wallets and handbags were filled. The trade union action has been suspended even prior to our wallets and handbags being filled; perhaps our union leaders who have been exhorting us to keep fighting need to explain why they gave up the fight long before we were ready to do so.

The current mood of the academic community shows that it was not merely the salary issue which drew us on to the streets. The intransigence and inanity of the current regime and the humiliating treatment meted out to university teachers has had a positive effect. It has, without doubt been a significant factor in causing them to finally rise up and say enough is enough. You can push a community so far and no further. Perhaps, a more significant factor is the threat to the very future and survival of the country’s much cherished public education system. University teachers are now making it clear that they will not stand silent and watch the dismantling of this system. The demand for decent salaries is based not merely on self interest but also on real fears that the erosion of adequate funding is an insidious way of destroying these institutions from within. FUTA is also asking for adequate funding of education as a whole which is a sine qua non for sustainable development.

There are signs that the winter of our discontent is ending and spring is in the air. The response of university teachers to the FUTA union action signalled that we were ready to be mobilised and to emerge from hibernation. Now that the union action has been suspended, the next few weeks and months will demonstrate if the signs of resurgence are here to stay.

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