Government closes all universities after two-month lecturer strike

Sri Lanka’s Higher Education Ministry last week closed down all state universities and several other higher education institutions until further notice. The decision was taken after a two-month strike by university academics reached a critical stage.

Fifteen universities and six other institutions were closed indefinitely. Protests and boycotts involving both lecturers and students have taken place countrywide.

The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) strike has paralysed universities. The academic activities, including examinations, of some 20,000 undergraduate students have been affected.

Higher Education Minister SB Dissanayake took the shut-down decision after discussing the crisis with vice-chancellors and other officials.

FUTA, the major lecturer association in Sri Lanka, with more than 4,000 academic members, is demanding that the government allocate 6% of gross domestic product to education, grant universities independence from political interference and increase lecturer salaries by 20%.

The union has been engaged in the strike since 4 July and held a huge demonstration last Thursday, along with opposition political parties and other unions under the campaign "Protect State Education".

The protest was aimed at raising public awareness and highlighting issues in the Sri Lanka education sector, mainly university teacher problems and the ‘Z score’ fiasco – mistakes made by officials in calculating the results of the latest school-leaving exams cost thousands of would-be students university places and sparked public outrage and protests.

On 22 August Dissanayake told parliament that all possible action would be taken to reopen universities soon.

Compulsory English and ICT courses for new university entrants could not be conducted this year due to crisis caused by the Z-score problem, he added.

“Suspected political agendas are behind the trade union action by FUTA to create a political crisis leading to regime change. Government took every possible effort to resolve the matter through negotiations,” Dissanayake said in a press statement.

“We had around 10 discussions and exchanging of letters, drafts of memorandums of understanding etc and still FUTA has not agreed to resolve this matter amicably, due to some unknown reasons which may be mainly due to political reasons.”

The minister claimed that some parties were trying to create a political crisis in Sri Lanka and had used issues to their advantage, corralling the majority of “innocent” academics into trade union action.

“As a result of a series of discussions, the government has agreed to five demands out of six. But we can’t increase the salary.

“Government has clearly indicated to FUTA that for the time being it is unable to accept that demand since it may create many discrepancies and anomalies in the national salary structure, creating other repercussions,” Dissanayake said.

The FUTA president, Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, said there had been a meeting with Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa on Tuesday, and it was a fruitful. Hence, there was a possibility that the strike would be called off next week.

He said another meeting would be held on Friday 24 August, “and we expect to end the strike if the government responds positively to our demands and [we] should receive solutions for our problems in written form” he said.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan Marxist party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna demanded that the government reopen universities and take steps to resolve the issues faced by lecturers.

“University students have a lot of assignments, projects and research and also a lot of self-study, so it is important for universities to be open for students at all times. Then they can use libraries and labs,” Inter University Students’ Federation Convener Sanjeewa Bandara told University World News.

FUTA has withdrawn from grading GCE Advanced Level examination papers this year. Also, lecturers have withdrawn from postgraduate courses and other academic duties that are held over weekends.

Although all universities are closed, medical faculties have remained open as their lecturers did not go on strike.

The ministry said it would announce the resumption date of universities and other closed institutions as soon as possible.