Longest lecturer strike ends with government climb-down

Sri Lanka’s longest lecturer strike, which lasted for nearly 100 days, was called off by the university teachers’ union on Thursday after crucial discussions led to a government climb-down and capitulation to several union demands.

As a result of the three-month strike, universities suspended academic activities for around 90,000 undergraduate students and examinations were affected.

Two months into the strike the Sri Lankan government tried to force the issue by shutting down all state universities – but this merely exacerbated tensions.

Lecturers also boycotted the grading of university entrance examination (GCE Advanced Level) papers held in August. And they stopped teaching postgraduate courses and other academic duties undertaken at weekends.

The strike and other higher education controversies in recent months have been a severe setback to the Higher Education Ministry’s ambitions for Sri Lanka to become an Asian education hub.

The union staged huge demonstrations regularly during the past three months, along with student organisations, opposition political parties and other unions. They were joined by civil society organisations in recent protest marches under the ‘Protect State Education’ banner.

The government had to concede to some union demands due to rising public criticism, including from parents and students affected by the lengthy strike, and the emergence of support for the protests by workers and the rural poor angry about government austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund that have also affected education.

In the end, Buddhist chief prelates intervened to break the deadlock, asking both the entrenched government and the Federation of University Teachers' Associations (FUTA) officials to be more flexible.

Worst paid in Asia

FUTA, the major lecturers’ association in Sri Lanka with more than 4,000 academic members, was demanding that the government allocate 6% of gross domestic product (GDP) to education. Just 1.86% of GDP goes to the entire education sector, the lowest in South Asia and among the lowest in the world.

The union also wanted the government to grant universities independence from political interference, and to increase lecturer salaries.

Sri Lanka’s university lecturers are among the worst paid academics in Asia, with salaries of around US$200 for junior lecturers and around US$500 for senior professors.

After holding out for many months, the government agreed to increase the salaries of probationary lecturers and senior lecturers within a five-year time frame. Increases will be paid in arrears for the past three months.

The government decided to increase the salaries of academics by 18% from 1 October. FUTA had asked for a 20% increase but Higher Education Ministry Secretary Sunil Jayantha Navaratne said at a press conference that the government had increased higher education salaries four times since January 2012.

The government also said it would cancel circulars that affect university autonomy and agreed to include a gradual increase in autonomy in a cabinet proposal.

The cabinet paper would be submitted soon, said FUTA President Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri at a 9 October media briefing. This is expected to happen before the end of the year.

Increasing the education budget

The Sri Lankan government is planning to increase the funds allocated to education and higher education in next year's budget. Cabinet has approved the 2013 appropriation bill, according to reports.

FUTA said lecturers would compromise on their demand for 6% of GDP to go to education, instead asking for gradually increasing resources for education within a certain period.

The union said arrangements had been made to re-commence academic activities at all universities, and academics have pledged to support the evaluation of university entrance exam papers delayed by the strikes for more than two months.

Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, brother of the Sri Lankan president, and Finance Ministry Secretary Dr PB Jayasundera participated in the talks, but Higher Education Minister SB Dissanayake was notably absent, having clashed with the trade unions in some 20 rounds of discussions with them.

Last week Dissanayake accused university teachers of being part of a conspiracy aimed at “regime change”.