University teachers join the fray as undergrads’ protests snowball

Academic staff to strike on Tuesday as Govt. under pressure puts on hold private university Bill
By Leon Berenger

The wave of student protests over the proposal to introduce private universities in the country has now spread even higher, with the academic staff lined up to strike on Tuesday, in support of the undergraduates, as the Government backed down, saying it had put the move on hold.

Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) spokesman Dr. Mahim Mendis said that the Government had no right to bring proposals, private universities or whatever, sans consultations with the relevant people involved in those subject areas.

Rajarata Medical Faculty students holding an Adhishtana pooja yesterday
Pix by Indika Handuwala and Athula Bandara

He added that, there was zero transparency by the Government when dealing with important matters concerning higher education in this country. “Higher Education is an important component in any country, but the Government does not want to see it that way, and therefore, a pittance of 1.9% was put aside from the State coffers towards this sector.

“The authorities decided to freeze the controversial Bill only after we spoke of trade union action. This has always been the case in previous issues as well. Therefore, their word cannot be trusted, and the upcoming strike on Tuesday is to send a strong message to those holding high office,” he said.He warned that, if the Government fails to address these issues without delay, there will be more trade union action in various forms

The Government, for its part, says that only a small section of the people are against this move, while the majority who are for it should speak up, or resort to some kind of action. However, Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake and others are set to meet with student representatives shortly, in a bid to defuse the crisis, a senior official said.

“We are in the process of planning a meeting with the student leaders and giving a hearing to their problems. Together, we must work out a solution, or else the entire education sector will be in disarray,” Higher Education Secretary Dr. Sunil Navaratne said.

He cautioned that, there were others who plan to ride on the student issue to further their personal agendas. “This should never be allowed to be the case. Therefore, we should work out a solution at the earliest,” he said.

Earlier in the week, university students throughout the country took turns to hit the streets in noisy protests, beginning from Colombo to the hill capital of Kandy, and later extending to the south in Matara, as well as to Anuradhapura and Ratnapura.

The end result of it all was the Sri Jayawardhanapura University being forced to put up shutters, the Medical Faculty at the Rajarata Campus being closed, nearly half a dozen students arrested and put behind bars, with at least some 40 undergraduates seeking medical treatment, following clashes with the police.

At the start, the Government took a tough stand, refusing to change its position, saying that the demonstrations were being fuelled by covert groups with an armed uprising in mind, and warned of a severe crackdown, if the protests continued.The students, for their part, scoffed at the accusation, saying that, the State, instead of addressing the crisis at hand, was talking about an armed revolution, and that, the protests were linked to the Tamil Diaspora, which only infuriated the students and aggravated the crisis.

“This claim by the Government, only sounds like a ‘school boy howler’,” said Inter- University Students’ Federation (IUSF) president Sanjeewa Bandara. He described the Government’s decision to put on hold the private universities issue, as a small victory for the students.

“However, this is not enough, the relevant authorities must do away with it altogether, and as they cannot be trusted to keep heir word, as past events clearly showed, we plan more protests beginning next week.” he added.

He said that, apart from the private university issue, there are other matters as well, such as the jailing and suspending of students, the closure of university facilities, the Advanced Level Exam results fiasco and late-night police visits to the homes of protestors.

“We will continue with the protests, until the Government addresses these matters at the very earliest. It is this high-handed action of the authorities that forced the students onto the streets, and now it is accusing us of having connections with the Tamil Diaspora. Perhaps, sections of the State are connected with the Tamil Diaspora,” he said.

He added that the Government was bankrupt in finding solutions to the festering crisis within the halls of higher education, and was, instead, behaving like a clown in a circus.

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