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Teachers' protest raises education stakes

Unions also join street protests amid calls for drastic rise in spending on education

Buddhist monks joined teachers and trade unionists in the rally Buddhist monks joined teachers and trade unionists in the rally
  • ucanews.com reporter, Colombo
  • Sri Lanka
  • August 24, 2012
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A stand-off between the government and Sri Lanka’s universities escalated yesterday when 2,000 teachers, religious leaders as well as people representing 40 trade unions held a rally in central Colombo.

One day after the government closed all universities following the breakdown of talks on pay and education spending, thousands of marchers waved placards criticizing state policy on universities.

Police closed some roads amid a heavy security presence around the rally.

Dambara Amila Thero, a Buddhist monk and vice president of the Federation of University Teachers Association, a trade union, said if the government didn’t commit to a substantial hike in spending on education, “we will organize a hunger strike.”

Thero said Sri Lanka’s spending on education was just 1.86 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of economic output, adding that surrounding countries Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh all allocate considerably more to schools and universities as a percentage of their own economic output.

Sri Lanka's university spending fell from 0.52 percent of GDP in 2005 to just 0.27 percent now, he added.

Teachers, many of whom have been on strike since July 4, have demanded Sri Lanka increase overall spending on education to 6 percent of GDP.

“We will not give up our struggle until our demands are met,” said Joseph Stalin, secretary of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union.

Teachers have refused to mark university entrance exam papers, leaving many students in limbo and the education system at a standstill.

Stalin said the government's decision to close universities was no solution to the problem.

Higher Education Ministry Secretary Sunil Jayantha Nayaratne said that the government had already committed to raising spending on schools and universities and to making changes to the education system.

“We want to get cabinet approval for this,” he said. “We are not going to privatize education in this country but we need private-sector involvement to create more opportunities for students in universities.

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