The Fundamental Threat to Sri Lankan University Education
By Prof. Shantha K. Hennayake - Department of Geography, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka
Sir Ivor Jennings, the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya, lucidly explained the goal of modern university education as follows.
The fundamental task is to produce men and women who are capable of fulfilling any function in the world that may fall to their lot, citizens of high intelligence, complete moral integrity and possessing energy, initiative, judgement, tact, and qualities of leadership”( Jennigs, 1948).
This statement provides a yardstick against which the modern university education can be measured. The purpose of this article is to examine the fundamental challenges the Sri Lanka universities face in realizing the above laudable goals. As a university academic serving for over 15 years at Sri Lankan Universities and 6 years in international universities, I had the opportunity to read and closely observe the inner workings of the Universities and the challenges they face both in Sri Lanka and outside.
As highlighted by many policy makers and academics, a long list of factors have contributed towards the decline of the Sri Lanka universities. Among them, the politicization of the universities, poor quality academics, lack of competition among the departments and the universities, opening up of universities with minimum facilities, in sufficient research grants and facilities and the brain drain among both faculty and students are most significant and warrant detailed examination.
However, these problems pale in comparison when one studies closely the anti-intellectual behavior of Sri Lankan university students led by the student union sympathetic to JVP, the subject matter of this article.
Sadly, the most notable feature is the destructive behavior of the Sri Lankan University students since the 1970s and especially since the late 1980s when the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) took control of the students’ unions using intimidation, violence and terror against the larger student body to subdue the students into their ideological and political control. JVP and the informal, if not illegal organization called Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) and the Socialist Student Unions turned the Universities into centers of anti-politics and recruiting ground for future JVP carders. During the last 30 years and especially the last 15 years, the JVP and its affiliated student unions thus begun to turn the above goal - producing the university students who are generally incapable of fulfilling any function in the world that may fall to their lot, citizens of poor intelligence, lacking moral integrity, and devoid of energy, initiative, judgement, tact and qualities of leadership. Exploring the answers to the question that how did the JVP and its affiliated student unions created this unfortunate transformation is the theme of this article. The empirical basis for this article is the Faculty of Arts at the University of Peradeniya but the experience in other Faculties at Peradeniya and in other Universities have many parallels and thus the issues raised here is more systemic covering the entire university sector.
The main strategies through which the student union and its leaders undermine the intellectual authority of the university and establish what is essentially an anti-intellectual and anti-democratic often violent and ideologically suppressed student culture are ragging, opposing democracy in student politics, deliberate creation of chaotic events, undermining the national and university rules and regulations . Let me elaborate on these subversive and perilous tactics of the student unions and leaders by highlighting not only the practices but warning the readers of the ruinous repercussions they inflict upon of the University education in this country.
Before I proceed, I need to tell the readership of the profile of the contemporary University student. As we all know only a few students who qualify the national level examination have the opportunity, more correctly the priviledge to enter the University. These privileged few are actually the cream of the nation with all the potential to take the country into new heights in every sphere of activity and to become men and women as Sir Jennings hoped, provided they are not hijacked by student union extremism, lunacy and improvidence. What happens to the genius of these students once they come to the University at the hands of deleterious student leaders?
The University students today are no longer children under the age of 18, but matured men and women whose average age is about 22 years when they enter the University. They are adults. The University students of today is men and women who is entrusted with the sacred responsibility of democratic right to vote and engage in responsible politics and to become a beacon of light and an example to the larger nation in democratic politics. But what happens to these men and women once they come to the University at the hands of pernicious and harmful student leaders?
The University students today come from come from ordinary civilized families of this nation. These students are the best in their schools not only in academic performance but also in their ethical and civic behavior as good, decent and law-abiding children. But what happen to these adorable students once they come to the University at the hand of indecorous, evil-minded and immoral JVP student leaders?
The vast majority of them come from the poor and lower middle class backgrounds. They are the hope of their families to bring economic prosperity and social prestige. But what happen to these students with all the potential to lead this nation in the fiercely competitive global economy at the hands of backward and hypocritical student leaders who continue to see the world through the failed extremist socialist dogma which preaches that eliminating the rich is the only means of eradicating poverty by hating affluence, money, profit, private capital, economic competition, globalization and innovation!
The answer to these questions are all known to this nation but what is not known is how do the student unions and leaders have been able to make this transformation inside our Universities which are funded by the taxes paid by the ordinary citizens of this country. The rest of the article is an elaboration of this dangerous process.
Ragging mobilized by the student leaders with their overt and covert blessings and support from the JVP student unions in the University is no longer poking fun at the new students or trying to create a leveled social field among the students who come from diverse economic, social and cultural backgrounds as pontificated by the student union leaders when they address the new students and parents on the opening day of the University. The era of ragging as a social equalizer and an initiation into the University culture is long gone. Ragging has today become a political and a terror weapon used primarily to ensure the continuing domination of JVP political power within the Universities.
Gone are the days, when the ragging was a phenomenon confined to the bounds of the University. Today, ugly hand of ragging has spread to the very homes of the students and it starts immediately after they receive the selection letter from the UGC. The network of present and former students, secretly approach the selected students and pressurize them to bring a defined set of attire (ankle high black skirts for girls and black pants without belts for the boys, rubber slippers, and a backpack). The fear of the unknown mixed with the fear of the generally known dangers of ragging at the University push the students and sadly their parents to comply with these dictates.
Back at the University the student union demands an active role in the official process of welcoming the new students primarily to gain legitimacy among the new students and their parents who attend the welcoming ceremony. Although it is not required, neither necessary, the authorities eventually budge into their demands which include an official speaking slot at the welcoming ceremony which is addressed by the Vice-Chancellor, the Dean and other senior officials and academics, and separate time slots for union organized activities during the official initiation period which may run into several days.
During this time, the student union and its leaders congregate to plan for ragging and they also invite hardcore supporters several days, sometime weeks before the beginning of the term. Together they organize a series of parallel activities to be carried out often before and after the official working times on weekends and sometimes during official working times sabotaging the activities organized by the University. These student leaders and supporters spend days putting up colourful posters with beautiful words of welcome, traditional pandals, and flags and all kinds of cutouts depicting the fighting spirit of ‘exploited and suppressed students”. It is common during this period to see these university students who supposed to be our future, running up and down the road carrying ‘alwangus’ ‘unabamboos’ and carrying “papa baaldis” and putting up posters, climbing trees very similar to political “henchaiyyas” (stooges) during election campaigns. The University library is empty!
On the very first day, when the students come with their parents, the student union leaders and their group of supporters who later become the ‘rag leaders’ pretend to work hard to welcome them and help them to get about although neither their presence nor their help is needed or required as the University authorities have made all arrangements. At the opening ceremony, in the company of the like of Vice-Chancellor and Dean, the student union president, who is more often than not intellectually mediocre student, addresses the gathering using the typical socialist discourse that includes – the political rights of students, historical sacrifices made by the students leaders for the student movement, the problems the university students are facing, and the need to be united to fight for their rights and that the student union is the “sole representative” of the students. The address is responded with a planned thundering applause. With this address the union achieves its legitimacy among the students and even the parents who tend to believe that the union is larger than life and even the University.
End of the first day is also the end of the wonderful stay at the University for the fresh students who come to University with the potential and hope to climb the intellectual ladder and to win the world. That very night, the student union becomes a busybody executing its sadistic ragging displaying their true hypocritical nature. They go to all the residential halls and threaten the students to go to specified places within the University by 7.00 am for “teaching sessions” a pseudonym for “ragging sessions”. The students in their hundreds meekly follow these orders clad in the union-defined uniform of ankle long black skirts, hair breaded, slippers for girls, and black pants without belts, short sleeve shirts and slippers for boys. They are forced to march in formation of two led by the student leaders to these places which have come to become “exclusive homelands” of the student unions where even the writ of the University rules and by laws do not apply. In some of these places, for example, the Student Union Office - the safe heavens of the union leaders and those who student who were punished and suspended from the University for various offences- the union leaders and rag leaders, often the same group, stay day and night illegally. It is certainly a very sad scene when the intellectual cream of the nation clad in demeaning attire are led along the road like a heard of buffaloes. The student leaders, just as buffalo herders push and force these students to run if they are slow or late.
Once they are congregated the real ideological indoctrination, terror, mental and physical harassment starts. For about an hour the first years undergo this intimidating exercise of being initiated into the so called University student subculture as defined by the union leaders who are essentially anti-intellectual mediocre bunch. Let me highlight a few of the lessons that are consistently emphasized directly and indirectly by the student leaders to the first years who believe literally what is told to them and act on them from this day onward.
1. The student - teacher relationship is portrayed in terms of a class relationship in which students become the oppressed and the teachers the oppressors. Thus, students are told not to develop friendly relations with the teachers who are essentially portrayed as opponents.
2. The University and University life is projected as a misery, full of hardship and difficulties.
3. Students should not meet the lecturers in their offices outside the lectures as it will lead to special relationships with the teachers and that undermines the comradeship of students.
4. Male teachers are generally inclined to sexually abuse female students and thus under no circumstances a female student should visit the office of a male lecturer alone. Hence the practice of two girls visits.
5. Students should not speak in English as it’s the "para bhasawa". (meaning not only a foreign but also oppressive). Generally the union leaders are English illiterate English.
6. Students should not ask questions in the classes. The stated reason is that it distracts the lecturer but the real reasons is that it could lead to some students being noticed for their intellect and this "Kepi peneema" undermines the comradeship of students.
7. The students’ primary responsibility is for the student movement and to protect the rights and duties of students as defined by the student union. Some of the rights and duties of students expressly conveyed to the first years are (a) they should support the existing student council and not challenge the student leaders, (b) they should never oppose ragging (c) they should never organize alternative student organizations, (d) they financially support the activities of and recommended by the student union including protests, picketing, collecting money. Missing lectures to support the student movement is not a problem but it is demanded.
8. Anyone who opposes the dictates of the students union and its leaders at any time will be dealt appropriately meaning physical assault.
9. Students should learn to defy and violate the rules of the University. They should not carry the University ID and if they do it should not be produced to the authorities. If asked by the authorities, they should either keep silence - dead silence, and if they have to speak, they should inform that they are here voluntarily.
10. Student are given nick names (often very demeaning and cannot be used in public) and only these nicknames can be used in communications. These aliases are used primarily as a means of preventing the University authorities identifying the students who are involved in ragging and other unlawful activities.
11. Students need not neither respect nor cooperate with the University authorities.
12. Students should loose fear and shame (lajja and baya) to speak against and defy the authorities and even to engage in unethical behavior in a civilized democratic society. The students are forced to write absolute filth in their own files and books and loudly utter them in public referring to their own bodies, their private parts, parents, and teachers and utter them in front of their fellow students (none of it can be written here as it will break the laws against obscenity).
13. They should be nationalists valuing the local. This most immature ideological call for parochialism and rejection globalization clearly reflects the bankrupt communism.
14. All political leaders of the nation, except those in JVP are essentially portrayed as anti-student.
The network of student leaders and their supporters station "student spies" in strategic places for intelligence i.e. to inform whether the University authorities are approaching. If University authorities approach, the union leaders and their supporters transform into a calm, and friendly gathering superficially but the bodily expressions of the victimized first year students reveal a different story. The union led raggers who were noted by the authorities sneak out as the authorities arrive at the venue. The union leaders, stay behind, argue with the authorities and justify the "friendly gathering and acquaintance" taking place!
These sessions are repeated in the morning and evening daily for almost six to seven weeks which constitute about half the 15 weeks of the first academic semester or 5.8% of the entire duration of stay in the University for a student following a four year special degree course. The intensity of these sessions not only creates physical fatigue but also mental exhaustion often leading to a few students collapsing and having to admit to the University Health Center. These are the busiest times for the University Health Center treating students for injuries, broken bones and mental trauma. While a few students has to be admitted to government hospitals for further treatments, some students leave the University for ever not being able to cope up with the agony of the welcome given by the student union and their leaders. The intimidation and terror tactics of the student union is immediately effective. While all these heinous crimes are being committed and witnessed by everyone, none of the victims ever complain against the raggers for fear of reprisal. Even when they complain as a first reaction, they often withdraw their complaints subsequently because of the continuing threat and intimidation. Occasionally a few students get caught in the act of ragging and are punished. Then the very student union organize protests, rallies, and boycotting of lectures with the support of the first year students themselves to get the punishment revoked using the same arguments they made in the "sessions" that the University administrators are anti-student and punishment imposed are unjust and cruel!
In the evenings at the residential halls a more violent and ugly form of ragging characterized by intimidation and physical violence is inflicted upon those who are suspected of being a challenge to the union. The victims of this violence too end up in the University Health Center but they too refrain from making any formal complaint for the fear of further violent reprisal.
Further, the student union use the ragging season to mobilize the first years to participate in various agitations and protests organized by the JVP’s IUFSU mostly in Colombo. There is a close temporal correlation between the ragging season and the mass demonstrations by University students. Under pressure, intimidation and threat, the first year students are made to face the frontal assaults in these demonstrations.
The end product of these ragging sessions is an irreversible and irreparable damage to the intellectual mind of the new student and the intellectual environment of the University. These students cannot come out of this anti-intellectual brain wash and mental depression and anger and hopelessness even after ragging is over. As a result vast majority of them become disinterested soles merely spending their time at the University. The union has won the day. Within less than seven weeks they have transformed a group of young men and women who had the potential to turn the world into stooges who could care less about the world, and worse, about themselves. The student union will survive yet another year triumphantly as the sole representative of the students. Thus every year, the University looses completely and irrevocably and failed to produce the graduate profiled by Sir Ivor Jennings. One graduate on the last day of her university summarized in one word when asked what she thought about her four years at the University; aparade (in vain or it is a waste).
Opposing Democracy in Student Politics.
One of the main strategies of the student union to protect and perpetuate their hold among the student body is to eliminate any opposition at the student council elections if they are allowed to be held. As the highest seat of learning and being populated by supposedly the most educated group of citizens of the country, the University politics should be an example on good practice of democracy to the nation. Democracy requires and thrives on agreeing to disagree on the one hand and, accepting the decisions of the majority on the other, however imperfect the representative democratic system is. Democracy has invented the election as the means of electing the representatives to govern the society. The election provides the opportunity for the society to put forward alternative views, strategies, and ideologies and to convince the larger masses of their merits. It is up to the masses to elect who they want. For this to happen, elections should be held regularly conducted within a peaceful environment. The only power that should be used in an election is the power of persuasion.
Now, what happens at the student elections at the Universities? The JVP student union and its leaders have already decided that only their union their union should prevail as the "sole representatives" of the students. They do not hesitate to take every measure deemed fit including violence and terror to achieve this goal. Thus from day one, they use intimidation and terror to prevent any other group of students from organizing themselves as a potential contestant for the student union elections. They have successfully prevented any other group of students from even handing over the nominations for the student elections. Their terror tactics have become so successful that in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Peradeniya, the union thus has come to power uncontested over a decade now. Thus, the union terror and intimidation has denied the university students, the most basic democratic right of voting and participating in electing representatives of their choice. The only choice given to the students by the union is either elect them or face consequences.
This reminiscent of the elections under the Communist led Soviet Union and the LTTE controlled areas where the winner of the elections has been pre- decided. No citizen tries to defy them for fear of extreme repercussions. The only two differences between the LTTE terrorists in Kilinochchi and the JVP affiliated unions in the University is that former has declared gun power and the latter is enjoying its supremacy curtsey of the University which is supported by innocent Sri Lankan tax payers.
Even during inter-election period the union maintains its iron fist over students’ politics in a subtle and effective manner by continuous use of intimidation and infiltration into the intellectual environment of the University. Gone are the days when there were genuine discipline based societies whose objective was to promote the discipline and to broad base the students’ knowledge by exposing them to non-lecture room activities. Student leaders have ensured office bearers of these discipline based unions will only be JVP sympathizers. Thus these discipline based societies are also playing to the tune of the student union and their activities just like national level JVP events are dominated by form and appearance - lot of rhetoric and appearance i.e. decorations, colours, banners, flags, posters, display hardly any substance or depth. The student union has extended its power over the social and intellectual life of students to the extent, no social (e.g. musical or drama) or academic (e.g. special lectures) event can be organized without the prior approval and the consent of the student union. The student union try to sabotage events that do not have their approval first by clandestinely removing all notices advertising the event, and preventing students from attending those events. The JVP student union goes to the length of even boycotting events organized by the university if it challenges their ideology. I can vividly remember how the union prevented a single first year student from attending a presentation to be given by a World Bank representative.
Student leaders and supporters have also infiltrated into the residential hall societies and every other conceivable student society and organization in the University, bar the English society which they find very intimidating simply because these leaders are incompetent in English, and they feel as outcasts in a socially more informed, globalized and sophisticated environment – which in fact should be the natural environment of a modern University. The student union is dead sacred of a modern, socially sophisticated, English educated, affluent, critical and intellectually oriented student body as it will undermine their legitimacy and make them irrelevant.
Deliberate creation of chaotic events
Another subtle strategy practiced by the student union and its leaders to achieve its dominance is the deliberate creation of chaos in the University. As the country knows well by now, creating chaos and thriving on commotions thus created both in the Universities and the country at large has been the hallmark of JVP politics since 1971. JVP ideology is fundamentally conflict driven and reactive. So is the JVP student politics in the University.
A peaceful and intellectually challenging and thriving environment is a fundamental anathema for the student union and its supporters as it can only survive under crisis and intellectually muted environment. Peaceful and intellectual environment according to the student union and its leaders is submission to authorities who are either capitalists, the imperialists, western stooges, conspirators against the student movements, and even traitors of the students. For the student union and its leaders who are mostly anti-intellectual in ideology the University is non-productive, socially irrelevant and waste of time. For the student union leaders who feels more at home in protests, agitations and demonstration, the vibrant and tranquil intellectual environment of the University is a mismatch. One of the most recent posters at the University summarized the JVP perception of knowledge.
The English translation of the last line of a verse written in elephant size letters on a large notice board which has become the sole property of the student union reads like "what is the use of reading books"! This summarizes the student union’s vision of higher education in modern world which according to everyone else but JVP is moving towards a "Knowledge society", and not a communist society that Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Mao Tse Tung dreamt several decades ago.
Chaos and crisis provide them with opportunities to protest, agitate, demonstrate, boycott classes, desecrate the University premises, take teachers and University authorities as prisoners, assault students opposing them, herd the supporters to protest marches in Colombo against the national authorities. The chaos and crisis create opportunities for the student union to become rebels who could take on the University authorities, represent the "suppressed university students", speak on behalf of the student rights and against the "authoritative dictatorial rule" of the university authorities and champion the cause of the student movement of the country in the eyes of the larger student body. Simply continuing chaos and crisis is needed for the union’s survival legitimacy.
Let me be specific and tell you how the student union create, manipulates and win through the chaos. Let me take the well publicized crisis that was created by the student union over the naming of the newest hall of residence at Peradeniya as the Sir Ivor Jennings Hall. No one could really make a case against naming a student residential hall after Sir Ivor Jennings who is the founder of the University of Peradeniya, and its first Vice-Chancellor. Partly due to ignorance and foolishness and partly due to the need to create a crisis situation during a period of relative calm at the University, the union and its leaders decided to unceremoniously and disgracefully pull down the name plaque of Sir Ivor Jennings and replace it with a mediocre Tamil JVP student leader whose name was not known outside the student union. With this illegal, unruly mob activity, the union and its supporters have now created a crisis. Having created the crisis, the union has won the round one against the University. The union knew well in advance, this incident will lead to disciplinary actions by the University and some of the student leaders will be punished. (Incidentally it was a well know tactic by the student unions to create situations where some students will be punished and then to demand those punishment be removed. In fact most of the students who are hailed heroes of the student movement were in fact either innocent by standers who got caught in the crisis or those who were guilty of violating the University rules and regulations not to mention the law of the land). Once, the punishments were meted out through the university disciplinary system, now the union organized a series of protests, marches, agitations, demonstrations, token strikes, fasting and the union defined style of satyagrahas, arguing that the students were unreasonably punished by inefficient, biased, and authoritative rulers. By organizing these events and mustering the students to take part in these various forms of destructive activities, the union has won the round two against the University. The union is now silent over the actual offences committed by the student leaders, no matter how grave, destructive and disruptive they are, but continue to pressurize, threat and intimidate the university authorities to either drop or reduce the charges and punishments.
Often due to external and internal pressure to keep the Universities functioning smoothly, the authorities are compelled to soften the punishments sometimes to the extent of making meaningless. The student union now celebrates this as one their hard fought victories on behalf of the students’ movement against the “unjust and authoritative” university authorities. With this the union has won round three against the University authorities and thus the union also won the game. They come out as the victorious leaders of the student movement who are committed to fight for the student rights against the unreasonable rulers. The chaos and the crisis has now elevated the student union to a new level with renewed legitimacy to represent the students and gained new strength to fight against the "unjust" university authorities. This way every chaos and crisis the student union masterminds ensures the desired result for the union. Unfortunately, every such act undermines the authority of the university on the one hand and objective of university education on the other and pull the students down to the deepest abyss of intellectual life. At the end of this cycle of crises, the name plaque of Sir Ivor Jennigs was re-erected but the student union had already made the best use of the crisis for its own political advantage. The issue was never about taking down the name plaque of Sir Ivor Jennings. It was all about creating a crisis and Sir Ivor Jennings name plaque happened to be conveniently located for the calculating student union looking for a crisis.
What the student union and its leaders want is not students who spend most of their time in the library or the laboratory but the students who dig holes on the ground to put up flag posts, climb trees to hang banners, apply paste on wall and boards to put up posters, participate in protest marches for and on behalf of the student unions, signing and shouting slogans against the University authorities and national level non-JVP politicians. What the student union want is not the peace and tranquility of an intellectual environment where students excel in critical thinking and question the dogma, but a place of conflict, disharmony, chaos and fear where the students simply allow the union to have its own agenda even though it is against their own larger interests. What the student union want is not an informed student body capable of challenging the student union both on logic and argument as well as facts and reality. The student union and leaders are shrewdly aware that their own brand of idealistic and hollow political philosophy of communism cannot stand up to modern day practical or theoretical challenge. The hypocrisy of the student union leaders who sip Coca Cola under the portrait of Lenin in the student canteen is amply proven by their own behavior!. What the student union leaders want is for the entire university community, students, and teachers, administrators to accept and submit to their hegemony. Sadly the student union has been winning at the same rate at which the quality of our universities was losing. The two is negatively correlated.
Undermining the national and university rules and regulations
It is almost unimaginable but true is that student union and leaders want to transform the students into criminals and law breakers. In fact the University at the hands of the student union has become an anti-social mill which brings in decent, intelligent, law abiding young men and women and puts out paper qualified socially misfit and undesirable group of gangs willing to break laws indiscriminately. The exact opposite of what Sir Ivor Jennings dreamt of. The student union and its leaders are primarily responsible for this pathetic and heinous transformation.
The student union practices a kind of politics that fundamentally hates and despises peace, calm, democracy and the rule of law. The student union ideology borne in the Marxist philosophy of conflict preaches that the existing University structure is not capable of looking after the welfare of students and thus union has to be on guard to ensure their rights and welfare are taken care of by the authorities. Sadly, the knowledge of Marxism among today’s student leaders is extremely shallow and limited to rhetorically popular political statements. The rules, regulations and by laws of the University are imposed on students, according to the student union, essentially to undermine and curtail the students rights and freedoms. Thus, the student union and its leaders have devised elaborate and intricate programs to undermine university rules and regulations as well as law of the land.
The fundamental base for the disrespect for law starts with the premise that national law enforcement agencies have no role to play inside the University premises. This tradition may have started in the past because the university culture thrives through argument and disagreement and challenging the establishment and the intellectuals at the University ( both students and Faculty) can engage in these without harming the other. Thus, there is really no need for policing the highly disciplined good natured and intellectually higher beings at the University. The student union and its leader of modern day Sri Lankan Universities have reinterpreted this freedom at the University to mean an entirely a different thing. What is happening today is just as LTTE believe that Sri Lankan laws do not apply in Kilinochchi and the words of the leader becomes the law, the student union and its leaders also tend to believe that normal law of the country does not apply within the University premises and their words become the law. The union is always right and the University authorities are always wrong. The union never breaks the law; they only protect the rights of the students. They never defy the authority; they just rise against the injustice. Using these kind of jargon, the Union and its leaders have turned out to become a bunch of lawless hooligans disrupting the decorum and the smooth functioning of the University. By pushing the other students also to defy the authorities and break the laws of the University, the union has become legally recognized body that engage in illegal and criminal activities.
The criminality of the union and its leaders are most prominent during ragging. The very act of ragging is a criminal offence in this country. A good part of ragging is also training the new comers to defy the authorities and break the rule, regulations and by-laws of the University. But this offence is committed with absolute impunity and openness I am absolutely surprised not at the event but at the university and national authorities for keeping a blind eye day in day out during the ragging seasons lasting almost five to seven weeks.
The student union and leaders have turned the University into a unique place which has no parallel elsewhere. Only in the University it is possible to publicly humiliate and disgrace young women and get away with it. Only in the University, it is possible to physically assault student in residential halls, lecture rooms, student centers and get away with it. Only in the University it is possible to traumatized the new comers and make some students permanently disable to the extent that they leave the University permanently and get away with it. Only in the University it is possible to desecrate and destroy university properties and get away with it. Only in the University it is possible to hold the authorities prisoners in their offices for hours and days and get away with it. Only in the University it is possible for students to collect money and spend it without any authorization and auditing. Only in the University it is possible for the students to the break law and blame the University for imposing punishment.
Recently the student union and leaders have begun to step way out of their defined roles and responsibilities and pressurize the University to select students for special degree program even with law marks. The union and leaders have also pressurized and intimidated the lecturers not to fail students even if they do not qualify to pass. The student union and leaders demand that special examinations are held for students who could not sit for examinations. They have demanded that "repeats" and even "repeats" examinations be held for students who fail the examinations. Often these repeaters and repeaters are students who spend most of their time doing politicking for the student union. The student union’s philosophy of fighting for students rights is fighting for the mediocrity. During my entire 24 year university career I am yet to see a single attempt, let alone a poster demanding higher intellectualism from the university in general and the student in particular.
The student union and leaders through all these activities have become the dominant and most destructive force undermining the University education. They are primarily responsible for deteriorating quality of our university education and making it irrelevant to the modern society. Sadly a few disoriented and misguided union leaders have been able to hold the entire University education in ransom purely for political gains. This certainly is unacceptable and the authorities from the President of this nation through the Minister of Higher Education, through the UGC Chairman and Vice-Chancellors to the Faculty must act fast to arrest this dangerous trend once an for all and free our universities from the grip of the student union and student leaders.
Even if the remedial decision may be politically unpopular and personally costly, those who are in different decision making levels can no longer afford to ignore this dangerous trend. If we rescue the University from the clutches of the student union now, we may still have some hope that we could reverse the trend. If the decision makers, for what ever reason, keep ignoring this trend in our Universities and fail to take remedial action, this country may not have any thing worthwhile called “University education” in the future.
One fact that has to be brought to the notice of the country is the absolute hypocrisy of the student union leaders. While in the University, they try to project themselves as great sacrificing for the “cause of the student movement at great personal cost”. But, once they leave the University they also leave behind their revolutionary student movement and do not hesitate to jump at the first opportunity to embrace imperialism and benefit from capitalism. The answers to the simple question “Where have all student union leaders gone?” will prove their hypocrisy beyond anybody’s doubt. The saddest story is that they have already done the damage to the University education through their anti-intellectual behavior while they were student union leaders.
Some remedial measures.
Paying for Higher Education:
One of the central problems of our University education is giving it free to the recipient and never expecting anything in return. Even in India and Bangladesh – our neighbours University education is not free. Here is Sri Lanka, not only university education is free, but the students are paid for their food and lodging during their stay at the University. This has created and nurtured a mentality that University education is a right and that the state is obligated to provide it for them. The student union and its leaders are championing this issue. There is no argument against the egalitarian principle that the state must provide general education to all children so as to create a literate citizenry, the story on higher education primarily relate to intellect and excellence (quality and relevance). The universities should provide the intellectually challenging environment for excellence. Undermining this by the student union on the basis of politically popular egalitarian argument is detrimental to university education in this country.
However, the free education, free food and lodging during the stay and an almost guaranteed degree at the end of the stay, irrespective of their performance (how many university students fail to get a degree?) has made many a students not to take their studies seriously. Learning is a low priority activity among University students. The free time and money is used for JVP student political activities including, collecting money from the street, poster making and pasting, attending protests and demonstrations, defying authorities, breaking laws and may be some studies as well. This must be changed . The first option is to tie the Mahapola and other Bursaries to the students’ performance. If the students fails to obtain a higher level of GPA (here the minimum should be at least 3.3) they should be disqualified from getting Mahapola for the next semester. This will force the students away from JVP political activities back into the studies if they want to continue their University education.
The second option is to completely abolish Mahapola and initiate a loan scheme for students underwritten by the government and to require them to pay back once they secure employment. The student in general and student union still living in the socialist dogma in particular must be to understand that there is no free lunch. Although they may receive the Mahapola free, the society is paying for it. Why should the entire society pay for student politics which actually undermine the University education? Once the students realize that they are spending borrowed money and that they have to pay it back later, they will hesitate to waste their time at the University. The Mahapola funds can actually be used to improve the physical and human resources of the University.
Normal Law within the University
University should not be a safe heaven for any form of terrorism - armed or unarmed. The behavior of student union leaders and supporters approximate unarmed terrorism. This behavior can be curtailed only if normal law of the country is made effectively operational within the University. It has proven beyond all doubt that the existing security management systems in the Universities are totally incapable of restoring the law and order even under the by-laws of the University let alone the national laws. This is not to suggest that police stations should be opened up in all Universities. Far from it. But the national law enforcement agencies should have the same access to the University which they have elsewhere in the country. The student union and its leaders should not be allowed to interpret the sacred tradition of intellectual freedom as freedom to disobey and disregard the law. The special provision of having to obtain prior permission from the University authorities to enter into the University premises has actually favoured and encouraged the unlawful, and criminal activities of the students union and its leaders. Only the student union and leaders oppose police coming into the universities and investigating the offences! Should one be surprised why?
Disciplined University Students
It is sad that four year of University education produce a graduate who is perceived by the larger Sri Lankan society in negative terms. The problem start even before they come to the University. It is a well known public secret that JVP approaches the potential University students immediately after they receive the letters of selection from UGC initiating the process of indoctrination the hallmark of which is insubordination, anti-social and anti-intellectualism.
The most effective yet destructive indoctrination begins during ragging which last anywhere between 5 to 7 weeks. As stated earlier, ragging is carried out by the sympathizers and core supporters of the student union. By the end of the ragging season, the union and its leaders have been able to produce socially irresponsible and intellectually bankrupt (anti-social, anti-intellectual, anti-capital, anti-profit, anti-rich, anti-democratic, anti-authority, anti-discipline and anti-law and order) bunch of students. This is too dangerous to ignore and to be complacent about, especially because the country has to depend on them to fill the responsible positions in the future. The last thing this country can afford is to have a bunch of undisciplined bureaucrats leading all the state institutions in the country.
In this context, the government itself thus should initiate an orientation program to the potential university students from the beginning. This can be achieved by organizing a national level disciplinary program for the selected university students. As we have experienced, even with the best of the system in place, it still takes close to one year for a student to come to the University from the date of sitting for the qualifying examination. For most students this one year is merely a waiting time without engaging in any meaningful or productive activity.
What is suggested here is to have national orientation program implemented at district level. The main theme to be covered by this orientation program should are patriotism, discipline and civic responsibility and good citizenship. This program should consist of series of lectures followed by a physical training program and involvement of various community development activities. The whole program should be coordinated by the Sri Lanka Army with strict discipline. The objective of the program is the inculcation of patriotism, responsible behavior and discipline among the students selected for the Universities. This will also contribute positively towards nation building among all ethnic groups in the country. The government should bare the cost of this program held on weekends at selected centers in every District. This will not only undermine and nullify the student unions’ sinister move to brainwash the newly selected students into socially irresponsible and unpatriotic gang . The program, if successfully implemented will also produce patriotic, civic minded and disciplined University students whom Sir Ivor Jennings dreamt several decades ago.
What this nation in general and the national leaders in particular need to realize is that the Sri Lankan Universities no longer produces the graduates that Sir Ivor Jennings hoped for. Many eminent academics and public intellectuals have written extensively about the general decline of the Sri Lankan University education. While many stakeholders within and without the University system are responsible for this pathetic state, the primary responsibility for this is the deterioration the intellectual environment within our Universities created by none other than the JVP student politics. For the student union and its leaders the intellectualism is an anathema. They still live within the dogmatic ideology of simplistic and crude Marxism. The latest poster put out by the student union in Peradeniya summarized this unrefined and almost stupid world view. It downgrades university education sarcastically by arguing that there is no use of reading books when there are problems in the country of course as defined by the student union.
All past efforts by the University to reestablish intellectual environment within the University by instilling sense and responsibility into the student union and leaders have failed consistently and decisively. In fact, the heinous nature of the student unions and leaders to undermine the intellectual environment in the University seems to be on the slow but steady rise. Over the years, the student union and leaders have been adopting similar tactics of terror and intimidation as used by the LTTE to destroy democratic oppositions, silence critiques, undermine authority, defy law and order, inculcate hatred against others especially who are better off, ensure unconditional loyalty, prevent defection and cooperation with the authorities and most of all maintenance ignorance by preventing exposure to the modern global knowledge society.
The failure of the universities to reestablish the necessary intellectual environment for the knowledge-loving, academic minded serious students, because of the destructive and idiotic behavior of handful student leaders and their supporters should not be tolerated by any responsible society, especially because the Universities are maintained by the taxes of the ordinary people of this country who expect our Universities to excel in the modern world. Thus, the government which tax the people and then decide how the spend that money should not be wasting billions of rupees to promote anti-intellectualism perpetuated by destructive student union and leaders. The Sri Lankan University education has been a victim of the anti-intellectualism, terror and intimidation of the student union far too long. They should not be allowed to find refuge in the freedom and sanctity of the University environment granted for the sake of intellectual development.
The government and policy makers should go beyond petty and expedient political games that require appeasing the student unions and the leaders irrespective of their anti-intellectual and destructive behaviour. Instead, the responsible government leaders should go beyond offering rhetorical and ineffective challenges to the student union and leaders and should muster enough courage to bring an end to the student union menace that has been the bane of the Sri Lanka universities. The student union must be told politely and yet in no uncertain terms, three things; first they should practice and allow democracy in University student politics, second they should desist from all forms of ragging and third they should not disrupt in any way the intellectual environment of the University. For the sake of the future of Sri Lanka university education and, by virtue of the fact that University student may go to occupy the higher positions in the bureaucratic structure of this nation, the Government of Sri Lanka need to reclaim the Universities in the fullest sense of the word. Only very little time is left.
- Asian Tribune -