State of tension across campuses

Student activists and the government both refuse to budge on the issue of private universities. Chandani Kirinde reports

Tension in tertiary institutions – arising from recent police-student clashes, compounded by Higher Education Minister S. B. Dissanayaka’s hardline stance towards unruly students – is likely to intensify in the weeks ahead.

The present situation has not been helped by other contentious university-related issues, such the government decision to allow private foreign universities to operate in Sri Lanka; the lack of proper hostel and other basic facilities, including water supply (Sabaragamuwa campus) and laboratory facilities (Peradeniya campus). All these have fuelled protests, resulting in exams being postponed and faculties being temporarily closed.

Students stage a protest on the premises of the University Grants Commission headquarters in Ward Place, Colombo 7. Pic by M. P. Pushpakumar

Minister S. B. Dissanayaka claims that the Inter-University Students Federation (IUSF), which has the backing of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), is behind all the campus unrest. “The JVP’s only hope and strength lies with the universities,” Minister Dissanayaka told the Sunday Times. “They have taken advantage of slacking on the part of some vice-chancellors in the past. Up to now, the VCs have not had proper political backing, but I am there now – and I will act.”

Democratic National Alliance (DNA) MP Anura Dissanayaka, who is a senior JVP member, denied that the JVP was behind the student unrest, and condemned Minister S. B. Dissanayaka for his tough stand towards the students. “By threatening to lock up 1,000 students, he has stirred up the university authorities, who are acting in a high-handed manner,” MP Dissanayaka said. “He is unsuited for the post of Higher Education Minister. He spent time in jail and thinks everyone else should do the same.”

What is troubling is the sinister picture painted by University Grants Commission chairman, Professor Gamini Samaranayake.

Professor Gamini Samaranayake, UGC chairman. Pic: Nalin Maligaspe

According to Professor Samaranayake, the student unrest is an organised attempt to disrupt university education, and is not related to shortcomings in the university system. “The culture in the universities has changed radically since 1987/89,” he said. “Campuses have become very repressive. The Inter-University Students Federation wants power within and outside the universities. They want to monopolise student politics. They will not allow other groups to function.”

IUSF convener Udul Premaratna vehemently rejects the charge, insisting the student protests are neither politically motivated nor JVP-linked. “While the war was going on, the LTTE was blamed for everything. Now the war is over, and the JVP is being blamed for everything,” Mr. Premaratna said. “We may share similar views with the JVP on such issues as private universities. That is unavoidable. However, we work to no one’s agenda but our own.”

UGC chairman Professor Samaranayaka accuses the IUSF of using campuses to nurture a subversive underground movement. “Ragging has become a kind of screening process to get information about students and identify those they can influence and win over,” he said. “In the past, the student bodies were very open. Now they have become secretive.”

Professor Samaranayaka said students should be free to engage in politics, but they should not disrupt education. There are some 80,000 students in Sri Lanka universities. In the 2009/2010 academic year, the UGC selected 21,000 students from 47,000 applicants for university places. Between 8,000 and 10,000 students qualified for tertiary education but could not obtain a tertiary place; many have left the country to get an education overseas.

“Now, the brain drain is with students; earlier the brain drain was with the professionals,” Professor Samaranayaka said. “If we are to stop this trend, we will have to establish non-state universities.”
It is on this contentious issue that the Higher Education Minister S. B. Dissanayaka has locked horns with the students. The Minister is determined that the government will not renege on its decision to allow reputed international universities to set up in Sri Lanka. “This is a small problem as far as I am concerned,” the Minister said. “It will be resolved in the next two or three months. The students are intelligent and we can easily sort this matter out.”

Minister S. B. Dissanayaka recalled how the Sri Jayewardenepura campus was once a hotbed of student unrest. After the suspension of 60 students who were found to be involved in unlawful activities, the campus returned to normal. “The Prime Minister and I visited the campus recently, and the students gave us a warm welcome. There is discipline now on the campus.”

The government maintains that the entry of private universities would mean healthy competition for the state-run institutions. “Higher education around the world is experiencing globalisation, internationalisation and commercialisation. Sri Lanka too is feeling the impact of these global developments. We can no longer function in isolation,” Professor Samaranayaka said.

IUSF convenor Mr. Premaratna, on the other hand, says the government should invest in and expand the country’s existing tertiary institutions and increase the student intake, rather than make room for outside universities.

Some months back, the University Grants Commission issued a circular to all universities requesting that stern action be against those who break the law. The circular cited the Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act No. 20 of 1998. According to the UGC chairman, universities are autonomous bodies, and the burden is on the vice-chancellors, academic staff and administrators to maintain discipline and take disciplinary action.

Under the Act, it is a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment of up to two years to engage in acts of ragging, intimidation, hostage taking, wrongful restraint, forcible occupation and damage to property of an education institution. A student convicted of such offences faces expulsion; if university staff members are found to be involved, they too face dismissal.

Those who want reform in the country’s university system point out that university education has been evolving ever since University College, the country’s first higher education institution, was set up in 1921. From being largely an elitist institution, serving a privileged minority, the Sri Lanka university has grown into an institution that serves the masses.

Education experts say the country is passing through a transitional stage, and that the political and socio-economic changes taking place should also be reflected in the university system. The tertiary education sector should be open to expansion, and the state should end its monopoly in this sector, the experts say.

These experts add that it is ironic that the ruling political party that uses the term “privatisation” in its criticisms of its political opponents in the United National Party (UNP) should use the same term to justify its moves to change the higher education sector.

Whether the student movement is seizing the private university issue to take on the government for political reasons, or whether the authorities are using the student movement to crack down on a politically opposed group, is unclear at this point. What is clear is that the intransigence of both sides is not helping either our higher education or the country.

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