Foreign universities: Higher degree of thinking

The rumpus in the campus is hot news these days; though one might ask what's new insofar as Sri Lanka's Universities go.
It is a well-known fact that obtaining a degree from a local University would normally take one to three years longer than it ought to. That is because of continuing student un-rest and campus closures, often caused by the 'tyranny of the minority'.
The protests are sometimes justified, sometimes not, sometimes in-between. The authorities frown on them because they reflect poorly on their management, and Governments tend to dismiss them as hotheaded student tendencies and passing phases.

In Sri Lanka, student unrest has hardly snowballed into any mass movement, nor attracted mass support like, for instance, the French student movement in 1968 against the Charles de Gaulle regime, the anti-Vietnam protests in the United States, or closer home, the Tiananmen Square student-led protests in China or the case of Thailand when they deposed an authoritarian dictatorship. Even during the 1971 insurgency, some of the halls of residence in the country's then few campuses were hotbeds of rebellion, but it was not widespread even within the campuses.

The protests in local universities largely focus on the students' own issues and are very much part and parcel of student life, especially in a country where almost everything is politicised. The current unrest is reportedly the handiwork of the JVP, according to the Government. It accuses the JVP of manipulating students; but the real issue is that of the introduction of foreign Universities to the country.

Some years ago, there were similar protests when a private Medical College was begun. That was at a time when the country's doctors-to-people ratio had plummeted below internationally accepted levels, and many who qualified from the State Medical College went in search of greener pastures and never returned. There are some batches from the Medical College that don't have reunions because those remaining in the country number less than a dozen out of possibly 200. Many went abroad on scholarships and stayed away forever happily paying off the bond they had to sign.

There were those who would agitate by day and attend private classes during the night and weekends not only to upgrade their knowledge of English so as to pass qualifying exams abroad, but also have lessons in etiquette so they would know which wine to order when they lived and worked abroad.

The agitation then, restrained and restricted Sri Lankans who passed out of foreign Universities from practising at home, even in State hospitals, resulting in the Government having to temporarily 'import' doctors from Cuba to meet the shortage.
Today, several bright young Sri Lankans from the more affluent families are studying or have passed out of foreign Universities. It is not that they could not get entrance to local Universities, though given the high competition here, and the limited places on offer, some could not gain entry to higher education institutions. Some have obtained scholarships abroad. Not only is foreign exchange going out of the country in the long-term but it is hardly an investment for Sri Lanka as most of them don't want to return.

The benefits of the secondary school investment put in by the Sri Lankan State is being reaped at least to some extent by these foreign countries that usually provide the higher education facilities for these young persons who have no opportunities locally. These countries, while clamping down on immigrants have thrown their doors wide open to the bright students from foreign countries. This is the brain drain from the poor countries. The JVP has come out and said it does not agree with all that the students are agitating for, in what appears to be a rift with the students unions, but condemned the Government's heavy-hand in dealing with the undergrads. No doubt the JVP and the Opposition, having lost the recent elections, will look at University students as a means to an end - the destabilisation of the Government, and as part of their mass mobilisation machinery towards that end.

The Government needs to ensure the protests don't go too far in the wrong direction. The French Government recently had to deploy Police to flex their muscle when their streets were in flames over economic issues. One saw on TV and read in the newspapers about the strong-arm tactics employed, but eventually the Government waited till the protest fizzled out, at an enormous cost to the State.

Even countries like France find it difficult to absorb these costs of what eventually become exercises in futility. More so, when it comes to countries like Sri Lanka.

The protests in Universities here witnessed Buddhist monks, or students in saffron robes, thrust into the forefront by the organizers shouting slogans in intemperate language and getting tear gassed and arrested by the Police - so unbecoming a scene. That in itself is a different debate, but the senior monks, including the Maha Nayakas must intervene and see that the image of the Buddhist clergy is neither sullied nor abused by political parties or students themselves.

The issue itself - should this country invite foreign universities, is what needs to be discussed. Like it or not, increasing globalization is a reality. Those agitating against it must realize that the world is rapidly changing. Half of London, more or less, is owned by non-Londoners. The Chinese are buying properties in the US, and famous car manufacturers and hotels are changing hands and nationalities.

Britain recently increased its student tuition fees causing an uproar. This effectively means that students from poorer homes will lose the support of their local councils for their higher studies. Higher education in the West is expensive, even for their own youth. Undergrads have to take student-loans which they must pay back when they find employment. There is no free ride for them like in Sri Lanka; which could well be one reason why it is not appreciated here.

There is no need to be concerned about the influx of foreign Universities fearing it would be at the expense of the State Universities. Several progressive countries in Asia - Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and now India have foreign Universities and Sri Lankan students studying there. Most often State Universities have greater prestige than private ones. If one is to go by secondary schools in Sri Lanka, the bigger State schools are considered far more prestigious than the mushrooming international schools. .

Public consideration of the pros and cons of inviting foreign universities has unfortunately been limited to street protests. Would it be a means to stem the brain drain? Would it better equip more youth to gain the education they deserve? An intelligent rational debate involving educationists, sociologists and thinkers would serve the nation better on such a sensitive but significant way to the future.

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