Business Times

Worrying developments and threat to academic autonomy in Sri Lanka universities

The Friday Forum, representing a group of concerned citizens, last week appealed to all academics in Sri Lanka’s university system to seriously reflect on what is happening within their institutions and to exercise the legitimate powers, rights, and responsibilities given to them under the Universities Act.
“Some university academics have spoken of an ‘academic spring’ and a resurgent commitment to academic autonomy and independence. We hope that this will attract the support of a wider constituency in the university community. Your engagement and interest is critical to prevent an irreversible decline in the public education system of this country. The future of university education and that of future generations of young people lies in your hands,” it said in an open letter addressed to vice chancellors of universities, academics and the minister of higher education, among others.

The letter signed by Jayantha Dhanapala, on behalf of the Forum, said the group was very concerned that the standing of the national state universities is being adversely affected by recent events.
Recent pronouncements, even in Parliament, about the method of choosing Vice Chancellors by the Head of State seem to run contrary to the Universities Act passed by Parliament itself, it said. The recent interference by a Vice Chancellor of a university in the choice of visiting staff by a Faculty has occurred, and a pre-arranged meeting with an invited speaker had to be cancelled apparently due to non-conformity with the procedure of obtaining the Vice Chancellor’s permission. In the matter of the award of honorary degrees the primacy of the Faculties and Senates could be eroded if political standing becomes a major criterion governing choice of recipient, the Forum noted.

“Politicization of the public service may well have spread to the universities. Matters in which university authorities like Faculties, Senates and Councils can and should exercise their legitimate decision-making responsibility have been taken over by the University Grants Commission (UGC). A very recent example of this is the instructions issued by the UGC to all universities that they should employ the same private state security company on campuses,” the letter said.

The Forum referred to attempts by the Higher Education officials in the bureaucracy to break the hold of the Inter University Students Federation on university students, and said: “ It is undeniable that student politics through the activities of unions has often resulted in indiscipline, intimidation and violence perpetrated on campus. However, to counter these negative features of campus life and student activism by developing politically linked youth movements within the universities is fraught with danger. This is amply demonstrated by the violence that has plagued campuses from the 1960s.”

It said there is a growing move to undermine tolerance for diversity and viewpoint difference - the very essence of academic freedoms in universities. The independent role of Faculty Boards, Senates and Councils seems to be increasingly replaced by decision-making on the part of individual senior administrators like Vice Chancellors and Deans. “It is a matter of regret that the apathy of the academic community which is heavily represented in all these university bodies has encouraged these erosions of their own academic freedom. Is this also another example of the growing authoritarianism and militarization in the country as a whole?”

It said the recent salary debates, in which very sadly the UGC and Vice Chancellors seem to have been in opposition to their own staff and their unions, actively undermining their legitimate claims, were most unfortunate. “It is surely the duty of the UGC, the Vice Chancellors and the Higher Education authorities to work together to create an environment which satisfies academics so that the highest quality of staff are attracted to and remain in the state universities.”

Taking all these developments into consideration, the Forum noted that dissatisfaction amongst youth which fostered the insurrections of 1971 and 1988/89 in the South, and the 30 year armed conflict in the North, could manifest itself again with disastrous consequences. It called for an exchange of views on these serious concerns with the academic community.

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