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28th February 1999

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Students cry foul over Mahapola cut

By Chamintha Thilakarathna

University students are on the streets again. No, it's not the devolution proposals or the anti-ragging bill that has caught their attention this time. It's the proposed deduction of forty rupees a day from Mahapola scholarship recipients who boycott lectures in protest over any issue.

Eighteen years after the introduction of the Mahapola Scholarship scheme by the late Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali, education authorities have decided to put pressure on recipients who, they feel, have been taking the scheme for granted.

"More than ninety percent of the students who receive Mahapola scholarship depend on every cent that they receive from the grant and the daily cut could mean that students may not have a sufficient income to manage their expenses during their university career," said Dammika Madurapperuma, Spokesman for the Inter University Students Federation.

According to officials, recipients of all financial assistance: bursary and scholarship will be affected by this circular. They say that this would apply only to students who boycott lectures during their period in university.

But it has mostly affected Mahapola scholarship recipients who include the majority of students receiving financial assistance.

Why this has become such a great issue to the students is a question that needs to be asked. The students say it is unfair for authorities to cut Rs.40 per student per day of absence from classes, whether it be because of a strike or for any other reason. "The Rs.40 could gradually increase and one day the authorities would decide to scrap the Mahapola Scholarship altogether. Whatever the amount, the deduction is unfair and we are not prepared to give up our agitation campaign," Madurapperuma said.

But aren't students expected to attend lectures anyway?

"That is true. But when a cause concerning our country or students arises, we cannot shut our eyes to it. This is the only way we can express our objection to the acts of the government or of the university authorities and we have a right to continue it, if we wish to. No one should be allowed to take that right away," Madurapperuma said.

Of the thousands of students who enter university, a minimum of 80% of students are entitled to assistance from the fund . The selection is on merit as well as on financial need. Students who perform well at the G.C.E Advanced Level examination and students who are in need of financial assistance are given preference. The annual salary of the parents is an essential criterion for selection. Students whose parents earn less than Rs.90,000 per year would undoubtedly be entitled to the Mahapola scholarship.

Despite this move to crack down on errant students, the government announced recently that they wish to increase the number of recipients of the scholarship in the months to come. Already over 50,000 students receive the scholarship annually.

The students receive a sum of Rs.1250 per month for their needs and according to Federation members although the amount is not sufficient, it helps reduce the burden from the parents whose children need assistance to meet their university expenses.

But students are not willing to settle for anything less than an increase of the amount awarded or the same amount. They held an organized protest on February 1 and since then, have been agitating in front of the University Grants Commission offices. A petition addressed to the University Grants Commission which handles the Mahapola scholarship scheme was also handed over.

However, officials feel that most students do not appreciate the scholarship and some take it for granted. The students have their own interpretation of the UGC decision. They feel that the forty rupee cut is an attempt to muzzle the voices and rights of students and to restrict their protests against government policies.

"This is clearly a move to keep students under control when it comes to agitation campaigns in protest of the many unfair decisions and proposals made by the government in relation to universities or on key issues that concern the nations as a whole," said Madurapperuma.

"We don't want to cut lectures. But when you are in university sometimes you are compelled to do so, against your will. If not, we would get pulled up in the hostels or elsewhere for not cooperating," said university students who did not wish to be quoted for obvious reasons.

A student receiving Mahapola aid said that he personally knows of other students who send their scholarship money to their families living miles away. " There are students who are really poor. And they are the ones who enjoy this simple benefit. By taking it away, their lives would undoubtedly be made miserable," he said.

Where do you draw the line, question university authorities. Students most often lose track of their priorities. After a while they forget why they are in university. Education seems the last thing they wish to pursue. "And it's not like one or two students staying away from lectures. They conduct organized lecture sabotages," said senior lecturers of universities.

A member of the Mahapola Trustees Board, MP Keseralal Gunesekara said the scholarship is awarded to students for them to attend lectures and for education, and not for non-education. "There is no need to pay students who don't attend lectures, for the purpose is to assist students who do study. If they don't attend classes there is no need to pay them for those days," Mr. Gunesekara reasoned.

When all is said and done, the matter is no closer to resolution and the agitation campaign brings no benefit to the students but a lot of wasted hours and delayed exams. Would there also be a drastic cut from their monthly scholarship, for the number of days they have stayed away in protest?

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