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Decay & Deadlock in our universities

The ‘Talibanisation’ of the collective behaviour of a stratum of Sri Lankan students is the product of the ‘madarassah-fication’ of the educational system by successive administrations. If many Sri Lankan students are behaving in a semi-barbaric fashion, and they indubitably are, it is because the state’s ideologically influenced educational policies and choices over decades, motivated by the socio-cultural ethos of levelling down instead of levelling up, have produced semi-barbarism and semi-barbarians.

by Dayan Jayathilleka

(October 31, Singapore City, Sri Lanka Guardian) Name a country that has developed successfully without first rate universities, or at least one? Not a single! Sri Lanka has, man-for-man, a world class military, but it once had world class schools and universities, which is no longer the case. If we are to be strong, defeat our enemies and compete with our rivals, we need our first rate military to be supplemented with a first rate education system producing globally competitive high quality human resources. My wife Sanja and I are a little sad to leave Singapore, which deserves it’s self designation as a “thinking society”. Where else could you have a full house at a seminar held in the National Library at 2:30 in the afternoon on a Saturday, on the topic ‘Arab Regimes and Political Islam’, delivered by a senior Professor from Georgetown University who has just taken over as the head of the Middle East Institute here?

Coming back to our apartment from the felicitation for Emeritus Professor Wang Gungwu with two bags full of fifteen new books on China and international affairs, only to read on the internet about the rising tide of violent confrontation on Sri Lankan campuses today, my train of thought takes its departure from Prof Wang’s observations when we first met.

Influential scholars

It was the second festschrift for Prof Wang Gungwu, the first having honoured him on his 70th birthday, and this one taking place a decade later. Having moved from the Australian National University, of which he is Emeritus Professor, to accept the Vice Chancellorship of the University of Hong Kong for a decade, he returned home to chair the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy and head the East Asian Institute, both of the National University of Singapore. Prof Wang is recognised worldwide as “one of the most influential scholars working on international relations, including topics such as empire, nation-state, nationalism, state ideology and the Chinese view of the world order”. The volume of essays in his honour launched today by Routledge (Taylor and Francis) is entitled “China and International Relations: The Chinese View and the Contribution of Wang Gungwu”.

Repeatedly described as a ‘sage’, a ‘guru’ and a ‘scholar-gentleman’, and called upon to say a few words, Prof Wang Gungwu, PhD (London), CBE, spoke without a note and with impeccable diction, opening with “what can I say about turning 80 except that I recommend it?” and moving with a conductor’s grace through the ages and the continents, tracing the evolution of human knowledge and the differentiation of the humanities and social sciences, locating the discipline of international relations within that evolution, arguing against the trend toward greater weight to quantitative rigour and making instead the case for a synthesis of the humanistic and social scientific approaches. This great Asian scholar and historian of East Asia and past President of the Australian Academy of Humanities, spoke of West and East from the Graeco-Roman to China, without the slightest hierarchy or preference, occupying with natural ease a vantage point above such distinctions in the field of human knowledge, eschewing such banalities as ‘Western science’ vs. ‘Eastern values’, and refraining from the least resort to markers of cultural identity such as ritual references to great Asian minds.

NUS think tank

Sanja and I went up to him and Madam Margaret Wang, not only to convey our respect tinged with awe, but also to inform him that we would be leaving far sooner than we had originally thought. Prof Wang had dropped by for the chat last year in the room of the Chairman of ISAS, at which I was invited to join as a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at his NUS think tank. He had reminisced of his many visits to Ceylon, the first as a student and the last, while the war was still on. He stated with assurance that the University of Ceylon in 1951 the year of his first visit (as a University of Malaya undergrad), and most especially its department of English, had students of the most stellar quality, comparable to the best in the world, and that every visit since had been sadder and sadder, because standards in general had declined to a point beyond recognition. He mentioned that several students of that generation had become an outstanding member of the university community of Singapore, and both he and Ambassador-at large Gopinath Pillai, ISAS Chairman, recollected the name Gamini Salgado. With a touch of pride I said that my father and ‘Galba’ Salgado were contemporaries in that Jennings-Ludowyke ‘moment’ of cosmopolitan civility.

So long as that first post-independence intellectual elite produced by University of Ceylon’s more prestigious departments were alive and productive (even beyond retirement age), the light of Reason still illumined our social discourse. That intellectual and professional elite was never sought to be reproduced and could not, by itself, socially reproduce itself.

Here is the most important distinction between Sri Lanka and the countries that have achieved take-off and are engaged in catching up with the West. Not only did that Class of the dawn of the ‘50s not reproduce itself; not only was it not upheld as a model and standard to be emulated if not replicated, there was a conscious policy process to abort any such socio-cultural reproduction. More, the educational womb that bore that young elite which brought such distinction and dynamism to every field of endeavour in and outside of the country, was itself removed and replaced with one that would not and could not reproduce that stratum or anything like it. The first low-intensity skirmishes of the cultural Cold War were already breaking out on campus in the post independence years. These would become full-fledged ‘culture wars’, in which the casualty was the two-fold idea of a meritocratic, multiethnic nation and national identity.


The ‘Talibanisation’ of the collective behaviour of a stratum of Sri Lankan students is the product of the ‘madarassah-fication’ of the educational system by successive administrations. If many Sri Lankan students are behaving in a semi-barbaric fashion, and they indubitably are, it is because the state’s ideologically influenced educational policies and choices over decades, motivated by the socio-cultural ethos of levelling down instead of levelling up, have produced semi-barbarism and semi-barbarians. Sri Lankan student behaviour has exhibited these characteristics from at least the mid 1970s, if not the latter half of the ‘60s. It just gets worse with every generation. When did the degeneration begin and who with? In both the schools and the universities, and a major part was played in the downward spiral by IMRA Iriyagolla, the Minister of Education of the Dudley Senanayake administration of ‘65-70 (regarded as the ‘golden age’ by Colombo’s pro-UNP liberals).

The excellent system of free education introduced by CWW Kannangara in 1944, and the fine network of Central schools, were aspects of the Sri Lankan welfare state and should have pre-empted the levelling downwards through ‘Standardisation’ introduced in the ‘70s. If at all, ‘standardisation’ should have been strictly limited in scale and scope, time-bound, phased out long ago and replaced by generous scholarships linked to family income, not locality, subject field or medium of instruction. Trends towards ‘Talibanisation’ cannot be comprehended apart from one policy that should have, if at all, been phased in rather than instantly introduced (the changeover to Sinhala) and another that should have been phased out instead of being retained over the long term (‘standardisation’). The products of standardisation became school heads, teachers, and bureaucrats, imparting their ideology to their charges and throughout the state apparatus; pushing certain policies and blocking or retarding certain others; reproducing themselves socially, generating something worse than a vicious cycle, namely a downward spiral with cumulative costs and consequences that remain to be estimated by history.

Student protest

Students protest everywhere and often do so violently, but almost nowhere but in Sri Lanka do student radicals engage in ragging or the defence of raggers, and protest against anti-ragging disciplinary action. There are Vice Chancellors who deserve to be the target of protest, but in Sri Lanka not only do radical students murder Vice Chancellors in their officers, they physically target the best of the VCs. Nowhere but in Sri Lanka would rebellious student activists attack someone like Prof Susirith Mendis, an authentic scholar, and intellectual with a strong Marxist background and heritage. The son of one of the country’s most respected officials and intellectuals, he is the son-in-law of a still more respected intellectual, the University of Ceylon’s first First Class in English, a legendary product of that post-Independence generation and one of the very few Sri Lankans still alive who could give the kind of ex-tempore performance that Prof Wang Gungwu did today.

Nowhere but in Sri Lanka would student radicals protest against the kind of modernising reforms, upgrading, opening up and connectivity that Minister SB Dissanayake, an ex- campus student leader of the Communist party, is striving to implement. Resistance and rebellion are understandable and even to be welcomed if he were trying to impose fees in state universities, slash student stipends or cut back on university funding, but he is not. His reforms would, if successful, begin to bring Sri Lanka back to the global mainstream of university education, which in turn would produce human resources of a quality that can communicate and compete in the 21st century world.

If he fails or is sabotaged, Sri Lanka will not make the turn-around needed for take-off. It will continue to produce sub-standard, uncompetitive human resources in an era where knowledge, information and connectivity are the most precious assets a country, a society and an economy can possess. In the meanwhile, the exodus of the English-speaking educated, the critical social ingredient for transnational connectivity and national competitiveness in a globalised world, goes on. Tell a Friend

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