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Snowballing of university crisis has taken its toll

The recently introduced private university system is also a major factor for student agitation. As I mentioned before, student politics in Sri Lanka over the last three decades has been dominated by JVP led student councils. They have been against the private university project right from the beginning who successfully campaigned for the annihilation of Ragama Private Medical College which was established in early 1980’s.

by Dr Jayaratne Pinikahana

(October 30, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) The university system is in crisis again but it is not a new phenomenon by any means. The current crisis is generated through a series of events occurred concurrently over the last couple of months. It peaked with the horrific physical attack on the Vice-Chancellor of the Ruhuna University Professor Susirith Mendis by some students. This is no mean offence by any human standard and it should be condemed unreservedly not only because he is a distinguished medical academic in the country but also the attack per se is tribalist in character. This is a woeful and moronic act and it is against our culture, our value system, and our heritage. Where has the respect for teachers gone? What has happened to the discipline, tolerance, decency and rationality of our future leaders who are coming out of our universities? At Ruhuna, it hit them for ‘six’ but as a result ‘six’ players were given out!

Following this attack, some students monks at the Jayewardenepura University have attacked the university officials at a Bhikku hostel on the campus. At the Rajarata University, a group of students have attached some students who were preparing for exams injuring some students and damaging lecture halls and other university properties. As the Island editorial on 26/10/2010 has rightly stressed, a Tiananmen type disaster is looming within the university sector with the backing of some JVP elements. There is no denying the fact that the JVP-controlled IUSF is actively agitating the student community to disrupt the functioning of universities. On Wednesday, another dimension to the crisis was added at the Kelaniya University by organising a public protest against the student union where a suspected student was attacked by thugs. As the Island editorial indicated on 28th October, it is up to the police to deal with the disruptive elements of universities and taking the law in to politicians’ hand is not going to solve this problem.

On this occasion the students are greatly misled and mistaken. What a pathetic state of student politics! What sort of role models would they portray to their younger counterparts in junior and secondary schools? The behaviour of these unruly students is derogatory to their credibility, social acceptance and prestige and also an insult to intelligentsia. In fact, the university students should be ‘role models’ for school kids who are going to take their place in a few years time. It is really unfortunate to see some students monks are behaving like lay thugs violating their vinaya rules. What sort of role models are they for future monks? Instead of preaching Dhamma and practicing meditation, these monks have displayed their skills in acrobatics! It is a disgraceful behaviour that the Nayaka Theras in every sect should be intervened decisively to safeguard the image of Buddhist Sangha organisation.

The snowballing effect of spreading unrest across the university system seems to have taken its toll on day to day running of universities. This burgeoning crisis should be arrested amicably sooner than later without overstepping to a point where there would be no return. In hindsight, every recent incidence that occurred in universities had two different explanations, one from the students and the other from the authorities. In sociological terms, ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ explanations of what has happened and understandably they are not the same. If you look at these incidences very closely, you will see that they are not very major student issues that should lead to the current crisis. If you make a ‘quick and dirty’ search from recent incidents, you will find the hooting incidence at the higher education minister at the Peradeniya university a couple of months ago was the kind of beginning of the current wave of crisis. The unrest at the Rajarata university started with the refusal by the vice-chancellor to stage a drama or something. The most recent incidence at the Ruhuna university seemed to have linked to a tearing off a poster against ragging displaced by the students of the science faculty. At face value, these are not something that should lead to a locking up of a few students in a prison cell or ugly confrontation with a vice-chancellor who was actually physically attacked. In a liberal democracy, the expression of someone’s opinion should be tolerated and it is almost inconceivable why some students can not tolerate the notion against ragging displaced in a poster.

It is fair to say that a great majority of university students are really great, peaceful, and law abiding. They know very well how precious the opportunity they received is after twelve years of schooling and severe competition at the A level. They need to excel in their selected fields and most of whom are very much uninterested in politics! There is no research to back up this claim but anecdotally, about 95% of university students are not involved in any violent act or unlawful incidents and they are good, peaceful and excellent students. In other words, every Tom, Dick and Harry is not responsible for university unrest and it is only a handful of students who manipulate the majority through outdated political ideologies and conceptions. Universities should be a place for free discussion, mutual debates, exploration and intellectual pursuit and the different political ideologies should be allowed to remain in the university system no matter whether they represent UNP, SLFP or JVP. If any student body or student association represented by one political grouping was selected by default simply because the other political groupings were not allowed to compete freely, then the selected council is not a legal entity. What is happening in Sri Lankan universities is that JVP is in control of student affairs for some time and for that reason, they should be responsible for much of the crisis that prevails right now.


In a broader perspective, the recent unrest of universities is one way or other associated with two major changes in the university sector; the banning of ragging in higher educational institutions and the introduction of private universities. Ragging, a colonial legacy is hardly seen in western universities but widely spread in the Indian sub continent. There are a number psychological, behavioural and even evolutionary theories around ragging but this is not the time for an academic debate on something which is already banned. In a nutshell, it is an inhuman act that should be eliminated from the university setting lock, stock and barrel. It’s major factor of student violence, rival clashes and even suicide in Sri Lankan universities. This inhuman act is banned now and students need to live by the law. It is a violation of basic human rights and it involves physical, mental and social exploitation of students. They have to undergo several form of physical, mental and even sexual torture with some aggression. Again, university students need to be good role models by displaying a friendly behaviour towards freshers.

Although we are in the habit of attacking all the western values, the friendly attitude and genuine sense of kindness and help displayed by senior students in western universities is something that our senior students should learn with gratitude. I remember last year I went to Monash university in Australia with my daughter in a familiarization tour (open day) and the first day enrolment organised by the university and it was heartening to see a pair of students with smile at every corner of buildings, lecture halls, departments asking ‘Can I help you’. I think they have never heard of ragging and they were genuinely helping new students to enrol and to show the library, banks, canteen, laboratories, common rooms etc. What a display of human kindness, a sense of humanity and brother/ sister hood! I think we need to start from scratch and teach our students these four words. Can I help you? It won’t be easy for some of our senior students to be gentle enough to behave as equals with first year students because of their big ego but things change and change quickly in some cases. I would like to see a new campaign against ragging introduced by senior students under the slogan of ‘can I help you’ next year and see the results. Ragging is an inhuman act that should be eliminated from higher education sector tomorrow not next year and there is no place for ragging in the civilised world. There is no right for anybody to harm someone else physically, mentally or sexually and everybody needs to feel free regardless of their seniority or faculty or whatever.

Private university project

The recently introduced private university system is also a major factor for student agitation. As I mentioned before, student politics in Sri Lanka over the last three decades has been dominated by JVP led student councils. They have been against the private university project right from the beginning who successfully campaigned for the annihilation of Ragama Private Medical College which was established in early 1980’s. At the time, medical students of all state universities with the backing of JVP student movement vehemently protested against the Ragama College until its premature death in late eighties. Although the parliamentary representation of JVP has been depleted to a considerable degree, their influence in student politics in universities is still intact. As far as private university project is concerned, JVP led student lobbies have already expressed their anger and protest against any form of private university education and as usual they have threatened with student strikes and other disruptive activities.

What really we need now?

When is enough going to be enough? What we really do not need now is the escalation of violence in our university system any more. One student has already died at Ruhuna university from the current wave of student unrest and we all need to accept that ‘one death’ is too much in human terms. Students or the authorities of higher education are not infallible and they are not insipid as well. They need to have a constructive discussion on a whole range of issues faced by the student community in a civilised way with a pen and paper, not with clubs, knives or swords. There might have some negotiable and non-negotiable issues between the students and the authorities and they need to work though on issue by issue basis in the interest of nation. For example, ragging is a non-negotiable issue and the common sense should prevail on that issue. The issue of hooting at the minister is an offence and he should be able to visit universities anywhere in the country at his convenience. But for the first time these students who obstructed minister’s journey should be pardoned on sympathetic grounds. Minister S.B. Dissanayake took pains on a number of occasions to explain the benefits of establishing private universities in Sri Lanka and he makes no bones about it. Everybody is entitled to their own opinions and students can make the same by arguing against private universities in a civilised way but not by forcibly entering into the higher education ministry with two hundred students injuring themselves and the police. Let us have a brainstorming session on the concept of private universities with key stakeholders such as eminent academics, administrators, private sector etc and come up with a workable solution. On both sides, the heavy-handed way of handling university affairs is proven counterproductive and should be avoided at all costs. Both parties should understand that they need to work in challenging and complex set of circumstances.

It is time to stop the ‘blame game’ and work through the difficult issues to come up with acceptable solutions to the problems faced by our universities. It would not be able to find either an ‘one-size-fit- for all’ solution or a panacea for all problems in all universities so that collective effort should be made to have a good handle on each issue faced by the university community.

(The writer can be reached at jpinikahana@epilepsy.asn.au )

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