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Arresting the politicisation of University Education


by Shanie 
(Apirl 09, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) "The day that (the University) denies any student freedom of speech is the day I give up the presidency of the University."

Two decades ago, in a celebrated case, a white student was expelled by Brown University, one of US' ivy leagues, for continuous racial and religious abuse. There was no physical assault but just hateful words. Commenting on the expulsion, the New York Times in an editorial stated that the University had walked a fine line with sensitivity towards its complex mission. 'One mission of a university is to send into the world graduates who are tolerant of many races, faiths and cultures. Another mission is to teach the value of free expression and tolerance even for hateful ideas. But should such tolerance cover racist, sexist or homophobic speech that makes the learning environment intolerable for racial or religious minorities, women and other targets of abuse? Brown found a reasonable basis for saying, clearly, no.' Vartan Gregorian was the President of Brown University at that time. He defended the University's action by saying that the University's most compelling challenge was to achieve a balance between the right of its individual members to operate and speak freely, and fostering respect for and adherence to community values and standards of conduct. He was emphatic, as stated in the quote above, that Brown University had never expelled anyone for free speech nor would it ever do so. However, the University's code of conduct prohibits behaviour that shows 'flagrant disrespect for the well-being of others or was unreasonably disruptive of the university community.'

President Gregorian went on to state: 'Freedom-of-speech questions lie at the heart of any academic community. The very nature of the academic enterprise necessitates that universities remain partisans of heterodoxy, of a rich and full range of opinions, ideas and expression. Imposed orthodoxies of all sorts, including what is called 'politically correct' speech, are anathema to our enterprise.'

Freedom of Speech in Universities A couple of weeks ago, Sumanasiri Liyanage, the Peradeniya academic wrote in The Island of a Press Conference that the Federation of University Teachers’ Assocations (FUTA) had planned to hold in the Faculty Club of the University of Colombo. This had been planned days ahead and many teachers from several campuses, including Jaffna, had come to Colombo to attend the Press Conference. But when they arrived at the University, they found that instructions had gone from the Vice Chancellor to the security that media persons should not be allowed into the university premises. So FUTA were compelled to hold the Press Conference in an utterly farcical way. The academics were on one side of the fence of the University premises and the journalists with notebook and pencil on the outside. It was a ludicrous situation for any academic community. This was not the first time the Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo had yielded to political interference from outside. In December, in connection with the World Human Rights Day, the University of Colombo's Faculty of Law, in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Human Rights and the UN's Resident Co-ordinator, had arranged a seminar at the University. Sunila Abeysekera, a well-known and internationally recognised human rights activist, was billed as the main speaker. The Vice Chancellor, apparently with the approval of the University Council, had prohibited Abeysekera from addressing the seminar within the University premises. This prompted the organisers to shift, at the eleventh hour, the venue of the seminar elsewhere rather than call off the seminar; even though this entailed tremendous inconvenience to all concerned. Surely, Vice Chancellors and the Councils of our Universities cannot be oblivious to the truth of Gregorian's remark that freedom-of-speech lies at the heart of any academic community. And that universities should be active partisans of heterodoxy, of a rich and full range of opinions, ideas and expressions. It is ironical that this denial of free speech has taken place at the University of Colombo which pioneered the establishment of the first ever Centre for the Study of Human Rights. Erosion of academic autonomy The University of Ceylon was founded in 1942 under the Universities Act which enabled the university to enjoy autonomy and academic freedom. As Eric de Silva pointed out in a series of articles in the Island last month, the campuses in Peradeniya and Colombo prospered during the first 25 years. In 1958, however, two privenas – Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara – were raised to university status but they struggled in the early years and the D C R Gunawardene Commission in the mid-sixties in fact recommended their closure and their reverting to the original status they had as pirivenas of repute – recommendations that were understandably not implemented. If those two pirivenas were raised to university status at that time for political reasons, direct political interference in the universities came with the Higher Education Act of 1966. Since then there has been a steady erosion of academic autonomy for the Universities. Today, political interference in university administration and intimidation of the academic community has reached unprecedented levels. During the parliamentary election campaign in 2010, we had the disgraceful spectacle of Vice Chancellors being coerced to lend their support to the ruling coalition. This was repeated when the 18th Amendment was being presented in Parliament. Recently, in one of the Universities, the Faculty had taken the initiative to develop a professional course and was going to sign a memorandum of understanding with a private sector company to be partners in implementing this programme leading to professional qualifications for the students. But a political bigwig stepped in at this stage and held a Press Conference giving the impression that he was the real initiator of this new programme of co-operation with the private sector. There are also reports of political interference in the selection for academic positions, and worse and more alarmingly, in the marking of student answer scripts. The silver lining in this gloomy scene is that some Vice Chancellors and many academics have refused to be intimidated and have asserted their independence. They have refused to compromise on their integrity.

Privatisation the panacea? Politicians (and their lackeys as Sumanasiri Liyanage preferred to call them) suffer from a supreme inability to see that the crisis in our universities really stems from political interference, from trying to manipulate our academics for partisan political roles, and from dishonestly trying to manipulate selections and admissions. They try to pass the blame on the student unions and even the academics. News stories are planted about unemployable graduates and the poor quality of research and teaching at the universities. It is true that academic standards have fallen over the last fifty years but that is also a reflection of the falling standards in society. Perhaps no body reflects the deterioration in standards as much as our legislature. Over the years, our legislators have voted for themselves large increases in remuneration and perks, while the pay of academics remains woefully inadequate and below promised levels. As for their integrity and character, the public can judge as to who provides a better example to today's young people. The Government, or at least the Ministry of Higher Education, seems to think that the crisis in higher education can be resolved by what is erroneously referred to as privatisation. What is being proposed is to allow the private sector, foreign and local, to open new universities and for foreign universities to set up offshore campuses. Like former President J. R. Jayewardene, the Government does not seem to mind the robber barons coming in. What will be the impact of such a policy? The new Universities will offer better salaries and attract the best of our academics from the state universities. That would be at a cost to the students. Those remaining in the state universities would have to make do with inadequate staff and the general standards of state universities would deteriorate even further. At the same time, the students at the new universities will have to pay more as fees. Thus, student enrolment at these universities will be confined to the privileged wealthy. Quality university education will be restricted to a small elite, reverting to the pre-1945 era. This columnist has no doubt that the answer to any crisis in higher education in our country is for the state universities to enjoy autonomy and academic freedom, for the elimination of political interference, and for the academics to enjoy remuneration, facilities and an environment that are conducive to teaching and research. Privatisation under any guise or form can come but let us be aware that this would be only for an elite few.

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