FRIDAY FORUM - PRESS RELEASE
by Jayantha Dhanapala and Professor Savitri Goonesekere
We wish to emphasise the following:
1. This programme has been imposed on universities and university students by the Minister of Higher of Education in a manner which violates the Universities Act No.16 of 1978 (as amended). Part VII of this Act deals with “The Authorities of a University,” and refers to the Council, the Senate and the Faculties. The Senate is the academic authority, which makes all decisions on academic programmes. According to Section 20 of the Act the power of the Minister to issue directives to the Universities Grants Commission is extremely limited, referring to finance, university admissions and medium of instruction, and in regard to investigations and responses to crises in administration or the functioning of universities.
2. The Ministry has no legal authority to formulate and implement programmes or courses for university students. Such programmes necessarily come within the purview of the university academic authorities. Under the circumstances development and implementation of such a programme without the approval of these bodies violates accepted procedures of university governance.
3. The UGC is authorised to determine admission but is required to consult universities regarding any teaching courses and programmes. It appears that the UGC too has either been sidelined in presenting this programme or it has failed to fulfil its responsibilities to consult with universities. It is deeply disturbing that a leadership programme for new entrants which has not been considered by the relevant university authorities has been introduced on the basis of a unilateral decision by the Ministry.
4. We certainly do not object to leadership training for students in the national university system. In fact, all students should be exposed to opportunities for personality development throughout their education. However, such programs have to be designed and presented by the universities in keeping with their norms and standards on teaching and learning, and academic freedom. Most universities, following the practice in such institutions of higher education all over the world, already conduct orientation programmes including English programmes for new entrants. The Ministry should be able to resource further upgrading of such programmes.
5. In some countries all youth between certain ages may be required to undergo periods of military training, but we are unaware of any other country where such training is a pre-condition for university admission. Military type training is founded on a system of regimentation. University education is meant to encourage independent learning discussion and argument with tolerance and respect for disagreement and viewpoint difference. In contrast, in the military and allied kinds of training, the emphasis is on command and control, action without disputation, except among the high command.
6. Universities are seats of higher learning where students not only study a curriculum but are also encouraged in critical thinking and a search for knowledge. While the special skills and capacities of the military should be appreciated and military discipline is obviously essential for the purposes of an army, it is not the form of leadership training appropriate for young people who would later play a role as civilians in the country’s development. The concepts of academic freedom and university autonomy provide the foundation of the teaching and learning environment in universities throughout the Commonwealth. They have not been considered idealistic and antiquated norms that have no relevance to market economies or in meeting the challenges of development or the growth of information technologies. Encouraging military style leadership skills, regimentation and behaviour patterns, is contrary to core values of freedom of thought, opinion and expression, and the value of dissent which all universities should strive to inculcate in their students.
7. These values, and the fundamental rights of students and teachers that are embedded in them, have been recognised in the Supreme Court Determination of 1999 of the Universities Act (Amendment) Bill in a judgement which was delivered by three judges including then Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. It is jurisprudence of this nature in the Supreme Court that confirms the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution which can create an appropriate environment for university education. The dismissal of cases challenging the 18th Amendment, the Local Government Bill and the Pensions Bill, and the recent petitions on the leadership programme must not prevent us as citizens from hoping that the foundation laid in earlier jurisprudence protecting fundamental rights will not be diluted.
8. Officials in the Ministry have made public statements that this military training will help new university entrants to resist the degrading practice of ragging. The ragging culture has in fact spread to and is embedded in many schools and public institutions in this country. In 1998 the late Minister of Higher Education, Richard Pathirana, helped to introduce the Prevention of Ragging Act. Some Universities and Faculties now assist the police to enforce the Act, and they have domestic disciplinary procedures as well as programmes to respond to and prevent ragging. The current ad hoc programme encourages an aggressive response to ragging, rather than focusing on prevention. This may undermine university efforts at preventing and responding to ragging while increasing the risk of violence between student groups.
9. The curriculum of the training programme obtained by the Friday Forum after some effort reveals extremely problematic aspects. No mention is made of the authority responsible for the curriculum but a prominent photograph of the Defence Secretary on the cover of the study guide suggests authorship by the Defence establishment. The predominant focus is on instilling discipline and self-confidence through military regimentation including a five-kilometre walk to be completed in 45 minutes irrespective of individual physical fitness or the widely disparate facilities for sports and physical training in the schools from which the students come.
10. What is more problematic is the content of the module on history and national heritage. The topics are, in order, the arrival of the Aryans, foreign invasions, (who the foreigners are is not clear) and the development of Sinhalese kingdoms. “National heritage” focuses exclusively on prominent cultural symbols of the majority Sinhala community such as Sigiriya, the Temple of the Tooth and the Aukana Buddha statue with none from other communities. Subjecting new university entrants who may well become future leaders of this country to a course which focuses exclusively on the majority community, undermines all the official statements on national reconciliation after three decades of civil strife. If this is an officially sanctioned method of national reconciliation what hopes do we have for a peaceful conflict free future in this country?
11. On the whole the curriculum seems to discourage tolerance for viewpoint difference, and sensitivities for the pluralism and diversity of our country. Regimentation, military discipline and taking pride in a majoritarian version of national heritage and history are what seem to be envisaged as the ideal model of leadership. It is of interest to note that in a group exercise on world leaders the suggested world famous leaders are Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, King Dutugemenu, Anagarika Dharmapala, Mahinda Rajapakse, Veera Puran Appu, and Ranasinghe Premadasa.
We urge the Minister of Higher Education to recognise and respect the autonomous roles of academics and academic authorities in the Higher Educational System under the Universities Act of 1978. We hope that he will refrain from imposing arbitrary decisions on the university system in this manner. We also wish to remind university academics and administrators that it is their duty and responsibility as members of university authorities such as Faculty Boards, Senates and Councils to safeguard and nurture academic autonomy and the integrity of the university system. It is only active engagement and interest on their part that will help to prevent continuous infringements on academic freedom and university autonomy. We need a State university system which up to now has given equitable access to higher education even as universities meet the many challenges faced in achieving high standards of excellence in all universities and disciplines of study. Unless these negative trends are resisted Sri Lanka may well become the “knowledge hub” of Asia, not through a balanced public private mix, but through exclusive privatisation that will replace decades of a valued public education system.
Jayantha Dhanapala and Professor Savitri Goonesekere
On behalf of Friday Forum, the Group of Concerned Citizens:
Mr. Jayantha Dhanapala, Professor Savitri Goonesekere, Rt. Reverend Duleep de Chickera,
Professor Gananath Obeyesekere, Ms. Manouri Muttetuwegama, Professor Arjuna Aluwihare,
Dr. Camena Gunaratne, Ms. Suriya Wickremasinghe, Mr. Ahilan Kadirgamar,
Mr. Lanka Nesiah, Mr. J.C. Weliamuna, Dr. A. C. Visvalingam, Dr Stewart Motha
Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, Dr. Deepika Udagama, Ms. Sithie Tiruchelvam,
Ms. Shanthi Dias, Dr. Selvy Thiruchandran, Professor Siri Hettige, Dr. Devanesan Nesiah,
Dr. G Usvatte-aratchi, Ms. Dhamaris Wickramasekera, Mr. Daneshan Casiechetty,
Mr. Prashan de Visser, Mr. Chandra Jayaratne,