The Sunday Leader

Living With Universities — Pay Hikes, Protests And Murder

The first university student murdered in post independent Sri Lanka was Weerasuriya in 1976 November, an undergraduate of the Peradeniya University. The Sirima Bandaranaike government was then in power. Investigations on this murder that numbed a whole society 34 years ago, ended with no one held responsible, but the riffle and the bullet, as Colvin R. De Silva later said in a public rally.

University students voicing their dissatisfaction

The latest is Susantha Bandara dying of internal bleeding in his head, as reported by the JMO, Badulla. The JMO also reported there were no signs of injuries due to assault. This death too is surrounded by controversy. The IUSF, the JVP outfit protesting over the death, claims death is due to police assault of Ruhunu University students on June 18. IGP Balasuriya says, police have no hand in this death. The deceased student’s mother had further confused the issue, saying it was another undergrad, one “Bassa” or Basnayake who had assaulted her son.

There had been many deaths of university students between Weerasuriya’s in 1976 and Susantha Bandara’s a week ago. Some committing suicide unable to stand inhuman ragging by seniors, some killed by opposing student factions like in the case of Samantha in Jayawardnepura University and also due to heavy politicisation of the student community that led to many deaths during the 1988-90 insurgency, led by the JVP.

They have all turned out to be day to day events in Sri Lanka. Protests, student clashes, police assaults, university closures, pay hike demands, accusations, counter accusations, political interference, bungling investigations, but nothing substantial or conclusive coming out of any inquiry, whether carried out by the police or as ordered by the President to send in reports to him. We thus have chaotic repetitions in this university system that is festering with student frustrations, break down of discipline, decline in teacher quality and petty politics within the student population and in the academia too. In short, ours is a declining and degenerating “higher” education system, that allows irrational politics of the JVP type, to further create chaos and stymie any attempt at even searching for answers.

There are many factors contributing to such degeneration. Almost all major appointments in all 15 lay universities at least, leaving the Kotalawela Defence University and the two Buddhist universities out, are wholly political. The VC’s are always political appointments. So are appointments to the University Grants Commission (UGC). Academics too run after political patronage in gaining petty privileges. This over decades, has turned universities into “Maha Vidyalayas”.

The student community that in the ‘50s and the ‘60s were influenced by LSSP and CP politics and were sorting out their issues democratically through discourse, have also changed to the rough and rowdy politics of the JVP. Mostly from peasant backgrounds, they have been pushed into an education system that cannot deliver what they and their parents aspire, after graduation. Frustration is what the JVP exploits within this university system and has led to a violent culture.

All those reasons, plus the 62 year lapse in national development since independence that also lacked  educational planning, have left an all round pathetic environment in universities and schools. If one ‘googles’ to find rankings of our universities among others in South Asia, one would not have any within the first 10 universities in SAARC region, with Colombo ranked 13 and Moratuwa 14. The top eight universities are all Indian.

Those who remember the 1950s and early ‘60s would know that in then Ceylon, no Indian degree was  accepted as of any quality. We first had two and then two more universities that produced graduates of quality, accepted anywhere in the Commonwealth. Today, we have youth seeking admission to not only Indian universities, but to Nepalese and Chinese universities as well and often doing better than our local graduates.

None for sure has done any calculations on how much foreign exchange is pulled out of Sri Lanka each year for these private undergrad students. That huge expense needs to be added to our annual education budget to understand how much is wasted on this “Free Education”.  Yet the  uncompromising cry of the JVP and their likes are that, private universities if set up in this country, would kill “Free Education”.

The JVP after their electoral debacle with Gen. Fonseka, needs some agitation to keep their cadres occupied and to be seen as politically active. Susantha Bandara’s death comes in handy for the JVP that way. They were getting ready to flog Minister S.B. Dissanayake after he proposed private universities.

Susantha Bandara’s death therefore demands a serious discussion on “National Educational Planning” for there would be more “Bassas”, police clashes, probably deaths and more chaos within this university system that has no answers for youth looking for a “future” through JVP’s introvert ideology.

Of what use, this “free” education with these universities, is thus the major question that should be answered within the context of social development. “Education for sake of knowledge” as in ancient pirivenas is no more a valid answer. Today in Sri Lanka, rural economic growth has to absorb youth into economically viable life and education has to be planned within such development. This has not happened so far and seems to be not happening even today. Our educationists are only talking in terms of exams, evaluations and course diversifications, not knowing what type of human resources we would need for future development. Worst is, what is discussed accepts ‘Free Education’ to continue without any justification.

This Free Education system is glorified by most who say, they achieved all things in life, thanks to free education. They fail to say that during those “good old years”, the university intake was only a mere 3,500 or less and they could achieve such, because the State was expanding as a “welfare state” in the 1950s to early ‘70s, wholly funded by public money. That was not a system society could sustain for more than three decades. By late ‘60s, ruptures in the system were in the open. The JVP was breeding in rural society and Irriyagolla as Education Minister was fondly flogged, especially by university dons and students.

That small numbers and the welfare state cannot be supplanted into the future any more. This Free Education can only provide university life to 20,000 A/L students out of about 80,000 who qualify to enter universities. That, from a total of over 170,000 who sit the A/L exam annually. This leaves over 150,000 stranded with no opportunities, within this “free” education. Add annual school leavers from G.C.E. O/L exams, numbering over 200,000 youth. This Free Education provides nothing for them.

Where do they end up ? They ended up as soldiers in the 30 year war, was absorbed into the apparel industry as unskilled and semi skilled labour and then as House Maids in Arab households. This cry for Free Education is a bluff that does not explain why over 350,000 such young students every year have to be sacrificed for 20,000 to enter universities. Universities that cannot provide a future for their graduates. These graduates have to squat in front of the Fort Railway Station for days and weeks, begging for government jobs.

This is a major issue that no government ever touched upon with commitment and with foresight.  Education has to be talked of as a whole system that moves a child from pre-school, primary and secondary to tertiary and then to employment or university education. It would serve no purpose to back private universities without such an educational plan. No private universities would even help state universities to compete for quality and recognition, unless there is a National Educational Plan.

Over decades, no salary increase, no duty free vehicles, no service privileges have ever helped in improving the quality of university education. Such has not helped provoke a discourse even among the academia on educational planning. There is no social dialogue and therefore no political interest in ruling circles either, to improve schools and universities. We would this way, certainly see more “Bassas”, more Susanthas, more JVP protests and then police assaults too, with more public money demanded to sustain this chaos.
The ultimate question is, “what are governments for, at such high public cost ?”

7 Comments for “Living With Universities — Pay Hikes, Protests And Murder”

  1. HUD

    I’m surprised how you were able to write about deaths of university student swithout mentioning the work “UNP” ?

  2. HUD

    I’m surprised how you were able to write about deaths of university students without mentioning the work “UNP” ?

  3. Lalith

    I am unfortunate to be a member of the longest on-campus student group in Sri lankan universites during the 1980. As you mention the main course for all university problem is comming from undue political intervention not ony in administrative prcesss but also in student union. While all political paries in the government use the administration to interven in the universitis all bnkrupt political parties used student union to disturb all governmnet activities.

    Studen must understand that they have a privilage not a right to be university student which funded by public, tax payer and the furture generation. By involving disruptive political activities which costing the future of the country, they misuse the privilage they are having

    They must understand, even in China, uni student need to pay tution from their mothers pocket. I knew that since i am working with Chines universities. JVP should not use the student for distruptive political activities. Government should not use the administration for intervening univesties. University dons should not go after politicians to get postions. Student must understand their responsibilties to the nation

    Today, I am very much frustrating about the some activities we were part in universities which only brought the disastrous to the nation.

  4. liyanage

    it is a top priority to rescue our chldren from this madhouse of so called uni somthing smilar to PTA in schools have to established even it doesnot exist anywhere in the world. because uni like in srilanka does not exist in the world. country or urban, rich or poor children dislike to paqrticipate in street campaings. ask any uni student privately for their honset opinion .speak to parents from any starta of society they are really mad at what is happening.but at jaffna uni students are seriouly at study
    Private uni yes but keep the entrance for qualified as an ex if the higest for medical is Z 2.12 from kandy and the lowest from monaragala Z 1.23 make cut off for private medics Z1.23

  5. M.H.Sheriff

    It is the Govt who should be responsible for all the chaos in universities, as they annually cut the allocated funds & divert it it to other waste & tamashas of their own, knowing pretty well the consequences.
    They have a hidden agenda to privatize the entire university system as they are incompetent to run affairs of higher studies An incapable to provide jobs to the passing out students, by this move only the rich & their cohorts & henchayyahs will benefit.

  6. Shaik Anwar

    There’s an old adage that “Something given free is seldom appreciated” is very true. If the universities charged a fee, they could afford quality education for the students who would then be following worthwhile degrees. The students who cannot afford the fees should be given loans repayable when they qualify and get employed. The very first time the government gave in to these JVP inspired student protests, they sowed the seed and now they are reaping what they sowed.

  7. gamarala

    In the early fifties,there was complete discipline in the University of Ceylon which later became two campuses and still later, two universites and some more were later created. There was full autonomy of universities.But the rot started when politicians were empowered to appoint Vice Chancellors & politics entered the campuses and became worse when students and teachers were allowed to enter politics.
    This ‘politicisation’ of universities exists only in sri lanka. Now it is too late to correct this unless by constitutional provisions,but more important issues are being debated.Only the dedicated few students survive and do well.Others fall by the wayside.Sri Lanka appears to be the only country obliged to employ graduates – by politicians for their own survival after each election.

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