The Sunday Leader

Running Amok Amongst Political Affiliations And Vested Interests

  • University students’ unions

By Camelia Nathaniel
Pictures by Saman Kariyawasam

Are the students’ unions deviating from their actual purpose?

While student unions in local universities have gained notoriety these days initiating many protests and clashes with law enforcement authorities, it raises the question whether these student unions have been set up for the sole purpose of acting as a medium between college authorities and students. Student unions were initially vested with the task of solving the problems faced by students in colleges. They fight against the authorities for the fulfilment of students’ needs.

However, now we find that students’ unions are deviating from their actual purpose and acting according to various political agendas thus creating huge issues within the universities and causing tension and disaccord between the students and the authorities.
It is an acceptable norm that students unions are necessary in the colleges and universities solely to interact between the students and the managements.

However, it should also be noted that these student unions would be better geared to cater to the needs of the students if these unions work independently of the political affiliations.

The political affiliations of the students’ organisations cause unnecessary clash of interests among the various groups of students. Instead of working according to political agendas they should be used to obtain better facilities and welfare amenities for the students from the managements. The students’ unions can work in the interest of the students if the leaders of the unions are honest and sincere and they do not collude with the managements lured by selfish benefits for themselves. In the past it is noteworthy to mention that great leaders emerged from the students unions. Most of our political leaders and their leadership qualities are the direct contribution of the students’ organisations. Quality leaders from the educated elite of colleges and universities can lead our country to progress. Yet a question that is frequently asked today is whether these student unions are exceeding their limits and treading on a path that is paving the way for the destruction and deterioration of the universities and its students.

The convenor of the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) Sanjeewa Bandara told The Sunday Leader that these student unions were set up in 1978 according to a University Act No. 16.

“This Act was brought in to grant the students their rights on one hand and to provide legal grounds for these unions to be set up within universities on the other hand. These student unions have always worked as student representatives and have intervened in students’ issues and even in political issues that affect the universities and its students. However these student unions and in general these organisations today are more like multinational entities. It is the role of the political parties to obtain power and sustain the hold on power. However the intension of these multinational organisations is not only to mediate in student issues but also to act in various political situations. The government alleges that university student unions act according to certain agendas of certain political parties. However I see it as an attempt by the government to bring disrepute to these student unions in the eyes of the public,” he said.
Bandara further added although these university students do not act according to the requirements of political parties, they do have certain political preferences or affiliations.

“Everyone, student or otherwise, has political preferences or affiliations. However the government while engaging in politics itself is forcing the university students not to engage in or have any political affiliations. This is a very pathetic situation. The ruler always tries to prevent the others from having any other political preferences or independent views, contrary to their own. The main reason for this is that if the rulers allow the general public to have their own political affiliations, it will be a threat to them. It is easier to rule if the general public have no knowledge of their rights or capabilities. It is easy to control them like a herd of cattle. Likewise the government is threatened now because university students have become more politically knowledgeable and active. It is very saddening that the government feels that university students should not be politically active or involved in politics. Our argument is that if it is ok for the president’s son to engage in politics and the ministers’ sons, as well as rogues and culprits to engage in politics, why is it wrong for university students to be involved in politics?”

He pointed out that what the government means by saying that university students should not engage in politics is not that students should refrain from entering politics; instead what the government wants is for university students to not question any of the government policies.

“Although the government accuses us of being affiliated to certain political parties and working toward their agenda, throughout history these student groups have never forced any of the students to vote for any particular party. Similarly we have not canvassed for any political party during any election. Instead throughout history what we have done is to rebel against the wrong and corrupt policies of the government, which is detrimental to the student population and the general public as a whole. This is the problem the government is having with the student unions. We have been exposing the government’s sinister motives and this has become a problem for the government in implementing their corrupt plans. That’s why they are making statements that bring disrepute to us. I must also mention that university students possess a civilised and superior political insight, unlike the government’s short sighted and uncouth political agendas. Hence we have and always be a threat to the government,” he added.

According to Bandara, thousands of university students had sacrificed their lives to safeguard the rights and free education system.
“The rulers have always wanted to privatise the university education system, but it was due to our opposition that they were unable to do it all this time. Even if the government succeeds in disbanding the official student unions, they will not be able to stop the private student unions, and we will continue to fight for the rights of the university students. Government can do nothing to stop us, as long as the university student can think independently in keeping with modern times. They can attack us politically, mentally or militarily, yet the government will never be able to suppress the student unions and have their own way,” he warned.

Meanwhile, a former convenor of the Inter University Student Federation, Undul Premaratne said current university student population unlike before is very self-centred and are focussed toward achieving their personal goals at any cost, irrespective of the consequences.

“Hence those who enter university are care less about the issued faced by society. This is amply manifested by the ragging and other anti-social activities taking place in universities today. Even the university students act very selfishly and carelessly about their colleagues. However when it comes to student unions they are responsible for the welfare of students and therefore these student unions should take responsibility for those succeeding them. These student unions need to be more responsible, and is vested with the ability and power to provide proper guidance through good leadership.”

He said that no matter which party gains power, the privatisation of the education system is inevitable due to economical blunders.
“In this system it is the responsibility of student leaders to fight against the privatisation of the education system. Today’s student unions are also forced to fight against various incorrect and detrimental economical decisions made by the government. However I do not condone or sympathise with the disruptive and violent behaviour of these university student organisations, yet I do agree that they need to stand up and fight against certain decisions taken by the rulers. Perhaps these students are forced to take this disruptive path due to the flaws in the whole education system. What we had to do in the past is also to fight against the wrong policies in the education system and I believe that even today’s student unions are also doing the same, but more forcefully,” he said.

However, Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake speaking to The Sunday Leader said that today’s university students are so embroiled in political activities that they are compromising their education.

“These students don’t pay any attention to their studies and skip lectures to engage in these activities which under any situation cannot be condoned with. For instance Sanjaya Bandara has failed his first year exam six times and he is at home today. He is a student leader, and what is the type of example he is setting to the freshers? Is this the kind of leaders that we can expect in the future to take over our country? Even the issue at the Sabaragamuwa University was because the vice chancellor had told them not to conduct meetings at night and not to entertain outsiders in the hostel premises especially the girl’s hostel after 6 pm. Yet they never heeded his advice and for months these students were engaging in meetings till midnight with other groups. Then the vice chancellor had issued a warning letter to them. They had then gathered the students forcibly at 7 pm and held lectures for them till 12 midnight. It was then that the university authorities had banned the student unions the next day and expelled four students. These student unions then embarked on this disruptive path of behaviour. Initially these unions tried to hold protests but they failed in their attempt as the students began reporting for lectures. That was when they started the fast unto death, and when they failed at that they blocked the road and began disrupting public activities,” he explained.

When asked if student unions were necessary at universities he said having student unions is not a bad thing.

“I was also a university student leader when I was in university. In fact I was the first president of the legally formed first Inter-university Student Union. However during our time we worked tirelessly for the betterment of the university students together with the management. Even the mango trees that you see today at the Sri Jayawardena University were planted by us back in the day. We disciplined the students so much that we never allowed them to even draw a line on a university wall. We took measures to prevent ragging ever taking place. These were the calibre of student leaders we had at the time. It is with great pride that I say that these student leaders of yesteryear are today among the most exemplary citizens of this country. Persons such as Reginald Cooray, Navaratna Bandara, Professor Roland Abepala and many others who were not only student activists, they also set a great example to the freshers by passing out with the highest marks.”

Minister Dissanayake however blames the JVP for creating the kind of student unions that prevail today, where the students are more focussed on politics rather than their studies. The real issue is that many unions have become merely symbolic of student representation, and have little influence on decisions affecting the student body. Instead they merely act according to certain politically motivated agendas and disrupt the academic activities of the universities jeopardising the future of many thousands of students who enter universities to build a better future for them and the country.


2 Comments for “Running Amok Amongst Political Affiliations And Vested Interests”

  1. suren soysa

    What is this nonsense of beating about the bush without having bloody guts to clamp down all University union actions by law? The lousy media boost up this unrest for there gain. Get all students to sign a legally binding document with their parents & guardians that their civic rights will be disabled for 25 years, if they participate in any protest inside or out side the university or work for any political party till after they receive their degree. Any student not signing this document within 24 hours will loose civic rights for five years. Any man or woman who can do this would be considered a God or Goddess in the future. There was only one man in the past century who could do this & that was Sir John! MR & his two Education jokers can not hold a candle to Sir John.

  2. Sembu

    Privatize the Whole education system . Good.

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