(defence of whom? I wonder) I have witnessed. The march which reached the Galaha junction culminated with an unintelligible cacophony with students shouting slogans and anti-climactically ended peacefully.
Last Friday the march organised by the students’ union of University of Peradeniya was aborted by the police at the Galaha junction. The students intended to march to Colombo in protest against the pending ‘Private University Act.’ The university was under siege, surrounded by the police and military personnel and the latter were armed with automatic rifles. Since I entered university in 2008, this was the most threatening defence build-up (defence of whom? I wonder) I have witnessed. The march which reached the Galaha junction culminated with an unintelligible cacophony with students shouting slogans and anti-climactically ended peacefully.
That evening the state media reported that the students’ union of UoP had been suspended following a protest where the students behaved, for want of a better term – ‘riotously.’ This measure was rationalised on the grounds that the students unions pave the way for violence and disobedience on campuses.
I have never been an apologist of the students’ unions nor do I wish to be one now. The fact that the students’ unions have been unapologetic advocates of ‘ragging,’ (which they for some skewed reason consider recreational) has given the regime a solid pretext on which it can suppress the unions. However, I do not believe that the wellbeing of the students (to keep them out of harm’s way) is the real rationale behind the suspension of the unions. The real rationale, at least in my opinion, is Machiavellian and politically expedient.
Enclaves of resistance
Sri Lankan universities have traditionally remained enclaves of resistance. This fact was indelibly demonstrated by the 71 and 88 insurgencies. However, during the last phase of the war Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF), conforming to the diktats of the JVP, uncritically supported the government.
In an ironic historical twist, now the same government is breathing down its neck. It appears that now the so called ‘leftist faction’ of the JVP is getting the support of the students’ unions. This, so far has not led to a tangible a change in politics within university. However, the defection of the JVP from the ruling coalition has rendered the universities anti-government.
In fact, it could be argued that owing to the political impotency of the UNP, the JVP (the new leftist faction) and the university student body-politic remain the only alternative political force in the country that could decisively challenge the regime. And this makes its castration at any cost necessary.
The suspension of the unions and the establishment of private universities are all part of a larger Machiavellian plan to weaken the base of the JVP. With propaganda dished out on a daily basis to gullible masses the government glosses over these realities and dresses suppression in cloaks of benevolence.
The establishment of private universities has been a perennial issue for over a decade now. Today, our country is going through a well calculated schizophrenic phase. When on the one hand the government takes over private businesses which run at a loss, on the other it has opened up the country to unprecedented, break-neck capitalist development and the university students are amongst the people who are going to get their necks most mercilessly broken. It is not difficult to see how the establishment of private universities is going to deal a heavy blow on the university system.
Lack of funding
Largely owing to the lack of funding, (amongst other reasons) the standards in the universities (especially in faculties of humanities) have come down. Universities are finding it increasingly difficult to retain their best products within the university system since the junior lecturers are paid paltry salaries; nor can the universities attract academics that have left the country, given that they are better paid elsewhere. These were amongst the issues which were outlined by the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) at open discussions held during their trade union action.
FUTA demanded that the government allocate 6% from the GDP for education. Currently, only 2.8% (lowest in the region) is allocated. This demand, of course, was very conveniently forgotten after the government decided to raise the salaries. As a result today the departments in the universities are peopled with incompetent and intolerant lecturers who are hell bent on creating students who are as mediocre as they are.
However, my point is, if the government establishes private universities, it is highly unlikely that the state run universities will be able to compete with them. Even the remaining lecturers would leave the state funded university system for better pay in the private universities. Alongside the breakdown of the state funded universities, the JVP would lose the base of its political prowess and the hegemony over the university student body-politic. And in this way the regime can effectively castrate the only viable alternative political force in the country.
To counter this modus operandi I believe that the IUSF first should give up the old-school practice of ragging in order to mobilise the students. This would also make it difficult for the regime to use ragging as an excuse to suppress the students. The IUSF should observe fundamental democratic values in the universities such as respecting dissenting voices without fighting one kind of authoritarianism with another. Professor Savitri Goonesekere, the former vice-chancellor of University of Colombo, delivering her keynote address at a recently held academic conference at Peradeniya, highlighted the importance of creating an environment of tolerance and mutual respect in the universities.
Unity amongst the students should be sustained in this way and not by demanding uncritical conformity to whatever the policy that the JVP is pursuing at a given time. It is only in this way the university students will be able to unite and decisively challenge and overcome their common enemy.