|Peradeniya – towards collapse? - Reflections on the state of a university|
|Tuesday, 22 July 2008|
by: Qadri Ismail
The university is the basis of the intellectual life of a country. Its influence is meant to percolate through its graduates to the wider public domain that a critical consciousness might be maintained in the greater interests of the nation. The last thing a university is meant to do is conform. That eventuality would be an indication of a lack of freedom in the society which gave it birth; it would also mean that the university had reneged on its duty to that same society.
Thus far, this huge creation, Peradeniya, is inviolate and whole
Shaky but intact this proud patchwork pandol for Wesak.
Allowing every combination dim or dark,
Brighter in someone else’s studied view,
Shining out at night, when needed most
As a comfort
Peradeniya has always been seen by its denizens as the only true university in Sri Lanka: it has the largest number of faculties, all multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, and it is the only predominantly residential campus. The Oxbridge model performed its function in the first decade or so of its existence. After the 1956 revolution however, when it was no longer primarily the sons and daughters of the rich who came into campus, it failed to meet the challenge: it failed, that is, to evolve into a national university. This our many dons (yes, they even call themselves that) have failed to realise, still having their faith in what Peradeniya stood for. It is a commonplace today when describing our universities to say that standards have dropped: the role of the academic community in this is never brought into the picture, it being implied that the rural student, without background or training, could not cope with the sophisticated approach expected of an undergraduate.
Yet it is the teacher’s task to develop the standards of his students; and it is a shirking of responsibility, apart from being a stupid thing to do, to blame the rural student for failing to live up to an urban standard. A ‘liberal’ higher education was essential for the continuance of the English-educated–elite domination of Ceylon; after 1956 it was hopelessly inadequate, even archaic. The university hierarchy, composed largely of the old liberal brigade, failed to educate the rural student whose lack of the congruent school training was no fault of his own but of the system which had consistently neglected him. Changing this would involve a radical reorientation in attitude towards the pyramidal social structure prevalent today. This is not likely to occur. It is naive to expect dons from an urban class to care in any productive way about the poor. As such the university as an educational institution, as a place where one sharpens one’s intellect, has become irrelevant. To quote one critic, universities today are ‘isolated settlements reeking of desolation, where young people roam about aimlessly like children deserted by their parents. The staff are rarely seen; they make short visits and get away hurriedly as if their main business lay elsewhere.’ The staff of a university should act in loco parentis; in fact they have deserted their children.
That this potentially volatile situation should explode was to be expected. It did in 1971. The rationale behind the insurrection, whatever the demerits of the thing itself, was that it promised significant social change, including a freer academic environment. Ever since, government kept a firm grip on the university. The reaction naturally came – in 1976, nearing a General Election. In the course of this the police actually shot a student dead. The subsequent uproar was among the major issues of contention at the polls, exploited as was to be expected by the UNP. As was also to be expected, the promised reform never came. The new act looks good only on paper. Those in authority are generally supporters of the government, it being easy to have nominees win elections when most of the electors are your nominees too. The exercise of subtle, sometimes overt, control continues.
For the first five years after 1977 things were relatively calm at Peradeniya. The Dumbara campus for Arts students – seen not as students but as troublemakers - was established against the wishes of just about everyone relevant: an indication of how authoritarian things could become. The storms of protest were ignored. The policy seemed to be that Arts students were not going to be educated usefully anyway, so the longer they were kept far from the main campus the less likely they were to create trouble. It is this philosophy of looking at undergraduates as necessarily troublemakers, instead of trying to examine why, as adults with rights and ambitions of their own, they might be troubled, that has brought low our universities. This is both a symptom and a cause of the politicization of the university administration, which naturally has its parallels in the student body.
1982 saw a number of incidents in which political factionalism amongst both staff and students could be discerned. Before the next academic year opened, the President had won his re-election and was replacing the parliamentary election that should have preceded it with a referendum which the government was out to win at all costs. Cocky with all these developments, the UNP youth leaguers on campus began to show why they were popularly known as the ‘junta’. Elections were due for the Student Assembly, and they felt the results would reflect national support for the party. The subsequent resounding defeat they could not accept. Aided by a few complaisant officials, bicycle chains, empty bottles and the like, after the elections in this case, they waylaid the JVP victory procession. Many were injured, and then the JVP regrouped and, hot for revenge, beat up some of their opponents too.
The Vice-Chancellor took prompt action, closing the campus immediately and declaring it out of bounds to all students. When term reopened in January tempers seemed to have simmered down. A Commission of Inquiry was appointed to look into the matter, headed by former Justice Udalagama. This term too came to a close ahead of schedule, in that there was a strike in sympathy with Colombo University where a fee levying course for an External Law Degree had been started. This was seen as another step towards the gradual eradication of free education. Given the current economic climate, the fears were understandable. Student loans for instance remain pitifully inadequate; with inflation everywhere on the increase, and cuts in welfare constantly threatened, it is not surprising that students see themselves as vulnerable.
The chaos that broke out the next term can also be seen to have its parallels in national issues. It is difficult, given its well organized nature, not to view the racial violence that erupted on the campus in May as a planned precursor to the massacres in the rest of the country two months later. It began when the Sinhala title on the university name board was replaced by the slogan ‘Eelam for ever’. To ask any intelligent person to believe that Tamil Tigers would engage in such provocation, and in English to boot, in Kandy, the very heart of Sinhala Buddhist territory, is stretching far the limits of credulity. But then a racist is rarely an intelligent person: no one on campus seemed to realize that, by chasing all the Tamils away, what was being hastened was the de facto division of the country.
The ultimate motive of the racists on campus, like the ultimate motive of the racists in the rest of the country, if not genocidal is hard to decipher. That both groups were from the same camp seems apparent. The attacks in July were well organized, so were the attacks on campus; the mob of undergraduates, like the mob that so efficiently destroyed so much Tamil property in Colombo, had lists of the room numbers of Tamil students in the halls of residence. After the provocation offered by Tamils was mentioned, the government blamed the July violence on ‘certain interested parties’; questions in Parliament on the violence at Peradeniya also evoked references to ‘interested parties’, while no plausible explanation was proferred of the failure of the regular security forces to perform their function.
As later in July, the role of authority in May left much to be desired. A student was handed over to the army, suspected of being a terrorist purely on the basis of some letterheads and a rubber stamp in his possession, in a language none of his abductors understood or bothered to have deciphered. A preliminary internal inquiry, as is customary, was not initiated. Only an army officer, who realized with embarrassment that this was an office bearer of a campus society, troubled to apologise. But then, the sympathies of the university authorities were in doubt anyway. There was an adamant refusal to close down the campus although the lives of more than a quarter of the students were in danger.
The teachers themselves, at any rate some of them, behaved admirably. Most of the hierarchy toed the official line, but the University Teachers’ Association passed a resolution to the effect that it was unethical to teach under such circumstances, when a good proportion of the undergraduate population was forcibly kept away from lectures. Many of the teachers affirmed this attitude and, as the calls for a Sinhala only campus died down and Tamil students began to return, it seemed that Peradeniya might yet reassert the tolerance and breadth of vision associated with its academic position.
Towards the end of June news spread that Udalagama had released his report, in which he recommended severe suspensions for JVP students and relatively light treatment for UNP students also found guilty. The Council should have had better sense than to implement this. Meanwhile three of its members, with Kenneth de Lanerolle in the chair, were appointed to look into the racial violence. Preliminary investigation by the Director of Student Services suggested that quite a few students could be proved, despite the general reluctance among Tamils to testify, to have been guilty. He was especially sure that two of them, from urban schools, were guilty on five counts and insisted on their suspension. This was finally done, but de Lanerolle was asked to investigate only the flimsiest charges initially, when they were supposed to have assaulted a man while wearing paper bags over their heads to disguise themselves. This of course could not be established beyond doubt, and the suspensions were revoked.
Udalagama was less finicky. As predicted, he was severe with the JVP and lenient with the UNP students. What was amazing about his report was that students were found guilty without being formally charged; that UNP students found guilty of like offences received lighter punishments; that no one punished had been given a chance to cross-examine those on whose evidence they were convicted, not even political opponents whose evidence might not have been free from bias. Typical of the report was the recommendation of the suspension of a boy whose name was not on the university roll. It is also significant that a member of the committee submitted a dissenting report, although he had initialed all the pages of Udalagama’s, in which he recommended that justice be meted out fairly to both groups of students, and in any case put the blame on the authorities for having let things get out of hand.
What perhaps the authorities had not expected at this point, especially after nearly half the academic year had already been lost, was a strike. The whole university came out, even the medical students who usually have a very busy schedule, and the science faculty which had been at loggerheads with the JVP in May. The Vice-Chancellor stuck to his guns and, after three days during which the most exciting thing was a procession with slogans being shouted, declared that things were getting out of hand and closed the campus. In a most remarkable act of purpose and solidarity, two thousand undergraduates ignored the order and remained in their halls. To bring attention to their dilemma, seven students volunteered to fast to the death unless their grievances were remedied.
This seemed to make the Vice-Chancellor budge, albeit slowly. Friday July 15th was the fourth day of the fast, the last day of the academic week and term and year. Perhaps the high command conducting negotiations panicked. On Friday morning news got around that late on the Thursday night the Vice-Chancellor had yielded but that the Deans of Science and Arts had got him to change his mind again. This may not have been true, but a procession was launched down the main Galaha road which the Dean of Science came out to watch. A group of students sneaked behind and grabbed the Dean. He was taken to the fasting students, whose position and stature were undermined by this deplorable performance, and his release was made conditional upon the Vice-Chancellor meeting the students’ demands.
This was done for the nonce, but the long term consequences were predictable. The agreement was soon denounced. One of the demands was that the police never come into the campus without the permission of the students. In the late hours of Saturday night they came, and chased all the students out. They have not left since.
In late December a permanent police post was established. The only protests came from some newspapers and the other universities. The staff, for whatever reason, do not even seem to have considered objecting. The students have been effectively emasculated, term beginning with the third year honors students deprived of residential facilities, and 64 student leaders suspended.
The less militant of these have subsequently been taken back, but a major investigation into the kidnapping of the Dean of Science does not seem to be on the cards. This was a most regrettable event, for all concerned, and the first time something like it occurred in Peradeniya. It certainly merits an inquiry; but perhaps the facts that would emerge would not be entirely satisfactory to authority.
That justice should be done, and seen to be done, does not seem to matter any more on campus, instead, a police station. It is deplorable that armed law enforcement officers should be present at all times in what is meant to be a community of learning. The justification runs thus; no one who does not break the law should be scared of the police, and the police might help ease racial tension. As for the latter, it is a moot point how much faith Tamils, especially Tamil youths, have these days in the organs of the law, in Peradeniya particularly after the rejection of de Lanerolle’s report, which was tough in its criticisms and rapped many supporters of the government on the knuckles. As for the former it does not seem to occur to the authorities that, if the situation has deteriorated so badly in an institution of learning, the way to stop the rot is by investigating it and uprooting the weeds, not by bringing in the police who can only help preserve the façade while the real problems are left to stagnate.
But then, it is not atypical of this country that we should lurch from one patchwork solution to another. What is required is a thorough investigation of the state of our universities, an analysis of what a university is for, and what ought to be expected of staff and students and administration. It might then be realized what sort of treatment is required for institutions and people from whom much is expected. But such perceptions are rare in a society where power and authority are thought of as ends in themselves, when not associated with profit, and responsibilities and obligations are rarely considered. So whenever the facade cracks there will continue to be protest. Authority has been given sufficient reason in the recent history of this country to appreciate that the voiceless too have their anxieties and aspirations. Things are not likely to remain quiet for long.
(Courtesy : SCOPP )
|Last Updated ( Monday, 09 March 2009 )|
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