12 August, 2022


An Independent University – A Free Student

By Jayantha Dehiaththage/ Lakmali Hemachandra/ Ramindu Perera/ Ravi Tissera –

Sri Lankan university system is confronting many problems in the present day. Autonomy of the universities is threatened by undue influence and university education has degenerated both intellectually and culturally. As a group of concerned final year students, who has been in the university for four years, we are publishing a manifesto on how we see this problems and the stand we take for a better culture with in the university.

Democracy in the University

Democracy is a value system and a life style. Democracy is the force that every law derives its power from. Therefore we believe that relationships between,

– the administration and the students

– students and students

– lecturers and lecturers

must adhere to values of democracy.

Administrative decision in the university should be taken with the participation and agreement of the student body, giving priority to the needs of the students’ needs and an open and a transparent procedure should be adopted in taking these decisions. In the absence of such participation administrative decisions are imposed on students violating democratic values. Similarly the student body must practice democracy by listening to the opinions of the administration and decisions must be made with the agreement of both parties.

The decision making process within the student body must be fully transparent while ensuring the participation of all student groups. The decision making process should be enriched with the participation of students from different ethnic and religious communities as well as with female participation. The student union as the decision making body for the students must include representation of all groups mentioned because the responsibility and the consequences of the decisions taken by the student representative are shared by the entire student community.

Students’ Autonomy

University students are citizens above the age of eighteen. Therefore they have the right to autonomy in decision making and the right to be treated as adults. The students have the right and the freedom to engage in their own activity and that must not be infringed through unnecessary control of student activism by the administration. There exists a clear contradiction in regarding students to be independent and capable in their academic studies while adopting a patronizing attitude towards student activism outside of academics.

Academic Culture

The academic culture in the university is different from a school or a tuition class. A university is a place where lecturers along with students engage in exploring knowledge, not an institution that follows the teacher-student relationship that existed in the feudal society. Feudal traditions of standing up at the sight of the teacher entering the class and chastising the students and belittling them are not suitable for a modern university. While we believe that students must respect lecturers for the value of respecting human dignity, we do not think it should be in the nature of a feudal worship of the teacher.

The student in return is qualified to receive that same respect by virtue of being a human being. From the time before the renaissances universities were the birth places of fresh ideas and ideologies that changed the world. However Sri Lankan universities today have been reduced to vocational training institutes where students memorize the notes in order to get jobs. The existing academic culture does not encourage the student to think independently. Instead of a student who mechanically engages in academics fearing the year end exams the academic culture within the campus must be conducive to create scholars with critical and analytical views. The fact that the current academic culture has substituted the role of the scholar who seeks knowledge with a student who seeks attendance is truly a tragedy. It is futile to hope that an academic environment that has minimum facilities in lecture halls and hostels will create great scholars with strong personalities.

Student Politics

The word ‘politics’ has become a profanity inside universities. However the scholars, who denounce politics publicly, engage in it secretly as it happens with all things considered obscene. To insist that universities must be apolitical when everything about the world is political shows lack of perception among scholars. University students must be political, they must engage in critical political activism.

Student politics should move beyond the petty politics of eating and drinking at parties with ministers to a more meaningful, principle based political activism. Opinions must not be suppressed in the university. There should be a space for political discourse and debate. Universities, throughout the history, have

played an important role in creating and nurturing great political ideologies. The result of this imposition of an apolitical character on universities is apparent today with the reign of thugs, who have forgotten their memories, in our current mainstream political space.

The Role of the Scholars

We believe that the role of the lecturers and the students in the university should not be limited to academics. Today, the place of the student in universities is narrowed down to the four walls of lecture halls and libraries. The least possible participation in a cultural activity inside the university too is done with a lackluster attitude. Matters of social, cultural and political importance are not debated and discussed in the university among scholars and when such rare discussions do happen there seems to be no interest to join them. The university in its current form is producing scholars lacking the ability to be visionary, intellectual or critical. Is it not this intellectual deterioration that is reflected in the national level as well? We believe that this situation should change and that a thousand ideas should clash from the lecture halls to the canteens without the students who hold that opinions clashing with each other.

Universities are maintained by the tax money collected from not only engineers and cooperation chiefs but also from farmers and labourers. Therefore university students and lecturers have a social responsibility of standing up for common problems. Although there are lecturers and students who are trying to make changes in attitudes of the university community towards representing and striving for public good, most scholars remain apathetic to the problems of the masses.To pursue private advantage, career and petty individuality, ignoring the social responsibility the scholars are trusted with, is indeed a tragedy. Especially in the recent times we see a breakdown of democracy in the country and the enactment of the 18th Amendment, politicization of the judiciary and amending the criminal procedure code with adding oppressive provisions are a few examples of the said breakdown of democracy. The role of the true scholar when faced with such injustice is not to approve them or to be silent in front of them, willingly or unwillingly, but to stand up against them actively and vivaciously.

Free education and freedom in education

We believe education to be a right and not a privilege. Education is a quintessential factor in human development and every citizen has an equal right to education. This equal right can only be achieved through an education that is free at the point of delivery or as well call it, free education. Market forces are not successful in performing that function of education as a necessary tool of civilization. However in the recent times we have seen privatization of education being adopted as the government policy on education.

We condemn such policy and believe that a thought provoking debate should exist within the universities about the importance of free education and freedom in education. Empowerment of free education and the force it will have are decisive in establishing all the other good practices that we discussed from the beginning of the manifesto (democracy in the university, autonomy of students, a good academic culture and the role of the scholars). During these times when most have forgotten this empowering role of free education we believe that defending the right to free education is a duty that we cannot cast aside.

The purpose of this manifesto is to document the main principles and values that we believe are essential to build a better culture in the university. Instead of a university where we follow a meaningless routine with mechanical precision without giving any second thought, our hope is too see a university community that acts on principles with critical intelligence, following higher values of democracy and human freedom. Some might think this hope is utopian and impossible to achieve but let us remind you that in the medieval time when a few dreamt of democracy instead of a feudal society ruled by a monarch, the same allegation of being utopian was thrown at them as well. Every step the world has taken towards development and advancement has been a result of the continuous struggle to achieve a goal that was once utopian. We request from you to discuss and debate the ideas presented here. A university with a greater cause and a culture will only be possible if such debates and discussions ultimately lead to vivacious and unending activism.

*JayanthaDehiaththage/ LakmaliHemachandra/ RaminduPerera/ Ravi Tissera – Final year- Faculty of Law, University of Colombo

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Latest comments

  • 0

    We are happy to see atleast a group of enlightened students critically evaluating the University education as at present.Master-slave relationship of Feudalism is quite alive in every aspect of society.Change in critical thinking, rational thinking and debate has to be promoted first at home and then in Schools before the youngsters enter the University because by the time they come to Universities they bring a heavy baggage of rotten values.The academics also come out of this feudal Universities.

  • 0

    First let me congratulate the authors, who are final year undergraduates, for publishing an article on “An Independent University and A Free Student”. And I hope the readers of CT who are knowledgeable on the two subjects the authors dealt with in the article, would comment on the content with view of encouraging the university students to write more on the issue with particular focus on “Independence and Freedom” in university system and university education.

    I find that the authors have attempted to draft a manifesto for resurrecting university education, which they say, has degenerated intellectually and culturally. So it appears that they wanted to base their manifesto on a foundation that would help universities to become stronger intellectually and culturally.

    It is not my intention to find faults in the article because I am also a learner. Yet I feel the start point in the article is weak due to the absence of appropriate definitions for terms, university and university education. It would have been better if a brief comparison of western and eastern (Asian)models were compared briefly.

    Secondly we have to understand the our university system is state controlled. Hence highlighting the difference between a state university and a state controlled university could have made the arguments of the authors more stronger. Space and Time for Independence and Freedom in teaching, research and learning, which the authors think, should be there in universities,could have been found even within the strictly regulated system, without confrontations that always affect the system in general and university education in particular.

    During my time in the university I found that Faculty or subject based Associations such as Associations of Engineering, Science, and Social Science Students and also the societies of Drama, Arts, Astronomy, Music and Explorer’s Club etc. provided the opportunity for us to meet scholars and experts from outside the university and to explore the world outside the confines of the University. Now I hear from my colleagues in Academic Staffs, that students focus only on the completion of their studies according to the programmes and the large majority has no time for associations and societies.

    Further the associations with students of other faculties and the life in the hostels helped me to understand the economic hardships of many students. There was no Mahapola Scholarships those days and there were only bank loans distributed by BOC and PB. Maximum amount was Rs. 180.00 a month. There were students who sent home Rs. 75.00-100.00 a month by eating only one meal a day. Some of them told me it was very difficult for them to eat all three meals a day when their families were starving. Even with those difficulties there was a little bit of liberal thinking.

    The sad story today is that some of those liberal thinkers have become Cabinet Ministers and they want the university students to learn and follow the philosophies and manifestos of their political parties.

    • 0

      Who has the time to read your long reply, you preach Banna of no value. The prime responsibility of undergraduates is to complete the degree within the stipulated time frame without wasting public funds. No country provide free education at University level and it is not a universal obligation. A country like us cannot afford billions of Rupees for university education. Must learn to live up to your means.

  • 0

    While agreeing with most of what is said here, I am not convinced by the generalised anti-private university opinions expressed.
    The fact that the free university education system in Sri Lanka has spectacularly failed in creating a single statesmen who is able to steer the country towards a just a prosperous society is a damning indictment on the present university system. This system in my opinion breeds a bunch of people who feel they are owed a living by the government and who look down upon entrepreneurs and plain businessmen in a curious display of reverse snobbery, forgetting that they are the backbone of any developing economy.
    Now, if these same authors proved that they entered university without any help from tuition masters, I would be more inclined towards agreeing with their stance. Where the whole supposedly free A Level system is dependent on tuitions to produce results and squeeze the students into universities, it is mindboggling that the university students don’t realize their hypocrisy.

  • 0

    Sri Lankan University Students are indisciplined. I don’t think they know what democracy or it’s limits are.

    Sri Lankan students are destructive and abuse every thing they have.

    They don’t and they don’t want to understand that their primary goal is educating themselves and using the resources they have to the maximun possible.

    Over the years, they have destroyed the university system.

    University student leaders to be blamed for the present status of the sri lankan universities. they brought politics, helped politicizing students and wrecked the system

  • 0

    Jay and Jimsofty,

    I am a product of the state university system, and am now a lecturer at one of the universities. And I applaud the sentiments expressed here by the four students.
    What you say in your different ways demonstrate how little you know about what is going on inside the universities today. Your remarks are indisciplined and show little capacity for engagement. Diatribe is no way to engage with the kind of persuasive writing that the students have engaged in.
    The student body is diverse and I in no way support the actions of all students in the name of student independence, ragging for instance. But ragging is a part of society. The school system in Sri Lanka is autoritarian and has little respect for social and individual difference. It instils a culture of subservience and fear among students. Also, the ‘deterioration’ in the education sector, secondary school, through the abdication of collective responsibilty, and intense competition has encouraged mass rote learning and quick fixes like studying ‘past papers’ instead of learning the fundamentals etc. It is this ‘deterioration’ we in the universities have to combat when students come to the university. On the other hand, there is intense politicization by authorities that do not allow us to do our work. It is not students who bring in ‘politics’ (though I must say, all that we do is political). It is people like you and others, who ask us to just accept producing students who would not be able to think for themselves, who would just follow orders, that are encouraging a system built on fear, subservience and blind obeying of authority figures. It is not US who are destroying students, learning and education, but people like you, who speak irresponsibly. If you want to talk about student indiscipline and stuff, just look around you and see how indisciplined the authorities are in this country. Students might be indisciplined at times or even often, but it is a culture that they and we have inherited from the political culture around us. Indisicpline comes from following the orders of those who are indisciplined, and you should know who is indisciplined in this country.

    At the same time, the letter written by these students is more than encouraging. It shows that we have succeeded somewhere. it shows that we have been able to critically engage with students. Or did they do it all by themselves? However it shows that the university continues to be a place where thinking takes place. And I am relieved.

    Also, it is very courageous of these students to have written under their own names and affiliation, an attribute the detractors do not seem to possess; once again, this is an indication of our times and the
    the culture of cowardice and fear that has us in its vice like grip.

    Sumathy Sivamohan
    University of Peradeniya

  • 0

    A number of academics and others, inside and outside the universities have carried out studies of the private and public university systems and the current trend of privatising the universities. They have looked at funding including world bank funding. You do not know half the picture of state funding and what is being done today in the name of privatisation. What is happening today in the name of privatisation is the creation of a sub standard graduate who would be unemployable in one’s own business.

    i suggest that you engage with the ideas expressed in this piece written by the students through a more informed study of what is going on here. Any policy on education, secondary and higher, demands public debate of an informed nature.

    The irresponsibility of ‘commenting’online in this manner is another sign of the irresponsibility of our times. It is refreshing to see that the students have been, in so small a space, able to bring out so many issues that demand our engagement. The response to that is study and discussion, not flippant ‘comments’ for which nobody claims any responsbility. Is this what respect for the private sector means? Not taking responsibilty for one’s action or words?

    The snobbery of academics and students is a small thing in this world over run by global capital. It is merely the ‘weapon of the weak’ which is actually a strength in turn. Multinationals are trying to get out of any taking responsbility for the catastrophe of the garment factory that collapsed in bangladesh. It is within that larger framework of irresponsbility that the private sector, particularly, global capital, works. Look at what happened in the west recently, or do you not know about it? It is called the financial crisis.

  • 0

    An excellent document to revive the deteriorating university system. Have to wholeheartedly agree with the suggestions of a improved academic and scholarly culture. The change is important from a tution class based knowledge system to a analytical system of knowledge. My only problem here is with regard to the Education is a right argument. I agree that education is definitely a right and shouldnt be a bourgeoise priviledge. But the presumption implied here that the state alone should provide education to society, in a way contradicts ur point of universal education; as the state is practically incapable of providing such right. The only viable solution then is State education (qualitative)to exist together with ‘Qualitative’ Private Education. Because this would be the most practical alternative (In my personal view) to spread education to the largest number of people in the country. Overall i like to thank the authors for taking this initiative and paving way for an intellectual discourse on the development of university education in Sri Lanka.

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