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.
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.
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.
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