22 May, 2022


Attack On Students & The Larger Crisis

By Harini Amarasuriya

Dr. Harini Amarasuriya

Dr. Harini Amarasuriya

Last week’s brutal attack by police on protesting HNDA students, exposes yet again, the severe problems in the country’s education sector. Images of riot police chasing after students and beating them with poles, and the bloodied faces of young female students, has created a furore and to a certain extent, a backlash against the police action and indeed the government. The government has responded as every government in the past has done: the appointment of committees to conduct inquiries. Of course, the fact that this time around the new Police Commission has also initiated an investigation and the reconstituted Human Rights Commission has received a formal complaint from the students is reflective of at least some positive changes. Yet, the true test of the intentions of the newly elected government can only be assessed based on their responses to the conclusions of the various inquiries and their actions in the weeks and days to come.

My intention here however, is not to go into the specifics of last week’s incident or its aftermath. Rather, I want to locate this particular incident within the larger crisis in the education sector. Recently, I met a group of school students, mostly from International Schools at a workshop to which I was invited. On that very day too, university students were on a protest and they marched past the hall where I was conducting the workshop. Ironically, I had been invited to speak on education and equity. One of the participants at the workshop stated that university students should not be protesting – that their job was to study. They should not be wasting tax payers money but instead, just knuckle down and get on with what they were really supposed to do: study. Reading some of the comments on social media, especially the English language social media regarding the HNDA incident, certainly, this is a common point of view. Student protests are described as disruptive and unnecessary. The traffic jams and inconvenience due to the protests were strongly condemned. By and large, the response to student protests was disapproving. State universities and university students were viewed extremely negatively.

In a parallel universe, there are advertisements galore offering various degrees and courses in all types of private ‘universities’ ‘campuses’ ‘colleges’ ‘institutes’. The pictures accompanying these advertisements show happy and smiling young people, dressed in the latest fashions, carrying all kinds of electronic devices looking ready to take on the world, armed with their ‘globally competitive’ degrees and certificates. The contrast between the images of the HNDA students and the ‘students’ featured in these advertisements could not be greater. One set of images represent chaos, violence, disorder; the other, stability, fulfilment and satisfaction.

How do we make sense of this? In a recent interview the Minister for University Education and Highways (yes, the irony of linking these two subjects has been commented upon ad nauseum) stated that the government is not opposed to private higher educational institutes. The problem he stated was the lack of regulation of these institutions and he assured the reporter that this would be sorted out quickly. That the government is not opposed to these institutions has been quite obvious. Just days after his appointment, the State Minister for University Education, Mr Mohan Lal Grero, was pictured in the media at the opening of yet another of such private institutions. Newspapers carried his message of congratulations to the administrators of the institution on their new venture. Quite apart from the conflict of interest in the appointment of Mr Grero to such a position (he himself is closely linked with a private education institute), what are the ethics of a Minister participating in such ceremonies, when the government has acknowledged that these institutions are not even regulated properly? If the government cannot provide assurances about the quality, standards or even legality of private educational institutions, should government representatives be participating at such events?

What is becoming quite clear is that there is little to choose between the education policies of the previous government with the current government. Yes, commitments have been made to increase funding for education – this is going to be a highlight of the 2016 budget – but funding is allocated without a clear policy. On what is the government spending the increased allocation? What is this government’s vision for education?

It is in this context, that the police attack on protesting universities students becomes all the more ominous. In the absence of a clear policy statement on education, the actions of the police can be read as a continuation of the state strategy of suppressing the student movement, which has always been one of the strongest sources of resistance to the privatisation of education. Yes, this government has stood by its promise (or has hinted strongly that it will) to increase funding for education – but increased funding could also be towards the further commodification of education. In which case, it is completely contradictory to the spirit in which the demand for increased allocation for education came about: increasing funding for education was a demand in the context of strengthening state education. The need for enhancing and strengthening state education came about as a result of debates and dialogue on the meaning of education and the acknowledgement that education mediated by market forces cannot meet the goals of education.

The actions of the past several weeks however hardly inspire confidence that there is anything close to consensus among the various actors – or the public on this immensely important issue.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    What we are against is students becoming pawns in the hands of the student leaders who are in turn pawns in the hands of the student leaders manipulated by various political parties like the JVP.

    When people say that “they should not be wasting tax payers money but instead, just knuckle down and get on with what they were really supposed to do”, that is what they mean. In short we do not want the students to become the canon fodder of the political battles waged for political capital.

    Just as relgion, education should also be decoupled from political activity.

  • 0

    Well said Dr. Harini. Please keep up your good work.

    The Crisis in the Education sector needs to be located in the larger problem of CORRUPT GOVERNANCE that continues under the guise of Yahapalanaya and the protection given to corruption by Sirisena and Ranil – as you correctly identify.

    The images of student being attacked by police and the condemnation of the government needs to lead to the resignation of so called Minister of Law and order Thilak Marapana who is implicated in the Avant Guard floating armoury case.

    The honeymoon for the people of Lanka, is over: The corruption embedded deep in the Ranil-Sirisena Ayahapalanaya government is being exposed. In many ways it is worse that Mahinda Jarapassa and brothers Inc. rule which did not try to pretend that it was not a military dictatorship dressed in primitive, Sinhala Buddhist nationalist racism.

    Today we have apparently anti-racist and modernist corruption running rife. Only corrupt Tamil politicians have been arrested – like Chrandrakanthan – but not a single corrupt Sinhala politician has been arrested or tried and indeed even Saji Vas Gunawardena has been released to take foreign trips to secure his stolen millions overseas..

    The most scnadelous exposure has been made by JVP’s Anura Kumara that the so-called Minister of Law and order is a corrupt clown and the lawyer of the Avandt Gurad Scammer. There is a massive CONFLICT OF INTEREST and Marapana must be asked to resign. Meanwhile the Minister of justice is protecting Gota the Goon and Ranil is bailing out Wimal Weerawansa – to continue the circus in the Parliament of Modayas where Ranil like to play king of the court.

    It is time now for the masses who were duped by the Ayahapalanaya Sirisena-Ranil circus of corrupt clowns to have a massive protest at the Parliament of corrupt modayas and ask for Marapana and Wijedasa and Ranil’s resignation.
    Each session of the parliament of corrupt modayas, where Ranil Wickramsinghe plays king of the court, costs tax payers a hefty sum of 4 million plus. There is need for massive cuts in “parliamentary privileges” and luxurious living for corrupt politicians who are the biggest law breakers in the land.
    We need a massive demonstration against corruption outside the parliament of corrupt modays.

  • 2

    Sri Lankan Public University problems are more deeper than attacking to students: Everybody has to accept that Sri Lankan Universities are real mafia, family and tribal business (Mafia definition: once you are in you cannot never get out of it) and it is rotten to death. Why not publicly show professors’ Publications with indexing journals (Only ISI and SCOPUS are accepted internationally)? text books with publishers name. Even the most absurd title (Senior Professor) you find only in Sri Lanka. Correct this mafia business as all of us pay taxes to run this mafia system. I guess you do not find any Nobel Prize winning person with this Senior Professor title. Correct wrong professor appointments and look for beyond Sri Lanka and get international recognition for University Professors. Do not allow University Lecturers do local PhDs (Lecturers are recruiting from outdoor connections and giving PhDs also the same way under recruiting person and creating loyalty groups- What a shame) and do not appoint professors without minimum 20 High impact journal (only SCOPUS and ISI)and at least without PhDs from world top 100 Universities, 10 text books and three countries Visiting Professorships, etc.

  • 1

    Harini and the lik s could do more to improve the University system in Sri Lanka. They’ can ensure that these universities meet international standards. CT published a petition and an article by Dr Uyangoda. They do not blame the students for punishing the innocent public. They don’t realise that there will be small children, patients who are rushing home or hospital for treatment. There are those who wants to go home after a long day. Some would miss the connecting train or bus.students had other means to settle these issues.

    But yet I do not condone the behavior of the police. Under no circumstanc should they physically harm the students. However these professors should take the blame for not guiding these students,

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