Colombo Telegraph

Attack On Students & The Larger Crisis

By 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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