4 June, 2023


Mediating Radicalism Of The Undergraduate Youth Of Sri Lanka

By Piyumani Ranasinghe

Piyumani Ranasinghe

“The main hope of a nation lies in proper education of its youth” ~ Erasmus

Against the backdrop of all 9 faculties of the University of Peradeniya being closed, due to an alleged “crisis” situation at the Engineering Faculty, there is no better time to ponder on the question of undergraduate radicalization and the future of our island nation, than right now. The fact that, the undergraduate youth continue to provide a hotbed for violence and radical politics not only reflect the dysfunctional setting of the entire social structure and our long-revered education system; but also signals at a dying canary in a coal mine. The issue, if not tackled soon, will lead to dire consequences, which can disintegrate the society at large. Mediating radicalism of the undergraduate youth of Sri Lanka is a constructive way forward, not only in peacefully resolving the issue, but also changing the nature in which the youth think and interact in conflict.

The “Crisis”

The current issues within the University system of Sri Lanka in general, is constructed around: politically motivated violence; unemployable graduates; deterioration of academic freedom and the university autonomy; quality and quantity issues of research and innovation; as well as quality of the curriculums. Validating the strong sentiment in society that the university system is at a fix, the “crisis” in the University of Peradeniya emerges a little over two months ago, with the Engineering Student Union boycotting the end-semester examinations of the Faculty due to several reasons. The boycott led to the closing down of the entire University (holidays for over 12,000 students!) for two months, although, all with the exception of the Engineering faculty is to recommence work from the 13th of August onwards. However, the academic curriculum for most faculties starts only after the 20th of August adding into the further delay of the already delayed academic calendar. The Engineering Faculty still remains closed.

A close examination of student protests in Peradeniya shows us the dissatisfaction of the student community as a whole in terms of several issues. Topping the list is the nature in which the 80 percent attendance was calculated (students alleging improper calculation in the aftermath of the non-academic strike which took place at the beginning of 2018); the lack of infrastructure development within the Faculty (the Manufacturing and Industrial Engineering Laboratory which caught on fire two years ago continuing to be under construction till date); affixing CCTV cameras in faculty premises for safety (although the opposition to this hardly makes sense) and industrial training and welfare related issues of the student body. In this context, the alleged politicization of the administration is only firewood to an already flaring fire. The sad reality is that, with the addition and revision of certain slogans, it is apparent that the crisis in Peradeniya is a representation of the quandary of the entire University system. 

However, in sustainably resolving these issues, there are more constructive avenues than merely and completely resorting to boycotting exams, violence and self-destructive harm to one’s education.

The general prescriptions for these problems surrounding the entire university system, by various stakeholders, may seem neutral solutions, although it largely capitalizes the economic pros and cons and certain market objectives. For examples, in addressing the unemployability of undergraduates, the prescription is to develop soft skills alongside a curriculum sufficing the needs of the market.  This is of course is an important aspect of the entire discourse. However, it is equally important to connect the community to the problem, understanding and analyzing the personal discomforts and experiences of those who face the plight of these conflicts (undergraduates, academic staff, non-academic staff, minor staff and third-party service providers). 

Undoubtedly then, tackling the issue of undergraduate youth becomes a complex task. What is important in this case is to understand that wholly market oriented solutions do not serve as a panacea for social problems caused by the radicalized undergraduate youth. Equally, responding to manifestations of the problem rather than the root cause of the issue, only adds more confusion, further meddling an already fragile system. A constructive option that appears to be available to us to tackle the root cause is schooling mediation and peaceful conflict resolution, which is a transformative and formative process of addressing the radicalization of the undergraduate youth of Sri Lanka. 

The Value of Mediating Conflicts

The technical term “mediation”, is an Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) method enabling the parties at conflict to examine all underlying issues and problems in a given dispute reaching far beyond the ‘tip of the iceberg’. According to Saranee Gunathilake, co-founder of UDecideSL, an organization working towards the promotion of mediation practices in Sri Lanka, the ‘tip of the ice berg’ represents the emotions involved in a dispute and not essentially the whole problem, naturally rendering the traditional approaches to conflict resolution suboptimal in assuring that interests of both parties are served. 

In the present context, mediation is being used as a means of resolving various disputes ranging from domestic violence to commercial matters across the globe. Hence, as a viable mechanism of dispute resolution, given its distinctive characteristics, it can also serve as a meaningful alternative in the place of traditional dispute resolution mechanism, amongst communities, such as the Universities. 

One key lesson taught by mediation, is the means of resolving conflicts peacefully as well as constructively. In common practice, mediation is managed by a neutral third party intervenient called a mediator. The mediator leads the procedure by managing the process of resolving a conflict, particularly in a way that the disputants are empowered through the process to navigate through the problem and resolve the dispute. In this way, the disputants are in fact the decisive actors designing the outcome and the enforcement of the solution. Since it is forward looking, the solutions aim at evolving the future conduct of the parties, given that mutuality is emphasized in the place of differences. What is important is to espouse these concepts into the conflicts of the radicalized undergraduate youth.

Mediating Youth Radicalization

Here, it is vital to understand conflict as a crisis in human interaction, a view adopted by Dana Costache, a Mediator and the founder of Casa Tianu Mediation in the United States. In terms of Peradeniya, the lack of incentive to mediate the conflict on the part of undergraduate youth as well as the University administration is at the heart of the crisis.  

According to Costache, this view on conflict theoretically underlies the concept of “relational mediation”. She highlights that “conflict causes people to become relatively weak and self-absorbed, thus diminishing their capacity to make decisions or consider others’ perspectives.” This is because the conflict is relational in nature (each person’s own version of the conflict) and represents a challenge to the quality of the interaction among parties. This can validly explain why student unions act in the way they do and continuously struggle to win over their interests, through violent means such as boycotting something as crucial as exams. 

Thus, the fundamental premise of relational understanding of conflicts involves changing the quality of the conflict interaction itself, from destructive to constructive. It believes that human beings are intrinsically capable of both self-determined choice and responsiveness to others, even when confronted with adverse circumstances; and that people have innate needs for advancement of one’s self and connection with others. Hence, as Costache notes, the conflict resolution processes that promote empowerment and recognition provide the opportunity for people to restore their capability to make decisions and consider others’ perspectives. 

The lack of incentive on the part of the undergraduate youth in Peradeniya (more generally, in Sri Lanka), to mediate conflicts and resolve issues sustainably through dialogue, discussion and negotiation is largely debited to the inadequate importance given to mediation and its conceptual significance in school and undergraduate curriculums. Although, praiseworthily non-governmental organizations such as UDecideSL facilitate constructive engagement of young students as well as undergraduates in the subject matter of mediation, through workshops, discussions and driving a dialogue amongst the youth; the government should carry the mammoth of the responsibility in ensuring that the value of mediation is promoted amongst the student population in general. The aim of mediating the radicalized youth starts from, firstly raising awareness of mediation practices in daily conflict resolution between individuals through such initiatives which is also driven by the youth. 

In the context of Peradeniya, promoting mediation within the university, understanding conflict and transforming the nature of interaction in conflict is a way forward for the authorities to tackle the issue of cyclical violence. Both the undergraduates and the administration should embrace meditational practices in resolving issues within the university avoiding violence and other extreme measures. This strategy involves schooling of these practices at a macro level, in primary, secondary as well as tertiary educational institutions in order to educate current as well as future undergraduates. This is not only a sustainable solution for the “crisis,” but also addresses the root cause of student radicalization, because there is an understanding of constructively resolving conflicts. It leaves space to critically examine the way in which radicalization of the undergraduate youth is conceptualized and facilitates a process of decision making in addressing the issue, which hopefully would not curl up in a cycle of political interests. 

*Piyumani Ranasinghe is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL). She is a graduate of International Relations from the University of London and is currently reading for her LL.B. degree at the University of Peradeniya.  Her views are independent. 

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Latest comments

  • 1

    I think your proposal in invalid for Sri lanka. The reason which became the background for undergraduates in the USA or in the UK and for Sri lanka is completely for different reasons. You say your views are indepenent. In brief. There are so many reasons why Sri lankan undergraduates are unhappy. It is mostly dumb politics, probably corrupt University management which are highly politicized. Probably the academics read the same old lecture note and they are not updates or those notes have no use in the modern world. I mean the degree is outdated. IF they find they have no futre (there are even engineering graduates in Sri lanka who di dnot find proper employment). So, they are unhappy. It is only the po,litics the best employment even without any education. but for that, every one can not be the Politician’s son or daughter.

  • 1

    There is a oversupply of engineers in the world. Even Sri lanka has elelctrical engineering DScs unemployed. So, simply that degree course should be transferred to technical collaeges and I don’t know what other degree programs sri lanka have introduced. Even then for mechanical and civil engineering govt wants foreign countries finish the contract and that country send their engineers and they gain overseas experience and Sri lankan engineers omstead become violent, desperate and rebellious. I think that is the most possible case.

  • 0

    I don’t think meditation works for students. There should be councilling who question why students are radicalized. Why medical, Science, Agrioculture or Veterinary students are not radicalized. I heard engineering also has a problem that foreign coutries ask these students to be sent to their countries. In the west, University education is also a business for universities to find funds, Post graduate degrees provide cheaper means to find solutions to problems otherwise would need lot of financial resources. I heard foreign countries are saying SEND THOSE PEOPLE TO US, WE GIVE SCHILARSHIPS TOO. sO, THAT NEED MAY BE WORKIN IN INDIRECT WAYS TOO.

  • 5

    Put a price tag on their education, many things will be sorted out by itself. Likewise, privatize some of the state sectors, many issues will be sorted out. The word, “state” is taken for granted, nothing else while it is the ordinary people who contribute to keep these running is forgotten.

  • 4

    Ban all student unions. These freeloaders study at the poor taxpayers expense holding the country to ransom. Best is sign a 10 year repayment bond so that they pay back the money spent on them. Free education is the biggest bane for this country. All we have produced are worse than buffoons like our infamous GMOA.

  • 2

    I agree with you that the current problem reflects the dysfunctional nature of the entire society!
    Concept of mediation, conflict resolution does not exist in any level or form in the Sri Lankan society which is corrupt to the core. In other countries even prior to embarking on strikes workers / trade unions have to formally negotiate through an independent body (set up for this purpose) who will act as a mediator and negotiate outcomes that are binding. In Sri Lanka railway workers, teachers or the so called dignified medical doctors can go on strike very unethically causing hardships to the average man.

    Lack of open mindedness can be linked to the primary and secondary education where no one is taught a) to respect law b) that all people are equal c) think objectively d) look at options etc. There seems to be a mental block in all Sri Lankans who seem to quickly pounce on a Yes or No answer.

    On a different topic as an ex Peradeniya student from the faculty of engineering, I am still amazed why ragging should exist in any form and why there should be even a debate on ragging at all. The fact that ragging still thrives in the universities shows how primitive the thinking of the university students!

  • 7

    Introducing conflict resolution and mediation studies in secondary and undergraduate levels is a good idea overall. It can equip students with the necessary knowledge and skills to deal with conflict situations that are part of life in any modern society. But the question of undergraduate radicalization is, I’m afraid, a different kettle of fish. It is related to and fuelled by wider social, political, economic and cultural processes. It may find expression through campus student politics, but its root causes are usually embedded in wider social justice issues and political struggles. For dispute resolution methods and mediation practices to work, there should be at least a minimum consensus based on core values among the parties in conflict. But this is what is lacking in conflicts involving universities and radicalized students. For such students, the university itself may appear as part of the system that is oppressing them. The approaches to conflict resolution suggested by the writer may at best work to contain and manage conflicts between students and universities over day to day administrative matters. While there are genuine reasons for student radicalization, unfortunately, today in many universities in Sri Lanka, a growing number of students are there not to learn but to work to an agenda. Many of them are professional student-agitators working for various political organizations and they’re in no hurry to complete their academic programs. Some of them never complete anything except to cause much disruption and damage to the university community and the general public. I doubt there will ever be a panacea for social problems caused by the radicalized undergraduate youth.

  • 5

    I was an undergraduate 45 years ago the only university of Ceylon/Sri Lanka. Even then we had the same problems. There were strikes but not so widespread, could get the degree, may be couple of months delay. Was able to get a decent job. But now, frequent strikes, couple of years delay to get degree and no jobs. Fault lies within us.

  • 3

    All this is good, high table treory.What matters is that the tax payer foots the bill.The given a chance, the government that taxes even the middle class income from interest, who spends billions on the purchase of vehicles, will, within a shot time as the elections are due in 2019, lump another un iversity as a sop to the voter costing the tax payer some more money. the solution, short and sweet is to terminate free education at the GCE (AL) level and charge the University students for their education. The payment can be upfront or in stages – pre paid and post paid system.That will stop this muck. they cannot go on strikes and expect the days lost not to be considered when allowed to sit the exams.In the alternative close all the Universities.There are enough and more educational institutions to provide for the country’s requirement.It it is best to get rid of the residential facilities offered. I have been at peradeniya and know the difference.,

    Please answer this question. Since the setting up of many Univeriies what benefit had the country gained from the graduates. They seek employment as Glorified clerks – management Assistants of no quality. A Government clerk of the pre 1956 era was an actually educated person.SWRD destroyed that class.with his Sinhala only, created at the behest of another rascal, calling himself a Budhhist priest Henpitagedara Gnanaseeha.

  • 1

    SL university students should be GRATEFUL for the state and all Sri Lankans who end up paying for their free education.

    Instead they choose to agitate at the drop of the hat over minor issues – often at the behest of various political parties.

    These students should be made to pay for their education. They can fund it by working part-time while attending university, instead of wasting their and others’ time with protests that catalyze university closures.

    Their parents and other elders should cut them off, and let them figure out a way to feed themselves during these closures, instead of babying them.

    GROW UP!!!! University education is a PRIVILEGE. Most people around the world would DIE for the opportunity to attend university. Do not squander your privilege!

  • 0

    One wonders as to what Piyumani Ranasinghe has in mind on “Radicalism”.
    For example those addressing corruption/nepotism/impunity are radicals. They address social issues.
    But those attempting to promote “Team A is less wet from this bane compared to Team B” are political radicals. This is no good.
    Of course mediation is a way out. The Mediator must first get the confidence of both parties. In the case of the present Peradeniya stand off, the fundamental question, “Is this attendance requisite necessary?” This can take months to find a compromise!
    In the present Lankan atmosphere mediation will be difficult.

  • 1

    When things are available free of charge they tend to lose the economic value or the economic value tend to be invisible.

    If undergraduates’ parents are compelled to pay for their children’s education they won’t let their children to waste time on useless & baseless strikes, demonstrations etc. & the maximum utilization of available resources will be guaranteed.

    Both parents & children will gain a pride that they pay for the service they enjoy during university life & it’ll be a good way to minimize the gap between haves & have nots among the student community & unethical ragging will be vanished..

    I know the argument arising here; how can poor parents find money.

    Make educational loans available with zero interest & make every attempts to make them available in parents names so adequacy of loan amounts can be discussed without student participation.

    It’s very unfortunate to see that what’s expected from undergraduates; especially the intelligence is not shown & that goes to the extent to think whether student selection criteria is appropriate or not.

    The brightest students get the best results in O/L examination & almost all of them select mathematics/biology for their A/Ls letting less intelligent to go for commerce & arts studies.

    So isn’t it wise to decide university entrants on O/L 1st attempt & confirm in 1st & 2nd attempt of A/L s.

    If all the students are bright & constructive they themselves can take steps to update their studies without waiting till superiors do it.

  • 0

    Students get radicalized because they come from impoverish backgrounds. In Sri Lanka you have to fight to get something, unless you have deep pockets or good connections. So for these state uni students strikes and pickets are the only option to make their voice heard. In the process they have become accustomed to the culture of protesting and demanding to get their way. If the government wants to stop the radicalization process then they need to genuinely provide and develop the underdeveloped parts of SL and win the trust of the people. This is why MR is popular because he helped the “poor man” unlike this government which talks about managing the economy but does nothing.

    • 1


      Bit amazed to read you

      Generally radicals act individually & they may expect solidarity but not in unproductive way like our university kids behave.

      Some times people wonder whether government radicalize undergraduates or undergrads radicalize government.

      Pls let me propose you to accept the latter.

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