By Lakmali Hemachandra –
Universities around the country will be closed during the whole of next week and the purpose of this sudden decision according to the Chairwoman of University Grants Commission, Kshanika Hirimburegama, is to allow the students the opportunity to experience the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting (CHOGM) that is scheduled to be held next week. Speaking to media, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo cajoles, the students that this is in fact a great chance to learn and gain knowledge and asks them to study, the event (from home) and prepare their own reports. Kshanika Hirimburegama during her days in the University played the mother to thousands of students who were away from home, she would reprimand the students if there was a strike, make sure that their activities were under surveillance and keep them on a tight leash, because every mother knows that young children are impressionable and the world is waiting to devour them! However the tiny detail she missed back then and seems to be unaware of even today is that university students are above the age of 18, all of them can vote at elections to decide on the government that is entrusted to appoint all the administrative officers like herself, most of them are allowed to drink and get married without parental consent, allowed to enter to into contracts of employment and allowed in general to make decisions about their lives for the simple reason that they are capable of doing so. To be protected when one is a child is to feel loved, to be treated like children when you are grown up adults is condescending and demeaning, to be treated like idiots when you are engaged in serious academic activity is outright insulting and offensive and that is precisely what Hiriburegama has done with this bogus reasoning for closing universities during CHOGM.
Not only is the government attempting to silence voices of dissent of the students, they are also trying to make us believe that such malicious agendas never even cross their minds and that all of this is done with the perfectly innocent motive of expanding opportunities for knowledge. The government and especially Mrs. Hirimburegama must be knocked down to earth, where she is the Chairwoman of the University Grants Commission, an academic who is capable of serious thought and engagement and she should be reminded that her pseudo mother act is not only insulting to university students but also to all mothers who genuinely care about their children’s wellbeing an education.
In all seriousness though, why would the government close universities across the country, so suddenly (for some universities even have examinations scheduled)? The answer lies in the recent education reforms that the government has been pushing for in the direction of privatization of education. The latest attempt of the government is to create ‘free” education zones, where the private sector will be given government land and other resources to open private universities in order to relieve the government of education spending (not that it spends for education anyway). Needless to say, that this trumps all other efforts made by any government since 1977 to privatize higher education of the country. S.B.Dissanayake is dreaming big and he is going in for the kill mercilessly! It is rumoured that Prince Charles will be opening up the first private university under the scheme, during the week of CHOGM and Minister S.B is going to great lengths to make sure that nobody, especially from the university community, can rain on his parade. Therefore all this talk about giving the students a chance to learn about CHOGM is just in reality as genuine and honest as Kshanika Hiriburegama’s motherly act!
Behind the ridiculous reason that Hirimburegama gives for closing down universities there is also an ugly story about how the people of Sri Lanka are always treated as idiots who can be deceived into cutting off their own lifelines, and this government has in fact mastered the cruel art of using the language of the people against them. That is why the education trade zones that actually put a price on education are called ‘free’ education zones, because free education is associated with a system that gives every child a fair chance in life, irrespective of the wealth of their parents, it is associated with thousands of success stories of poor children, it is associated with the story of a country that boasts about its literacy and it is associated with the dreams of millions who will be losing the only chance in life when education is privatized and sold at a price. Therefore by calling this project of privatizing education ‘free’ education zones the government is tainting the idea of free education and what is has meant and continues to mean to the people of this country. S.B. Dissanayake and Kshanika Hiriburegama are stealing the dignity of a people by mocking what is precious to them, one with his ‘free’ education and the other with her motherly kindness.
What is particularly problematic with Hirimburegama’s behaviour is that she assumes she, along with the Higher Education Minister, possesses the all conclusive knowledge to make the choice on behalf of twenty million people to privatize education and that every member of the academia should play the same demure housewife role that she plays. However, Mrs.Hirimburegama should be enlightened to the fact that privatization of education is resisted with a vengeance all around the world and that even in countries like USA where higher education is largely privatized the demand for free education is getting louder and stronger each day. There are enough struggles for free education and failures in private education to show that privatization of education, is harmful to the wellbeing of the citizens of this country. The students that both the Minister and the Chairwoman look down upon will be more than willing to tell them about what has changed in the world in the last five years.
The inability of both the higher education minister and the UGC Chairwoman to engage in the debate on privatization of education without these shams and lies only proves that they are not willing to listen to anyone else’s opinion and it is especially tragic that those responsible for university education are neither willing nor capable to see beyond their pre conceived and outdated ideas about education. Therefore when Chairwoman Hirimburegama advices the students to stay at home and write reports about CHOGM the students are left with no alternative but to convey her the very obstinate message that we would rather not.