By Ameer Ali –
Ragging in the universities of Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan is an imported Oxbridge tradition from British colonial days. It originated as a week of initiation to new entrants, so that they may socialise with their seniors and get acclimatised to habituating in a new environment of highly motivated young adults. By the time a student qualifies to receive education at tertiary level in these countries that student is at least on the verge of crossing his or her teen years to enter adulthood. Thus ragging as a form of harmless teasing and rough jokes played on new arrivals became a test of social gregariousness without endangering the recipient’s physical and mental traits. At the end of that week of initiation all undergraduates, from the first to the final year, are expected to become a unified community sharing the values of a cultured young elite. This was, in essence, the story of this imported tradition introduced even in the days of the University College at Maradana. Who introduced it is still a mystery. Even the general public tolerated the youngster’s innocent pranks from which they themselves at times had a good laugh.
Today, and tragically, that cherished, harmless and youthful amusement has become a sadist and maniacal ritual causing psychological trauma, physical torture and mental humiliation to freshers. Some of the sordid and morally debased incidents of ragging that had left permanent scars on the lives of dozens of first year students and that had received wider publicity are, in actual fact, symptoms of a cultural and moral sickness untypical of any civilized community. This is not to paint the entire community of undergraduates with the same accusatory brush. However, there seems to be a notable number of uncultured juvenile elements entering universities and other institutes of higher learning, including privenas and surprisingly the security forces, who do not deserve to be there in the first place. The disease has become endemic. How did this come about?
University education in Sri Lanka, which was once the fortress of an English speaking urban elite, was democratised in the nineteen sixties and made available to all students who were academically qualified to receive it. In the context of the time it was a welcoming change. Language was made no barrier, although without proficiency in English Sri Lankan graduates will find it difficult to enter today’s globalised professional market. Students from rural areas are now entering in large numbers to more than a dozen state universities partly because of lowered entry requirements. This is where the problem arises. Successive governments started cutting corners to promote their populist agenda. Instead of allocating sufficient resources and concentrated effort to raise the standard of teaching and learning in provincial schools, governments simply adopted the option of lowering entry criteria for university entrance, which enabled even mediocre students have access to higher learning. In order to cater to the intellectual level of these under-achievers even professors had to lower their teaching standard, which consequently deprived the more capable students from getting the best out of university learning. This is a point often misses the attention of policy makers. (I am stating this from personal experience). Over the years, as senior academics retired the new generation of lecturers had to come from a pool of graduates who were not necessarily the best talented academically. No doubt there were brilliant exceptions to this general observation.
However, standard of university education declined as a whole, academic courses became less rigorous and examinations less demanding. Libraries, where undergraduates are expected to read and research transformed into venues for gossip and romance. Students were left with plenty of time to engage in activities totally alien to academic life. For some senior students ragging provided an opportunity to vent their frustration over a prospective vacuous future. To put it bluntly, what does it matter to a student whether he/she spends three, four, five or even six years to complete a general degree when that student is going to be unemployed at the end of it? On the other contrary, if a student could see a promising future at the end of the university career and if that student realises that the opportunity cost of that future becoming costly by prolonging the stay in the university, then that student’s attitude and behaviour is bound to change. As things are now there is an aura of hopelessness among undergraduates in Sri Lanka. Ragging may be one of the expressions of that hopelessness. In this sense, it may be argued that ragging at present is actually a symptom and not the disease.
Ragging has discouraged many an exceptional student with excellent entry qualifications from entering state universities. Several who entered later dropped out because they did not want to fall victim to this sadist ritual. How can parents who sacrificed everything for the sake of their son or daughter tolerate the child being molested, tortured and harassed by a mob who has no empathy for human feelings?
In addition to the academic decline there is also a breakdown in student discipline. In this breakdown national politics played a crucial role. Politics is the bane of the country impinging into almost every sector of life. With an explosion of undergraduate population university campuses became recruiting centres for political party foot soldiers. In the competition for party recruitment ragging has become a weapon to be utilised discriminatingly between supporters and opponents. This actually turned ragging into a form of gang war. If leaders of these gangs were taken to task by university authorities their party headquarters from outside brought pressure on the disciplinarians to get their supporters pardoned. If the incident was reported to the police and went to a court of law there again politics entered to rescue the accused. Ragging in this context reflects the general deterioration of law and order in the country.
Can this cancer be eradicated? Not in the immediate term, but certainly in the medium and long term provided fundamental reforms in the nation’s education system are undertaken in order to upgrade the quality of teaching, learning and examining, while university authorities are empowered to tackle indiscipline without interference from political leaders. In the current state of play both seem to be impossibilities. To start with, how can one expect a parliament populated by representatives, a significant number of whom have not completed even the intermediate level of education successfully, to comprehend the values of higher education and need for reforming the system? Will such representatives have any clue of what university education is all about? Their behaviour in the parliament itself is a kind of ragging. Secondly, even if the minister of education with a team of dedicated civil servants and educationists embark on reform plan, will that minister be able to command enough financial resources from the treasury? True, there was foreign assistance before to improve the quality of higher education but ragging was not an issue seriously considered at that time. Without a willingness to tackle this cancer no reform will yield its desired results. What is needed is a bipartisan commitment on the part of the government and opposition to sacrifice their populist agendas in the interest of future generations and win back not only the nation’s lost prestige in higher education but also create a conducive environment for staff and students in our seats of higher learning.
Ragging is also an issue closely linked to standards of ethical and moral values embedded in the minds of students at their early stages of education and before entering universities. There seems to be a running deficit in this regard over the years. University students therefore need pastoral care during their undergraduate career. Shouldn’t the leaders of the four major religions in the country contribute to provide this care? If the university authorities are empowered to act independently and free of political interference they would surely open a dialogue with religious leaders.
In spite of all this, if a minority of ruffians continue with their sadist ritual, university authorities should have the power to throw them out of the campus, never to be taken back. If the offence is of criminal nature the offenders should be reported to the police. An overall reformation of the national education system and full independence for universities with adequate disciplinary powers are imperatives for eradicating the cancer of ragging. A commission to investigate the issue of ragging from all perspectives is badly needed and that commission should be guaranteed of political noninterference.