By Saumya Liyanage –
Two prominent Vice Chancellors of Sri Lankan University system have been dismissed by the president of Sri Lanka. First victim, Prof Ratnem Vignaswaran, Vice Chancellor, Jaffna University, has been removed from his office without a proper explanation why he has to leave the VC office. Later the unconfirmed information was spreading that the decision has been taken on the basis of national security. On the 18th of Sept. 2019, Senior Prof. Sarath Chandrajeewa, a world renowned sculptor and an academic in the field of visual arts has been eliminated again without providing a proper explanation or inquiry of why he has been removed from his position. These two arbitrary and unconstitutional removals have created a public outrage particularly in the social media and the concerns related to election regulations and the democracy in the country at large.
Politics in Education
One needs to consider the political context where these arbitrary dismissals have been manipulated. As it is stated that the Jaffna Vice Chancellor has been removed because of an intelligence information, it undoubtedly relates to another political conspiracy. The second news came a few days back when the Vice Chancellor of the University of Visual and Performing Arts (UVPA) was removed during the all island strike action taking place in the University system. Prof. Sarath Chandrajeewa was appointed soon after the former Vice Chancellor finished his tenure. The young and qualified academics of the UVPA wanted a change in the University since the UVPA has been directly and indirectly exploited by its academic malpractices and poor administration. Within two years’ time, Prof. Chandrajeewa was able to uplift its financial, administration and academic activities to a level where the UVPA started engaging with its counterparts in the region and beyond. However, the anti-progressive group of academics in the University have started challenging the progression of the University and started attacking the positive policies imposed to refine and uplift the current status of research and academic integrity.
The former regime was changed by the people in this country in order to establish a better political environment and effective governance and so do the Universities. We, as academic community expected the same just and accountability where the public interest towards the higher education is met and flourished. During his tenure, Prof. Chandrajeewa was able to get a good financial opinion from the Auditor General office after a decade of corruptions and misconducts of academic practices. Now he is the victim of the good governance which promised people to establish the just, the lawfulness and freedom of the country. This is the irony of the current situation. At this juncture, I remember what Dr Stockmann from Ibson’s play The Enemy of the People says:
“The majority is never right. I say, never! That is one of those social lies that any free man who think for himself has to rebel against. Who makes up the majority in any country-the intelligent, or the stupid? I think we have got to agree that, all over this whole wide earth, the stupid are in a fearsomely overpowering majority. But I will be damned to perdition if it’s part of the eternal plan that the stupid are meant to rule the intelligent!” (Ibsen 1970, p. 192)
Similar to Ibsen’s play, the free man and man of his words have been punished by the same system that is being nourished by all of us. Now the convict is the man who opposed to the unjust and corruption. He is punished because he no longer fits to the world where the corrupted officials and academics are still in power. He needs to choose whether he should join them and start a corrupted life or he should be vanished forever.
There has been a discussion about University Vice Chancellors’ appointments in the Sri Lankan academia for decades. Earlier, the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) also has discussed lengthily about the political interference in the Higher Education sector. When the news of the removal of Vice Chancellors spread in the social media, prominent international academic figures sent their statements of dismay and disagreements. The majority raised the question of political interference in the academia. Prof. Rustom Bharucha, a well-known academic in the field of cultural studies and theatre and the former Head of the Department of Javaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi contends:
‘at a time when academic, cultural and social institutions in the South Asian region are increasingly under attack by parties with vested interests, one needs to protest that such violation of academic norms are counter-productive for the life of the nation at large’.
But Unions are counting days whether to make a statement or not. Hence, it is conveyed how our professional bodies are hypocrite and farcical. It is farcical to the extent that professional bodies are not interested in policies and procedures now but bio-politics between individuals. Nothing has improved for the last few years since the 2015 Government came to power to ensure the establishment of law and order of the country and also to establish the good governance. Now the irony of this country and its politics is that many academics and scholars who have been vehemently working to establish democracy and good governance in these institutions and elsewhere have been punished and removed unlawfully and mercilessly. What is happening in the context of Universities nowadays are very much parallel to what is happening in the country at large.
Universities are publicly funded institutions in Sri Lanka and it is noted that the public has the right to know who is appointed and who is removed, who teach and how they teach in such institutions. Every year, University administrators face the Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE) and show their public accountability. But the same corrupted systems are still dominating. Writing a long essay on the removal of Jaffna and UVPA Vice Chancellors, Prof. Sasanka Perera, the former Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, South Asian University, New Delhi India, argues,
If such office- bearers are guilty of malpractices of any kind, their removal must be preceded by due process by ensuring that charges are presented, a formal inquiry is held and an opportunity given to the accused to defend themselves. After all, the country, too, has the right to know what these colleagues are guilty of – if they are guilty of anything at all. In both these cases, nothing of this kind has happened (The Island, 25 Sept 2019).
In this statement, he raises a very important and timely question related to why the public of this country needs to know how these removals are taken place and how the authorizers justify such actions. As a democratic country where the right to information act is also established, people who get the benefit and services from the public sector and in this case, public universities, need to know what is happening inside and out. But unfortunately, as they appear, these decisions are taken abruptly and arbitrary that the public cannot trace the course of these actions.
In the current setting, there are many contradictions and controversies related to the University Grants Commission (UGC) policies and how they work with the Universities. The UGC has a mechanism, and standing committees to overseer the activities in teaching, research, administration and quality assurance in the University sector. However, it is not clear whether the UGC has a clear vision, or a mechanism to monitor what is actually happening in the University sector. Neither the UGC has a clear plan to uplift the poor conditions of the Government Universities nor have they shown the interest of how academics and vice chancellors are continually trying to improve the quality of their institutions by introducing reforms and establishing codes of conducts and engaging with the international community. It appears that a few officials at the UGC operate according to the information they gain through their acquaintances from peripheries. It may appear that it is operated similar to an intelligence service where they get unconfirmed information (in most cases) and take unintelligent decisions accordingly. The most recent example is the removal of UVPA vice chancellor. These arbitrary acts further question the power of the presidency and how this power adversely affects the progression of educational institutions. Even though the President has the power to expel someone without a given notice, and though there is an outcry in the public that the executive power of the presidency should be removed, authorities still hide behind these overpowering authority to cover their guilt and unjust actions. In this sense, the Executive Presidency is good for some people because they can hide behind the power of presidency and cover their sins.
These eliminations of Vice Chancellors reveal another aspect of the question of autonomy of the University. Although the University act states its sovereignty and the autonomy, such power vested in the Universities cannot be seen in the practical situations. In the recent months, Universities experienced many drawbacks due to some decisions taken by the higher authorities outside the university system and these decisions undoubtedly have effect on Universities’ autonomy to take decisions. One recent example is that the Ministry of Higher Education sending a circular refraining Universities to engage and sign MOUs (Memorandum of Understanding) with overseas institutions. A long discussion and argument went to resolve the issue. The CVCD (Committee of Vice Chancellors and Directors) committee also raised the issue and finally no one knew the outcome of it. Another recent example is a circular issued from the Ministry of Finance cutting all the international conference travels and symposium attendances. This happened a few months back when the Government was experiencing a financial crisis. This policy affected adversely in the research sector of the university system. These drawbacks in the University sector cannot be recovered for years.
With these unfortunate situations, academics and scholars in the University sector are discouraged and feel isolated when professional bodies who represent them are silent. The first UVPA International Arts Camp was also cancelled due to the removal of the UVPA vice chancellor and nearly 20 international artists who planned to visit UVPA on the 25th September had to cancel their trips. The humiliation and the monitory loss is incalculable (The First International Arts Camp at UVPA was scheduled to take place in the month of July 2019 and due to bomb attacks that took place in the city of Colombo, the University postponed the event.). With these disturbances and uncertainties prevailing in the higher education sector, how one could imagine that the State funded Universities could achieve their goals and compete with the mushrooming of private institutions and foreign Universities? As argued, the UGC contradicts again because the quality assurance of universities demands establishing research cultures and disseminating knowledge with the public and beyond. It is further stated that the public universities need expansion beyond their limits and engagement with the global counterparts to step into the Globalized education and trade. But there is no promise that the Government Universities have a peaceful and clear path to proceed. With students’ unrests and bureaucratic interferences, it is a doubt how the public Universities would see the light.
The conclusion would be that if you swim against the tide, your survival is at risk. This is the lesson that is being circulated through these removal of vice chancellors. Once again Dr Stockmann’s struggled has failed. The people for which he stood up and the people for which he served and benefitted are engulfed in silence. He stands alone and against the tide. The silence of likeminded people would not help the system to be restored or it cannot create another Dr Stockmann with whom they could realize their dreams and aspirations. Mature professors such as Chandrajeewa or Vigneswaran could continue their academic and creative careers and contribute to the nation at their final phase of their University lives. But the challenge is for the young and emerging academics who are silent and in darkness waiting someone to be victimized in order for them to pave their paths. Here again I remind Dr Stockmann’s statement: ‘who is majority and what is right’. If you want to be a ‘free man’, then it is you who should against the majoritarianism. They may need to rethink not only about their own careers but also their institutions and the political context where their academic careers are heading. Without been aware of these situations, politics and global trends, these young generation of academics and their academic careers would be at stake.
UVPA as a University has not been a focus to the Higher Education officials up until recently when the University started engaging with the national and international discourse. It has been a traditional center for teaching dance, music and other crafts. But for the last ten years, the role of the UVPA has been changing with the insights of foreign trained academics, exposure and the new leadership gained. Even though it embraced the liberal educational changes proposed by the authorities, these changes have brought a significant improvement and enhancement in teaching, learning and research. As recent incidents signifies, what people want now is to keep the UVPA at its embryonic state where the politicians and officials can order dance troupes and musicians for their rallies and ceremonies. They want this University to produce jesters and marionettes where they can showcase them at tourist shows for entertainment. Deans and HODs can write many institutional reviews and program reviews where they can prepare fake documents and submit them to quality assurance authorities. They further can manipulate students and ask them to worship them dawn to dusk and get a good salary while doing musical shows, reality shows and other income generated activities. No need to update the curriculum and introduce new interdisciplinary discourses. Do not need to teach English and waste salaries and infrastructure as we no longer welcome international partnerships. We are trying to close over doors and encourage international community to disengage with us. In the meantime, we will manipulate next presidential candidate in order for us to survive in the University while preserving our kalayathana tradition. The UGC does not need to bother about administrating the UVPA, no need to write quality assurance reports, no need to send external reviewers since we can review our own arts and craft and we govern our institution with our own rules and regulations. This is what the UVPA is currently propagating and communicating with the public.
Serious arts education has not been a matter of those who are responsible for policy making and it is clearly evident and also clearly shown that they don’t have an argument why arts education and arts administration is so vital in the current development of the cultural economy of the country. Therefore, UVPA will remain and sustain its feudal relationships and teacher-disciple educational rituals for another decade. UGC will not have a headache as long as it is not an immerging University among others. So, to conclude this, I further like to quote Dr Stockmann’s final words again. Dr Stockmann talks to his daughter Petra in the final act of the play and says: “And the essence of it, you see, is the strongest man in the world is the one who stands most alone” (Ibsen 1970, p. 222). Changes are not arbitrary occurred. It happens when a few self-motivated individuals take actions. Failures may foresee in this journey. However, they are the strongest and the determined people who ignite the future struggles that may irrupt like a volcano without been noticed. Till then, UVPA will remain as an obedient servant my sire!
*Prof. Saumya Liyanage is an actor and an academic currently working as the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of the Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo Sri Lanka.