By Migara Doss –
It was just last week that 05 university students including the Convener of the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF)- Lahiru Weerasekara were bailed out by the High Court of Colombo under strict bail conditions. The said order delivered by the High Court released the above students after having been in remand custody for nearly 50 days since their arrest after their purported forcible entry into the Ministry of Health and causing damage to public property thereof. The incident concerning the students is regarding their protest movement against the SAITM university and its medical faculty which allegedly paves way for the admittance of students into the medical profession upon the payment of money, which is argued as resulting in the commodification of education.
As it could be observed the SAITM phenomena has made waves in the local news for quite some time now and has aroused varied reactions from the general public, academics, professionals, students etc. In general there are mixed reactions amongst the public regarding the subject matter and people appear to be perplexed about the whole topic of SAITM and the larger issue of privatizing education. And on a different level some even begin to wonder the irony of prompt action by authorities to arrest and remand student activist who in a sense cause damage and inconvenience to the public under the public property act; whereas elected representatives of the people that have allegations of swindling public money and soliciting expensive bribes which amount to graver offences on public property are permitted to walk scot free after simple commission hearings and resignations. Accordingly this article attempts to discuss some of the popular social views regarding the protesting student, with a view to explain the causes and reasons for student protests in the wake of privatization of education.
With regard to the issue concerning SAITM it is mainly regarding the establishment of the South Asian Institute of Medicine (originally Management) and Technology which began to award a medical degree that enables the obtainment of the M.B.B.S qualification and subsequent entry into the medical profession. The unique feature of SAITM is of that being a private business entity which charges an exuberant amount for its medical qualification. This feature has attracted much criticism and protests by student activist and political parties who cry foul against the same on the basis that such an arrangement of awarding the medical qualification for money paves way for commodification of education and results in inequality and injustice.
Needless to say there are also various social opinions that safeguard and promote SAITM and any other future private educational entities; the reasoning behind such defense guarding SAITM are varied in nature but in a nutshell it is an argument on the freedom of education and broadening of educational provision. This social clash between Anti SAITM activist and SAITM guardians is indeed a thought provoking debate and leads to an advanced social discourse regarding the subject of education and the market economy. Hence it is important to draw some insights into this debate and discuss some of the main arguments leveled against the student/political activists who spearhead the public protest against SAITM. Such a discussion would also serve the purpose of dwelling into the mind of the ruggedly dressed university student that one would often find on the News and sometimes on the public road blocking your way, and would allow you to finally understand his chants that you barely understand on the news on in a heavily congested traffic jam.
Accordingly one major argument against the ANTI SAITM protests has been constructed on the basis that broadening of education in necessarily a positive development and any opposition against the same are drawn with sheer hate and jealousy of a selected few. This argument mostly stem from the middle class citizenry that demonize university students as chaotic and unproductive who are driven by a shared sense of jealousy and hatred against the rest of society and their avenues for education. However it is also of importance to take a moment and consider the argument advanced by student activists against the expansion of private education. In this regard a main argument advanced is on the evils of commodification of education. It is a firm rooted belief that education is fundamental as a right for citizens as the same enables them to progress from one social strata to another; and thereby it is argued that education ought to be a universal right that is equally accessible to everyone. However when education is released to the market and provided for a price the common evils of the market tarnishes this universal right and transforms this most fundamental right of citizens into a commodity. As a result of such a transformation the providers of education driven by motives of profit would invariably supply the cheapest of resources and expect the maximum of profit; which in reality would mean lowest quality education in anticipation of the maximum profit margin. The other downside that would lead down the road is that as opposed to other commodities the consumer of education (meaning the student) would not expect the highest product quality when education is put for sale, like for instance in purchasing a vehicle one looks into its running condition. On the contrary the purchaser of education would only expect a certificate qualification and entry into a profession in return to the financial investment he/she makes. This needless to say deteriorates the standard and quality of education and especially in fields of greater social importance such as medicine and law the resultant drop of quality causes many adverse effects on the general public. Therefore one could reasonably argue that sheer hate and jealousy may not be the only ground for opposition mounted against SAITM and larger privatization of education, but includes more social and humane issues that deserve more attention from the public.
It is also important to look at a different approach opposing Anti SAITM protestors and advocating private education which essentially normalize privatization of education as an inevitable development in the modern globalizing world and propagate that most developed countries have established private universities to broaden their systems of education. This viewpoint is shouldered by the middle and lower class stratas of society for varied reasons. A reason for the lower social classes to shoulder such views would be their ignorance of the matter and hand, and for which the student and political activist are largely to be blamed as their strategies have fallen short of creating public awareness of the issue they struggle for. However in addressing the argument of normality in privatizing education in a globalizing world; it needs to be noted that Non State Education is NOT necessarily Profit Education. For instance most globally renowned universities such as Oxford and Harvard may from nature be Non State Universities but do not operate on profit. On the contrary such universities are governed by a board of governors that oversee the welfare and development of the institute and reinvest their income for the same object. This system of non profit-non state university is in total contrast to the private university model to which SAITM belongs or is proposed by the government for the future. In the latter kind the driving factor of the university administrators would be profit which would aptly reduce them to the role of businessman; whereas in the former model of non profit-non state universities the administrators are more rather curators that work for and oversee the development of the institution.
The best illustration for the above argument is the amount of fees charges by SAITM from its studentship which was approximately 06 Million Rupees during the days of its establishment; and which had been doubled within a very short period approximating its present fee charges by students to 12 Million Rupees. And when one comes back to question the quality and standard of education provided for such an expensive investment- one would find many alleged complaints against its teaching staff for their lack of academic qualification and expertise. This in essence exposes the frailty of profit driven education which in essence would reduce education to a status symbol accessible only to a privileged few. The long term result of such a process would be reducing education into a commodity which would only be available to those who could afford it. Greater the importance of the qualification, higher the price would be. This needless to say would shut all doors of higher education to the less fortunate classes of society causing grave injustice to society. Therefore it is this cry of helplessness that one may find in the protesting student who has many a reason to worry of the impending danger that would maybe deprive his brother or sister about to enter higher education and in the long run our own future generations.
Furthermore another criticism or in another sense a non-committal attitude is shown to the Anti SAITM protests by a segment of the social elite comprising of professionals, academics, acclaimed social activists and even medical professionals. Such antagonism and non-commitment is drawn from their criticism against the key players involved in the Anti SAITM protests, namely the IUSF and the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA). The criticism against the GMOA is based on their infamous past conduct of demanding luxury perks (vehicle permits and school admissions for their children) and going on strike for the same. The IUSF is also largely criticized for their involvement of ragging and other forms of student harassment. Yet, one needs to obviously question the stark difference of the said issues from the present one concerning SAITM. And hence would only wonder as to how and why the GMOA or the IUSF should be determining factors for individuals to form their own opinions on a given issue of social importance. In any case when taken as isolated issues Ragging and the legitimacy of GMOA past activism could be reasonably argued as unfair and unjust, but does that alone invalidate the remainder of the issues concerning privatization of education and its culmination in SAITM?
Regardless of all else the 05 student activists remanded and released have been socially labeled and branded as criminals or deviants for their commitment for a social cause. Our society consisting of the schools of thought discussed above have been quick in jumping into judgments against the said students and other activist who voice their concerns for the subject issue. Yet if one would take time to read history it would be interesting to find that many textbook inspirational characters have had to struggle to attain the very rights our society gladly cherish at present. If one would study the character of Mandela one would be surprised to find that he operated briefly as a bomb maker for the African National Congress and was arrested many a time resulting in a 27 year jail sentence. And with regard to Gandhi the famous salt march for the rights of the colonized people landed him in jail and the same fate ensued to Martin Luther King Jnr. for his activism in the civil disobedience movement. Hence one could very well argue that all rights are results of struggle and disobedience and the same conditions would apply to the issue facing our own system and rights to education at present.
Therefore the ruggedly dressed university student who climbs on top of the cement lion in the Colpetty roundabout may seem like a deviant and a day dreamer letting his wildest imaginations run riot at the public expense. Yet, do stop for a moment and wonder for yourself, (if I were to adjust the lyrics of John Lennon- in his famous song ‘Imagine’,) he may be a dreamer, but not the only one and perhaps some day if you listen to him and join him, the world and society could be a better place, Just Saying.