24 May, 2022


Universities; Something Is Very Wrong In Sri Lanaka

By Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

On the 31st of March, a cordon of Sri Lankan Police – in full riot gear, truncheons and shields at the ready – stood on one corner of the Kollupitiya junction. One of them carried a gun that rained tear gas cartridges on the road ahead. In front of them was a short stretch of Galle Road, empty save for one young monk with a stick in his hands and a few university students, fleeing back into the army of protestors that all but blocked Galle Road. Towards the sea, where Marine Drive connects to Galle Road, stood a vast mob behind a cloud of white smoke.

The riot gun made a dull thumping sound.

I’m not sure you can see all of this in the video I captured. Maybe if you slow it down, look through it frame by frame, you can pick out the pieces.

*I tried sidling up to the action and getting a better shot, but stepping out of that bus was a fool’s errand – not only did I end up with my eyeballs set on fire, but the photos suffered horribly from camera shake. The police near Liberty Cinema also did not seem to appreciate a Lumia thrust into their faces. Perhaps they were Apple fans.

Surprisingly, nobody knew this was happening, or why. People in Bambalapitiya, had no idea; neither did people at Colombo Fort; nor, for that matter, did people on Duplication Road. It was a bit surreal. News sites reporting later only said that the police had closed off a section of the Galle Road and fired tear gas at “a group of university students”.

That wasn’t a group, it was a bona fide battalion. The line stretched from Barefoot to Kollupitiya junction. At some points the crowd was four lanes wide. Here’s a video showing just how bad it was. So the question is, what the hell happened?

The Reasons 

When on a protest, it is customary to bring along banners, with your vision and mission clearly stated – just in case everyone forgets why they’re here. Going by the banners, it was:

a) The Mahapola Scholarship

This country has something called the Mahapola Scholarship. Based on merit and need (determined by factors like annual income), a certain sum is given to selected university undergraduates. Maithripala Sirisena’s 100 Day Manifesto promised to increase this sum. It wasn’t. We can assume that a portion of the students took to the streets because of this. The protest seems to have worked because two days ago the government announced that the Mahapola Scholarship would be upped to Rs 5,000 (from Rs 2,500) starting June 2015.

b) University Attendance

Then there’s the question of making 80% attendance compulsory for students. This is where opinion kicks in with a punch, so I’ll share my thoughts about it below.

c) Political motivation

Sri Lanka’s universities have a history of being hotbeds for political activity; in fact, many of our politicians were once student activists. Our ivory towers, it seems, are two stories high and made of wood. It’s easy for political manipulation to set in. This current protest can be seen as a ploy to undermine the current government just before the elections – people have suggested that even pushing it to the brink of tear-gassing might have been a deliberate act to make the government appear militaristic and brutal.

sri-lanka-protests 1-colombotelegraph

*File photo 

I wouldn’t be surprised. Sri Lankan universities protest for everything. So much so that it’s like the boy who cried wolf; nobody really wants to believe in them anymore. Protesting is practically a form of art. Or, should I say, Arts.

Either way, a university attendance is powered not by need, but by desire.

People need food, water, oxygen. People desire a degree because it adds to their perceived social worth. There is a choice, then. Nobody’s being held hostage, so the choice is to take the good with the bad or walk away and make a living elsewhere. And if the desire persists, to earn enough money to get that degree.

I honestly believe protesting this is a fantastically stupid idea. Schools require a minimum attendance from students. Offices demand a minimum attendance from their employees. The whole purpose of this is to ensure that work is being done, and that students are not off marching or blocking traffic on Galle Road whenever it strikes their fancy.

Many local university students I’ve talked to pointed out that unlike “private university students”, their families need their help at home. So help; instead of rioting, go home. If your family is starving while you’re here rioting in the name of free education, then something’s very wrong here. There are a lot of things that need to be fixed, but address them individually. If the lecturers are stupid, call for better lecturers. If what you are taught in University is easily accessible in Wikipedia, then you don’t need a degree; you need an Internet connection. Buy a dongle and a laptop and stay away from the riot police. But demanding the right to not attend something paid for by the people, something you’ve worked for 20 years, is like demanding the right to not show up to work while still collecting a salary.

Another friend, Chithru De Silva, stands on the other side of the fence. Taking the University of Sabaragamuwa as a case study, she points out that the way the system is setup makes 80% attendance needless torture for many students. There are those who must travel for 6 hours just to get to university, those that support their families by working while scraping through universities, and those that must go home for the harvest. The campus facilities are inadequate, there’s no clean water and the main hospital is nineteen kilometers away. Being less prejudiced than I am, she accepts that compulsory attendance is necessary, but suggests a figure in 60-70% ballpark.

This can go both ways.

On one hand, it is taxpayer money. In an age when millions of people around the world must take on catastrophic debt just to pay for tuition, demanding more money (Mahapola) and more privileges on top of an already free degree sounds like the height of ungratefulness. The laws guarantee us free education, but in reality the world does not owe us anything.

On the other hand, part of it, especially the Mahapola scenario, is also about holding a government accountable. As my friend Senel Wanniarachchi pointed out, it’s easy to superimpose a beggars-can’t-be-choosers attitude because these are taxpayer handouts, but at the end of the day a democratic society has to offer the right to protest to everyone and anyone. If it doesn’t, you might as well don the boots, bend the knee and ready the prayer beads.

“Hope,” says the Architect of the Matrix, referring to humanity. “The quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness.”

I disagree. Democracy, the law that states that every person has a voice: that is the source of our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. A system with checks and balances on the misuse of power also checks and balances the use of power. Thus it has always been, and probably always will be, until someone pulls out the gun.

The sad truth: Free Education is expensive 

The provision of education has always been tricky. On one extreme, you have America, where students bury themselves in so many student loans that they spend the next ten years paying them off; in Germany, you have tuition-free universities unable to afford more classrooms, more teachers, and more accommodation to deal with the demand. Free education is expensive. So is paid education. The only difference is who signs the cheque. Knowledge is power, and nobody’s giving it away free.

Sri Lanka orbits an unhappy medium; a system of public universities accepting people through one metric (Z-score) and a system of private universities accepting people through another metric (cash). These systems hate each other. Most of the people in them are very similar, but private university students look over mountains of bank debt and recent public university students for “getting everything free”; public university students grudge private university students for their shiny classrooms, extravagant balls and parental money.

There are very rich people in both systems, very poor people in both systems (the private system punishes these people with heavy exam fees, often paid in Pounds Sterling) and a vast majority of average people everywhere. One group resents the time spent in study, the other resents the time spent in producing wealth.

One group has certain standards guaranteed to it by the underlying mechanics of business and competition. If your university has bad toilets, you go sign up at the one across the street. Because your university wants your money, they’ll spend on good toilets rather than lose you. The other group doesn’t have that luxury and, therefore, has to go and protest.

*Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s articles can be found on his blog, icaruswept.com

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 5

    According to me the most important advantage in free education system is that our country could grab the most valuable capable intelligent group across all over the country into our education system according to their merit. Conversely our country and the world at large could harness the benefit of most capabele and intelligent human resource in the country including from remote areas.Though we see free education as a burden it is really an investment on our future, further as a help to a particular student and his family. Our resources are inadequate to provide free education to the whole demand.Therefore private sector involvement as appropriate is essential. I feel the problem we have is we do not have a genuine concern to manitain a balance between the two, There may be an idea university students are a set of educated group and it is harmful to the prevailing society which is mostly governed by the whims and fancies of certain politicians without due consideration to the people’s real demands.Some higher authorities called students by the names of animals without understanding the nature of energetic young generation.Today it seems long standing Open University demands have not given the least consideration.That institution helps the students who are not selected to the formal university stream and could receive education for affordable money for those who are from remote areas as well.Since there is a chaos in the country there has come a stage that people look at educated youth as set of people creating a mess. We should identify where the real problem lies.The private education should be regulated ane kept upto the similar standard and should consist of the very good out of the remaining and not selected from the bottom line considering only the financial strength.

  • 7

    Its human nature isn’t it? People do not value things when its given free. The education system is one of these things.

    Instead of free, change the higher education system so that the student is given a no-interest loan payable when he/she finds employment.

    That will force students to value their education. They will be forced to find a industry relevant degree and ensure they learn while at University instead of constantly agitating.

    • 3

      @ vibhushana: what you say is not necessarily true.
      Germany has free education in the schools and university / Polytech education almost free (around 120 € / semester, which includes free transport within the city limits). But Germany produced the best engineers (Einstein, Gauss, Otto Hahn, Staudinger, Oppenheimer, von Ohain, Lilienthal etc.) and anthropologists (Karl Marks, Martin Luther, Albert Schweizer etc) and Literates like Goethe, Schiller, Thomas Mann… It is not the free education that spoil this kids, it is our society! Our society give these kids that feeling that they are very special and better than the others. They are educated but not necessarily intelligent. what we need in our country is hoards freethinkers and not book worms, progressive thinkers and not proud ´”Narcissus”. We have to make a change in the way of thinking, to be progressive, being able to make the maximum out of the resources available. There is need for change, change in our thinking from top to bottom.

  • 4

    Having read for degrees from both private and state universities I have to say you have not identified the context according to this article.

    Many state university students can learn themselves so in practical situation if the exams are conducted to the required standards to test knowledge of the students it’s good rather 80% attendance. Even the lectures know that.

    Private universities are different their lectures teach every single thing to private university students. And majority of Students I saw those days don’t want to learn anything further.

    State university students have language problems they are not fluent in English. Many clever students of state universities have been refused from multinational companies due to English problem (Soft skills problems).

    if you want to learn more about teaching difference of two university systems ask a lecture who work on both systems. Sometimes exams papers mark in very low level to increase exam pass rate in private universities.

    For your tax money I don’t think solution is learning hard. Majority of Sri Lankans get free education from grade 1 to 12 that money is also tax payers money. If government need tax payers money back it need good plans to keep those students as government employees. But all the governments so far haven’t had such plans. Because plans are made for political satisfaction.

    There are many countries in which citizens can obtain degrees by paying or scholarships so Sri Lanka also must maintain that.

    In a country like Sri Lanka where two parties cheat citizens for more than 50 decades without protests I don’t think there will be development in free education. Other parties will also behave same when they get the powers. Only bad side of those protests are sometimes they are violent and also they put their own life to risk.

  • 4

    We do not have FREE education in Sri Lanka.

    What we have is a system where a select group of people are educated at everybody’s expense… mostly of those who were not privileged to have any benefit from this system.

    Why on earth should I put my tax money to produce doctors and then pay them again an astronomical amount whenever I want to have a surgery!

    Clearly this system is not sustainable, not required and most certainly inadequate today.

    If people passing out of universities cannot pay for their education after they graduate, then they have wasted good many years of their lives that too in their prime for nothing! We should not have such degree programs in the first place. If they are capable of paying back for their degrees why should people who never entered these universities pay for their education with their tax money???

    There should be an open selection criteria and a system of loans where anybody without any discrimination can study whatever he wants whenever he wants provided he is committed and qualified. In fact we should try to accommodate people with different backgrounds and demands.

    There need to multiple entry pathways to different programs instead of this one monstrous exam which children are being prepared even before they are born nowadays! Why should we limit number of attempts that someone can sit the entrance exam? Why should there be a limit that a student can obtain only one degree from our national universities?

    Today students who pay for their education are not even allowed to have a cup of tea at the cafeteria by those who are clamoring for free education!

    Selection should be need blind and everyone should be made available the finances (of course not free money) to pursue whatever they want…

  • 1

    Actually my dear chappie, universities are for those who want to study. What I see is universities loaded with people who want degrees without having to study or even attend university. Therefore there is the system of “signing in” where someone will sing in for you.

    There is also a system whereby assignments have a common skeleton to which you can add your scribblings and submit. Then there is a marking system by which you can cover 45 to 55 % of your marks on these assignments and on the attendance that you never made. That is your pass mark. If you score about 5 to 10% at the exam you will grab a credit.

    You have to play the game which is why ragging exists. Ragging makes you a part of the crowd which will be your crowd for life and it is the crowd that will also fix you up with a husband or wife. When you leave with your degree you will have no clue of what your degree expects you to be able to do. Your aiyas and akkis will of course help you get a government job and they will also help you to do their work. In return you have to play the many more interesting games that they have devised after having left university.

    So aiya, akki shape shape no? and the fools in the Benze cars pay the bills. Why? To keep us off the street till the next Wijeweera and Piraphakaran appear on the scene with Sinhala terrorism and Tamil terrorism. Then then Benzers start playing war with their captains, colonels, brigadiers, generals, and now fieeeeled marshals also so sweet no? And after they finish the seeveel society fellows will come with the war crimes game also.

    These things no one likes to talk or to publish no? Even the people looking from the ground.

  • 2

    ” But demanding the right to not attend something paid for by the people, something you’ve worked for 20 years, is like demanding the right to not show up to work while still collecting a salary.”

    Excellent statement. A huge amount of tax payer’s money is spent on free education. Students in public universities must understand that Free education and Mahapola fund is a privilege and not a right granted to them. Most of these students take university education for granted just because they are not directly paying for it.

  • 1

    It is not free education that is the problem. It is the haphazard manner of the development of universities in Sri Lanka. In the old days there was only one university where teaching was in English. Then, they started teaching in the three media. It was farcical as there were no texts in the other two languages. At one stroke, there were two classes of students created. The able and the disabled as the Sinhalese and Tamil students hardly acquired the same standard of education. They also did in large numbers useless subjects like Pali, Sanskrit and Sinhala civilisation. A disgruntled class of the young were created. This tragedy was multiplied with the opening of the race course university known as Aswa Vidyalaya to the bus conductors. It was furthered with the pirivina universities and the provincial universities, all of which lacked qualified staff. There were jokers who became university teachers. Still, students went to study at them. The feeling of being cheated was enhanced. Student disaffection became entrenched.

    The children of the Sinhala chauvinists were studying in English and even French universities. Private universities were started and there were continuous protests against them because an hierarchy was created among the university students as to quality. This mess can only be put aright by closing down some state universities and ensuring that only the good ones are kept. But, the political backlash would be too great to attempt to clear this mess. So, we will have Vice Chancellors noted for vice and Professors who are cheap plagiarists. It is all a big mess like the rest of the country. First, get rid of the Sinhala chauvinist pigs who have been cheating their own young and killing them if they do not comply with the lines they draw.

  • 0

    I have one suggestion that may help the cream of intelligent students to be given a chance of pursuing tertiary studies by simply allocating x number of places (in various streams) as Scholarships for students of A and A+ performance in the entrance exam. Fees if any, to be subsidised according to the means of their parents. The system must be transparent and without favour.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.