The issues at the Eastern University raises many fundamental question in the administration of a University in Sri Lanka its policy and Autonomy of the Universities.
It is not far in history that the Universities had a policy of not giving hostels to students but promoting admission to the closest university to overcome such problem. It was recently that the Ministry had announced that they will give 100% accommodation to all students by 2018. These being political slogans have little reality on the ground. Nearly 30,000 students are enrolled each year to the university and on ball park figure 120,000 would be at the university system at any given moment of time assuming a 4 year course. This means on average a University should have at least 8000 students capacity at the Hostels of each university. At present none has it and none will have it for the next decade given the ground values. General principles have been to allow for first and final year accommodation at each university and additional allowed subject to the availability of space at the hostels. When students demand hostels beyond this and additional houses and accommodation are sought from private owners which range from 2000-10000 rupees per student. These have been given at some Universities including Eastern University. But large numbers find their own accommodation and pay the rent on their own sqeezing the budget of their parents. Why should only some be given the hostel outside paying for private accommodation while others pay for their own is an issue which may trigger a FR application. University would have no option but to pay all students accommodation allowance as a right if the policy is to provide ‘Accommodation to all’ which would mean on average “120,000×5000=600,000,000” six hundred million a month and 7.2 billion a year instead of accommodation. On the alternative if we only provide half then the value would be half of it, still considerable and to an university this would mean around 20 million per month. We understand Eastern University has a bill around 40 million for the existing private accommodations plus services for the a year. If the present crisis is resolved by additional accommodation it would warrant around another 50 million per year only catering to part of the students while others pay their own. Such being the reality in financial terms. The non availability of accommodation in large blocks is also an issue for the Universities to manage and smaller the house bigger the management needs trying to provide facilities.
On a different note, the reason for second year to live with the community also adds value to a multicultural society and the social harmony the country is trying to build. People should know the values of different cultures and their values specially as potential graduates who would eventually become leaders of the country. This practice is available in all universities not only in Sri Lanka but across the globe where Undergraduates live outside during their second years even working as their universities and not ‘free’. It is essential that under free education the values of education should not be traded for convenience. The inability of the students to live with the community may lead to looking at different alternatives other than provide hostel for all which is economically and administratively a nightmare for university administration;
- Outsource hostel accommodation where private accommodations are provided in the vicinity, as done in many countries
- Only send students who do not require accommodation to Universities; even currently some universities do not provide accommodation for the first and second years too.
- Revise the principles to allocate students closer to the university to avoid seeking accommodation
- Increase the university accommodation rates (present rates are close to zero and the clamour for the hostel accommodation is also related to the ‘free’ accommodation)
Accommodation adds other responsibilities to the University from canteens, water, sanitation to electricity failure, travel etc. It is unfortunate that an average Vice Chancellor spends around 60-80% of time on Hostel related issues. This leaves no room for the planning of the development of the Universities and many indiscipline also arises from hostel based issues than others in general. For example Ragging is one that is the maximum heard in the hostel related compounds than any other and eradication is not easy given the present context. This is one example.
Police and judiciary
When students violate the regulation to the point that the University administration is unable to handle e.g occupation of the Vice Chancellors office or senate or blockade of a place the University has only one option as a state institution report to the Police for assistance. The delay in action makes the university to paralyse as it has reached its maximum and cannot go beyond. In some cases the action had taken weeks for routine practice which needs to be considered. The University has no option than to close in such cases which needs to be avoided as it affects the entire student community pay for an offence of a few students. The issue becomes more complex when the first years write letters stating that they are against the zero ragging policy or state that they are operating on their own and with no interference from the seniors, options close for further actions. The usage of the anti-ragging act no 20 of 1998 may be the only useful tool and if used would lead to severe punishment by court. Though there is a feeling that this may ruin a student’s life some of the offences committed justify this as this would benefit a larger population of today and tomorrow in hundreds.
Judiciary too should be considerate and also fast in providing orders for these matter as dragging causes many further issues.
There needs to be defined framework designed for the Universities to follow when it goes beyond them and for the state to expedite the actions so that the University system is not damaged as it involved thousands of students struggling to begin their career ahead, the best minds of the country.
UGC and MINISTRY
We should admit that the interference from these are much limited than before where the Ministers had been involved directly in the decision making of the Universities. It is essential that general guidelines and principles are given to the Universities and the Universities are given the options to go beyond the point depending on the resources and facilities available. It is so absurd that the students have been quoting the statement made by the by the Ministry of Higher Education on 19 August 2016 at the opening of ICC Hostel, that they would be giving 100% accommodation to students by 2018 as the evidence to request the Universities for accommodation. That is their vision and they are trying to meet it as much as good governance and social harmony but needs more time.
Commitments to students by these offices also makes the Universities lose face and also the opinion that they can always be overruled by the higher authority which is not the best for long term sustainable management. The autonomy of the University should be safeguarded and where necessary close door discussions with the institutions would be a better way to achieve the objectives.
Eastern University Saga
Eastern University faced a crisis on accommodation in January 2017 which ended by the directives from UGC and Ministry to allow accommodation for all until private accommodations are sought, which was done a month later and students only went into them two months later. Considering the larger numbers in the next season the University advised the first year students to look for accommodation outside for the second year ( and report to them) and the University would share cost of accommodation. They had also informed that those who seek accommodation with the University need to apply for such facility. However none applied. They were asked to return the keys at the end of the year and leave the hostels which too was neglected and they continued to stay in hostels illegally violating the agreement signed by them at the beginning of the year counter signed by their parents. The University reminded them in May and June. In July they were informed that disciplinary action would be taken for violations. In august out of bounds declaration was issued for those in hostel without permission.
Applications for hostels were received dated 28th July 2017 in August first week, which are being processed. In the meantime students entered the Senate Building by force and occupied it from 8th August 2017. The Vice Chancellor and Deputy Vice Chancellor were confined and restrained in their offices due to this blockade sleeping across the doorway and path. Report was made to Police seeking assistance to evacuate the students from occupation of the Senate building and an order was obtained from the Magistrates court on 11th August 2017 ordering students to leave the premises. However students continued to violate the order and remained in occupation. The court having discussed this and also after providing space to a discussion between the Vice Chancellor and the Student leadership in court decided to refer this to the DIG/POLICE of the region for a report on which an order would be given in two weeks. The University had informed the courts that as all the Unions are on strike against the indecency of the students and interruption of the administration block by the students that they may not have much option than to close. The court had expressed that it would be entirely their purview and the court would have no comments on it. The Vice Chancellor met the Unions and Deans of faculties and explained the scenario and all had accepted the option of closure as inevitable. The Council that met later considered all these factors and decided that having no other option it declared closure with effect from 17 August 2017.
5000 students’ study programmes are affected and all the programs would be delayed and these are by the few for the few who do not wish to follow norms of the system for a period but topple the system in the name of students unions with no rationale. It is also noted that those who speak as the leaders of the students unions are also not the members of the current union but former members only. It is a pity.
Question remains… What do we do? Who does it? When…….
*Dr T Mathiventhan & T Sathaananthan – Eastern University, Sri Lanka