10 August, 2022


USJ VC To Students: Destroy The Image Of The University To Your Own Peril

By W.A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

A VC’s warning

The Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura Professor Sampath Amaratunga addressing a section of the students last week at a university event, delivered an important message to them. That was not to play with the image of a university for its cost will have to be borne by all students, presently at universities and those to enter universities in the future.

Classic 2017 followed by a talent show

The event was the launching of the magazine of the Association of Public Administration or APA titled Classic 2017 followed by a talent show performed by students on stage. It was announced by APA that Classic 2017, released annually, was the sixth in its series opening door for students to publish their creative work unhindered by prevailing societal ethos. In fact, the creative work published by students in the magazine had done full justice to the objective of its editorial board.

A new consultative culture at USJ

Amaratunga, in his address, said that the university has started settling student issues by creating a new consultative culture. Both the main student union and sub-unions representing different faculties have been actively encouraged to sort out their issues through discussion, and not through confrontation, with the university management.

Prof. Sampath Amaratunga

According to him, students have seized this opportunity and it has been a salutary development. On the other side of the equation, the management has also got an opportunity to listen to students and explain their side of the story. The discussions have not been friendly at all times and they have always been marred by heated arguments and counterarguments. However, it has provided a forum for both sides to sit across the same table and come to a final consensus.

It is a new culture and according to Amaratunga, that new culture has helped them to sort out many burning issues concerning the students in a true democratic environment. The training which students have got through the exercise has helped them to appreciate that consultation is the best way to settle differences. It has also helped the university, claims Amaratunga, to pass out its graduates as responsible citizens who could work in a civilised society.

A few students destroying the image of universities

Yet, there has been an unsavoury development in which students have been driven to streets for wider national issues for which there seems no easy way-out. Amaratunga said that he does not suggest that the democratic freedom of people to protest and express their views should be curbed. But it should be done by using democratic consultative processes. He said: ‘It is only a few students who have resorted to confrontational tactics.

In the course of conducting demonstrations, they block the roads inconveniencing the public. He, as VC, is used to getting phone calls from annoyed public. If the call is from someone at the top at a leading private company, it is a sure sign that when a graduate from a local university appears before him for a job in a few months’ time, he has already earned negative marks’.

What Amaratunga meant was that it would be a challenging task for graduates to have that negative perception erased from their prospective employers’ mind and prove to them that they are hire-worthy. This is absolutely an unnecessary task. Both academics and students at universities have created a strong image in the minds of the public about the intellectual creativity of graduates. Said Amaratunga: ‘This image is being destroyed by a few students who believe that confrontation is the way-out. This should be avoided at all costs’.

Deviation from the tradition 

It is very rare that a university vice chancellor speaks openly to students drawing their attention to the follies they make during their university career. Most of them are scared of the unpleasant repercussions that follow when they speak openly. Hence, vice chancellors are usually used to creating a comfort zone around them and allow time or others to settle issues. In this background, only a few chooses to break the silence and speak out loudly. Amaratunga has shown that he belongs to that rare group.

Past events where VCs have spoken boldly

This writer recalls two previous occasions on which Vice Chancellors had broken silence and left indelible pieces of wisdom with students. One occasion was when the founding Vice Chancellor of the Vidyodaya University, Weliwitiye Sri Soratha Thero, addressed the students when the first batch was taken to that University in 1959. The other event related to Vice Chancellor Walpola Rahula Thero who held that position at Vidyodaya University during 1965-67.

Soratha Thero: Be critical, probing and rebellious

Soratha Thero had revealed to undergraduates the type of mental state they should cultivate in them if they wish to become true intellectuals. He had said that ‘University students should be critical, probing and rebellious’. What he meant by this piece of wisdom was that university students should not accept anything taught to them by others without challenging their validity and without carefully assessing their merits and demerits based on evidence.

It, in fact, asks university students not to be blind followers of others. This is because they have a brain of their own and that brain is in no way inferior to the brain of any other person. If it is inferior, it is because they have not developed it by continuously stretching its capacity by testing its ability to criticise, probe and challenge the existing knowledge base.

What Soratha Thero has preached in this piece of advice was the foundation of scientific analysis based on objective and not subjective approach to decision making. The acquisition of such ability will help undergraduates to succeed not only in their future careers but also in their personal lives.

Walpola Rahula Thero: Don’t be a slave of another 

In the second instance, Vidyodaya University’s Vice Chancellor Walpola Rahula Thero had asked university students not to be a cat’s paw of others. Those others may present themselves as saviours of students, but they are all driven by their own personal agendas. He said so in late 1967 when he addressed the students at a joint meeting at which this writer was present.

By that time, Rahula Thero had earned the nick name ‘Iron Vice Chancellor’ for singlehandedly crushing a students’ strike orchestrated by union leaders who in turn had been led by some left-wing political parties. During the strike, he had banned the union activities but later, when the leaders had shown signs of good behaviour, restored those rights once again.

It was at the meeting that followed the restoration of student rights, he made his wisdom known to students. He said: “Children, I want all of you to be free thinkers, independent of all those who are there to exploit you for their greedy agendas. You must stand on your own feet and be the future leaders of this country. I was tough with you because you had become unwitting victims of crafty people out there who want nothing but power for themselves”.

This bold statement was made by Rahula Thero at a time when the country had been engulfed by a nation-wide strike action by students in all the universities instigated by left-wing political leaders of the country.

Three VCs speaking out

The Vice Chancellors of Vidyodaya University in that initial era had always left a message for the successive generations of students to follow. The founding Vice Chancellor, Soratha Thero advised the university students to be “probing, critical and rebellious”. Then, Rahula Thero wanted them to be “independent thinkers capable of standing on their own feet without being intellectual slaves of others and become future leaders of the country”. Following the same tradition, Amaratunga now wants students to think twice before they do anything to destroy the good image of the university through irresponsible student activities.

Majority of students are creative, willing learners and responsible

Amaratunga said that almost all students at the university are good behaving and desirous of gaining the maximum benefit for their future life through its facilities. They have developed their creative skills through extra-curricular activities and are ready to join the civil society as responsible citizens. They have excelled in sports, mastered speech-craft and become good at performing arts.

The talent show they staged on the sideline of the launching of Classic 2017 was a perfect demonstration of their creative skills. Only a few have been driven to extreme tactics but it is they who make the biggest noise and leave a negative perception about universities and their students in the public.

A few students at war with universities

It appears that a section of university students is at war with all the university administrations in the country. They in turn have imposed a cost on all other students as well as the public which economists call external costs. When externality is present, the government has to intervene and remove externality. In the alternative, those who are affected could negotiate with perpetrators, if possible, and come to a negotiated settlement. This latter course is known as Coase Theorem, named after its proponent, Ronald Coase, who got Nobel Prize for this contribution in 1991. The war has now reached such a critical stage that both the government and those who have been affected will have to work together to reach an acceptable solution.

Philip G. Altbach: Conceptualise student agitations

To understand the nature of solution that can be found, it would be useful to conceptualise what has guided them or what they have sought to achieve through their action. In Classic 2017, an article written by a lecturer, M.S. Dimuthu Kumari, under the title ‘Contemporary Student Movements in Sri Lanka’ has thrown light to understand this issue. Drawing on the work, among others, by Boston College academic Philip G. Altbach, Kumari has categorised the motive behind the student action in contemporary university system into four groups. Her presentation in a modified form is given in the Table.

Pursuing political goals

In the first group, students have a wider social goal to attain with a firm belief on how society should be reformed. It is a political goal and Altbach calls it ‘Norm-oriented Societal-focused Movement’.

The norm or normative orientation will establish what it should be and societal focus will take students to street on broad social issues affecting predominantly the underprivileged in society. Accordingly, students will protest against levying fees in state-owned schools since it would deprive the underprivileged of moving up in the social ladder through educational attainments. Students will continue to protest against such a policy even when it is suggested that a generous scholarship scheme would remove barriers for the underprivileged to attain their educational goals.

Holding hard values

The second group also focuses on broad society as its target goal but is guided by a value system which it accepts as god-given. Altbach has termed it Value-oriented Societal-focused Movement.

This group is basically similar to the first group, but the values to which it subscribes are non-negotiable no matter what the ground realities would warrant. For instance, if the students believe that education should be provided only by the state, they protest against any move to establish private sector owned educational institutions.

Fighting for personal goals

The third group focuses only on the individual level issues but has inculcated a normative position – that is, what it should be – relating to the issue at hand.

This individual level focus has been given the term ‘etudialist focus’ – meaning inward oriented focus – by Altbach. Thus, this group is called Norm-oriented Etudialist-focused Movement.

These student movements are not worried about global or national issues but only the issues affecting them. Students fighting for good residential facilities or better libraries belong to this group.

Wishing for a culture of entitlements

The fourth group too has an inward-oriented focus but would move forward with an indelibly accepted value system. Altbach has called it Value-oriented Etudialist-focused Movement. This group thus believes that the entitlements that are given to them cannot be changed at all under any circumstance.

A salad of goals by fighting students

It is apparent that the student movements, led by a few, are causing a permanent damage to the image of the universities has not got a single focus or orientation.

They are everywhere depending on the issue against which they could keep on protesting. On one occasion, they are for broad social goals; on another they are for narrow individual interests. Since these issues are there at all times, the protesting student movements are also present at all times. Hence, they have become a permanent stone in the boots of every vice chancellor or every Minister of Higher Education in the country. Since the values to which they subscribe are non-negotiable, there is no way to eliminate their presence by acceding to their demands.

An unceasing Satyagraha against SAITM

They are naturally a few among the student population in universities. This is demonstrated by the unceasing peaceful protests they have staged in front of universities, called Satyagraha, against the current issue involving the private medical school called SAITM. There is a hut erected at the entrance to the university concerned, but at any time, there is only one or two students sitting in protest-posture inside the hut.

Getting a medical degree without attending lectures will not add to the image of university

Yet, the posters that are on display around the hut announcing the Satyagraha in large font are so huge that they could cover even the facade of the main university building. Amidst this, the rest of the students go about doing their daily studies without being bothered by their presence.

The only exception is the students who read for medical degrees and who have refrained themselves from attending lectures since January 2017. Getting a medical degree without attending lectures will surely not add to the image of a university. In that context, the message delivered by Amaratunga is specifically relevant to those in the medical faculties.

Consultative culture cannot address all the motives of student agitations

It is apparent that Amaratunga’s consultative culture has helped him to settle issues marked at the lower left quadrant of the four-quadrant graph presented by Dimuthu Kumari.

That quadrant, namely, Etudialist-focused self-serving goals, is concerned about the students agitating for the issues relating to themselves or their university.

That culture cannot settle agitations driven by wider social goals embodied in student movements. For that, the answer is empowering the rest of the students and isolating the few who have imposed an external cost on other students and the public at large.

Develop other students with creative skills

That goal could be attained by helping the students to develop their critical thinking and facilitating them to bring out their creativity through social events at universities.

The recently performed talent show at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura is one such event.

*W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com 

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Latest comments

  • 3

    I think the University students as well as some Academic Unions need a very good spanking. the major problem is politicians of Students who are vulnerable to brain -washing and mischief. Creativity and democracy is nothing when there is no discipline to go with that. So, I thinkk the problem with the management is politics. PArticularly, these days, Progreesive JVP is trying to take over pwoer from the incumbant JVP. This is why govt should arrange another way to charge students for their education. Once their probem is solved govt can provide scholarships to bright students. Already those means are available and those should be steamed lined. I don’t think Ranil can do that. He may some one to IMF or to the world bank or European Union to get advices. Maithripala Sirisena is now uphil battle because Mahinda Rajapakse is using a decoy, wijedasa Rajapakse to get what he wants. MAithripala sirisena also may have the problem that there are no good people around him or he doe snot know what to do and turn things around. Hanging on to this stupid yahapalanaya is dithering, lack of courage, ignorance, simply lack of leadership and lack of vision Politics is not about friendships of returning the favour. IT is about allienace to do the right thing. I think MY3 should leave the yahapalanaya and should turn thingsd around. IF need take the country under emergency.

    • 0

      High rank must have leadership skills. The last govt. ruled through fear, murder and robbery and is now a poor alternative, desperate to prevent imprisonment, looking to erase justice minister for their survival. Surely there is a statesman to build nation in the present group. Ancient right path without party idol is a must. SAITM doctors additional 2 year training, watching GMOA/SLMC street dramas has given them sufficient training to go into internship. Culture without money is weak

  • 0

    I am a person expelled from not only the professional society but from the whole society. I had been an executive, professional Engineer for more than twenty years. I do not know whether you educated people to consider my words today,

    As a mother, the only parent of a teenage son a helpless woman really feels it. wherever I go in my motherland today a medicine given for Epilepsy is prescribed for me in which case I have never had such disease a serious drug that may have an impact on liver and which lessen my enthusiasm to help to grow my son.My sure suspicion is political undue impact since I face injustce whereve I go.

    Th e reason for unbearable injustice faced by my whole family mwust be owing to my not doing any fault at any cost,

    • 1

      Sriyani Mangalika: So, write your story to the newspapers. That Wickrambahu KArunarathne was also braying about mistreatment. He got big chunks of money, recognition and now he wants to abuse the system more. You should fight your misfortune. Because, if you have epilepsy, it is not under your control. govt should help you. Other wise, it is discrimination. right now discrimination, democracy and human rights in Sri lanka are all political words. Your’s case is a perfect human rights, democracy and discrimination.

  • 1

    It is simply politicization of everything. then different political parties can play out students. that is why the govt appointed a lawyeras the higher education minister. All govts are playing the same card. People can just talk about it and nothing else.

  • 3

    Well written article. This is a thought provoking piece of writing ..our universities should be producing a generation of students who are creative in their life. Unfortunately, we are still dictating in our universities. Is it fault of students or lecturers or policy makers..UGC . Many staff of UGC do not care about the quality of higher education in universities ..unqualified lecturers who teach at universities should be sacked ..
    In western universities lecturers sacred of students ..why they fear for the progress reported of students…who write about the qualities of education they get from their university.. we do not have such system to monitor the quality of teaching in our universities..UGC does not know how take works from lecturers.

  • 3

    “Amaratunga has shown that he belongs to that rare group”.

    Group that supported Mahinda Rajapaksa to the hilt at the 2015 January 8th election. Mr Wijewardane, please don’t write articles praising this sucker. We know very well who he is.

  • 3

    Are you expecting a honorary doctorate from USJP to get your title changed ? Otherwise what is the purpose of praising this VC.

  • 2

    Looking at some comments, Student misbehaviour is completely because of politics. Some comments say, that VC was Mahinda Rajapakse supporter. So, the proboem is politics and VC’s political beliefs. thes epeople do not want to understand that academics just have to ride the wave, when politicians are politicizing everything. These henchmen are there to destroy the system. This is why Sri lanka has become a difficult- to-live country. the best thing is to leave the country for these vultures and go else where.

    • 0

      What about your misbehaviour in your writing. What manners do you have? You descendents of Ariyan race? Why do you proud of your ethnicity and race …create Lanka identity with all

  • 5

    ” Getting a medical degree without attending lectures will surely not add to the image of a university.” This man is a perfect example of a theory that appeared in The Economist magazine in the late1980s. The theory is that the craving for every field of study in the Arts to call them selves “sciences” and “logies” (political science, sociology etc) arises out of an inferiority complex in people who chose to study these ‘sciences’ not out of choice, but by failure to enter the science stream at JSC level in the old education system. Economists suffer from this complex more than any other group. They started calling Economics a science and also call it by pet names such as ‘the dismal science’. They also attempted to quantify economic issues through another pseudo-science called econometrics, without realising that the basic problem of resource limitation and human emotions such as propensity to invest and consume cannot be quantified applying mathematical principles. But they were too unintelligent to realise this, and their folly drove the world to economic morass. All bankers and economists should stop trying to be authorities on higher education and erudition, because they simply have failed in their own lives as well as through the stupid ‘advice’ they provide governments.

    • 1

      Thanks for promoting medical education without attending lectures or being guided by senior veterans in the field.

  • 4

    Come on guys. When commenting, be professional. Do not look at who said what, read what is in it. As for the main message, students need to be responsible for the acts they commit as much as anybody else should ( though it never happens). They are no longer “students’, they are adults hence they carry the same burden of responsibility. It is most common and well known that many university undergrads do not know why do they do what they do. In protest campaigns, many simply do not know why they protest, they indulge in it simply because some ayya / akka said. And they do not have the stamina to hold a different opinion. Minority holds “majority power” though covert militancy. Its just the plain truth but little is understood by those outside unis that university life is under the mafia of few militants. Its time universities provide freedom for all marginalized to express, those who have opinions different from the militant power groups to live with respect and dignity. Frankly, the entire university population is subject to this minority militancy which say to public that they fight for public issues when in fact they do so for their hidden gains and long-term political self-centered aspirations. Due to this prevalent culture, local universities breed broiler chicken. Where as this country begs for innovators and progressive pragmatic young professionals who could shoulder the task of making Sri Lanka

  • 1

    Turmoil in Universities appear to be the legacy of Bandaranaike politics. According to sir John ‘dogs have been unleashed ‘ now propelled by left politics. What we see in Universities have entered the Parliament . Our MPs are worse than University students.

  • 1

    While agreeing with most of what Mr.WAW says, ragging is the biggest problem which polarises staff and students. Also, administrators,and academics simply ignore this malaise and even support ragging. Also, those brainwashed will do anything what their political masters tell them. They have no original thinking initiative or responsibility. Several HR mangaers have mentioned that they would not hire graduates where ragging is rampant. such as SJP, Ruhuna, Peradeniya and Sabaragamuwa. . I think instead of a free mahapola, they should give a loan to be paid back.

  • 1

    Student activism/agitation is a way of inviting attention to grievances/causes. Lankan students do have plenty of grievances which even the media make out as political. Student protests brought about the end of Vietnam war and dismantling of apartheid regime.
    Dr W A Wijewardena lends credence to the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura Professor Sampath Amaratunga moaning about the students destroying the image of the university.
    Did Prof S A (or Dr WA W) ever consider the Lankan MPs using their position to enhance their wealth exorbitantly? They are causing irreparable damage to the reputation of the parliament.

  • 1

    Well said Pillai.
    Student protests are good or bad depending on whom they benefit.

  • 1

    University education in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) has been progressively destroyed. The University of Ceylon, when founded and in its heydays was the pride of Asia, supplying university dons to places like Singapore. Look at Singapore now, with its universities in the first thirty in the world rankings. Our universities do not even appear in the rankings.
    It is easy to blame the students. But, a start must be made with them. They have never given up the vice of ragging. Why this phenomenon takes place so crudely in this Buddhist country is so difficult to explain. Then, the readiness of students to get onto the streets. This was there in my time in Peradeniya, where demonstrations, sometime involving the burning of private property, had started in the 1970s.
    More than the students, the government and politicians were to blame. Teaching in swabasha enabled many divisions within the student body, later to be translated into society, a cleavage between the English educated and the Sinhalese/Tamil educated. The latter were perceived as good enough only to teach Sinhala/Pali/ Buddhist Civilization in village schools. Tamils likewise.
    The upgrading of the Pirivenas into universities was another act of political chicanery. They were not equipped to teach subjects of relevance to society or the economic progress of the countries. So too with the Horse University (Ashwa Vidyalaya) at the race course opened to accommodate the progeny of a politician. It later was called the Fisheries Corporation as many of the dons were Karawe people.
    So the story goes on. This article seems to be celebratory of the past when the past was a sinful betrayal of the young for which we continue to pay the price. Make university education relevant to the people and the economy of the country, concentrating on technology and the sciences (as Singapore does, in contrast to Malaysia, where teaching in Malay set the universities back by years. In India, the major universities, despite their linguistic chauvinism, did not abandon English.). Just wake up form the Mahavamsa cesspit.

    • 0

      Mama Sinhalam, if not for the last unnecessary sentence, I would agree with all you say.

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