Sunday, May 22, 2011

Removing the Emperor’s Clothes

Groundviews, 22 May, 2011, Samanmalee Unanthenna Colombo, Education, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Youth,

Universities, academics and university students have been hogging the
limelight in the last several weeks in unprecedented ways. The
Rajapakse regime’s systematic destruction of the higher education
system in this country has run into a few impediments. University
academics from around the country have emerged from a partly
self-induced exile and have finally started making themselves heard.
On the other hand, the preposterous scheme of sending new entrants to
the university for ‘leadership training’ to military camps has also
provoked a series of protests. Whatever the outcome of the academics
trade union action or the protests against the ‘leadership training’,
higher education in our country will never be the same again. We will
be able to assess in a few months, if this will lead to a victory for
higher education in Sri Lanka or the further strengthening of the
totalitarian Rajapakse project. The stakes are huge. And the regime
knows this, which is why it is pulling out all its heavy guns against
this unprecedented level of dissent.
But because subtlety is not the strong suit of this regime, its
tactics are particularly crude. Firstly, consider the appointment of
S.B Dissanayake as the Minister of Higher Education who cannot seem to
open his mouth without letting loose a stream of profanity, lies and
threats. His alter-ego, Dr Sunil Navaratne, Secretary of Higher
Education, is certainly no better. Dr Gamini Samaranayake, the UGC
Chair is unable to even conduct a meeting with civility. Then lurking
in the background, is Dr P.B Jayasundera (with regard to the academics
salary issue), a person whom the Supreme Court has prohibited from
holding public office (a ruling conveniently forgotten by this
regime). The former three in particular, are the public faces of the
battle between this regime and the higher education system. But make
no mistake: they are acting on orders issued from above. The way this
regime operates, when they are pushed to compromise (and a compromise
seems quite likely), the aforementioned gentleman will be the
sacrificial lambs and Mahinda Rajapakse can emerge triumphant as the
magnanimous leader, who rescues the country once again from the brink
of disaster.
But perhaps what this regime has not calculated this time is the level
of indignity it has aroused in its dealings with higher education.
Take for instance, two of the main demands being made by the
university academics. As some of the lowest paid academics in the
world, certainly in the region, it is a wonder that they have taken
this long to demand higher pay. And the higher pay is not just about
the survival of individual academics but in the words of the
Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA), is about
“attracting, recruiting and retaining” quality academics within the
university system without which no higher education sector can
survive. But for a regime that is hell bent on replacing the national
university system with private universities of dubious quality, this
is of no relevance. They are not remotely interested in ensuring that
the university system is able to “attract, recruit or retain” quality
academics. Their objective is to gradually make the national
university system irrelevant. Thus, the flippant remarks made by
Minister S.B. Dissanayake that academics can supplement their salaries
by working in the private universities or that academics will be able
to earn around Rs 5 lakhs by getting the private sector involved in
the universities reveals their future plans for the national
universities! This mind you from the ‘socialist’ government that the
likes of Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Tissa Witharana are still
The demand the academics are also making for 6% of the GDP to be
allocated for education signals that this time around FUTA has
launched a serious campaign. This is what is most threatening to this
regime. FUTA has managed to organize the academic community to act
decisively and collectively to take positions on a range of issues
regarding higher education. If the FUTA leadership can hold its nerve
and keep its membership moblised, this could be a pivotal moment in
not just protecting higher education in this country but in
demonstrating the power of reason and justice against intimidation,
corruption and dare we say it, even authoritarianism.
That this regime cannot tolerate dissent of any kind is obvious in its
proposal to send new university entrants for ‘leadership training’ to
the military. If not, why in the middle of this huge crisis with
university academics, would any sensible Minister come up with such a
plan that is bound to antagonize the university community? The barely
concealed justification for this training is nothing else but to break
up the influence of the JVP led student unions within the
universities. If this regime was serious about putting an end to the
vile practice of ragging, this is certainly not the way to set about
it. If you consider the content of this ‘leadership training’ it
includes things like IT, English, social etiquette (specifically, how
to wear a tie, use of cutlery, and personal hygiene), sexual
harassment , conflict resolution, history and development (Ravaya, May
22nd, 2011) on what basis the Army was selected as the best suited to
provide this training remains a complete mystery. If external
resource people are going to conduct the training it still doesn’t
explain why the military needs to be linked to this training.
When one delves further into the facts of this ‘leadership training’,
one is forgiven for seriously wondering if the officials of the
Ministry of Higher Education have taken leave of their senses
(whatever little sense they had to begin with). The UGC (the same
institution that is implementing this ‘leadership training) has also
entered into a collaboration with the World Bank recently, known as
the Higher Education for the 21st Century Project (HETC). One of the
activities of this project is to develop ‘soft skills’ of university
graduates. This includes, IT, English and Ethnic Harmony. Whatever
one may feel about the rationale or the effectiveness of this project,
why does the UGC require the Army‘leadership training’ on top of the
HETC project? How is this even cost effective? Even if we take it at
face value, the kindest thing that can be said is that it appears that
the Ministry is on a mission to turn universities into finishing
schools in the 21st Century if nothing else!! So much for being the
Knowledge Hub for Asia!
But let us not get side-tracked by the apparent stupidity of the
Ministry of Higher Education. This is not about leadership training;
this is part of the regime’s plan to control dissent. Rather than
producing young people with inquiring, critical minds; young people
who are passionate and who are willing to fight for causes they
believe in, this regime wants a generation of mindless robots who will
obediently follow orders. They want to ensure that the minds of the
brightest young people in this country are blunted and dampened.
Clearly, they are watching the events unfolding in the Middle East
closely and they most certainly do not want articulate, passionate,
critical and angry young people organizing themselves against this
This is why the regime is coming down so strongly on FUTA while
pressing ahead with its ‘leadership training’ programme. At the
moment, FUTA is an obstacle, because finally the Sri Lankan academic
community has woken up to the dangers confronting higher education in
this country and has most inconveniently stood up to this regime. And
FUTA has stood up to this regime intelligently and with great
professionalism thereby further exposing the lies and crudities of
this regime. And at the same time, it is clear that the public has
also sat up and taken notice of what is going on. Hence, the several
initiatives that have sprung up in opposition to the ‘leadership
training’ and the support that has been expressed for FUTA’s trade
union action. It appears that this regime is being told that it
cannot ride roughshod over everything and everybody.
For all these reasons, this is a crucial point for the entire country.
The response of the regime to the discontent that is being expressed
and the ability of those leading the dissent at this point to hold
their nerve against the dirty tactics of this regime, will signal more
than the future of higher education in this country. It will signal
the relevance and the courage of the intelligentsia of this country.