Saturday, May 28, 2011

Spotlight again on universities and university administrators

The Island, 28/05/2011, By Shanie,

"In the first year of Freedom’s second dawn

Died George the Third; although no tyrant, one

Who shielded tyrants, till each sense withdrawn

Left him nor mental nor external sun;

A better farmer ne’er brushed dew from lawn,

A worse king never left a realm undone!

He died – but left his subjects still behind,

One half as mad – and t’other no less behind."

– Lord Byron (1788-1824)

The Vision of Judgment

Europe was recovering after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo when in 1820, King George III died in England after years of blindness and insanity. Robert Southey, whom the King had made Poet Laureate of England wrote a ‘loathsomely flattering poem’ about the King. Byron responded with a satirical masterpiece from which the above verse is taken. Byron’s long satirical poem has been described as more than a demolition of Southey’s flattery; it demonstrates ‘the complexities and tensions, the mingled outrage and affection in Byron’s view of human life.’

It was Byron’s satire that comes to mind on reading the recent statement issued by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Directors. One does not know how many of the Vice-Chancellors attended the meeting at the Ruhuna University where this statement was issued. It is simply signed as CVCD without any names. It is unthinkable that all Vice Chancellors would have endorsed this statement which seems to have been drafted at some political office. Even a Committee of Village Committee Chairmen would have done a better job. The statement, as quoted in a Sunday newspaper, reads, inter alia: "The UNSG should not be permitted to arbitrarily appoint panels and take action on their reports without explicit sanction from wither the Security Council or the General Assembly. (We are) concerned that the UNSG’s initiative may extend to a subtle and ingenious ‘cold war’ which could include lobbying of governments of other UN member states and the Non-Aligned Movement, international organisations, international funding agencies, international courts with the intention of bringing other sanctions against Sri Lanka. These attempts will be a concerted effort by international vested interests to interfere in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka that could culminate in a final objective of regime that is currently being achieved by violence and military intervention in other parts of the world. With regard to the recommendation that he should establish an international; investigative mechanism, the UNSG is advised that this will require the host country’s consent or a decision from member states through an appropriate inter-governmental forum."

The Vice-Chancellors should conduct themselves as academics exercising autonomy and freedom, not as willing tools of politicians. The statement is replete with sloganeering and conjectures best left to nondescript politicians. No attempt has been made to analyse even one issue raised in the Panel’s report. Even their criticism of the UNSG is a repetition of what politicians have stated elsewhere. Their final sentence is, word to word, what the UNSG himself has stated about the options available to him. This is why it seems clear that the Vice Chancellors who have endorsed this statement have simply placed their signatures to a statement drafted elsewhere in a political office. Surely, at least one of the Vice Chancellors who attended the Ruhuna University meeting could have had the strength of character to suggest to his colleagues the need to respond to the issues raised in the report in a mature reasoned way, rather than engage in sloganeering?

Training for the new entrants

We titled last week’s column by asking the question whether higher education in our country was in safe hands. We expressed our concern that the Government’s unlawful and unethical response to the trade union action by the university teachers was jeopardising higher education. We are this week compelled to repeat the question in view of the ill-thought out "leadership training" programme that is being imposed on new entrants to the universities. A rights petition was filed in the Supreme Court and the Court suggested to the Attorney-General to advise the authorities to postpone the programme until they had made a determination on the petition. The Government’s response was typical – cock a snook at the suggestion. There has been no word, not that the public expected any, from the Attorney General about this lack of courtesy shown to the Supreme Court.

There are no civilians involved in the training to the University new entrants that has been arranged by the Ministry of Higher Education with the concurrence of the University Grants Commission. It is being held in military camps. Apart from the usual military type exercises and hikes, there are some lectures as well. According to one report, there are lectures on world-renowned personalities, Sri Lanka’s history and national heritage and on the National Anthem. As far as we know, there was no consultation with the academics on the the kind of orientation that was required for the new entrants and about the course content. Even if they had private reservations, there has not been a word of public protest about all this either from the University Grants Commission or from the Vice Chancellors. Obviously, they feel it more prudent to meekly accept political interference in academic matters.

According to a report, six of the leaders being discussed are – Gandhi, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Puran Appu, Dutugemunu, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Anagarika Dharmapala. The subjects under national heritage course includes the coming of the Aryans, foreign invasions, Dutugemunu (again), the Anuradhapura era, King Vijayabahu and the Sacred Tooth Relic. If the report is correct, the courses have been designed with a strong majoritarian nationalist element in it. Of course, it would not be fair to comment until we hear from the students what exactly was taught. But the published course content does not sound at all very encouraging for the promotion of inclusivity, pluralism and national reconciliation.

In respect of the National Anthem, there was a foreign journalist who once interviewed the Army Brigadier in charge of training the child soldiers conscripted by the LTTE. The military officer was asked why the Tamil children were being asked to sing the National Anthem each day in Sinhala. His answer was that nowhere in the world is the national anthem sung in more than one language, the language of the majority. This answer was to be repeated later by President Rajapaksa himself and his Minister Wimal Weerawansa. Unfortunately, the journalist interviewer did not pursue that point. But we now know that that answer was incorrect and almost every bi-lingual country has bi-lingual national anthems. Will the national anthem subject for the university new-entrants now be taught any differently? It is not likely, judging by the military’s insistence that at all official functions in the North and East, school children must sing the National Anthem only in Sinhala.

It has also been reported that the facilities at the camps are inadequate, particularly for the girls. But this shortcoming can be put down to teething problems caused by these camps not being equipped to handle an influx of such a large number of civilian young men and women. But still it will not leave a very good impression on these young people.

The whole concept of pre-admission training for the new entrants should have been thought out and discussed with the academics. It should have been they who decided on the curriculum and course content and most of the lecturers should have been civilians/academics. Such a process would have ensured that the students when they entered the university were adequately equipped for tertiary education. That would have been in keeping with the lofty traditions set by the founding fathers of university education in our country – traditions of university autonomy and academic freedom cherished by universities throughout the democratic world.

Trade Union Action by teachers

After meeting an unrepresentative group of university teachers and university administrators earlier in the week, President Rajapaksa seems finally to have condescended to meet a delegation from the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations who are now engaged in trade union action. This is a dialogue that should have taken place weeks earlier, before FUTA, frustrated by intransigence from the Ministry of Higher Education, launched their action. In the interests of higher education in Sri Lanka, it is hoped that a solution acceptable to all can be arrived at. It is necessary to repeat again the wise words of Indika Gunawardena that we quoted last week. There was a similar dispute with FUTA in 1996 during the Presidency of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Indika Gunawardena, who was a cabinet minister then as he is now, chaired a sub-committee that included S. B. Dissanayake, to look into the FUTA demands. Submitting their proposals to resolve the dispute, the sub-committee had this to say:

"We can defeat the academics by manoeuvring our political and propaganda machinery. Some people in the government wanted to do it that way. But these people don’t know that if that happened, the government would lose the academics and will jeopardise the higher education system."

Now in the hot seat, the Minister of Higher Education seems to thinks differently. And when you have administrators who, for whatever reason, are unwilling to advise him that, instead of manoeuvring the state propaganda machinery, it was necessar to safeguard higher education in our country, the Minister will continue to think and act like a politician. The country will not require Presidential intervention in every dispute if our administrators have the strength of character and the wisdom to take a principled stand to ensure that justice and national interests take precedence over sycophantic attempts to toe the politician’s line. They will need to listen and uphold their own conscience on vital issues.

We may end by quoting Adam Michnik which we have done before in this column. Michnik was associated with the independent trade union Solidarity which was founded in 1980 when Poland was still in the ‘Soviet bloc’. He was imprisoned several times (he was later to be elected to Parliament when Poland freed itself from the Soviet bloc and held open elections). On one occasion when he was in prison, the Army General who was also the Minister of Internal Affairs made a proposal to Michnik that if he would consent to leave Poland, he would be freed very soon. The Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka, in their excellent series of booklets on the Value of Dissent, published Michnik’s reply to the Minister of Internal Affairs as ‘a superb affirmation of the need for conscience as an undeniable guide to ethical conduct, in politics and public life as in private life’:

"In the life of every honourable person there comes a difficult moment, General, when the simple statement ‘this is black and this is white’ requires paying a heavy price.... At such a time, General, a decent man’s concern is not the price he will have to pay, but the certainty that white is white and black is black. One needs a conscience to determine this. Paraphrasing the saying of one of the great writers of our continent, I would like to suggest that the first thing you need to know, General, is what it is to have a human conscience ......General, you may be the mighty Minister of Internal Affairs, you may have the backing of power, ...... but something invisible, a passerby in the dark, will appear before you and say: this you must not do. That is conscience."