Thursday, June 30, 2011

Is there a crisis in higher education?

The Island, 30/06/2011, Danesh Karunanayake

I like to believe that I am an academic of some worth and not one that makes a kalakanni out of the crème de la crème of Sri Lanka. Yet, I am not a product of the Sri Lankan tertiary education system although I was briefly a student of the Faculty of Dental Sciences at Peradeniya. I was fortunate to be able to complete my bachelor’s degree in Canada with the support of a brother who was an engineer from the University of Moratuwa. So, I am also where I am thanks completely to the Sri Lankan free education system. I believe that the present amendments to the University Act and the ‘tuition kada’ like private universities that they would help to proliferate in the near future will throttle and kill free education in the country. It is a travesty of justice? because not only will the poor and the rural middle class lose out on ‘climbing the ladder’ but also as Nirmal Dewasiri the FUTA president pointed out recently in a public seminar , our Universities will be producing semi-skilled cheap labour for the consumption of the ‘developed’ world.

I have been a senior lecturer at Peradeniya for six years at the much maligned Faculty of Arts. Each year I am pleasantly surprised by the ‘gems’ that we get from the ‘muck’ that passes for primary and secondary education in Sri Lanka. Arguably they are the best that our education system produces and miraculously, to a large extent, they retain their creativity and critical thinking. This is not because, but in spite of the schooling and private ‘tutory’ education that is a part and parcel of almost every student of Sri Lanka today. Admittedly we have problems both at the level of students and also at the level of academics that need to be addressed. We are, after all, a segment of the larger society of Sri Lanka and surely have been affected by the affliction of law breaking and unethical practices that are part of it. But, we are definitely not MORE afflicted and rightly so. We still are the ‘very select’ academic community of Sri Lanka!

So, to me, the trade union action of FUTA is not only about increasing my salary, although I won’t deny that it would be nice to be paid a little more. As a lowly graduate student I used to receive almost three times my present salary and came back NOT because I could not find employment or because of any noble intentions, but because I believed that what would feel right to me was to be in Sri Lanka. Although I am still convinced that my decision was the correct one for me, I am not so sure for my son or my partner. I am Sri Lankan and felt, and still feel, that this is my country. But the on-going national discourse is such that as to be Sri Lankan, you almost have to be Sinhala Buddhist. Is this is the Sri Lanka for me? Yet, my family and I are still trudging along- but for how long?

In this milieu, it is easy for us to leave for greener pastures. Belongingness is a feeling, not a logical argument and I still ‘feel’ Sri Lankan. I tell myself I will not allow anyone to dictate to me that I am not Sri Lankan. But, maybe one day I will wake up and realise that hey! I don’t ‘feel’ Sri Lankan anymore. I hope that day will never arise but if it does, then I will leave because being told you are not ‘American, Canadian, English’ or being called ‘Paki’ is immeasurably better than being told you are not really ‘Sri Lankan’ by the fellow citizens of the country of my birth, the country that made me who I am and the country that I love.

But, I am an academic from the Faculty of Arts, the cradle of critical thinking and creativity. I have been blessed with students who, if shown the way, are ready to challenge, criticise, admire, reflect and finally change for the good. I don’t want to teach them a bit of ‘English’ or ‘IT skills’ so that these great minds, the future of Sri Lanka, the last hope in the path to reverse the course of destruction that Sri Lanka has embarked on, can be exploited by a private sector which ridicules them either for their lack of English and IT skills.

So, no, I am not leaving this country, at least not yet, and that is because I feel that as academics, especially academics from the Faculty of Arts which at Peradeniya comprises Humanities, Social Sciences, Management, Law, Fine Arts, and Education, we can make a difference in moulding Sri Lanka into a society of inclusiveness, acceptance and human kindness. We do and will continue to produce thinkers and creative minds that will heal the wounds, chase away corrupt despots, get rid of the military culture, and make this country a true ‘miracle’ of Asia and not a ‘hub’ without the ‘knowledge.’ That is why I am completely in support of the trade union action of FUTA. Not just to make a ‘few bucks.’

Danesh Karunanayake, PhD
Department of Philosophy and Psychology
University of Peradeniya