Friday, June 3, 2011

The programme for new entrants to state universities: Leadership Training, Military Training or POP [Pre Orientation Programme]?

The Island, 02/06/2011, By Carmen Wickramagamage,
University of Peradeniya

There appears to be no end to the confusion over what the new entrants to the state university system are being put through at the military camps. The Ministry of Higher Education has baptized it "Leadership Skills and Positive Thinking"—its purpose, to produce "Future Leaders." Its critics, among them, students unions, opposition parties, academics from the state university system and parents, are not so sure. Some see it as a form of "military training." Others object to it on either pedagogical or religious and cultural grounds. The matter is now before the Supreme Court in the form of several petitions citing fundamental rights violations. So the question arises, what exactly is the Higher Education Ministry attempting? Is it really leadership training or something else? How practical and far-sighted is the Programme they have designed?

For Professor Ariyaratne Athugala, Director General of the Department of Information, (in Lankadeepa, May 23), it is similar to many such programmes found at prestigious university campuses worldwide, such as Harvard and Yale. This is far from the truth. There are orientation programmes at all good universities, including those in Sri Lanka. But they are not held in the premises of military camps. Nor do they teach the topics that the Ministry has listed in the announcement to mark the inauguration of the Programme (see Lankadeepa, May 23). If they did, students in those so-called prestigious universities would sue the universities. Of course, Israel and Singapore, cited by Professor Athugala, are outliers. They do not exactly rank among the worlds’ most democratic nations; democratic nations do not lean so heavily on its military to keep a fractious population in order.

Here are the topics that will be taught: Sri Lanka’s Vision for the Future in the face of changing global dynamics; Strategic management skills; Leadership and personality development; Positive thinking; Physical training; First aid; Conflict management; Psychology; Sexual harassment; Lankan law; Etiquette; History; Residential dorm norms; Beauty culture and personal hygiene; How to live a drug- and alcohol-free life [Lankadeepa, May 23]. In principle, I have nothing against some of the topics listed such as leadership and personality development, positive thinking, conflict management, sexual harassment, etc. My question is, how does one adequately inculcate these ideas within a brief three-week span?

I have serious objections against some of the other topics. Take Etiquette, Personal Hygiene and Beauty Culture. How do these topics empower new entrants to the state universities? To me, personal hygiene is just that: personal! Not only are there class and cultural dimensions to personal hygiene, it is an insult to teach personal hygiene to university entrants who are no longer children. Take the topics Etiquette and Beauty Culture. According to the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education, as reported in the Ravaya newspaper of May 22, "Etiquette" will teach students how to use a fork and spoon! Beauty Culture [or personal grooming] will teach them "how to wear a tie." One would like to know how wearing a tie and eating with fork and spoon would create a "Future Leader." I thought we all knew by now that the mark of a true gentleman does not reside in his tie or his ability to juggle cutlery correctly. With apologies to Shakespeare in Othello, one can wear a tie and still be a villain! Moreover, there is an embedded irony in his elaboration that the Ministry Secretary was clearly unaware of when he defined "Etiquette" that way. Aren’t ties, and forks and spoons, symbols of that very same western culture that this country under the present regime is determined to distance itself from? This is not to suggest that personal grooming and hygiene are unimportant. They are important. The question is, what does a group of students who will spend the next 3-5 years at the university really need? I would say they need a training that de-toxes them of the "toxic" tuition culture, not one that turns them into Barbie Dolls and Hair Dresser’s Dummies while at university! If at all, personal grooming belongs in a short course to be offered to students in their final year at university by the career guidance units.

And then there is the physical training, under which students will be woken up at 5 am and start the day with exercises. There is no doubt that exercise is important. But putting all students, irrespective of personal preference or physical fitness, through a standard regimen is not the way to achieve that laudable objective. These students who’ve cleared the high bar of the A/L exam know how to wake up early. Many university students, from my long experience at university, moreover, need the resources for more calories, not methods to burn them! If the Minister and his officials were to visit the canteens at university campuses they would see for themselves how inadequate and poor the diet of most university students is. If they were to visit the dorms, they would see how unhygienic the living conditions are. It might then be better to increase the value of the scholarships for university entrants than to put them through the rigors of a training for which, from all accounts, millions of rupees have been spent!

Also included in the list are topics like History and Psychology. Why History? Surely, as reasonably intelligent students that the Minister himself has characterized as the crème de la crème they are bound to know enough history to enable them to survive as non-specialists??? In which case, one is bound to ask if this is a new history in the making that the students are going to be taught. History, as we all know, is one of the most contentious of disciplines in post-independence Sri Lanka. In post-war Sri Lanka, we therefore need to know whose version is going to be taught and why and by whom. As for Psychology, whether a complex subject like Psychology can be taught in the space of three weeks is anyone’s guess.

However, the Programme in dispute is one component of a longer programme titled the Pre-Orientation Programme or POP, which includes a further three months of English and IT Skills. The prefix, "pre," signals that it is something prior to something else, which in this case is their enrollment as students at the universities. However, the question is whether universities have had a say in the design and implementation of the Programme. As far as I know they have not, which is a clear violation of the Universities Act, as Professor Savitri Gunesekere so eloquently argued in her article to The Island on May 20. Therefore, one begins to wonder whether there is an attempt to either sideline the universities or to highlight their incompetence in the production of "useful" graduates.

This will not seem such an idle thought when one considers how the English and IT Skills Programme which is part of POP, is side-lining the university English Language Teaching Units [or ELTUs]. Until this year, it was the ELTU that offered an intensive English language programme to students upon entry to universities. Under POP, ELTUs are redundant because the 100 teachers selected to teach the 22,500 new entrants are not drawn from ELTU staff. Nor are they being trained by reputed local ELT experts from the Colombo, Kelaniya and Open Universities. Instead, the British Council has been tasked with the training. However, the services of the British Council come at a price. When one adds to this the expense of the 22,500 laptops promised to new entrants by the Minister, the price tag soars. One wonders whether the Ministry could have found a better use for the money which, from all accounts, hovers in the region of Rs 900 million!

But the real reason for the choice of military camps for leadership training appears to be Minister SB’s dearly held ambition to eradicate ragging from university campuses [and his equally keen desire to wipe out the JVP from state universities]. Both the Minister and the President said as much at the ceremony to inaugurate the Programme. A cartoon in The Island by Jeffrey [Wednesday May 25] captures this ambition: in the first frame of the cartoon, before training, the fresher who arrives at university meekly accepts the left-over fish-bones that the JVP-affiliated super-senior orders her to eat as part of the Rag. In the second frame, after the training, this very same fresher, now transformed into a jack-booted Amazonian woman warrior, grasps the super senior by his throat! Much appears to hinge on the success of the Programme.

My question is the following: will the POP accomplish these objectives? And let me be clear about my position on the "rag." I have never been an apologist for the Rag at state universities. To me, as for many other academics at the universities, it is a form of torture that over the years has produced at least one death, many debilitating injuries and countless drop-outs. For throwing their weight behind the attempt to stop the Rag, the political leaders must be applauded. However, any effort to eradicate it needs the participation of all right-thinking stake-holders at the state universities, i.e., administrators, academics, non-academic staff, students and parents. The UGC and the MoHE, from outside or above, cannot miraculously turn state universities into rag-free spaces. There are two options: either the senior students engaged in ragging [and let me assure the readers that the majority of students are not engaged in this barbarous activity] must be persuaded into giving up the practice [which has already happened in some faculties and some universities] or the new entrants must be able to say ‘no.’ It appears to me the Ministry has opted for the second course of action. Will it work?

First of all, the new entrants, as a group, will be in the minority numerically and may not always wish to martyr themselves for the Minister’s cause. Secondly, it is a fact that there is a substantial percentage of new entrants who, unfortunately, like the rag and feel that their university experience is incomplete without it. Thirdly, the antagonistic attitude of the Minister towards not just student unions but university students in general [by calling them ganja kaarayo and kaala kanni] might have put the backs up of senior students who may now decide to rag the new entrants when they come to university just to show who is boss. It has been my experience over the years that university administrators cannot fully police every nook and cranny of university premises. Nor does ragging always take place within university premises. A respected junior colleague of mine suggested that the new Programme could be seen as visen visa naesiima [=countering poison/violence with poison/violence]. The question is, will it? I would hate to see the university campuses turning into battle-grounds, pitting student against student, if at least a percentage of the new entrants emboldened by their "leadership" training organize themselves to actively resist the senior students on this issue. What the general public should however know is that already there are students who individually say ‘no’ to the Rag. We need to find ways and means to increase this number which at the moment is in the minority at some campuses.

Now to the Minister’s much-publicized crusade to break the backs of the JVP-influenced student unions on campuses. What the Minister should know is that not all student unions are today backed by the JVP. There are many unions that are either affiliated with other political parties, including the NFF, or without overt political affiliations. In my opinion, the Minister’s mission only increases sympathy for the JVP among students on university campuses. What all right-thinking academics and university administrators should therefore aim for is to democratize university campuses so that students are free to subscribe to any shade of political opinion they want, including the JVP, as long as their practices remain democratic. University students, as the newly baptized "future leaders" of this country, should be introduced to core ideals of a vibrant democracy, which include tolerance of dissent. If the Minister of Higher Education and his officials at the MoHE and UGC do not respect this right of students and academics to hold political opinions [of all shades], the much-vaunted and inflated expectations from POP may do just that: pop!!!

Prof Wickramagamage teaches at the Department of English, University of Peradeniya