Sunday, June 5, 2011

Why does this government hate universities? Fascists versus intellectuals

Lakbima News, 05/06/2011, By Kumar David

Why has this government taken to such an all out confrontation with intellectuals and the university community - that is students, teachers and prospective future students? I think it is to do with the intrinsic mental character of the Rajapaksa regime. What I mean is, MR, GR and SB have not sat down and mapped out a strategy which says ‘Let’s go out and defecate all over the intellectual community because we have an inferiority complex.’ No, what I mean is that this is the way things have worked out in practice, given the intrinsic nature of the regime. But first, don’t get me wrong when I say “intellectual” and imagine I mean some superior sort of being; no, I only use it as shorthand for people whose job is to work with education, R&D and mental sorts of things. That is, I use it as shorthand for public intellectuals, university teachers, researchers, graduate and undergraduate students, etc., - so if you have a chip on your shoulder, or life was hard on you in those crucial years when others had a soft option, or if you didn’t manage to take a first, or whatever, just relax.
I say the confrontation is not pre-planned because it manifests itself in many different ways which have each developed with their own momentum. I select four which I believe illustrate the conflict between the nation’s intellectual community (university community plus others) and the regime. First, the public universities are starved of resources and run to the ground so that a negative image can be painted to pave the way for the induction of private universities. Second, we have the worst pay scales for university teachers among countries at a comparable stage of development and GDP; this in turn is but a manifestation of one of the lowest levels of GDP percentage allocated to higher education. Third, we have a militarization of university induction for freshmen, and finally the higher echelons of the UGC and some vice chancellor positions (I said some, not all) are stuffed with sycophants, intellectual mediocrities, and in a few cases, perverts. I don’t need to explain myself to the rest and the best; top academics know themselves and I don’t need to clarify.

Discordant natures

The South American and South Korean military gorillas of former decades, the Middle Eastern and Burmese variety today, and the intellectual community have always despised each other. Which dictatorship was not held in contempt by thinkers from Socrates to Voltaire to Edward Said? In the end, the philosophers always win; in the interim the tyrants always slaughter them. The dis-cord derives from a deep dislocation in inner personalities of intellectuals and fascists. Take for example the newspapers right now right here; the military is conducting induction courses for undergraduate freshmen; the academic community despises it as the ignorant indoctrinating the uninitiated. Teaching the young regime worship! But it won’t work; one day they will find out about the Darusman Report, or Mervyn or the separation of powers. Don’t tell me some academics were consulted in planning the induction course; “prostitutes” my contacts in the academic community retort. Look, I don’t know which side you take on the matter; my point is that the jack boots and those who use the cerebrum can’t stand each other. The bigger problem starts when the government becomes the creature of one side or the other.
My point is less that the Rajapaksa regime has chosen to confront the intellectual community but that this reflects the quintessential psychology of the regime itself. I do not agree with some of my friends on the theoretical left who say that certain egregious Third World regimes are not fascistic if they do not display all the characteristics of classical inter-war European fascism. Economic collapse, a middle-class driven mad, galvanization around an ideology of cohesion rejecting pluralism, mass mobilization, and pulverization of all non-state organizations - this was the genesis of Mussolini and Hitler. While I agree that a military dictatorship is not the same as fascism, populist regimes that demolish democracy, muzzle the press, militarize society and bring social institutions under tight state control are fascistic in the modern sense of the word. To the extent that any regime does much of this, it is a fascistic excrescence on the body politic.

The concrete in conclusion

I have emphasized broad concepts so far; the daily press pays ample attention to the more concrete issues but it is necessary to sign off by signalling my stand on the specific issues. First, I am not in principle opposed to private universities but I am opposed to the proposal at this point in time for two reasons. First, this is a plan hatched in conjunction with and with the intention of running down of the public university system into the rubble. When we have another government which will commit itself to excellence in the public universities I will support the initiation of private universities. Secondly, I think there is money under the counter for approval of private universities. Beware investors; you will lose your shirt when governments change.
Secondly, having taught or researched in about seven universities (including short assignments) in four continents, including some very prestigious ones, I am prepared to go out on a limb and say that Sri Lankan university teachers (I only know people in Peradeniya, Moratuwa and Colombo) are, on average, of comparable quality to their international peers. Salaries however are tiny; a top professor in Hong Kong earns 30 times (including perks) what his equivalent in Sri Lanka does. Funding for research and graduate students is even more abysmal! This is untenable; the brain drain will never abate. More important, this ratio is far worse than the ratio at comparable levels of seniority in private sector management.
The involvement of the military in freshman induction programmes exemplifies the trend to fascism in Sri Lanka and as I have said before some of the top echelons in higher education management in the country are sycophants and people who are unfit to provide leadership and inspiration for such an important sector. They reflect the intellectual abilities of the people who appoint them.