Sunday, July 3, 2011

Mixed Response For Leadership Training Camps

The Sunday Leader 03/07/2011

By Janith Aranze

When the government introduced their controversial compulsory leadership training for prospective university students, it was met with a wave of protests and condemnation from students and University Academics.

With the first batch of students having completed the leadership training, there have been mixed reports of the success and merits of the programme which was so hurriedly pushed through by the government.

On the evening of May 17, Higher Education Minister, S. B. Dissayanake, announced that students who have qualified for university will have to go through leadership training at a military establishment. The new proposal came into effect on May 23, in preparation for the next academic year and it was made compulsory. Promptly students unions across the country met the proposal with anger and protest, the Ceylon Teachers Union and student activists immediately filed petitions to the Supreme Court to stop the programme. However, the Supreme Court chose to ignore the petitions and the programme commenced as scheduled, on May 23.
The programme consists of physical training and drill in the morning, with some camps making the students wake up at 6 a.m. to sing the national anthem. After lunch, lectures are given on issues such as first aid, harassment and table etiquette, as well as some confidence building exercises. Then in the evening students are given lectures on the history of the country, the President and other political events such as the riots in 1971 and 1989.

With the proposal having been implemented so abruptly, conditions of the camps were doubted, as were the resources of the military bases to cater to the needs of some 10,000 students who were to pass through their doors. A student who attended a camp at the National Cadet Corps said that the camp struggled to cater to the needs of all the students who were in attendance. “It was the ultimate rough out experience. We had 1,200 students in our camp and they didn’t even have enough pillows for all of us” she said speaking to The Sunday Leader on grounds of anonymity. “The food was not that great, the vegetables were not cleaned, and some people lived on milk and biscuits for 21 days. The toilets were in a really bad condition as well, we only had squatting toilets and we had to share them with around 50 people,” the student said. Not only were the conditions bad, the needs of Tamils and Muslims were not specially catered for either. “Most of the activities were in Sinhala, so when people complained and asked for translations, army personnel just said that they’ll get used it. Also some Muslim girls could not take part in certain activities as it went against their culture, for example they refused to march with the boys so they were made to march on their own,” the student explained. The student explained that overall she did not find the 3 week programme of much use. “I didn’t really see the point in it, it was definitely an experience however, it was meant to encourage a positive attitude but all everyone did was complain,” she stated.

Another student who went to the programme at the Diyatalawa camp explained how fellow students were injured participating in certain activities and how the army personnel giving the lectures proved to be inept at what they were teaching. “One student fractured his leg from jumping over a high wall, he wasn’t sent back home though, they gave him emergency treatment at the camp and he remained there until the programme finished. We received lectures on table etiquette and first aid, however, even the military officers teaching us did not know proper table etiquette,” the student said.

Though some of the students attending suffered badly at the camp, not all the students shared the shame experience.

A girl who went to the camp in Trincomalee told The Sunday Leader that she thoroughly enjoyed her time at the camp. “I went with four friends, and all of us had an amazing time. We have nothing bad to say about it,” she said speaking to The Sunday Leader on grounds of anonymity.  The student gave an account of the type of material that they were taught whilst at the camp.  “They taught us general stuff like how to use cutlery, how to speak to people and they gave us lectures on leadership. They made us write our own personal accounts of how we should contain an unruly mob,” she explained.

“We were also given anti-ragging lectures, the message was just because you may have been ragged, doesn’t mean that you should rag yourself.  We then had really basic PT, which involved running, stretching and doing exercises but nothing was compulsory” she stated.  When The Sunday Leader contacted Higher Education Minister, S.B. Dissanayake, he denied that students were experiencing difficulties at the camps. “Students are very happy at the camps, newcomers are satisfied and we have students appealing to take part in the second batch of training camps,” Dissanayake said.

Despite students telling The Sunday Leader of the poor conditions at the camps, Dissanayake denied that students were dissatisfied with the conditions and he also claimed Tamil students are indeed being taught in Tamil. “There is a little problem with the conditions, but it doesn’t matter, those from rural north are used to this.  Most of the Tamil students are being taught in their language, it’s not true that all the lessons are in Sinhalese,” Dissanayake explained.

The training programme has come under increasing criticism from university academics who claim that the programme serves as evidence of the failing education system at primary and secondary level. “The leadership training programme clearly indicates the primary and secondary education system has totally collapsed. They have been constantly denied resources by the government. Teaching people how to stand, clean and eat is meant to be for the primary education system” Federation of  University Teachers Association (FUTA), Dr. Mahim Mendis, told The Sunday Leader.  Mendis went onto say how it is the job of university academia to teach students leadership skills rather than leaving it in the hands of the military. “Universities are meant to provide the expertise for leadership training; all universities have academics who can teach leadership programmes. It is this command culture which is not conducive to university learning,” he said.

Though the value of the training camps has been debated, Vice-Chancellor of Ruhuna University and lecturer at the Boosa leadership training camp, Prof. Susirith Mendis, said the camps have had a positive effect on the students. “I gave a lecture on the psychology of ragging at the Boosa camp, the students seemed happy with the lecture, we had a little interactive discussion at the end and it was mainly positive,” Mendis explained. The lecture lasted approximately two hours, with Prof. Mendis giving the lecture twice to two groups of 600 students. “I myself, as a university Vice-Chancellor, have not been able to eradicate ragging completely, so I think that giving a sense of leadership and positive training to students will help us to meet future challenges,” he said. Mendis admitted that he had not witnessed the conditions of the camps and conceded that they may have been less then desirable.  “I did not go  and look into the conditions, they were probably not ideal but it’s a new experience for the students,” Mendis said.

Concerns have also been raised about the legality of the training camps, which many claim was implemented against the provisions of the University Act. Students for Human Rights lawyer, Nuwan Bopege, told The Sunday Leader that ministers alone cannot decide the parameters for university admission.  “The government made the camps compulsory for university admission, however the University Grants Commission (UGC) has to be consulted before ministers try to change the system of admission, and this was not done,” Bopege insisted.

Though the programme has received a mixed response from both students and university academics, it appears the government is papering over the cracks of a faltering education system.  Investment into primary and secondary education must surely be a priority, especially for those towns and villages outside of Colombo which suffer badly from under-funding and lack of resources. For now though, it appears that the leadership programme is here to stay.
S.B. Convinced Of Need For English
By Janith Aranze
Minister for Higher Education, S.B. Dissanayake, said this week that he intends to convert all university courses to English over the next 3 years.  Speaking at a press conference this week Dissanayake stressed the importance of children from Sri Lanka being able to communicate fluently in English. “Our students need to have bargaining power in the world, we need to change the syllabus to English as soon as possible.  The Sinhala syllabus can never reach the global standard” Dissanayake remarked.  The Higher Education Minister has a 3 year plan to make all courses at university English and a 6 year plan to make the A-Level syllabus English only as well. “In 3 years we plan to have no more courses in Sinhala or Tamil. And in 6 years those studying A-Levels, should all be studying in English” he said.