Thursday, July 19, 2012
The role of State universities
A SAARC writers’ conference was held at the University of Peradeniya on August 25, 2005. I was a third-year student in the English Department at that time. This conference left a permanent mark in me for two reasons. The first reason is tied to the day on which the conference was held. It was the day on which the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, a politician with brains and a heart and probably the best diplomat the country has ever had, was gunned down. It was a black day in that sense. The second reason is tied to the conference theme, which was "Recognising Commonalities and Celebrating Differences". This conference theme resonated well, I thought, with the role expected of state universities, especially of the social sciences and humanities departments of those universities.
Universities, especially state universities, have a historical legacy of creating and protecting environments conducive to free thinking. They have always been sites of intellectual struggle, struggles aimed at making unheard voices heard. Dissension and criticism have always been the primary principles defining their modus operandi. The constant search for alternatives, a task that universities have historically been endowed with, makes it absolutely necessary to criticise the existing order with a view to creating space for alternative understandings of the realities governing human existence. Universities have always been a platform for dissenting voices. Being the Sri Lankan institutions that have inherited this historical legacy, the Sri Lankan state universities are expected to protect and uphold what the legacy stands for.
Given this historical legacy, the idea that universities are not being "productive", a charge that is increasingly levelled at Sri Lankan state universities, especially at their social sciences and humanities departments, indicates a complete misunderstanding of the role of the state universities. This allegation requires us to revisit the notion of productivity. In the current world order, which is predominantly defined by global capitalism, productivity appears to mean being able to produce immediate and tangible results. This conception of productivity conveniently brands any form of activity that does not produce immediate and tangible results as unproductive. The dominant capitalist mindset fails to understand that universities are engaged in a different kind of productive process, a process that produces ideas. Ideas, by virtue of the fact that they are neither immediate nor tangible, do not fall within the capitalist interpretation of productivity.
The capitalist interpretation of productivity requires universities to focus on developing a selected set of skills in students and producing graduates with a marketable value. It places employability over the critical thinking capacity as the primary virtue of the graduates. It views ideas as useless and dangerous products. It promotes conformity, while demonising dissension, difference, and criticism. In short, it violates almost all the fundamental principles of the concept of ‘university’.
As institutions trapped in the capitalist world order, universities have to empower their students with the necessary skills for them to survive in the market economy. However, this does not mean that the universities should change their trajectory and abandon the important role that history has endowed them with Universities should continue to create space for free thinking, provide platforms for dissenting voices, and establish and uphold criticism as the way to finding alternatives. Their primary focus should continue to be producing intellectuals who can think critically and aim at changing society, rather than producing skilled workers who can only perform a predefined role assigned to them by the system. The ongoing trade union action launched by university lecturers is important mainly because its main aim is to protect and uphold this historic role.