Original image from Lanka Polity
Universities, academics and university students have been hogging the limelight in the last several weeks in unprecedented ways. The Rajapakse regime’s systematic destruction of the higher education system in this country has run into a few impediments. University academics from around the country have emerged from a partly self-induced exile and have finally started making themselves heard. On the other hand, the preposterous scheme of sending new entrants to the university for ‘leadership training’ to military camps has also provoked a series of protests. Whatever the outcome of the academics trade union action or the protests against the ‘leadership training’, higher education in our country will never be the same again. We will be able to assess in a few months, if this will lead to a victory for higher education in Sri Lanka or the further strengthening of the totalitarian Rajapakse project. The stakes are huge. And the regime knows this, which is why it is pulling out all its heavy guns against this unprecedented level of dissent.
But because subtlety is not the strong suit of this regime, its tactics are particularly crude. Firstly, consider the appointment of S.B Dissanayake as the Minister of Higher Education who cannot seem to open his mouth without letting loose a stream of profanity, lies and threats. His alter-ego, Dr Sunil Navaratne, Secretary of Higher Education, is certainly no better. Dr Gamini Samaranayake, the UGC Chair is unable to even conduct a meeting with civility. Then lurking in the background, is Dr P.B Jayasundera (with regard to the academics salary issue), a person whom the Supreme Court has prohibited from holding public office (a ruling conveniently forgotten by this regime). The former three in particular, are the public faces of the battle between this regime and the higher education system. But make no mistake: they are acting on orders issued from above. The way this regime operates, when they are pushed to compromise (and a compromise seems quite likely), the aforementioned gentleman will be the sacrificial lambs and Mahinda Rajapakse can emerge triumphant as the magnanimous leader, who rescues the country once again from the brink of disaster.
But perhaps what this regime has not calculated this time is the level of indignity it has aroused in its dealings with higher education. Take for instance, two of the main demands being made by the university academics. As some of the lowest paid academics in the world, certainly in the region, it is a wonder that they have taken this long to demand higher pay. And the higher pay is not just about the survival of individual academics but in the words of the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA), is about “attracting, recruiting and retaining” quality academics within the university system without which no higher education sector can survive. But for a regime that is hell bent on replacing the national university system with private universities of dubious quality, this is of no relevance. They are not remotely interested in ensuring that the university system is able to “attract, recruit or retain” quality academics. Their objective is to gradually make the national university system irrelevant. Thus, the flippant remarks made by Minister S.B. Dissanayake that academics can supplement their salaries by working in the private universities or that academics will be able to earn around Rs 5 lakhs by getting the private sector involved in the universities reveals their future plans for the national universities! This mind you from the ‘socialist’ government that the likes of Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Tissa Witharana et.al are still defending!
The demand the academics are also making for 6% of the GDP to be allocated for education signals that this time around FUTA has launched a serious campaign. This is what is most threatening to this regime. FUTA has managed to organize the academic community to act decisively and collectively to take positions on a range of issues regarding higher education. If the FUTA leadership can hold its nerve and keep its membership moblised, this could be a pivotal moment in not just protecting higher education in this country but in demonstrating the power of reason and justice against intimidation, corruption and dare we say it, even authoritarianism.
That this regime cannot tolerate dissent of any kind is obvious in its proposal to send new university entrants for ‘leadership training’ to the military. If not, why in the middle of this huge crisis with university academics, would any sensible Minister come up with such a plan that is bound to antagonize the university community? The barely concealed justification for this training is nothing else but to break up the influence of the JVP led student unions within the universities. If this regime was serious about putting an end to the vile practice of ragging, this is certainly not the way to set about it. If you consider the content of this ‘leadership training’ it includes things like IT, English, social etiquette (specifically, how to wear a tie, use of cutlery, and personal hygiene), sexual harassment, conflict resolution, history and development (Ravaya, May 22nd, 2011) on what basis the Army was selected as the best suited to provide this training remains a complete mystery. If external resource people are going to conduct the training it still doesn’t explain why the military needs to be linked to this training. When one delves further into the facts of this ‘leadership training’, one is forgiven for seriously wondering if the officials of the Ministry of Higher Education have taken leave of their senses (whatever little sense they had to begin with). The UGC (the same institution that is implementing this ‘leadership training) has also entered into a collaboration with the World Bank recently, known as the Higher Education for the 21st Century Project (HETC). One of the activities of this project is to develop ‘soft skills’ of university graduates. This includes, IT, English and Ethnic Harmony. Whatever one may feel about the rationale or the effectiveness of this project, why does the UGC require the Army‘leadership training’ on top of the HETC project? How is this even cost effective? Even if we take it at face value, the kindest thing that can be said is that it appears that the Ministry is on a mission to turn universities into finishing schools in the 21st Century if nothing else!! So much for being the Knowledge Hub for Asia!
But let us not get side-tracked by the apparent stupidity of the Ministry of Higher Education. This is not about leadership training; this is part of the regime’s plan to control dissent. Rather than producing young people with inquiring, critical minds; young people who are passionate and who are willing to fight for causes they believe in, this regime wants a generation of mindless robots who will obediently follow orders. They want to ensure that the minds of the brightest young people in this country are blunted and dampened. Clearly, they are watching the events unfolding in the Middle East closely and they most certainly do not want articulate, passionate, critical and angry young people organizing themselves against this regime.
This is why the regime is coming down so strongly on FUTA while pressing ahead with its ‘leadership training’ programme. At the moment, FUTA is an obstacle, because finally the Sri Lankan academic community has woken up to the dangers confronting higher education in this country and has most inconveniently stood up to this regime. And FUTA has stood up to this regime intelligently and with great professionalism thereby further exposing the lies and crudities of this regime. And at the same time, it is clear that the public has also sat up and taken notice of what is going on. Hence, the several initiatives that have sprung up in opposition to the ‘leadership training’ and the support that has been expressed for FUTA’s trade union action. It appears that this regime is being told that it cannot ride roughshod over everything and everybody. For all these reasons, this is a crucial point for the entire country. The response of the regime to the discontent that is being expressed and the ability of those leading the dissent at this point to hold their nerve against the dirty tactics of this regime, will signal more than the future of higher education in this country. It will signal the relevance and the courage of the intelligentsia of this country.