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Perspectives and Commentary on the Leadership Training Programme for University Undergraduates

[Author’s note: As you are probably aware the leadership training for undergraduates is now well under way in 28 military installations around the country. Although the government has stated that this will be a leadership training program rather than a military training program, it has conceded that the military will be involved in a number of aspects of the program. Students have also been informed that this training is “mandatory” for university entrance, though there now appears to be a great deal of confusion with regards to this provision as Government officials have issued a series of contradicting statements. These decisions have also been challenged by many students, rights groups, student unions, teachers’ unions and academics who have raised a number of concerns about the way in which this program has been conceived and implemented. This issue has also exacerbated a worsening crisis in local universities as the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) are also in the midst of trade union action.

Within a context such as this The YRC is releasing this document in the hopes that it would deepen the debate and further stimulate thinking around this issue. Though the YRC has been concerned and has closely monitored this issue from the beginning we have chosen to release this document now rather than earlier because there is a need to ensure that the issue continues to be discussed and monitored and that it isn’t allowed to fade from the public discourse.

The attached document is divided into 2 segments – the first captures snapshots of opinions shared with the YRC on this training session and its implications for higher education in the  country. The 2nd segment is a series of reflection on the issue and raises some questions that have not received as much attention in public discussions on this issue. We are also including a brief overview of the issue and its development below. We look forward to any comments or suggestions that you may have on this. If you are interested in signing up for our mailing list or getting in touch with The Young Researchers’ Collective, Sri Lanka please email us [email protected]]

Perspectives and Commentary on the Leadership Training Programme for University Undergraduates

Even as the first batch of university entrants commenced their university life with the “Leadership and Positive Attitude Development” programme at various army camps across the country, the decision by the Ministry of Higher Education to run a three week course in collaboration with the Defence Ministry did not go unchallenged. The decision has triggered much discussion among university students, parents, academics, employers and others. Student unions have vociferously opposed these moves and a number of students filed fundamental rights petitions challenging the fact that this training is mandatory for university entrance. Although these petitions have been dismissed by the Supreme Court, this issue will have far reaching implications for the administration of higher education in the country.

In this document we have attempted to collate and present snippets from ongoing dialogues that the Collective has been having with people through blogs, social networks and conversations since the leadership training was announced. It highlights diverse opinions about the government’s decision to hold a ‘compulsory’ leadership training for undergraduates in military camps, on the benefit of this type of training and on the process of decision-making and consultation in developing such a programme. In addition the Collective wishes to draw attention to a number of key questions and considerations with regards to the future of higher education in Sri Lanka.

Our analysis consists of two segments; the first is a broad snapshot of the opinions and discussions that were shared with us which we use to contextualize some of the issues surrounding this training programme. The second segment is a series of reflections and questions that we wish to pose in order to deepen the debate and discussion on this issue.

Part I: Conversation Snapshots

1. On the Training Programme being “compulsory”

The compulsory nature of the training programme has raised a fair amount of concern. Students and parents fear that if students don’t turn up for the training they may be forced to forego their university placement. In the view of one teacher, “parents may have severe reservations about sending their children (particularly their daughters) to a military facility, and this may result in students losing the opportunity for a university education, or worse, students deciding to pursue the option of studying in a much vilified “foreign/private university”.

Students have filed fundamental rights petitions in this regard, contesting the compulsory training as they were not informed of this requirement when they applied to university nearly a year ago. “Regarding the government’s decision to conduct training for future undergraduates in military camps, my initial response was disbelief! If the news about such a programme was not enough, added to that is the fact that it is COMPULSORY for university entrance. Unfortunately for those who have no other option, whether they are for or against it, they must make themselves go”. (Student, Colombo)

2. The choice of venue to host the training programme

There is general consensus that leadership training is essential for university students, but views differ on the choice of venue. “Depends on the construction of the programme; overall, I guess it may benefit the participants by improving their team working skill” (Analyst, Colombo)

A management consultant mentioned about the use of theories in business strategy that have their roots in military strategies“…. I’m sure the students will benefit, do u ever think MR govt will do something that the masses in SL will not benefit from? Compulsory military training is a practice in many other countries, why can’t we apply compulsory residential leadership training (not military training)? Many survival strategies (that gets extended to business and even the social sector) were formulated in War / by the Military (am sure you know of Sun Tzu)…, In fact I hope this will help discipline a lot of the Sri Lankan youth…, as against being wishful thinkers wanting to change the country only”.

“If you really want to give them leadership training why do you have to hold that in army camps? Why not in other institutions which are much more transparent? This programme is to brainwash students to suit the needs of the government. Parents should stand against this kind of nonsensical projects of the government”. (Senior Lecturer)

Questions were also raised as to why this could not have been incorporated within the existing university orientation programmes which could save money and contribute towards building greater cohesiveness among students. According to a lecturer from a leading university, “Universities already try to provide these skills in whatever way possible. Why not tap into these existing structures instead of creating another one from scratch? Also when expertise on the above skills is available at universities, why turn to another source? If the existent structure and content of the courses are inadequate (and ‘unmarketable’, as the govt. seems to love saying), then wouldn’t the alternative be to solve those issues and harness the skills of the ELT units and IT experts in doing so?”

Suggestions were also made for alternate methods of training using religious teachings and corporate trainers. “I don’t agree that there should be programmes conducted in the military camps. But students will benefit from a different type of programme. I think leadership training which has been inclusively designed would be something very useful for university students. They should be conducted in different parts of the country allowing the students to also experience the life and culture in these places to broaden their views”. (Freelance Consultant, Colombo)

Another concern that was raised is the impact this might have on post-war reconciliation efforts, especially when students from various ethnic groups participate in this training in army camps. “I don’t see after 3 decades of war, and now finally being in a post war state of ‘supposed’ reconciliation period, how it could be in any way conducive for a student to obtain any sort of training at a military camp. Furthermore, the setting alone is highly insensitive to so many, who have only known and experienced the military at it’s most brutal, and are yet to return to a state of complete normalcy” (Activist, Colombo).

Recovering from a prolonged war, some felt this mandatory leadership training held in military camps was a step in the process of militarization. A lecturer from the Central Province had this to say, “Given that the war has been concluded, the government’s persistent efforts at strengthening the army and increasing its numbers raises the question as to why continued militarization is necessary and / or allowed. The decision to hold compulsory leadership training for undergraduates in military camps seems like quite an extreme step and hints at how militarization of the society is seeping into education and the youth as well (in the guise of something like leadership training).”

Some also felt this was a political move by the government to control the JVP and their political activities within the universities. A researcher from Galle stated that, “This is a strategy to disconnect the relationship between students and the JVP, who are most connected to the students, when they enter University. It is a long term project which helps this type of regime to be in power without any disturbance. Through this programs student will be socialized before they meet JVPers”.

“I think it’s a devious scheme to brainwash students as part of their political agenda. To me it seems that the government is taking a leaf out of the books of the JVP in the 70s and 80s and the LTTE”.
(Senior Lecturer)

3. Content of the Training

Responses from the corporate world highlighted the need for suitable training that equipped undergraduates with important soft skills necessary for professionals. A management consultant who is an arts graduate stated that “most of my colleagues are still without jobs. Poor English language knowledge / lack of leadership, soft skills are the primary reasons I see for this situation. This residential workshop would be a good starting point for this….. It is better if the residential trainings were held in a friendlier atmosphere”.

“… I have seen graduates struggle to establish themselves in work places because they are not taught the most simple things in life like, close you mouth when biting food. Never slurp your tea and so on. I hope this basic training will break the barriers between the rich and the poor mentality, while telling students that life is not limited to the University. There is a whole world that they need to explore and going on the road and behaving like mad hatters is not worth it. They need to be taught how to wear a shirt or a dress in matching colours and a session or two on personnel hygiene. Such as using a deodorant and how to apply a bit of make up are basic necessities in life. All these University students have access to internet and mobiles, therefore taking them one step further won’t do any harm”. (Journalist, Colombo)

A Muslim Father said, “we don’t know the course contents. Nor do we know if the course takes into account cultural sensitivities”.

An undergraduate argued that leadership training is a continuous process and not something that can be fitted into a timetable alone, the student stated, “Whether students will benefit from this programme will depend entirely on how the programme is conducted for those three weeks, which by the way I personally fail to see as a time frame which would be effective. i.e: leadership training and developing a positive mentality are long-term goals which need specific care and also a specific framework. These can never be fitted into a time-table of training, but can only be learnt in the face of situation, from adults and from being in the environment/atmosphere relevant to the next four years of a university hopeful”.

4. Public engagement and consultation

Respondents were in agreement on the need for proper consultation with parties concerned before implementing such a training programme. “There has been no discussion with the stakeholders; teachers, parents, and the students themselves”. (Business Manager)

“Yes they (students) should have been consulted. It leaves them with very little choice, but to attend the programme, when left with such very little time to oppose the decision. Students could have even made alternate plans if attending a state university as in the case wasn’t an option”. (State University Graduate)

The education system in Sri Lanka has seen ad –hoc changes being made with the change of regimes in the past. Some were of the opinion that this is a further extension of this non-consultative process, with little foresight as to its impact on students.

“Generally, in Sri Lanka, state authorities do not, in the least, take into consideration the views and opinions of parents or students on these matters. It’s a top-down system where the impact of policy decisions on students and their parents are not taken into consideration (as evident in several recent examples from secondary and tertiary education – the frequent changing of O/L and A/L syllabi, the blunders in preparing the marking final examinations etc.) This instance is not very different from other such decisions. However, this issue has managed to get some public attention and debate due to the participation of the military and the implications it can/may/could have with regard to the sense of security, identity etc of the different ethnic groups in the country”. (Lecturer, Central Province)

Part II: Reflections by the Collective

In addition to presenting some of the opinions held by the general public, the Collective believes that there are a number of larger issues that should also be raised with regards to the leadership training of undergraduates in military camps.

1. Like many of the respondents, senior government officials have also opined that undergraduates must be trained in soft-skills and etiquette in order to make them more marketable. This is buttressed by another impression of undergraduates as unemployed youth engaging in protests and disruptive campaigns. The solution that has been mooted is to instil discipline in students through this training in order to ensure that they do not engage in protests and other disruptive campaigns. Building a mandatory training programme for undergraduates on the assumption that military style training will solve these issues is akin to using a band aid to treat a cancer. The problems of education and employment are structural and solutions to these problems should be carefully considered and thoughtfully implemented. In this regard we are extremely apprehensive about the lack of transparency, consultation and haste with which this programme has been put together and foisted on students as a mandatory requirement to enter university.

2. It is also worth asking ourselves about the role that graduates are expected to perform in a work environment. What is the role of a graduate in the workplace? What kind of leadership qualities are they expected to show? Without a broad discussion on questions such as this, the value of creating “marketable” graduates through this programme appears to be rather unclear.

3. It is also worth questioning the model of leadership that has dominated these discussions. Why was this particular model of leadership adopted as the best available model of leadership building for undergraduates? Why is the military seen as the best available model for developing the correct skill set required of “marketable” university students?

4. While there will be a number of students who look forward to this training, there will also be a number of students who are uncomfortable with participating in a program conducted in a military camp. It is safe to assume therefore that there will be students attending this training with fear and reservations but due to lack of choice in the matter. For many students who have worked so hard to get into university in the hope that it would increase their chances of employment, there is serious fear that raising their voices about any of these issues would seriously jeopardize their university placement. While this may be an agreeable state of affairs for some, we strongly believe that this should not be the foundation on which a period of study and critical thinking is built.

5. The conditions of the camps and student responses have been documented in several news reports and serious concern has been raised by groups such as the Inter University Student Federation about the safety of students. Similarly the information on the content of the programme that is now emerging in the media is also worth questioning. Who decided on the content? Who was consulted? How were these decisions made? Why is the content not publicly available? What are the students taught about the relationship between this content and their university education? It is not surprising that the lack of transparency in making these decisions has raised serious suspicions that the leadership training is being used as a means of consolidating the power of the State. Nevertheless authorities appear to be very pleased with their progress, despite public disapproval and have voiced their desire to extend the training to 3 months and also design a similar training for school principals.

6. The leadership training for students in military camps is for the duration of three weeks. While the choice of army camps as the venue for such training has raised some legitimate concerns, students will eventually return to their universities and spend the next three or four years in their respective campuses. Thus, the onus is again on the universities to provide the environment for learning and to produce graduates who will contribute to society.

7. The way in which this training for undergraduates has been implemented also raises larger questions as to whether there should be civic involvement in policy making. This programme was implemented without much public discussion or consultation of different groups such as student unions, university teachers, parents or potential students. When policies such as this are implemented it may be useful to consider broadening decision-making discussions. We strongly believe that civic involvement in decision making and policy is an issue that requires further discussion and serious exploration as a means of mitigating the implementation of ad-hoc or ill-conceived projects or programmes.

Ironically the leadership training programme coincides with the strike being staged by university academics led by FUTA demanding proper salaries for academics. The challenges pertaining to university education in Sri Lanka are complex. It is good that it has finally received some public attention. However, it is important to ensure that this catalyzes into a serious attempt to deal with the core problems that have plagued our universities and are severely hampering the capacity of Sri Lankan graduates to contribute to the production of knowledge. The failure to do so will only worsen the crisis faced by our universities.