[Editors note: Groundviews exclusively published the full syllabi of the leadership training course. Access them here.]

The highly contentious compulsory leadership training programme for university entrants was inaugurated on the 23rd of May. The programme provides a three-week residential training for over 20,000 university entrants in military camps, and the training for the first batch, which consisted of 10,000 students, was completed on the 11th of June.

This programme was designed and implemented within a very short time and was made a pre-requisite for university entrance. Students were not aware of this programme when they applied to universities in January and the training started even before the University Grants Commission (UGC) released its cut off marks (which determines the eligibility) for university entrance. The letter sent out to students by the Ministry of Higher Education did not precisely state for which course or what university the students were selected; but this was used as a pretext to secure the participation of students.

From its inception, the programme came under criticism for its lack of transparency, accountability and consultation in the process of design and implementation. Criticism was also levelled against the overarching involvement of the military in the programme and its compulsory nature. However, the Ministry of Higher Education, who is responsible for this programme, did not consider the objections brought against it by students, teachers, parents and opposition parties, and instead went ahead with its plans.

Prior to its inauguration, the programme was met with scepticism from various sections of the community due to the fact that the programme is conducted within the confines of military camps, its forced imposition upon students, and the overt involvement of the military. There were speculations that students would be subjected to military training and brainwashing from the army. Even media coverage was polarised on the issue with pro-government media reporting in favour of the programme, while other media institutions were reporting contradictory views. This writer managed to speak with a cross-section of students who took part in the first session of this training programme. According to these students, the training was not as bad as expected at the beginning and whilst flagging some shortcomings, they also highlighted positive outcomes of the programme. Contrary to speculation, the students had not been subjected to military training as confirmed by the students who spoke to this writer.

There were lapses with regard to the coordination of the programme. Firstly, the students were placed in camps according to the alphabetical order of surnames without giving consideration to the distance of their homes, which resulted in some students travelling very far at high cost to reach the camps. It had cost LKR 20,000 for one student to travel from Ratnapura to Trincomalee. Secondly, there were serious lapses with regard to providing infrastructure facilities and allocating resource personnel for the programme.  Physical conditions of the allocated military camps varied. The conditions in certain camps were meagre and therefore those camps had struggled to provide the facilities required for the training. There was a shortage of accommodation, water, sanitation and toilet facilities in some camps during the first week, but the camp officials had managed to attend to them within a short period of time.

The syllabus and time table specified for the programme indicates a strenuous schedule demanding students to work around the clock. Accordingly students had to get up at five in the morning and take part in physical exercise for two hours before having breakfast. They were required to attend lectures from nine to six with tea and lunch breaks. This schedule was followed from Monday to Saturday. Students found this timetable to be strenuous and complained that it offered little spare time. In most camps, however, if a student was sick or could provide a legitimate excuse, the student had the option of not taking part in physical training, lectures and other events.  According to students, the programme’s duration of three weeks was too long and they suggested reducing the time period for ten days instead. It appears that officials who designed the daily schedule for the programme had failed to understand the inability of students to work at a stretch. University timetables, in contrast to the programme, are more flexible and do not demand the students to work as many hours per day. Hence, the time table for the leadership programme provides little relevance to the university system.

A key component of the leadership programme is lectures. Lectures were given on leadership, conflict resolution, law, history, sexual harassment, psychology, hygiene, nutrition, beauty culture, family planning and social etiquette. Most of these lectures, according to students, were restricted to giving basic knowledge apart from the lectures on law and sexual harassment, which are subjects that are not taught in schools. Some students also thought that demonstrations on beauty culture were not relevant to them. Both military and civil lecturers were allocated as resource personnel to conduct seminars. Lectures on leadership and conflict resolution were mostly conducted by military, and in certain camps, military personnel also conducted lectures on history and family planning. In yet another variation, at some camps the vast majority of lectures were conducted by the military. It is pertinent to note that lectures in academic fields should not be conducted by the military and should be conducted by qualified teachers and lecturers. It is not clear as to why the military was assigned to conduct lectures on academic subjects when qualified lecturers are available in universities. Therefore, the author believes that the authorities failed to allocate suitable resource personnel to conduct lectures.

Military involvement was widely seen throughout the programme and its role was not limited to facilitation as stated by the Ministry of Higher Education. Military personnel were in charge of physical training, group activities and conducting lectures. Correspondingly, the role played by civil personnel was marginal and restricted to conducting lectures, when in fact the military itself was not conducting the lectures. Students, who spoke to this writer, while acknowledging the hospitality of the military, suggested that civil officers should take the lead in conducting programmes for university students. As noted by a student, “The army is taught to follow orders and their ability to be flexible is less. This is not the case with civil officers. If civil officers are doing this, they will be more flexible with procedures.”

Despite various shortcomings and limitations, students enjoyed certain aspects of the programme, which include group activities, cultural activities, fieldtrips, hiking and camp fires, and they considered these activities beneficial. One of the positive aspects of the leadership programme is that it has encouraged interaction between students from diverse backgrounds. However, it is important to note that the overall impact of this training varied from student to student. To some students, the programme had made significant impact on their personality development, while others opined that the training did not offer much other than the opportunity to socialise with other students.

The relevance of the leadership training and positive thinking development programme to the national university system is limited. As evident from its objectives, the programme was implemented as a solution to certain issues prevailing in universities such as ragging, lack of discipline and soft skills among the students. It is not clear to what extent the programme will solve these issues. The substantial involvement of the military in the leadership programme marks its entry into academic affairs of the country. One wonders whether its involvement will be confined to this programme or be followed by further intrusions into the educational sector.

In the author’s opinion, the leadership training programme does not effectively resolve the issues prevailing in the university system. Instead, there needs to be wide reform in the national education sector. If the programme is to be continued, it should not be mandatory, but instead optional for students and more importantly, it needs to be conducted in universities with the involvement of university teachers.