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The keynote address at the Annual Research Symposium, Faculty of Arts, University of Peradeniya

There are two reasons that motivated me to select this topic. The first is my desire to share with you my conviction that the ruling idea of university in Sri Lanka needs to be immediately abandoned and replaced by a new and socially more robust one. The second is to pay my tribute to a book that was published last year on the concept of university. It provides valuable inspiration to whoever who will take my message seriously and begin to re-think the idea of university. The book is Vishvavidyala Yanu Kumakda (What is the University) written by one of your own colleagues, Professor Liyanage Amarakeerti. My effort today is no more than an elaboration of what I have learned from his valuable initiative.

Let us reflect on what this phrase “the idea of university” might mean. The word “idea” here entails several meanings – vision,  hope, ideal, conception, perception, thought, belief, mental picture, and even  model about something to come. Since my title suggests that the existing idea of university needs a better replacement, my talk today is organized around two questions. Why should we abandon the existing idea of university? What should be the constitutive elements of the new idea?

Let me begin by saying that the idea of university in Sri Lanka has had an interesting early history from which we can still learn some useful lessons.

As early as the first decade of last century, the idea about a university for the country became an important theme of discussion among some educated professional elites in colonial Ceylon. Among the most articulate spokespersons for the idea of a fully fledged university were Ponnambalam Arunachalam, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Andreas Nell, Marcus Fernando, James Pieris, Ananda Coomaraswamy and D. B. Jayatilleka.  All of these elite professionals who campaigned for establishing a university in Ceylon had received their school education in Ceylon and higher education in British universities. After the idea for setting up a university for Ceylon had been suggested to the government in 1884 by an Anglican priest, no action had been taken by the colonial government to explore it further.  In 1906, a group of educated professional elites  launched a movement – a civil society initiative, if you like – to agitate for establishing a university in the colony. Speeches made by some of its prominent members whose names I have already mentioned at the inaugural meeting held on January 19, 1906, and essays written subsequently show that their project was not to just re-plant the British model of a modern university in Ceylon. They argued for a localized version of the British university model.

This was also the time that the idea of a nation was germinating among the elites who had been exposed to the outside world. They were actually cosmopolitan colonial subjects. With their background in the university education in England, they were also aware of the limits of the British model, its social and cultural specificity, and the  unsuitability of some of its key features. They therefore argued for a new model appropriate to the needs and conditions of the local society. While defending the right of the colonial Ceylonese society to have  a university of its own to serve the local needs, leaders of the newly formed Ceylon University Association seem to have been compelled to clarify for themselves the idea of a university to begin with. A close reading of the discussions that took place following the inaugural meeting of 1906, documented and preserved in the Volume I of the magnificent series edited by A. T. Alwis and published by the University of Peradeniya, show a point that resonates with one key assumption I want to include in the definition I will be proposing  to the idea of university: the university has a transformative social role to fulfill.

In pre-colonial Sri Lanka, there must have been protypes of a university model associated with the Buddhist monastic educational tradition. Its revival during the 1870s in a modern form does not seem to have provided the impetus for shaping the thinking of the early twentieth century founding fathers of University of Ceylon. It was the secular ideology of liberal humanism that seems to have shaped their idea of a university and its secular mission. It is this vision of the founding fathers of university of Ceylon from which Professor Liyanage Amarakeerti seems to have derived inspiration for his book. I agree with Professor Amarakeerti’s proposal that we in Sri Lanka need to reinvent the idea of university and that the opening inspiration for such a vision can be derived from the progressive aspects of the thinking prevailed during the early decades of the last century among the founding fathers of Sri Lanka’s first university.

After it was first set up in 1921 as a University College of the London University and then in 1942 as a fully-fledged university, this  public institution in Sri Lanka has achieved mixed results. Although the university has decayed significantly since independence,  a “university system” has been functioning with some capacity for, its social mission as a transformative space or a transformative agency. Nonetheless, it has indeed been an important public institution and space for social emancipation for the under privileged, marginalized and structurally excluded social classes. If we look at the changes in the social origins of the  Sri Lanka’s massive public service bureaucracy as well as the university academic staff  occurred since the 1960s, we can immediately see how the free education and vernacularizing of the university education have enabled the brightest of the under privileged social classes to achieve social emancipation by non-violent means.

After the completion of the slow process of  dismantling the welfare state since the late 1970s, the university in Sri Lanka can no longer be in a position to serve its social mission of facilitating the upward mobility and social liberation, partially at least, of the young men and women of the excluded social/ethnic communities of citizens. This system has thus produced in recent decades two outcomes that threatens the very existence of the university as we have known for decades. Firstly, the social emancipatory and democratizing potential of the university education through its reach to the economically poor and the non-elite social classes has come to a deadlock. This deadlock is ideologically sustained by the argument that the social change function of the university education needs to be abandoned because it is an economic burden to the so-called tax payer.  Secondly, both the state and the market have reached a consensus that the public university system is an economic and social liability of unnecessary kind. Therefore, as this argument goes, relieving the state, the market, and the tax payer of that unprofitable economic burden should be a policy priority.

Meanwhile, there have been some recent attempts since the 1990s at re-inventing the idea of university of Sri Lanka over a period of several decades. They were reactions to the growing unemployment problem among the university graduates, particularly from the fields of social sciences and humanities  The new policy initiatives were conceived by a tripartite coalition of the World Bank, the government, and the higher educational bureaucracy in the university system as well as the Ministry of Higher Education. They were guided by reform imperatives necessitated by the shifts in the world economy caused by two change waves,  (a) market-led economic globalization, and (b) world-wide neo-liberalization. They succeeded in introducing, at least partially, much needed reforms seeking  modernization of higher educational management, undergraduate curricula and teaching methods. These reforms were rationalised on the grounds that resolving the “mismatch” between the liberal arts education and the labor market requirements should no longer be postponed.

However, these reforms came along with an ideological package on the economic utility of university education, casting serious doubts about the economic rationality of education in the social sciences and humanities. There was also an ideological assault on the social sciences and humanities. This offensive has been so toxic and so well organized that the faculties and the academic staff of these two venerable areas of university education are still struggling to come out of a deep sense of insecurity and self-doubt, pushing them into an existential crisis. The very existence of these disciplines is seen by the policy makers and university managers as economically, socially and morally unjust and illegitimate.

So, that is one side of the erosion of the idea of university in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan universities are not alone in this predicament of the idea of university as we have known it. It is a global trend in the age of neo-liberal capitalism. It is also a trend that the social role of education is being redefined in terms of the market logic of its contribution to competitive labor market, economic costs, returns and profits it accrues.

What the neo-liberal idea of university has done is to delink the university from the society and re-link it with the capitalist market and its profit maximizing priorities. This is a new historical development in the sense that under the pre-neoliberal capitalism, the university was not seen as a provider of skilled labor to the manufacturing industry. The ideal of liberal university with a liberating intellectual mission, which Professor Amarakeerti’s book celebrates, was a product of two forces. They are (a) 18th and 19th century industrial capitalism, and (b) humanistic ideals of European Enlightenment, early liberalism, and social liberalism of the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries.

That liberal-humanist university model in Britain, Europe and America embodied another historical and ideological trend under industrial capitalist modernity, that is, secularization of the university. It forced the link between the church and the university to retreat to the background and in turn brought to the front a new link with the philanthropic private capital and  the welfare capitalist state. When we read the writings and statements of the founding fathers of Sri Lanka’s idea of university, which Professor Amarakeerti has so eloquently commented on in his book, we can see that the founding fathers’ vision for the University of Ceylon embodied these two historical trends – secularization of education and liberal humanism. In contrast, our task today is to resist and swim against the dominant historical current of neo-liberalizing of education. That is why Professor Amarakeerti has translated the English word “liberal” into Sinhala as “nidahas karaka”, meaning “liberating”. I join hands with Professor Amarakeerti in pushing for an idea of university inspired by a revived vision of secularism and liberal humanism Our universities in Sri Lanka are currently losing those two founding ideals.

At this point let me reflect on a question that is likely to be posed by you: why should one view liberal humanism as a continuing source of normative principles for a new idea of university in 2023, 117 years after the first idea of a university was developed in Sri Lanka? One may even ask why are nationalist and socialist ideals not included in this normative a vision for the university.

Let me first provide an explanation of why nationalist and socialist approaches to the idea of university is inadequate for a society with social, class, ethnic and many other diversities. Both deny in their own ways the possibility of university being a space for ontological, cultural and existential pluralism which had characterized Sri Lanka’s own cultural and intellectual heritage for centuries. Both also have uncompromising commitment to imposing ontological uniformity and compliance, leaving a little or no room for open intellectual debate, dissent or doubt. With all its limitations, the existing idea of university of Sri Lanka has not denied the space for intellectual pluralism

Even in pre-capitalist and pro-modern societies in the East and the West, the universities, run by religious communities, had been spaces for ontological and epistemological pluralism, of course with occasional monistic deviations, yet allowing philosophical-theoretical dissent, debate and innovation. That pluralism was disturbed only when coalitions between the spiritual ruling classes and the secular ruling classes found a common enemy in the form of radically de-stabilizing new knowledge. In contemporary India, we can see how a hyper-nationalist and proto-fascist regime, driven by the fear of dissent, is gradually dismantling the modern Indian idea of university. An idea founded on the normative foundations of liberal humanism, Nehruvian secularism and Gandhian humanistic nationalism. On the other hand, the socialist idea of university in non-socialist social contexts remains so undeveloped that the socialist interventions in pluralist context cannot move beyond ideological mobilization. The most relevant socialist ideal relevant to envisioning a new idea of university in Sri Lanka today is its emphasis on uncompromisingly egalitarian and social justice goals of education at all levels.

Barriers to overcome

In working out a fresh idea of university in Sri Lanka, there are some obstacles to overcome and limits to transcend. At the same time, seeking a new idea of university in Sri Lanka should also mirror our capacity for critical mediations on the shortcomings that act as barriers to re-inventing the idea of university, reflecting of course the dialectical logic of negation of the negation. What it means simply is that if there are barriers to a new vision of university and its operationalizing, dismantling those barriers should be embedded in the new vision.

Following  critical observations are shaped by my familiarity with the faculties in the of social sciences and humanities.

  1. Unchallenged Institutional Stasis: Sri Lanka’s universities continue to remain institutionally unprepared and even hostile to producing and disseminating new knowledge through research, publication, intellectual encounter, critique and open debate. Academic conferences have been reduced to the status of annual rituals organized for narrowly utilitarian ends, as demanded by the World bank bureaucracy in exchange of financial assistance. They are promoted as an auditable component of the neo-liberalized university culture. Moreover, the universities have very little organized commitment to moving beyond the limited mandate of disseminating existing and iterated knowledge at the basic cognitive levels. The century-old university college model persists unaltered except two notable changes that have occurred independently. The first is the dramatic shifts occurred in the social origins of the academic and student communities towards economically poor and non-elite social classes. The second is the phenomenal expansion of university education with the untended outcome of democratizing the access to higher education. Ironically, the democratization of the access to university education has also produced a cruel paradox: a mismatch between the upsurge of student numbers has continued at the expanse of the quality of education. It is the weight of this paradox that prevents institutional re-building of the Sri Lankan university to meet social demands for higher education with socially rewarding outcomes.
  2. Persistence of a Culture of Mediocrity and Intellectual Laziness as Virtues: Life of the academics is forced to remain imprisoned within an entrenched culture that is committed to promoting and reproducing mediocrity as a respectable and even rewarding virtue. This is a conditioned marked by the following features: (a) lack of commitment to excellence and originality in intellectual production through research and publication nationally or internationally; (b) poor record of attending international conferences outside the country; (c) absence of regular links with academics and academic institutions abroad, even within South Asia; (d) lack of continuing engagement with new global literature in the chosen field of study as well as related fields; (e) abandoning the habit of continuous learning after obtaining post-graduate qualifications or securing tenure in the job; (f) non-cultivation of the regular habit of academic writing as a vocation; and (g) disinclination to making informed contributions to policy debates on national issues as public intellectuals and public opinion makers. These are outcomes of a persistent culture of isolationism deeply entrenched in our university life.
  3. Ideals of Intellectual/Academic Integrity Discarded: Let me elaborate this point as politely as possible. Interwoven closely with the hegemony of mediocrity is the severe erosion of the culture of intellectual integrity and normative ethics in the university. This tendency among the academics, senior and junior alike, seems to be irreversible without a systemic change of substantive kind. The relaxation as well as abuse of the provisions for academic promotions and the widespread practice of academic publication through predatory publishing with no quality assurance have caused a canker in the university body. The irrational emphasis on measurable quantity over quality of academic outputs emphasized by the neo-liberal university reforms has given a new sense of legitimacy and respectability to this unwanted and harmful dimension of university academic practices. Remedial action requires surgical interventions which no one seems to dare proposing while many might prefer opposing.
  4. No Place for Social Accountability: Sri Lankan universities have a deformed culture of accountability. Accountability to citizens and the society is absent among all the university communities – teachers, students and administrators. While teachers and students are accountable only to themselves, the administrators have a narrow sense of accountability to their bureaucratic superiors and political masters. It is also a one way mode of upward accountability to political bosses. It has evolved into a component of the bureaucratic culture of meekness before the political bosses, so popular among university vice-chancellors and UGC members. This culture of bureaucratic meekness has also prevented the development of a culture of democratic accountability internally as well as social accountability externally by all of the university communities. The most democratic form of accountability that warrants welcoming among the university academics and students is a communitarian culture of accountability in which they are answerable to their own peers and communities through ethically responsible practices.
  5. Failure to be a Democratic Space: The absence of a culture of democratic accountability both internally and externally is paralleled with the inability of the university to develop itself into a democratic space in a liberal humanist sense. The relationship among the university teachers as well as teachers and students continue to remain debilitatingly hierarchical and oppressive. The corporeal and non-corporeal violence that pervades the behavioral culture of intolerance and brutality against colleagues among even a minority of students has for decades prevented the university from developing into a democratic space of free thinking, free association and free political action. It is a trap, a tragic paradox, seemingly without an exit, because the same community of students has also been engaging in the struggles against authoritarian politics at the national level. Finding an exit from this trap is a task that has to be closely linked with an agenda for restoring the university as a democratic social space where free thinking, free expression, free political action, and free association among the students is celebrated. 

Ideas to Reflect On

  1. Ending Social Alienation: The organic social links between the university and the society needs to be re-established. This will bring to an end the social alienation of the university as a public institution and social isolation of university communities as citizens. It is always the engagement with the society that can re-animate and re-energize the lonely, dispirited intellectual communities.
  2. Necessity of a Guiding Ethic: The university as a public institution needs an updated guiding ethic to frame its normative vision and social mission. Liberal humanism and democratic pluralism can provide the normative content to the university’s guiding ethic. Such an ethic will be helpful to the university communities to question and abandon those shamelessly hackneyed vision and mission statements that are being promoted through the new management culture introduced to the Sri Lankan universities under neo-liberal educational reforms.
  3. University as a Transformative Social Space and Agency: The liberating ethic of the university can lead to, and be sustained by, a transformative vision, with three emphases: (a), university as a transformative space, (b) university as a transformative social agency, (c) university as a site of transformative consciousness.
  4. Liberal Humanism and Democratic Pluralism: Whether the university publicly funded or privately owned, the liberal-humanist and democratic-pluralist ethic should provide the framework for the normative vision for the university academic, administrative and student communities.
  5. University’s Egalitarian and Social Justice Commitments: A vast majority of the university students, academics and employees represent the under-privileged social classes in our society. University has also played a major role in the economic and social upliftment of these classes of the population for many decades. The increasing levels of poverty, widening social inequalities, and growing public perceptions of injustice currently taking place in the Sri Lankan society pose new questions about the social role of university. Therefore, it is a social crime to transform the Sri Lankan universities into preparatory schools for employment in the corporate sector, making them primarily open to the wealthy social groups at home and abroad. That makes it mandatory to continue with the social egalitarian and social justice mission of the university in Sri Lanka.

Finally, let me summarize the essence of my message to you. I have two key takeaways for your consideration. First, a renewed idea of university calls for a framework of liberating and transformative  normative ethics. In other words, an emancipatory social contract for the university needs to be brought to the thinking, action, and social goals of the university and its communities. Moreover, the university, primarily through the agency of its academics and students, needs to transform itself into an exemplary social space where  a public culture of freedom, liberty, equality in the individual, social, ethnic, cultural  and gender domains, justice, non-violence, and freedom from prejudice is produced anew and sustained. Those are the principles of liberating normative ethics that can also activate a collective life of solidarity for the university communities that are fragmented, atomized, and dispirited  at present.

Second, our university communities should no longer live in a negative culture of despair and laziness. They need to discover social hope anew through a shared commitment to a normatively driven collective life. They also must re-establish their links with the society and the citizens, and thereby make the university an organic social institution. What we have seen since last year in our country is that our citizens, many of whom with no university education, have dared to re-discover the social hope for a better democratic future for all citizens. For the first time in our history, our university intellectuals enthusiastically followed the lead given by the ordinary people – workers, peasants, students, working as well as unemployed men and women, housewives and  the economically and socially poor. They showed no hesitation to learn and be inspired by the collective wisdom of that sleeping giant, the ordinary people with no diplomas or degrees. That positive energy should not go waste; it should inspire all of us to re-imagine our idea of university afresh.