As has been shown at the University of Ruhuna, with strong leadership, the university community is capable of eliminating the scourge of ragging on their own
When universities closed on 15 March, Pasindu Hirushan, a fresher at the Faculty of Management in the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, was in intensive care. He was hit by a heavy tyre rolled down the stairs during an event organised by the student union. This was allowed to happen despite the recent memory of Samantha Withanage, a student opposed to ragging in the same university who was murdered by raggers.
Our indignation over these crimes may rise with each incident, but a greater crime is taking place every day for every penny we spend on these universities. It is the perpetuation of a political ideology which is anti-intellectual, coercive, and misogynistic. Administrators and university teachers are responsible, some directly and others by their silence.
In this column I draw from reports, research papers, and first-hand accounts from credible individuals, to bring to the attention of the public, the damage done to our higher education institutions by ragging and the associated political agenda.
Universities receive 75% of post-secondary funding, to serve 7% of youth
According to the 2019 Budget estimates, the total allocation tertiary education including higher education, technical and vocational education and youth services was Rs. 110 billion. Of this allocation, 75% goes to universities which serve only 7% of a given youth cohort.
To put this percentages into perspective, Government budgets 40 times more for a student attending university than for a youth in the neglected 93%.
The responsibility of universities is that much bigger
The taxpaying public do not oppose this anomaly of a small fraction of a youth cohort receiving a lion’s share of scarce public resources. They believe that our system gives opportunities to all youth to attend school but sends the cream of the cream to the universities where they would make a great contribution to national development. Both assumptions must be questioned, but my focus is on the latter.
Our public universities are a national asset. The contribution of a university to society is through teaching, research, and service. Our universities, which are essentially undergraduate colleges, may not produce cutting-edge research, but they have a responsibility to synthesise existing knowledge and guide students to be informed and inquiring consumers of knowledge.
Being anti-intellectual is the anti-thesis of a university. But that is exactly what is happening in our universities because they have been captured by ‘a political ideology’ with the complicity of academics, intentional or otherwise.
Ragging as an instrument
of political indoctrination
As we try to make our campuses safe for students, we must understand the forces behind the ragging. A study commissioned by the National Education Commission (NEC) in 2014 stated:
“The lacunae in university administration and teaching have given occasion for entry of national level political parties and organisations outside the university to encroach on and usurp duties that should properly fall within the purview of university administrations. These lacunae also serve as opportunities for political parties to recruit new members, mobilise students for protests and demonstrations, and use them as instruments for enlarging the party revenues and activities. One party in particular, namely, the JVP, has followed a systematic method to recruit and indoctrinate new batches of enthusiastic supporters and a hard core of activists every year, the party is also assured of a continuous supply of new entrants with the commencement of the academic year at all three universities [included in the study]. The most vulnerable students are, therefore, those who are in their first year at the university.”
Unfortunately, these observations have not been published, let alone acted upon. The Vice Chancellor of the University of Ruhuna was the first academic leader to appear on popular media to put ragging in the context of its political reality. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idUG1dI3n5g). To quote from the interview:
“Annually, university freshers are subjected to extremely inhumane harassments. These rituals are called by different names in different universities, but they involve violence and even sexual harassment. These acts are carried out by the senior students who are led by the student unions, who in turn are led by the Inter University Federation of Students (IUFS). The objective is to make these new entrants to think the way the IUFS want, behave the way they want and even to eat, dress and walk the way they want. This IUFS is led by political parties – in fact it is one political party. …Ragging is a political enterprise. It is just not a one-or-two-week event. Ragging is used by a certain political Party for gain recruits for demonstrations, picketing, etc. This political party also uses university students to raise funds for their politics. At least once a month these students are sent out across to all corners of the island to ‘shake the till’ and collect money.”
What political party is this? The 2014 NEC report names the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) as the party responsible. Since then, the Peratugami Party, a breakaway of the JVP, is thought to be a force, but overall it seems to be a complex interplay of the two.
Indoctrination leads to anti-intellectualism – the antithesis of a university
A few faculty members have spoken at length about the impact of ragging on our universities. There are some research reports as well. For example, a survey on ragging in universities was commissioned by the University Grants Commission (UGC) chaired by Prof. Mohan de Silva with funding from the UNICEF. Though the results are yet to be released, I quote from an unofficial copy of a presentation in the public interest.
The survey used the UGC Complaints Database, university records and responses from a representative sample of 1,986 students and 1,551 staff. The results lead to the conclusion that “Ragging is pervasive, multifaceted, debilitating, and disrupts learning and critical engagement and it normalises violence even in non-ragging interactions”. The survey also reveals that one of the consequences of the ragging is the “promotion of an unhealthy campus environment, by way of discouraging individual initiative, idealising mediocrity and gender stereotypes and distancing staff from students, and silencing some students”.
Some recent undergraduate dissertations provide an intimate look at the day-to-day life of an undergraduate in the University of Peradeniya. One study reveals that freshers are forced to memorise the names and deeds of student “heroes” and sing the student hero song at events. Many of these heroes died in the 1988-89 uprising after they had left the university. Those like Samantha Withanage who resisted ragging and were brutally murdered on campus are not mentioned.
The outputs of the majority of students in the Faculties of Arts do not display much scholarship. When anybody applies for a research position it is customary to ask for a sample of writing. During the last twenty years I have requested for and received samples of writing form university graduates. A typical arts faculty dissertation is written by hand and cites only material written in Sinhala. The purpose of the university is to open the minds of students, no matter their origin, to a larger world in order to re-examine accepted notions. How can our students do that if they cannot consult the global literature on any topic?
Raggers actively prevent freshers from learning English according to studies from the Universities of Ruhuna and Sabaragamuwa. Student leaders not only stop freshers from attending English classes, but ‘not using English’ is proudly claimed to be a part of the so-called sub-culture. An undergraduate thesis on student factions notes the same. Professor Sunethra Weerakoon too notes the “politicised suppression of English language in the Faculty of Applied Sciences of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura” in her memoir (http://www.educationforum.lk/wp-content/uploads/2005/08/USJP_Symposium_2016_Sunethra_E.pdf).
English is not just another foreign language in Sri Lanka. In fact, in a column published in 2015, I argued that the English-Speaking Elite (ESE) in Sri Lanka, intentionally or not, have created a cultural divide which also serves as an economic divide. There has to be a healthy debate about the place of English in our society, but you cannot begin a dialogue on English related issues or any issue by allowing a student faction to tie the hands of our future intellectuals. This anti-English stance of the student unions is a stark manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our universities.
Misogyny and marginalisation of women
According to the 2018 University Statistics report from the UGC, women comprise 64% of the total enrolment in our universities. In the Faculties of Arts, the percent of women can be as high as 80-90%.
What is experienced by these undergraduates?
A 2011 study by Ruwanpura based on fieldwork at the University of Kelaniya finds that sexuality of female students continues to be constrained by a reiteration of social and cultural expectations which are contrary to the setting which is ostensibly liberating and progressive). In a 2011 study of relationships in campuses, Gunawardene, et al. note that “male dominance within relationships resulting in coercion seems to be common in undergraduate relationships though such behaviour was unacceptable to females”.
The subjugation and denigration of women by men who are in the minority is shocking, as revealed in an undergraduate thesis on student life at the University of Peradeniya. The researcher, having interviewed men and women from both ‘rag’ and ‘anti-rag’ factions notes:
“Exclusion of women students from leadership positions is a characteristic feature of student politics. Women students experience an inferior position vis-à-vis male students and have to perform such tasks as taking down notes on behalf of male student activists who keep away from lectures, wash and iron the latter’s clothes including underwear, and, once they have found a partner, satisfy the male partner’s sexual needs. This pattern runs similar to that found in the hierarchical relationships between males and females in the rural social context and therefore appears to be replicated on such patterns in the so-called liberal context of university life.
“The subculture slang identifies every male student as a (pora) which suggests machismo and female students by the terms, hitch eka, baduwa, kokka, toiya, which are derogatory and objectifies female students by either relating them to males who befriend them in a potential sexual relationship or to their appearance. The boys’ residential hostels are called “palaces” while girls’ hostels are called “female genital stores” which translates to an expletive in Sinhala, and these terms are handed down to every new batch as part of the subculture credo. The girls are not allowed to do posters or set foot in the wala or the open-air theatre in fear that they would “desecrate” the “sacred” performance space. During the literary festival preparations, the girls are “kept in their place” and are assigned the duty of serving tea when their male counterparts get on scaffolds and engage in “manly” tasks.”
A machismo culture existed in the University of Peradeniya when I was student there in the seventies. One would have expected some progression by now. What is actually happening now is imposition of a regressive culture by coercion.
If universities perpetuate such a culture, what hope is there for curtailing harassment of women in public transport and in other public and private spaces?
Leadership of the Vice-Chancellors
The Vice Chancellor is the chief executive officer of the university. The prime responsibility of a VC is not only that of providing a safe environment for the students, but to maintain an intellectual environment conducive to education. So far, we have heard from Prof. Sujeewa Amarasena, the VC at Ruhuna, speaking up on the dire situation in our universities and what he is doing to correct it. Though some may view his comments as hurting the image of the university, his interview conveyed the positive message that the faculty and students in our institutions are ready to cooperate with leaders who are genuine and committed.
Unfortunately, the complicity of some of the leaders is evident in the following summary of student views gathered by the UGC survey: (a) Students view staff and administration as disinterested and complicit to ragging (b) [Weak] reactions to ragging hinder the enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy (c) Culture of fear, silence and acceptance prevails surrounding ragging, and (d) The [University] Councils are disengaged from the process of addressing the issue of ragging.
Professor Weerakoon, an eminent mathematician, describes “institutional and cultural corruption within public universities” in her memoir:
“[T]he single greatest issue confronting our public universities remains the high prevalence of ragging, which in many cases extends into intimidation, bullying, thuggery and assault. There is also a strong relationship between ragging and political extremism. At the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, sympathisers of extremist ideology on the academic staff – including at senior level - do not merely acquiesce to ragging but tacitly support it and use student thuggery as a means of consolidating their position and that of their extremist ideologies within university life.”
Professor Dangolla, a long-standing advocate for students’ right to a peaceful environment, summarises his frustrations as follows:
“I have served as the Proctor in the University of Peradeniya under four different Vice-Chancellors (VCs). On 08th December 2016, in the evening around 5 pm, I was called by a senior professor to settle a ragging related incident at the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences. This meeting between freshers and their immediate seniors had been coordinated by the senior professor without my knowledge. I was called in when it had turned into a brawl. I managed to settle the situation and send the freshers back to the hostel. Thereafter, I took down the curtains to the students’ common room to curtail future such incidents since as many academics know that is where the student union does organised ragging. The student union had complained to the VC about my intervention. A JVP parliamentarian had also inquired about this incident from the VC. Without consulting me, the VC went on media to announce that my services would be terminated and had told the same to the students. A preliminary inquiry barred me for four years from any administrative posts and examination work. In 2020, a formal inquiry exonerated me from all charges but the previous punishment (based on a preliminary inquiry) is still in effect. In my view, our administrators do not stand firm with miscreant students and they yield to politicians unnecessarily. If proper discipline is to be adopted within the University, the VC and the Proctor must work together. They should listen to students’ and even politicians’ concerns, but they need to have the integrity and the courage to do what is in the best interest of higher education.”
The Vice Chancellor of the University of Ruhuna has shown that with strong leadership ragging can be eliminated. I only hope that the recent counter-attack by the Acting Vice Chancellor of the University Sri Jayewardenepura, calling the VC of Ruhuna a crazy man, does not reflect the viewpoint of other VCs.
The solution for ragging is in the hands of each Vice Chancellor. No doubt, they will benefit from a complete disengagement of the JVP and the Peratugami Party from the activities of the raggers, and the end of covert support from the authorities. As has been shown at the University of Ruhuna, with strong leadership, the university community is capable of eliminating the scourge of ragging on their own.