A VC’s warning
The Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura Professor Sampath Amaratunga addressing a section of the students last week at a university event, delivered an important message to them. That was not to play with the image of a university for its cost will have to be borne by all students, presently at universities and those to enter universities in the future.
Classic 2017 followed by a talent show
The event was the launching of the magazine of the Association of Public Administration or APA titled Classic 2017 followed by a talent show performed by students on stage. It was announced by APA that Classic 2017, released annually, was the sixth in its series opening door for students to publish their creative work unhindered by prevailing societal ethos. In fact, the creative work published by students in the magazine had done full justice to the objective of its editorial board.
A new consultative culture at USJ
Amaratunga, in his address, said that the university has started settling student issues by creating a new consultative culture. Both the main student union and sub-unions representing different faculties have been actively encouraged to sort out their issues through discussion, and not through confrontation, with the university management.
According to him, students have seized this opportunity and it has been a salutary development. On the other side of the equation, the management has also got an opportunity to listen to students and explain their side of the story. The discussions have not been friendly at all times and they have always been marred by heated arguments and counterarguments. However, it has provided a forum for both sides to sit across the same table and come to a final consensus.
It is a new culture and according to Amaratunga, that new culture has helped them to sort out many burning issues concerning the students in a true democratic environment. The training which students have got through the exercise has helped them to appreciate that consultation is the best way to settle differences. It has also helped the university, claims Amaratunga, to pass out its graduates as responsible citizens who could work in a civilised society.
A few students destroying the image of universities
Yet, there has been an unsavoury development in which students have been driven to streets for wider national issues for which there seems no easy way-out. Amaratunga said that he does not suggest that the democratic freedom of people to protest and express their views should be curbed. But it should be done by using democratic consultative processes. He said: ‘It is only a few students who have resorted to confrontational tactics.
In the course of conducting demonstrations, they block the roads inconveniencing the public. He, as VC, is used to getting phone calls from annoyed public. If the call is from someone at the top at a leading private company, it is a sure sign that when a graduate from a local university appears before him for a job in a few months’ time, he has already earned negative marks’.
What Amaratunga meant was that it would be a challenging task for graduates to have that negative perception erased from their prospective employers’ mind and prove to them that they are hire-worthy. This is absolutely an unnecessary task. Both academics and students at universities have created a strong image in the minds of the public about the intellectual creativity of graduates. Said Amaratunga: ‘This image is being destroyed by a few students who believe that confrontation is the way-out. This should be avoided at all costs’.
Deviation from the tradition
It is very rare that a university vice chancellor speaks openly to students drawing their attention to the follies they make during their university career. Most of them are scared of the unpleasant repercussions that follow when they speak openly. Hence, vice chancellors are usually used to creating a comfort zone around them and allow time or others to settle issues. In this background, only a few chooses to break the silence and speak out loudly. Amaratunga has shown that he belongs to that rare group.
Past events where VCs have spoken boldly
This writer recalls two previous occasions on which Vice Chancellors had broken silence and left indelible pieces of wisdom with students. One occasion was when the founding Vice Chancellor of the Vidyodaya University, Weliwitiye Sri Soratha Thero, addressed the students when the first batch was taken to that University in 1959. The other event related to Vice Chancellor Walpola Rahula Thero who held that position at Vidyodaya University during 1965-67.
Soratha Thero: Be critical, probing and rebellious
Soratha Thero had revealed to undergraduates the type of mental state they should cultivate in them if they wish to become true intellectuals. He had said that ‘University students should be critical, probing and rebellious’. What he meant by this piece of wisdom was that university students should not accept anything taught to them by others without challenging their validity and without carefully assessing their merits and demerits based on evidence.
It, in fact, asks university students not to be blind followers of others. This is because they have a brain of their own and that brain is in no way inferior to the brain of any other person. If it is inferior, it is because they have not developed it by continuously stretching its capacity by testing its ability to criticise, probe and challenge the existing knowledge base.
What Soratha Thero has preached in this piece of advice was the foundation of scientific analysis based on objective and not subjective approach to decision making. The acquisition of such ability will help undergraduates to succeed not only in their future careers but also in their personal lives.
Walpola Rahula Thero: Don’t be a slave of another
In the second instance, Vidyodaya University’s Vice Chancellor Walpola Rahula Thero had asked university students not to be a cat’s paw of others. Those others may present themselves as saviours of students, but they are all driven by their own personal agendas. He said so in late 1967 when he addressed the students at a joint meeting at which this writer was present.
By that time, Rahula Thero had earned the nick name ‘Iron Vice Chancellor’ for singlehandedly crushing a students’ strike orchestrated by union leaders who in turn had been led by some left-wing political parties. During the strike, he had banned the union activities but later, when the leaders had shown signs of good behaviour, restored those rights once again.
It was at the meeting that followed the restoration of student rights, he made his wisdom known to students. He said: “Children, I want all of you to be free thinkers, independent of all those who are there to exploit you for their greedy agendas. You must stand on your own feet and be the future leaders of this country. I was tough with you because you had become unwitting victims of crafty people out there who want nothing but power for themselves”.
This bold statement was made by Rahula Thero at a time when the country had been engulfed by a nation-wide strike action by students in all the universities instigated by left-wing political leaders of the country.
Three VCs speaking out
The Vice Chancellors of Vidyodaya University in that initial era had always left a message for the successive generations of students to follow. The founding Vice Chancellor, Soratha Thero advised the university students to be “probing, critical and rebellious”. Then, Rahula Thero wanted them to be “independent thinkers capable of standing on their own feet without being intellectual slaves of others and become future leaders of the country”. Following the same tradition, Amaratunga now wants students to think twice before they do anything to destroy the good image of the university through irresponsible student activities.
Majority of students are creative, willing learners and responsible
Amaratunga said that almost all students at the university are good behaving and desirous of gaining the maximum benefit for their future life through its facilities. They have developed their creative skills through extra-curricular activities and are ready to join the civil society as responsible citizens. They have excelled in sports, mastered speech-craft and become good at performing arts.
The talent show they staged on the sideline of the launching of Classic 2017 was a perfect demonstration of their creative skills. Only a few have been driven to extreme tactics but it is they who make the biggest noise and leave a negative perception about universities and their students in the public.
A few students at war with universities
It appears that a section of university students is at war with all the university administrations in the country. They in turn have imposed a cost on all other students as well as the public which economists call external costs. When externality is present, the government has to intervene and remove externality. In the alternative, those who are affected could negotiate with perpetrators, if possible, and come to a negotiated settlement. This latter course is known as Coase Theorem, named after its proponent, Ronald Coase, who got Nobel Prize for this contribution in 1991. The war has now reached such a critical stage that both the government and those who have been affected will have to work together to reach an acceptable solution.
Philip G. Altbach: Conceptualise student agitations
To understand the nature of solution that can be found, it would be useful to conceptualise what has guided them or what they have sought to achieve through their action. In Classic 2017, an article written by a lecturer, M.S. Dimuthu Kumari, under the title ‘Contemporary Student Movements in Sri Lanka’ has thrown light to understand this issue. Drawing on the work, among others, by Boston College academic Philip G. Altbach, Kumari has categorised the motive behind the student action in contemporary university system into four groups. Her presentation in a modified form is given in the Table.
Pursuing political goals
In the first group, students have a wider social goal to attain with a firm belief on how society should be reformed. It is a political goal and Altbach calls it ‘Norm-oriented Societal-focused Movement’.
The norm or normative orientation will establish what it should be and societal focus will take students to street on broad social issues affecting predominantly the underprivileged in society. Accordingly, students will protest against levying fees in state-owned schools since it would deprive the underprivileged of moving up in the social ladder through educational attainments. Students will continue to protest against such a policy even when it is suggested that a generous scholarship scheme would remove barriers for the underprivileged to attain their educational goals.
Holding hard values
The second group also focuses on broad society as its target goal but is guided by a value system which it accepts as god-given. Altbach has termed it Value-oriented Societal-focused Movement.
This group is basically similar to the first group, but the values to which it subscribes are non-negotiable no matter what the ground realities would warrant. For instance, if the students believe that education should be provided only by the state, they protest against any move to establish private sector owned educational institutions.
Fighting for personal goals
The third group focuses only on the individual level issues but has inculcated a normative position – that is, what it should be – relating to the issue at hand.
This individual level focus has been given the term ‘etudialist focus’ – meaning inward oriented focus – by Altbach. Thus, this group is called Norm-oriented Etudialist-focused Movement.
These student movements are not worried about global or national issues but only the issues affecting them. Students fighting for good residential facilities or better libraries belong to this group.
Wishing for a culture of entitlements
The fourth group too has an inward-oriented focus but would move forward with an indelibly accepted value system. Altbach has called it Value-oriented Etudialist-focused Movement. This group thus believes that the entitlements that are given to them cannot be changed at all under any circumstance.
A salad of goals by fighting students
It is apparent that the student movements, led by a few, are causing a permanent damage to the image of the universities has not got a single focus or orientation.
They are everywhere depending on the issue against which they could keep on protesting. On one occasion, they are for broad social goals; on another they are for narrow individual interests. Since these issues are there at all times, the protesting student movements are also present at all times. Hence, they have become a permanent stone in the boots of every vice chancellor or every Minister of Higher Education in the country. Since the values to which they subscribe are non-negotiable, there is no way to eliminate their presence by acceding to their demands.
An unceasing Satyagraha against SAITM
They are naturally a few among the student population in universities. This is demonstrated by the unceasing peaceful protests they have staged in front of universities, called Satyagraha, against the current issue involving the private medical school called SAITM. There is a hut erected at the entrance to the university concerned, but at any time, there is only one or two students sitting in protest-posture inside the hut.
Getting a medical degree without attending lectures will not add to the image of university
Yet, the posters that are on display around the hut announcing the Satyagraha in large font are so huge that they could cover even the facade of the main university building. Amidst this, the rest of the students go about doing their daily studies without being bothered by their presence.
The only exception is the students who read for medical degrees and who have refrained themselves from attending lectures since January 2017. Getting a medical degree without attending lectures will surely not add to the image of a university. In that context, the message delivered by Amaratunga is specifically relevant to those in the medical faculties.
Consultative culture cannot address all the motives of student agitations
It is apparent that Amaratunga’s consultative culture has helped him to settle issues marked at the lower left quadrant of the four-quadrant graph presented by Dimuthu Kumari.
That quadrant, namely, Etudialist-focused self-serving goals, is concerned about the students agitating for the issues relating to themselves or their university.
That culture cannot settle agitations driven by wider social goals embodied in student movements. For that, the answer is empowering the rest of the students and isolating the few who have imposed an external cost on other students and the public at large.
Develop other students with creative skills
That goal could be attained by helping the students to develop their critical thinking and facilitating them to bring out their creativity through social events at universities.
The recently performed talent show at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura is one such event.
(W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)