THE Rajarata University student attack is the latest in a long line of higher education-related incidents that have alarmed people and renewed interest in the upcoming legislative changes to allow foreign universities to operate in Sri Lanka.With the news on Tuesday morning that the President has given his assurance in relation to maintaining discipline within universities, the issue takes on unprecedented importance.
In an interview, JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva insisted that neither he nor his party approved of violence against vice chancellors, professors, lecturers or any other member of the university system, but admitted that the situation was becoming tenuous.
Circumstances have boiled down to a standoff between the Government and student unions with education professionals, policymakers and most importantly students caught between a rock and hard place. With no one willing to give an inch, the impending Higher Education Act that will open up higher education to foreign universities might reach Parliament as early as next month, setting the stage for the pot to boil over.
Seething tensions have been on the rise in top universities across the country for weeks and there is no indication that the spiral will reverse any time soon. Parents are rightly worried and want to ensure that their children are protected, even at the cost of their education being put on the backburner. In fact, many university officials have postponed exams in the fear that they will cause more violence and this has added to the injustice being perpetrated from both sides.
It cannot be denied that both sides have their reasons for grievance. On the side of the student unions, irrespective of the validity of the people leading them, they genuinely worry that the inclusion of private universities will create a lopsided playing field that will grab opportunities away from poorer students who have the brains but not the money to afford foreign education. From the side of the Government, Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake seems hell-bent on achieving what his predecessors have shied away from, and with the backing of the highest powers he seems set to achieve his goal. But at what cost?
The plans that the Higher Education Ministry has of issuing a universal standardising and ranking system for all universities irrespective of their public or private status is a laudable one. This assures proper monitoring. However, the core authority lies with the Minister and this leaves room to question the sustainability of the processes put in place. Without a clear evaluation method, corruption can seep in and the result would be detrimental to public universities. Yet, it must be admitted that without opening up the system, Sri Lanka would not have the resources to meet international standards. The problem is a damning one.
As unrest increases and tension spreads, it is easy to lose sight of the core problems. It is clear that both sides have to start communicating with each other to understand the challenges and work together to resolve them. Crushing down on the student protests by using arbitrary force is not going to achieve the purpose of a high standard of education in a sustainable manner. The Government will be able to enforce its will for a short time through force, but ultimately the real benefits of the changes will be undermined by its inability to reach the students and education professionals within universities.
Therefore, the Government must reach out and break the stalemate. It is also in a better position to lead by example and at least show the students that their concerns are being listened to. True, this is not an easy road, but they must get the moderates on their side to prove the importance of what the Government is trying to achieve. It will also make others take a second look and sideline the hardcore union leaders so that their power is lessened. Upgrading the higher education system is something that goes beyond politics – it is for the future of our nation and the time has come for the people to believe in the true goal.