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Sri Lanka: Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association report on council appointments and militarisation of Education

10 December 2014

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The Jaffna precedent in University council appointments and militarization of Education in Sri Lanka

by Sub-committee for Academic Integrity, Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association (JUSTA), 5th December 2014

“By inclination I am an inquirer. I feel a consuming thirst for knowledge, the unrest which goes with desire to progress in it, and satisfaction in every advance in it…[Rousseau has dispelled in me the blinding prejudice against people who know nothing] and I learned to honour man. I would find myself more useless than the common labourer if I did not believe that [what I am doing] can give worth to all others in establishing the rights of mankind” –Immanuel Kant, translated by Hannah Arendt

Reversal of Priorities

Educating our young to think independently and fit them to be in charge of our destiny in the face of the varied challenges the future would bring, is the single-most important investment a country could make. For many states, education is the largest single non-fixed item in the yearly budget. To take some countries we have close ties with, 21 percent of Malaysia’s budget is dedicated to education with only 6 percent for defence. In India, the Union and States together, dedicate 12 to 14 percent for education and 6 percent for defence.

By contrast, Sri Lanka’s election year budget for 2015 has dedicated Rs.179 billion (b) or 5.86% of the total government expenditure of Rs. 3053 billion to education, the same percentage as the previous year, as against Rs. 285 b or 9.34% for defence (educational expenditure comprises Rs. 88.7 b to the two education ministries and 90.4 b to the provincial councils, omitting technical and vocational training given by other ministries). [1] Though the war ended five years ago, the Defence Ministry continues to receive the largest chunk of the budget next to Finance and Planning; and in welfare expenditure where commitment is lacking, paper estimates are deceptive (e.g. health sector drugs shortage, Verité Research, Sri Lanka Budget 2013) [2]..

This reversal of priorities in Lanka is reflected by other indicators. In Lanka 42% of total government expenditure is financed by borrowings (government revenue = Rs. 1779 b – Treasury estimate), while it is 20% in India and 14% in Malaysia and debt service, as proportion of total expenditure, are for Lanka, India and Malaysia [3], respectively 23% (700 b – Treasury estimate), 20% and 10%. This means that the Government in Sri Lanka is spending huge amounts of funds borrowed at high interest, privileging the Military and squeezing education to an orphaned ritual.

Governments spending borrowed money prudently to increase investment that would profitably absorb those qualifying from our schools and universities is legitimate. But borrowed spending that goes hand in hand with repression, requiring significantly greater expenditure on repression against the young, rather than on their education, represents a pathological state of affairs.

Pakistan is one country in the region whose expenditure ratio for 2014-15 on education (Federal and Provinces) against defence is 1: 2 (PRs. 554 b and 1113 b). This suggests several qualitative similarities with Sri Lanka. Pakistan’s total expenditure for the financial year 2014 – 15 is PRs. 6779 b (Federal 4302 b, Provinces 2654 b and Federal Transfer to Provinces 177 b) and Debt Service 1658 b. The non-revenue component of the federal budget is 48% and 38.5% of federal expenditure goes on debt service. Out of total government expenditure (federal and provinces), Pakistan spends 8.2% on Education (compared with 5.86% in Sri Lanka) and 16.4% on Defence. [4]

At Pakistan’s Senate Defence Committee in May 2014, Farhatullah Babar, a leading engineer and left-wing statesman, questioned the security establishment’s vast network of industrial, commercial and business enterprises throughout the country that had been kept out of public and parliamentary discourse (The Dawn 20 May 2014). It is a pointer to the course of affairs in Sri Lanka, emblematic of which is the Defence Ministry’s prominence in the commercial sphere, including urban real estate and illegal rural land acquisitions. The security quagmire Pakistan continues to face, along with its huge debt, is mainly the legacy of the intrigues of past military rule and remains the source of the Military’s hold on all Pakistani affairs. Yet many Pakistanis argue for a reversal of expenditure in favour of education, which they hold constitutes the country’s best defence.

In Lanka, the fact that educational expenditure lags significantly behind Pakistan’s, despite the latter’s high defence and debt servicing costs, shows indifference and a lack of will. Two bitter insurgencies are within our living memory and there is in Lanka no stomach for another. Placing the Military at the helm of affairs has rather compounded the air of corruption and decay. While casinos and multinational agribusinesses are making headway, the people, especially the poor, are more vulnerable. Despite regular warnings for ten years, nothing was done to avert the landslide disaster in Badulla District where several scores of plantation folk perished recently.

Is it not our lack of imagination and lack of generosity that is the origin of our problem? A good education is meant to stretch the imagination envisaging new ways of addressing our current problems; and justice must be part of that training. Is it not disenfranchising plantation labour, denying them social advancement, and prolonging our critical dependence on the cash crops they produce, that has kept us backward?

Several European countries (with Britain a notable exception) have extended the facility of free education in state universities to foreign students as a good-will investment that would bring in dividends. By comparison our education fails our own people. With schools failing to impart effectively what they once did, the youth burn out their prime in tutories and remain scarred for life, with no desire for the great literature of the world whether in university or beyond.

Our system of free education, which was a progressive step, should have been used creatively to equip students for the real world. Instead the system expanded cheaply by passing out large numbers of degree holders (especially in Arts) with bleak prospects. This exacerbated class distinctions between those conversant in English and those not. By the late 1960s many students across the faculties keenly perceived the order as unjust and unequal. Their power was brought to bear on the 1970 parliamentary elections where many university students campaigned in villages and helped to bring about a change of government. The new government did hardly better in addressing the country’s pressing problems. Since then major political parties have been wary of student activism, which spilt over into support for major insurgencies in the North and the South.

The logical trend of devaluing education, rather than ensuring that it is the principal asset of the nation, is to develop a system of repression around the students so that they would not challenge corruption and greed. We see how this is done by politicisation of our universities and giving the Defence Ministry an overt ‘Big Brother’ role. From September 2012, scores of selected school principals were made brevet colonels of the Army after about a week’s military training. It means they became honourary colonels under the Commander’s writ without army pay. The implications are obvious. [5] This militarisation does nothing to enhance quality.

Tame Councils and Attack on Quality

Though an outpost of our higher educational system in the war-torn North, some of the trends in Jaffna give a disturbing insight into the direction of the entire system. The JUSTA had during the past year raised detailed concerns about systematic abuse in recruitment particularly to academic positions. What sort of a university is it where a first class in computer science is rejected on the grounds of having low subject knowledge? In Zoology and Commerce for example discrimination against merit has been blatant. This is a regime that is calculated to breed substandard academics, who for that very reason would be forever subservient and beholden to those in authority, and would moreover erode any semblance of university values.

To give an example, Ravivathani, topped the batch in Financial Management in 2012 and was the leading candidate at two interviews for temporary lecturer. She was rejected in favour of the candidate who came fourth in the batch at the probationary lecturer interview on 17th March 2014. The marking scheme about whose origin the Vice Chancellor (VC) has been vague (and was certainly not approved by the UGC), placed the onus of decision on the interview which carried 50 out of 100 marks (of the balance all first class applicants got the full 50). At the interview, the selected candidate and Ravivathani, the candidate who topped the same batch, were given respectively 40 and 27 out of 50.

However, soon after Ravivathani’s interview had commenced, the VC, the chairman of the selection board, left the board room and was not present for the remainder. The remaining five candidates were interviewed after the VC returned. But the VC has sworn on oath to the Supreme Court that she was absent only briefly to answer an urgent phone call from the UGC Chairman, and then continued to interview Ravivathani. This claim in the VC’s submission to the Supreme Court has so far been supported on oath only by the Dean of Management and a council nominee among five other members of the selection board. Other witnesses have seen that the VC did not go to answer a phone call in her office, but went in the opposite direction passing waiting candidates and, as other university persons have confirmed, attended a function in the Registrar’s office. Yet she has sworn that the marks given at the interview and endorsed by her for items including subject knowledge, vision, creativity etc were fair and equitable for all candidates. While the selected candidate was given 40 out of 50 for the interview, the average for the remaining five 1st classes was 16.6. The lady who topped the 2013 batch obtained a mere 14 out of 50 (6 out of 20 for subject knowledge and presentation and 8 out of 30 for vision, creativity, research and performance at the interview).

By introducing easily manipulated schemes of recruitment, those in authority indulge in blatant favouritism. Not only do they produce 100% agreement at selection boards, but are confident in the belief that the Council and the higher authorities in Colombo would back them up, even when driven to lie on oath.

Our final ray of hope was that despite blatantly politicised appointments of external members to the university council, there would be at least one independent member among the new slate of appointments due at the end of July 2014, who would stand up firmly against the ongoing abuses and institutional degradation. Our hope was based on concerns over appointments repeatedly raised in public, including in a petition signed by over 80 academics in December 2013, which made an impact in the Supreme Court in an ongoing hearing. After a delay of two months, much to our dismay, the only changes to the Council were that a doctor and a lawyer, evidently suspected of a trace of independence, had been replaced. All candidates recommended by the unions were summarily rejected.

Nothing was going to change. Looking back at developments over the last few years, most of us academics have been complacently blind to the sea of change that has overtaken our institutions, beginning with the courts from 2006, paving the way to militarisation of our academic life.

Militarisation of Universities

The war ended five years ago, but the following instance of militarisation coming from Peradeniya rather than Jaffna shows that ethnicity is a pretext rather than its main cause:

“At a recent meeting at the University of Peradeniya…a case was made for why all student activities at the hostels had to be reported to authorities. Fear was evoked in the staff of what would happen to them if the authorities “above” found out about the nefarious student activities taking place in hostels. The rights of students to congregate, to create their own spaces of education, and to be agents in spaces of education were diminished in the span of a few hours. Only a few expressed concern” (Dr. Shamala Kumar, Daily Mirror 8 Oct.2014).

The change from the latter 1980s when the country faced two bitter insurgencies in the North and the South is remarkable. Members of the academic staff are being called upon to inform on the students at a time when there is no armed conflict. In the latter 1980s it was the accepted norm that an academic’s first loyalty is to the welfare of the students and without fostering this loyalty, there is no defence against anarchy. To inform on students was unthinkable. It was in keeping with this norm that Dr. Rajani Thiranagama played a leading role in demanding and obtaining from the Indian Army an assurance that they would not harm or harass students for their individual political opinions. It was primarily the welfare of students in a climate of brutal armed conflict that motivated the formation of the University Teachers for Human Rights in mid-1988 under the aegis of the FUTA, with Professors H. Sriyananda and A. Thurairajah as co-chairmen.

In a polarised environment where redress for wrongs is not readily available, extreme options seem inevitable to many students, but we know from experience that these options left societies paralysed amidst death and tragedy. This is why it is important for persons in certain official positions to play a functionally independent role to whom the young in doubt and even actual rebels could talk without fear and receive reassurance. That was the role many in the university community tried to play in the latter 1980s. This was the role played by Prof. Arjuna Aluwihare, vice chancellor at Peradeniya and then UGC chairman, supported by Higher Education Minister A.C.S. Hameed. It kept the university system alive despite the murder of two vice chancellors and many university persons.

The following example shows how this functional distinction is being erased and the next time things blow up we may not have any buffer. A poignant example of the present is that in July posters had appeared in Sabaragamuwa University containing violent and obscene threats against Tamil and Muslim students. In the early hours of 3rd August 2014, a Tamil student Shanthikumar Sudarshan was according to the Colombo Telegraph, attacked by a group of five masked men. Sudharshan’s colleagues had found him unconscious a few hours later, with cut wounds on his body, severe blunt force trauma to his head and rags stuffed into his mouth. He was hospitalised in Balangoda and in his statement to the Police, according to Sri Lanka News, said that the attackers were led by a member of the Defence Ministry’s Rakana Lanka security firm that has been imposed on universities on the order of the Higher Education Ministry and the University Grants Commission [6] . Subsequently, the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Udawatte made a public statement that the JMO at Ratnapura found the student’s injuries to have been self-inflicted and on the basis of this conclusion he was arrested by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) for further investigations and he confessed that the injuries were self-inflicted for the purpose of a transfer. [7] The VC concluded that no communal violence was involved.

Here we have a Vice Chancellor taking the place of the Defence or Police spokesman. How is it possible for the JMO to conclude on inspection that the student’s wounds were self-inflicted? The isolation of the victim in a hostile environment by the TID to extract a convenient confession is too much a symptom of what Sri Lanka is today – e.g. the fate of Watareka Vijitha Thero who befriended the Muslims. The victim deserved more considerate treatment and the issue coming in the context of posters inciting violence against Tamil and Muslim students deserved a proper inquiry by the University involving testimony from student counsellors and members of the security detachment – e.g. the Kenneth de Lannerole report on the violence against Tamil students at Peradeniya in May 1983. Now the functions of the University have been contracted out to the Defence Ministry. What reassurance the Tamil and Muslim students had was not from their Vice Chancellor, but from the students’ union.

An important milestone in this process of militarisation was the introduction in May 2011 of the compulsory Leadership and Positive Attitude Development Program by the UGC for university entrants on instructions from the Higher Education Ministry. This ran counter to the autonomy of universities, where it was the Senate of the individual university that was in charge of programmes for students. Here there was no consultation with the universities. The Friday Forum (The Island 11 June, 2011) said that the study guide for the programme did not say who authored the curriculum, but displayed on its cover a picture of the Defence Secretary. The programme’s module on national heritage offered as its core, history fashioned as the ideological basis for Sinhalese hegemony, which no self-respecting senate could pass.

The Supreme Court’s evasiveness (see below) practically confirms the unlawful nature of the Leadership programme. Without saying it is compulsory, the Ministry of Higher Education web site says evasively, “It is important for the students expecting to take up higher education, participate in this Training Course (sic)”. It is abuse of power. The letter to students for the two weeks’ programme signed by an Additional Secretary says the programme is jointly organised by the Ministry of Higher Education, Ministry of Defence & Urban Development and the University Grants Commission. What responsibility the UGC has is not clear from its powers in the Universities Act. It has other implications too.

A student Sanduruwan Ratnayake died during leadership training on 1st February 2014. Dr. Nawaratne, Secretary for Higher Education (The Island 4th February 2014), while expressing his sorrow for students who died owing to physical weakness (including a female student previously in August 2011), indulged in the Sri Lankan practice of blaming the victim. He implicitly faulted the students for not informing them of ailments as required in the letter above, forgetting that it is a programme where most students enrol under duress. Whenever death or injury occurs in a factory, there is a legal process, particularly to inquire into the possibility of criminal negligence on the part of the management. How could this be done for an illegal programme where lines of responsibility are deliberately vague? What happens to the system when this is the dismal level of responsibility among our leading education managers?

Wider Implications of the Leadership Programme

Five petitions were submitted to the Supreme Court in May 2011 challenging the Leadership Programme. The bench with Shirani Bandaranayake CJ, N.G. Amaratunga J and K. Sripavan J took them seriously enough to advise the Ministry to postpone the commencement of the programme and then ten days later, on 2nd June 2011, summarily dismissed all petitions without giving reasons. This appeared contrary to the ruling of 11th May 1999 on the Bill to Amend the Universities Act in 1999 challenged by Udagama and others [8], where the Supreme Court held the validity of local application of international law and standards, and cited with approval the UNESCO norms of 1997 [9] and agreed that ’academic freedom and autonomy are essential requisites for the attainment of the objectives of any Institution of Higher Education’. The Court dismissed the amendment as unconstitutional, as it infringed academic freedom and autonomy protected under Article 10 and Article 14(1) of the Constitution. R. N. M. Dheeraratne J (who delivered the judgment), A.S. Wijetunga J and Shirani Bandaranayake J were on the bench. But 12 years later, when the latter presided over the bench that threw out the petitions against the Leadership programme, its effect was to set a precedent for a tide of anarchy:

1. The highest court did a volte-face on its earlier decision upholding university autonomy, to which its leading judge was party. In 1999 under the influence of Lakshman Kadirgamar as foreign minister, Sri Lanka was trying to modernise its laws and bring its practices in line with international standards. The new mood was heralded by Chief Justice Sarath Silva in 2006 ruling in the Singarasa case that the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR acceded to by the Government in 1997 was inapplicable. [10]

2. It became admissible for courts to dismiss bona fide appeals without giving reasons, going back on a tradition where court decisions, even if mistaken, were painstakingly argued.

3. The ruling (or refusal to rule) that rode roughshod over norms of universities both symbolically and in actuality conferred the pride of place to the Defence Ministry in the conduct of higher education. In time the effects were deeply felt, as the placing of the Defence Ministry’s security agency of ex-servicemen in our universities.

4. The highest court’s volte-face delivered a strong message that went wider and deeper. Who would defend a judge of a lower court or a JMO whose ruling upset the Defence Ministry?

5. An important consequence of court rulings, such as the one above, is the loss of investor confidence once they signal the Defence Ministry to be supreme over laws and customs governing civilian life. Rather than long term investors who would contribute to a sound economy, we invite short term investors after the quick buck, working closely with the powerful who benefit from rent extraction. The lack of investment in the highly militarised North and the lack of jobs for those well-qualified, exemplifies a problem for the country’s youth as a whole.

For the universities themselves, the ruling signalled tightening of authoritarianism and a licence to escalate abuse that already existed. A notable precedent is President Kumaratunge sacking Dr. D.S. Epitawatte from the vice-chancellorship of Sri Jayewardenapura University on 4th December 2003, in the wake of a fast-to-death against the VC led by Dr. N.L.A. Karunaratne. This came at a time Kumaratunge, in abuse of constitutional propriety, was trying to undermine the UNP government which controlled Parliament. According to Mr. Kabir Hashim, Minister of Higher Education, Karunaratne undertook the fast after he was charge-sheeted for leaking examination questions. He ceremonially broke the fast after Mahinda Rajapakse, Leader of the Opposition, gave him refreshment. Karunaratne, who became a leading propagandist for Rajapakse was by him twice made VC from 2008 - 2014, and was in 2008 appointed over others who obtained higher votes from the Council. The event left deep scars on the university system. Politicisation created the conditions for militarisation.

Post War Developments

Barely about ten days after the war ended in May 2009, the Senate of the University of Colombo unanimously resolved to confer an honourary degree of Doctor of Laws on President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Doctor of Letters on Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in recognition of their yeoman service to the nation ’in safeguarding sovereignty, territorial integrity; restoring peace and harmony among all Sri Lankan communities and uplifting the image of Sri Lanka within the international community’. The latter claim, an estimate that looks questionable five years on, is one an academic institution should have refrained from. By an omission the University of Colombo took a position in the propaganda contest over whether the Defence Secretary or the Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, gets the credit for the defeat of the LTTE. The Defence Secretary had after all no formal command responsibility. A public servant’s professional modesty demands that any yeoman service he performed behind the scenes remains the concern of historians.

Not to be left behind, the University of Sri Jayewardenapura and University of the Visual and Performing Arts followed about ten days later in June 2009 with announcements of honourary doctorates for the President, Defence Secretary and the Service Chiefs for ’eliminating the scourge of terrorism which engulfed the nation for over three decades’.

What has been sadly forgotten is that the task of an academic is to step back from one’s personal feelings, the clamour of the crowd and the harangue of demagogues, and to reflect. The end of the recent war to be sure, like the elimination of the JVP’s terrorism less than three decades earlier, brought relief. But then the universities, despite the murder of two vice chancellors, did not rush to confer honourary doctorates on President Premadasa or Deputy Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne who was constantly on the move and in the forefront of operations. Feelings were mixed, and the bottom-line was the realisation that JVP terror was an outcome of the Jayewardene government’s decade-long attack on democracy.

The core issue of the recently ended war for academics is why it took three decades to subdue a Tamil insurgency that was critically inferior in manpower and resources? To what extent was the failure political, and to what degree military? The recent unprovoked attacks on Muslims show the political ideology underlying current militarisation to be an integral part of the problem rather than its solution. The universities failed in their role of giving the country a more nuanced perspective that would foster unity. Their recent rush to award honourary doctorates; and in doing so, to endorse the official position that the Tamil insurgency was pure terrorism and nothing else, is a piece of deplorable opportunism. They had neither reflected nor learnt anything from the JVP insurgency. The absence of determined opposition to current militarisation lies partly in an old failure on the part of our learned. In 1989 many of them turned a blind eye to the JVP’s murders and political bankruptcy and acclaimed them as patriots. But the same persons could simply neither understand nor tolerate a similar attitude among many Tamils towards the LTTE. That understanding could have gone a long way to secure the common good.

The minority question in this country has been festering from the time of independence and with the experience of the world at their disposal, our scholars and intellectuals had an important role in dealing with it justly and amicably. For them to now credit the Military as the main bulwark against the dissolution of Sri Lanka is an admission of bankruptcy. It was an invitation to the Military to put themselves forward as the ones most fit to oversee our educational institutions as well. In that process new rules to get on successfully in our academic institutions came into operation. This was implicit in the decision to award of honourary degrees, particularly by the University of Colombo authorities, who read the signs correctly and confined the awards to the President and his brother. Its vice chancellor was appointed UGC Chairman by the President on 1st February 2013, and her husband despite protests by academics, was made the new vice chancellor of Colombo University.

Current Trends

The authorities have greater leeway in abusing the system, for they are selected and protected for doing the bidding of those above. Rules can be ignored with impunity. Though a vice chancellor may not have a direct personal interest in abuses that require his complicity, the political patronage he enjoys makes his position hard to assail.

N.P. Sunil Chandra, Professor of Medical Microbiology at the University of Kelaniya was interdicted about 2008 on a charge of misappropriation from project funds, based on a complaint by two juniors. The University’s inquiry found the purchases in order and accounted for. The University authorities however failed to take him back. He went to the University Services Appeals Board, whose judgment supporting him, the University ignored. Chandra went to the Appeals Court. The Attorney General’s Department refused to represent the University as they had no case. The University hired a President’s Counsel at considerable expense and still lost. Chandra had been nearly four years out of a job. The Vice Chancellor reportedly told him, “Now that the Court has decided, there is nothing we can do except to take you back.” One wonders if the UGC Audit looked into the hiring of the PC. The plot appears to have been stage-managed by an influential lobby in the Medical Faculty against a man with no connections. A powerful minister whose help Chandra sought, after meeting the university authorities had told him half jokingly, “They don’t seem to want you.”

In May 2013 N.L.A. Karunaratne, Vice Chancellor of Sri Jayewardenepura University terminated Anuruddha Pradeep Karnasuriya, Probationary Lecturer in Political Science, by falsifying the date of submission of his M. Phil thesis to one past the deadline. The lecturer had been an outspoken critic of government policy on education (FUTA).

Election of the Dean of Medicine in the University of Colombo was held about October 2014. The result was a tie. One candidate stood down, and when the new poll was called, Jennifer Perera, Professor of Microbiolgy was elected unanimously. Dr. Kumara Hirimburegama, the vice chancellor, refused to appoint her. He had on occasions without any basis reportedly accused Prof. Perera of misappropriation of project money. His wife being the UGC Chairman, the unions had earlier protested a conflict of interest in appointing her husband vice chancellor. Here too the harassment is thought to lie not in the VC’s personal interest but in the influence of a lobby in the Medical Faculty.

In universities in the South, controls are not as tight as the Government would like to make them. Of three names the Council must send the President after voting, an independent person often scores highest. This was so with Prof. Jayantha Jayawardena in 2008 and Prof. Mohan de Silva in 2014, both from Sri Jayewardenapura University, whom the President rejected. Such a practice becomes in effect a form of control. Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri of Colombo University told Ceylon Today (7 Apr. 2013), “In fact, most senior professors don’t apply for [vice chancellors’] posts as it is useless to do so without political backing. It has become a norm that political appointees are favoured when it comes to these appointments.” Jaffna is perhaps the model that has been experimented with and which the Government would like to impose.

The Jaffna Model

In Jaffna Council appointments are virtually the monopoly of a single pro-government political party. Pre-council meetings of external council members (14 out of 27) presided over by the political leader routinely precede each council meeting. On 7th March 2014 the day before the VC’s election, the political leader told the external members at the pre-council meeting how they should vote. Later in the evening, the Vice Chancellor who stood for re-election met the political leader and the same night called the deans (ex-officio councillors) to rally the doubtful. Of the 25 eligible to vote, she secured votes from 24! The Dean of Arts who is suspected of being the exception is reportedly having a difficult time. Many academics who longed for a new council with some dissenting voices are aghast, but dare not complain aloud. The Vice Chancellor exercises a tight control over their study leave requests and promotions.

JUSTA had taken a lead in exposing malpractices particularly in academic recruitment. Its Secretary has a brilliant academic record. Having done his MSc in Canada and returned he had fulfilled his condition to be absorbed into the permanent staff, but furtherance of his career and upgrading his skills require him to finish his PhD for which he had an offer from Canada last September. The Department of Mathematics and Statistics fully supported his going. The Vice Chancellor turned down his leave request on the basis of an anomaly in Circular 959 which discriminated between persons who obtained their Masters’ locally and those who got them abroad – unlike the former, it required the latter to teach four years before going abroad for a PhD. It was to squander an opportunity that may not come again, resulting in crippling the Secretary’s career, apart from a tremendous loss to the University.
Neither the UGC nor the VC is a stickler for rules. The case could easily have been argued before the Council and the UGC (to which too the Secretary had appealed) by the VC and Dean. In this instance it was not done. It demonstrates the relative ease with which academics are made to toe the line, but students are different. The following instances give an idea of how it works.

K. Thavapalan was elected president of the University Students Union in early 2011, whom the Vice Chancellor at first refused to meet or acknowledge. Later in October he was brutally attacked by paramilitary men. The earlier president who wanted to help displaced students in the Vanni with study materials was warned off by the Police. Senior Army officers had privately said that the job of the students is to study, and they would not tolerate any political involvement by them. To this end regular attempts are made to isolate students in Jaffna from sharing common concerns with activists from the South. On 9th December 2011, two members of the Frontline Socialist Party, Lalith Kumar and Kugan Muruganandan, who visited Jaffna, disappeared. The next example is instructive.

Commemoration of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, 20th – 21st September 2014: Rajani, a former colleague of the Vice Chancellor’s on the Medical Faculty staff and Head of Anatomy, was one of the rare persons killed for standing up against all purveyors of terror. To commemorate her 25th anniversary, Kailasapathy Auditorium was booked six weeks in advance and the Dean of Arts who was in charge and Assistant Registrar Arts had given assurance of its availability. The Medical auditorium too had been booked for the previous day, 20th September, by the Medical Students’ Union. Many academics from the South had indicated that they would attend.

On 16th September, the Vice Chancellor abruptly refused the use of Kailasapathy Auditorium for the commemoration on the 21st. The organisers in turn booked the Public Library Auditorium. The following day, the Dean Medicine received a call from someone who impressed him as a high ranking military official warning him that if the first day’s commemoration went ahead in the Medical Faculty Auditorium, they would come out and stop it. On the 20th the Municipal Commissioner refused the use of the Public Library Auditorium booked for the following day, hinting that the order came from the Provincial Governor, a retired major-general. However alternative arrangements were made and the commemoration went ahead.

The Defence Ministry, which uses alleged LTTE resurgence as a pretext for heavy-handed security measures, could not have even dimly discerned an LTTE revival in the commemoration. What seems the real reason is that they do not want any gathering that would create common ground by challenging nationalism on both sides and open discussion on the real issues of democracy that confront all communities.

Some facts are instructive. Vice Chancellor Arasaratnam told The Hindu (23. Sept.14) her reasons for revoking the booking of Kailasapathy Auditorium, “No one came to me to obtain permission” and added some of the organisers, working with the University, were ‘always troublemakers’. The last is what several medical colleagues thought of Rajani for her ethical stand on issues. They were instrumental in squashing the request to the Senate by the Medical Students’ Union and Employees Union, shortly after her death, to name the new medical auditorium after her.

We learnt that a similar view was shared by senior military officers in Jaffna, who thought the organisers had not followed proper procedure. This appears to be rooted in the Vice Chancellor’s mistaken perception that she should minutely control every university event – in this instance a proper academic function. The Dean (and Acting Dean of Arts) whose function it was (as the application form indicates) to approve the use of the auditorium was left looking hurt and sheepish at the Vice Chancellor violating proper limits to her authority.

One who knew Rajani well asked a senior defence official about the phone call to the Medical Dean and besides, whether the LTTE could have made that call? The official immediately responded that it cannot be. This kind of paranoid security regime in which the Defence Ministry is involving university administrations, resembles the late Communist regime in Czechoslavia – one at which the writer Vaclav Havel poked fun devastatingly.

Restoring Value and Respect for the Process of Education

The value our education authorities accord to the process of education is reflected in the way they treat students. At the opening ceremony for a women students’ hostel at Sabaragamuva University, the Minister for Higher Education, in the face of student opposition to his presence, said in his speech that the protesters are flies and had it not been so close to an election, they would have given the students suitable treatment. Nevertheless, an attack on students by 30 men with iron rods, swords and petrol bombs a few days later, left 13 students hospitalised with injuries. The Police who were nearby had failed to respond to pleas for help. Adding to the catalogue of similar incidents are a) the brutal attack by a riot squad on students in Jaffna on 28th November 2012, who only wanted to walk peacefully holding banners from one entrance of the University to another 100 yards away and b) the attack by paramilitary men wielding metal rods on two individual student leaders. JUSTA’s documented complaints about abuses in recruitment have not received any response from the university authorities, the Council or the UGC.

This all force and no-dialogue approach to students (and academics) in Lanka, which has a long democratic tradition, contrasts sharply with the more business-minded and image-conscious Chinese authorities’ restrained approach to student protests in Hong Kong. The students’ demand for more democracy has not been condemned by the authorities as illegitimate. At least up to now the Justice Secretary in Hong Kong has promised investigations into cases of police brutality. The Chinese authorities seem to have learnt some lessons from the blood-letting in Tienanmen Square on 4th June 1989, which they could ill-afford to repeat.

What the reflex of authoritarianism and brutality in the sphere of education in Sri Lanka shows is that our leaders have no vision for education as the main plank of national well-being. They rather want to preserve an underfunded system deploying repression to subdue discontent. Meanwhile huge borrowed funds are spent on dubious ventures. This is the background to militarisation. Pakistan has gone down this road before us. To quote a Pakistani commentator from The News (4 Jun.2014): “Economists believe that worse is yet to come, as paying this huge amount is impossible without more loans, sharp austerity or running down the country’s already depleted reserves. This allocated amount for debt servicing is even more than expenditure on health and education sectors.”

We need to open a vigorous national debate on these issues before it is too late.

P.S.

The above report from JUTSA is reproduced here in public interest and is for educational and non commercial use