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The power struggle behind the university students discipline issue

Nov 7, 2010 10:37:31 PM- transcurrents.com

by Sumanasiri Liyanage

University teachers would like university students to be disciplined. Vice-Chancellors prefer disciplined students in the universities headed by them. The Chairman of the University Grants Commission would like to use his own experience to enlighten students to make them more disciplined. And finally, the Minister of Higher Education has been working hard to make university community well-disciplined. What is meant by this cliché?

The Cambridge Dictionary of English defines the term in the following words: "Training which produces obedience or self-control, often in the form of rules and punishments if these are broken, or the obedience or self-control produced by this training". The definition presupposes that the word, discipline, has strategic as well as normative meaning. Strategically, a person has to be disciplined because there are rules and regulations and breaking of them is subject to punishment.

The second aspect is normative and inter-subjective in the sense that a person has to develop some degree of discipline as it facilitates her or his societal co-existence. A person would choose to walk on the right side of the road not because walking on left side is a punishable offence (as far as I know nobody has been punished for not walking on the left side of the road) but she or he would think that such a behaviour make her or his life as well as the lives of the others easier.

What is the kind of discipline that the university authorities expect? Is it the first kind or the second kind? How do media suddenly recognise the presence of unruly university students? Is there a general relative deterioration of discipline among university students? If so, does it reflect the general deterioration of disciplines and values of the wider community that also includes politicians?

I am not raising these questions in order to exonerate university students or to discount the value of inter-subjectively determined disciplinary norms but to reflect on certain degree of hypocrisy behind this whole campaign against university students. In the last decade or so, Sri Lankan universities have adopted new disciplinary techniques in the form of either new rules and regulations or new systemic arrangements.

A new law with regard to ragging was passed. However, the way in which ragging is conducted makes it almost impossible to implement this law and to bring the perpetrators before courts. Disciplining the students is one of the main objectives of introduction of the semester system replacing the old system that in my opinion a better system. If we take the quality of our products, namely university graduates, I would argue with the limited knowledge of my own sphere of training the quality of pre-semester products were much higher than those of post-semester period. If I borrow the phrase advanced by Marx in another context, with the introduction of the semester system, disciplining of students in the universities has transformed from formal subsumption of students to real subsumption of them.

Prior to making my own observations on the issue, I would like make a general comment. Discipline in general is oftentimes portrayed as something inherently good and should be preserved at any cost. However, it has to be kept in mind that ‘discipline’ and ‘disciplining’ is invariably used to maintain and protect the status quo, i.e. prevailing power structure. In this sense, it is a governmental technology irrespective of the fact it is used by the state or non-state actors [like political parties] who control ‘power’ in their sphere of operation.

About three weeks ago, the students of University of Peradeniya held a demonstration in Kandy. I overheard the comments made by people waiting for buses to go home after day’s work. They were unanimously critical of both the students and the government not because they were against ‘discipline’ but because they understood very well the power struggle behind this so-called issue of discipline. One bystander depicted it as a bala sooduwa (power game). With that note, I would like to make four observations.

Has the discipline of the university students deteriorated in recent years? Can we substantiate the argument of those who studied in the universities in the 1960s 1970s and 1980s that the students were more disciplined and responsible in their time? My observations do not support this contention.

In my view, the argument of the alumni that university students acted in a responsible and disciplined way in their time and students of today have become unruly thugs does not hold water. Reflecting on 40 years experience, I would argue that there is no significant difference. In the early 1960s (even before my student days) when Dudley Senanayake visited University of Peradeniya, students behaved badly even squeezing his private parts. (I heard about such a vulgar behaviour once again but this time happening it not in the Arts Theatre of the University but inside the Parliament.)

In the early 1990s, when A. C. S. Hameed came to Peradeniya University to attend a Muslim cultural event, he was hooted by students and the event was disrupted. They also damaged property. The same thing was repeated this year when S. B. Disanayake came to Peradeniya to open the new venue for the department of law. I would argue that there is no qualitative difference in student behaviour in these three incidents. One may even tend to argue that the politicians today differ significantly from the politicians of the yesteryear. Politicians should have a right to visit the universities and the students also have rights to express their disagreement over the policies of the politicians. In many instances as I mentioned above, these protests went beyond democratic resistance. In such a situation, authorities whose task is to maintain law and order should act independently and take necessary action that are proportionate to the ‘crime’ and politicians should not involve in this process.

My second observation is that politics always play an important and key role in student activities. While I was a student, I was also a member of a political party. May I add that as far as I am concerned, my political party became an equally rich university to me? Every year, when ‘freshers’ entered the university, we competed with other rival political parties to win a significant number of them to our party cell. The cliché that ‘students enter universities not to engage in politics but to study’ signify a very simplified notion of human being that humans can perform only one task at one time.

There were occasional violent clashes between rival political groups and I am sure that some cabinet ministers and junior ministers of the present government could easily recollect those incidents. However, the competition between political groups was contained within some limits and oftentimes competition took place in the arena of ideas in the form of debates. Politics have changed significantly during the last two decades or so. Debate and discourse were replaced by ‘conditioning’ and that has affected the way in which ‘freshers’ are treated. Ragging has transformed from ‘cruel treatment of inferiors (meaning juniors)’ to ‘cruel conditioning and subjugation of inferiors (juniors)’.

Minister Dissanayake was correct when he revealed in the TV discussion that this cruel conditioning and subjugation included disgusting and uncivilised acts such as the prohibition of wearing under garments on days chosen by the seniors. I must confess that we all have failed miserably in eradicating ‘ragging’ from universities and other higher education institutions. Politics nowadays does not generate ‘dreams’ but cultivates ‘fears’. I would stress the fact that this is not only a university phenomenon.

Thirdly, the entire debate on adding private universities to Sri Lankan higher education system has become an issue that has been inflated disproportionately. Sri Lankan education system including higher education calls for so many changes and those reforms cannot be reduced to establishment of private universities. How are we going extend the principle of free education introduced in the 1940s? How could we develop Sri Lanka to become a knowledge hub (one of the five hubs referred to in Mahinda Chanthana 2) by year 2020?

The idea of private universities should be discussed in this broader perspective rather than relating it to small economic gains by reducing outflow of foreign exchange in the form educational cost. Anura Kumara Disanayake of Janata Vimukthi Peramuna has said that the JVP is not in principle against setting up of private universities. This provides a space for genuine discussion. The problem with the government is that it seems to think that it can bulldoze its way through in spite of resistance from any quarter, with the help of its two-third majority in Parliament. In building a just society what is important is not the numbers in Parliament but continuous discussion on issues not only with the members of the government but also with the Opposition.

My fourth and final observation is that in the past, clashes and resistance in the university system became uncontrollable when they were linked with the political struggle outside. In fact, it was not university clashes that led to political unrest in the country; it was other way around. Take the example of 1971 and 1987-89. There are so many unresolved issues and problems in the country.

Although the war has come to an end, burning socio-economic issues are yet to be resolved. The extent to which the government can face these issues and resolve them amicably would have a bearing on the creation a situation of peace in the university system.

(The writer teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya)