Higher Education Minister S. B. Dissanayake in an interview with Dailymirror last week spoke candidly on the issues raised by undergraduates and academics concerning the higher education sector and justified the positions he has taken in decisions pertaining to his Ministry and issues in the country. Following are the excerpts:
Why are no steps being taken to address student grievances that have led to unrests in almost all the universities? Allegations are leveled at the Higher Education Ministry and university administrations of turning a deaf ear to students’ issues - what are your comments?
Firstly, I don’t agree with the fact that there are unrests in almost all the universities. Protests held during the past few months have been staged in retaliation to various punishments given to students as a result of violating disciplinary regulations. The university administration has every right to take action against disciplinary violations and it is vital to bring order into these universities. Since 1987, the control of universities fell into the hands of the JVP in the South and the LTTE in the North and in order to achieve this control, the two groups manipulated students, killed Vice-Chancellors and fellow students - as a result hundreds of deans and lecturers fled the country. But post 2010- we have been able to change this situation. Today the universities are duly administered by the VC and other relevant officials in charge. Even for students who have been punished, the administrations have left room for the punishments to be revoked once the students correct their behaviour. Most other issues in universities emerged after we banned ragging. We simply do not allow it. Ragging was a course of action implemented by the LTTE and the JVP to enslave students and brainwash them and even today attempts are being made by the Front Socialist Party (FSP) to continue it. Our rules are simple - those who rag students will be punished.
Otherwise, most universities function smoothly - accommodation issues are being solved, content of courses offered and the teaching methodologies have been changed. We have undertaken the task of implementing significant changes in universities.
However, when university freshers join they are keen to partake in protests etc. than others as they are new experiences for them. But overall, most universities operate without any issues.
University security service - Rakna Lanka has been publicly accused by academics of spying on university activities. What of this allegation and many other issues that have resulted in the deteriorating university autonomy?
It is a blatant lie to allege that Rakna Lanka officers are spying on lecturers or students. They are soldiers who braved the battlefronts during the war. They are now safeguarding the universities - they have no interest and neither have they been instructed to spy on lecturers or students. Besides, why should the students or lecturers be so paranoid?
The majority of lecturers are carrying out their duties exceptionally well but there are a few who neglect their duties and continue to harp on the demand to lift the conditions imposed on the research allowance. How justified are those demands?
"“Some of these undergraduates have never participated in lectures nor are they interested in academic activities. They constantly fail exams and these are none other than the student leaders of JVP and the FSP. So yes, they are not students, they are donkey, cows and buffaloes. They are not students they are politicians”"
So are you saying students and academics are making false allegations?
A: There is autonomy in universities! The decisions pertaining to universities are made by the university administration boards. Certain decisions are influenced by the University Grants Commission (UGC) but that too comprises former university officials and they are keen to maintain certain standards within universities. The Higher Education Ministry does not intervene with the independence of universities – we only guide and help them.
Rajarata University students complain they resorted to extreme measures because their grievances were ignored for over 200 days. It seems as if the university administration was provoking students?
That is not true. This issue started about a year ago when a traditional New Year festival was organised in the Rajarata University by the UGC. The student union instructed undergraduates to boycott the event and the university administration punished those involved in it. Except for about nine of the total 25 reprimanded, all others apologised and studentships were reinstated. Measures that have been implemented to maintain discipline within the university cannot be recalled just because students protest. The administration should punish students who commit violations. I don’t see any wrongdoing on the part of the university administration with concern to this issue.
But you too were a student activist when you were an undergraduate? Did a clampdown of this level exist back then too?
During our times as student activists, we maintained the law and order of the university and respected the VCs and Deans. Democracy within the university was highly respected. When I contested in university elections, it was a democratic process where 10 -15 other groups competed. But after 1987, the LTTE never allowed any elections or an opposition within the universities and the same fate prevailed in the Southern universities that were invaded by the JVP.
It is the university students who should shape the university elections and decide who should represent them. The openness and democracy of the bygone eras should be reinstated. Leaders should emerge from student votes not by force. Even now the JVP and the FSP are trying to continue their dictatorships within universities but we are no longer allowing it.
A few months ago a climate of extreme fear prevailed within the Jaffna University. This is a recurring trend come April – May. Why isn’t any action being taken concerning this situation?
What happened in Jaffna University is very clear – the students and academics attempted to commemorate the LTTE – it is a banned group and one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world.
The event was held to mourn the dead. How is it illegal to mourn the dead?
The ceremony was organised by terrorists. The University administration made a decision not to hold the event and it should be respected.
What about the death threats made against academics?
There were no threats made against academics or students. These claims are fabrications of the very groups who organise these events in order to gain attention, particularly media attention to their activities. The only unidentified group that distributed leaflets was those that wished to celebrate the LTTE and Prabhakaran’s birthday. Neither the Police nor the Army will allow illegal activities.
You claim there is no clampdown on students and yet attacks on undergraduates are recorded every month and the government is accused of carrying out these attacks?
Attacks on undergraduates occurred only once and that was on a group of students staging a sathyagraha on the Allied Health Sciences issue. The Police obtained a Court order to remove them from the UGC gate. When they were asked to leave, there was a clash and some of the unruly students were arrested.
“The fact that should be highlighted is that we managed to control the violence immediately. How can we imprison monks? Then other monks will take to the streets – there will be another issue. Very careful measures were taken to arrest the perpetrators and control the situation. “
Why are the students being severely assaulted?
These things happen when clashes occur and these were not heavy. Don’t forget the police too were attacked by the students and both sides suffered injuries. Anyhow, the Police are bound to maintain law and order in this country.
But the AHS students were staging a peaceful protest. They had not violated any laws?
They cannot block the UGC gate and they had even pelted stones at the UGC Chairperson’s vehicle. The Police have to protect the government officials.
What is the progress with concern to solving the academics’ issues? They have announced they will go for a strike at any point now?
The six per cent is just included to gain public momentum. Their main demand is for the conditions placed on obtaining the research allowance to be lifted. As for the six per cent for education; if one reads the UNESCO report carefully, it would be obvious that it has been made for countries with a literacy rate lower than 50%. So it’s clearly not applicable for Sri Lanka.
Moreover, funds for education are not allocated by the Education and Higher Education Ministries alone – it is a concerted effort that accumulates finances from the Vocational Training and Youth, Sports, Defence, Social Services, External Affairs as well as the Health Ministries. What about the Provincial Councils – they fund over 90% of schools in this country. This six per cent demand is a joke!
They will not strike because the academics cannot strike. Majority of them are happy – the troublemakers are only a very small faction. They will be getting another hike to their allowances very soon. As for their other demands, they have to be considered systematically because the government has to think of the big picture before giving into their demands all at once.
Yet figures indicate that the GDP allocation for education is depleting every year?
That is the impression projected by those who create an issue out of this topic. The national income has increased and so have the GDP levels. So although the percentage might be smaller, the amount allocated might be larger.
Moreover, the universities even at present do not spend their full allocations – only about 50% is being spent. There is enough money in the education sector and the challenge is to spend it meaningfully.
Why are the funds not being adequately spent when clearly there are dire needs in universities that need to be fulfilled?
Even last year, the average expenditure was about 67 -68% - the remaining funds are returned. This practice should change. We have enough finances for research as well as academic needs.
There is an issue with the decision making processes as they are quite slow but we are working towards solving it. There is a long bureaucratic process involved with releasing the requested finances that have to be completed after several discussions. We must work together to improve the situation.
Accusations are being made of pumping money into establishments such as the Kotelawala Defence University while finances for state universities are cut down?
We are spending a very small amount of money for KDU because they charge a fee from students who enroll in the university. It is the state universities that we spend 100% of our finances. In comparison, what the KDU receives is very minute.
Academics recently said that there is no marked difference in students despite their participation in leadership training. Given the desired results are not being achieved, aren’t the finances better spent elsewhere?
No one has protested against the leadership training recently. It creates a disciplined mind and not a militarised mind despite what certain groups might say. The students enjoy it and although we faced certain criticisms at the start, it is continuing smoothly. The programme is held to encourage an intellectual dialog within universities.
These lecturers who complain do not have a single undergraduate in their classes and the criticisms are made to cover up their growing irrelevance. It is not the military, the government or I who formulated the training programme – it’s the university academics themselves.
But there have been issues concerning the safety of students. Recently there was a media report of a young girl who was raped by a military official who had befriended her while partaking in the training programme. What about those allegations?
I am alerted even if a minor incident occurs during the training. Injuries have happened but they are simple incidents – nothing that calls for a complete stop of the training. As for those claims of rape, they are utter lies. No such complaints have been made. The students and military officials are very close and they treat the Army officers like their brothers or fathers. I don’t think the parents would compete for their children to be included in the programme if there were grave safety concerns.
The derogatory terms you have used on various occasions to describe undergraduates has sparked heavy criticism?
Some of these undergraduates have never participated in lectures nor are they interested in academic activities. They constantly fail exams and these are none other than the student leaders from the JVP and the FSP. So yes, they are not students, they are donkeys, cows and buffaloes. They are not students they are politicians.
The undergraduates have been given free access to higher education as well as other facilities. Instead they have completely abandoned their education- so they are not cows and donkeys? Look at these Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) Conveners – none of them have completed their education. This never happened during our university days, the student activists of those days hold very important positions today in the government.
How will the use of derogatory terms help improve the situation?
Of course it will! They strive to be better people. During the period 1987 – 2010 students were not allowed to speak in English or speak to their lecturers – the students had to seek permission from student leaders who are not true leaders but by-force leaders.
You were recently quoted stating that some US Presidents should be beaten and dragged along roads for the war crimes they have committed. Don’t you believe such statements from a government Minister are damaging to the country?
I have never said anything like that. But the US has committed war crimes and continues to do so. Just look at their policy on Israel; look at the manner in which they illegally entered Pakistan to capture Bin Laden and kill him. How can they advise us on human rights?
Now the US AID is to fund workshops that promote democracy and better voting practices. It is the US that needs to be taught a lesson on democracy, not us. There were blatant election law violations during previous governments but since this government came into power, the elections process has been carried out smoothly, free of any violations. Law and order and human rights are greatly upheld by this government.
Then how would you explain what happened in Aluthgama?
Look at what happened in 1983! It was the UNP that sponsored the systematic, well-organised attacks against Tamils, led by Cyril Maththew. Did that happen in Aluthgama? There was an incident following the assault of a monk by a Muslim youth, but this government did their best to stop the violence as soon as possible. We did not let it spill over although attempts were made to spread the violence into other areas. The President made a pledge to protect the Muslims. What did the UNP do after instigating violence against Tamils in 83? They blamed the JVP and the Communist party for the crimes and banned them.
But it was not an isolated attack – it was a situation that systematically developed, influenced by racist remarks by certain groups. The government did not take any concrete measures to stop such campaigns initially?
My point is we controlled it. The Police did not allow the Bodu Bala Sena rally to be held and they were leaving in vehicles when stones were pelted at the vehicles and the clash erupted. The fact that should be highlighted is that we managed to control it immediately.
How can we imprison monks? Then other monks will take to the streets – there will be another issue. Very careful measures were taken to arrest the perpetrators and control the situation.
You had also made sexually derogatory remarks on UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay. Again, aren’t these comments extremely damaging to the country?
No – it is a fact that if and when the UNHRC goes before the UN Security Council against Sri Lanka it will be mooted. So then she will have to take the report, twist it and shove it somewhere. We have to reject these false allegations spread by the US and Pillay against Sri Lanka.
Pix by Samantha Perera
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