A professor’s thought-provoking idea conveyed in an article a couple of weeks ago under the caption, Towards a ranking of Sri Lankan Universities reminded me of the famous SIT DOWN protest by students of the Colombo University, five decades ago.
It was December 1967. I was travelling on the pillion of a brand-new Italian Vespa scooter [Which revolutionized the two-wheel automobile industry in the late 1950s] owned by my senior colleague at BR de Silva & Co, the reputed Audit firm.
We were on our way to State Mortgage Bank’s head office, our client in the annual audit. Instead of taking the shortest cut to Horton Place from our Fort office he de-toured through Reid Avenue offering no valid explanation.
- Today’s student leaders are Carreer Student Leaders
- Four protest demonstrations are held a day in the city
- Issues are not related to students
When he stopped near a group of girl medicos at the Colombo Campus only that I realized that his fiancé was a third-year medical student, who had joined 5,000 other undergrads in a civilized demonstration.
The Rs. 1300 silver grey bike attracted the same attention among damsels that a Lamborghini Super Sports would draw today.
University of Colombo – while Peradeniya retains University of Ceylon
They were opposing the authority’s decision to categorize Universities confirming to one of the clauses of the controversial Higher Education Act by equally controversial IMRA Iriyagolla, the Minister in Dudley Senanayake’s National Government of 1965-70.
The University of Ceylon which had one branch in Peradeniya and the other in Colombo under one Vice-Chancellor and one Board of Regents was split into two separate Universities.
The division was necessitated for purposes of easier administration.
The branch in Colombo was to be named the University of Colombo and the branch in Peradeniya was to retain the name University of Ceylon.
As was easily predictable, the undergrads at Colombo naturally rose in protest. They rightly argued that a degree from the University of Colombo would be regarded as inferior to the degree from the University of Ceylon, both in Sri Lanka and abroad.
When one considers the lack of employment opportunities for graduates in this country, it is obvious that many of the graduates, who fail to find jobs here, will seek employment abroad and certainly, a degree from the University of Ceylon will call the tune.
The students went on strike. Representations were made to the Minister of Education and the Prime Minister. The strike resulted in a conference being called by the PM, who did not wait until the issue got dragged on indefinitely and students wasted their time in agitations inconveniencing everybody.
The Minister, the National Council for Higher Education and the Vice Chancellors of all the Universities participated at a conference Chaired by the Prime Minister. At the conference, it was decided to rename the university in Colombo The University of Ceylon [Colombo].
The decision met with the approval of the undergrad leaders that absolute parity of status would be granted as assured by PM Dudley Senanayake and Minister of Education Iriyagolla.
The students went back to lectures. But then came the blow.
A few days later the names were Gazetted, with Colombo named, the University of Ceylon [Colombo] and the Peradeniya being named The University of Ceylon, compelling the students to walk out again.
The PM refused to budge. The University Teachers Association came forward with a suggestion that one University be set up with two (affiliated) colleges, which proposal had the approval of the student body; but it was ignored. And thus came about the impasse.
No placards, banners, headbands or Traffic jams
The lady doctors-in-waiting had prepared sandwiches [Bread and pol-sambol] at their hostel the previous night. Allowing my senior to exchange gentle pleasantries with his betrothed, I enjoyed sharing sandwiches offered by them walking among the groups of medicos.
There were no placards, banners, headbands, red or black garments, and not even slogans.
They did not come out to the road shouting scathing slogans and blocking the traffic.
The Professor I referred to at the beginning said something to the effect:
“That Performance Evaluation of Universities is an accepted practice in any part of the world; because they need to be answerable to funding agents and those who look for their services. The ranking is often unavoidable with performance evaluation. Universities cannot be exempted from these procedures. The criteria for appraisal and positioning can vary.”
Today the University students stage demonstrations obstructing the vehicular movement at Ward Place, Lipton’s Circus, entrance to the Parliamentary Complex and Lotus Road’s entrance to President’s House over unresolved issues. In addition only a few issues are relevant to the student population, while most others totally irrelevant like SAITM issue, with the demonstrations usually ending violently following the intervention of the Police.
The demonstrations that begin either at the University of Visual & Performing Arts theatre or far away at Sri Jayewardenepura, Wijerama and proceeded on foot towards the above venues, causing heavy traffic congestion in and around those areas.
As the protesters approach the Parliament Roundabout, the Police will attempt to stop them; students would press forward tumbling over the initial iron barricades, that ends with the Police using minimum force to stop the protesters from advancing.
Police sources say a minimum of four protest demonstrations are held a day in the City.
Students and trade unions have a right to their freedom, though; the State loses around 50 billion rupees annually due to traffic blocks.
This amount is without adding the indirect losses caused by people spending hours in a public and private transport stranded unable to reach home from work or vice versa.
The country has plunged into one of the worst crises in many years, as a result, with indiscriminate borrowings by successive Governments. Can they be allowed to continue these extravagant protests on public roads?
How unfair is it to cause tremendous inconvenience to people who move around on their day-to-day activities with water cannons and tear gas, all just to satisfy the agendas of a few politically motivated so-called career studentleaders, who purposely avoid sitting exams to prolong their stay in the University?
Coming back to 1967, adding further chaos to the issue, the students at the Vidyalankara University [Present Kelaniya] also voiced their demand for parity of status, for Vidyodaya [Present J’pura] to follow suit.
In fact, Kelaniya joined the struggle, and Vidyodaya did not, thanks to VC Rev. Soratha Thera, who assured his students if there were any change of status he would personally see to it that they too would benefit.
Vidyalankara insisted on setting up one University with four colleges at Colombo, Peradeniya, Kelaniya and Nugegoda, each named The University of Ceylon with the place name in brackets after it.
“Have you joined hands and are you fighting on a common front?” I asked one of them; before I could listen to his reply, my senior colleague who suddenly realized his responsibilities, shouted, “Hey, come we are late.”
Later, following up the developments through print media I learnt that the usual accusation that majority of the students were not interested but the few who had connections to politicians with a view to embarrassing the Government created the situation.
But the Government broke its word, the Premier in reply had stated, it would be unfair to change the status of University at Peradeniya because of the traditions and the standards it had built up over the years.
He maintained that the University at Colombo would have to do the same. But the students argued that if it is the Traditions and standards then it is the University of Colombo which should be given preference; Peradeniya was barely fifteen years in existence at the time; the Standards and traditions associated with University of Ceylon were all linked up with Colombo, and they dated back not only to 1942, when it was first set up but scores of years further back when the old University College was in existence and which same buildings the University at Colombo then occupied.
The rest is history. We all know how they are named presently. Students of all four Universities congregated in Kuliyapitiya, three days before the Parliamentary Elections of 1970, which constituency Minister Iriyagolla contested since 1947, [Before 1960 it was called Dandagamuwa] to ensure his defeat at the hands of United Front led by Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
For that matter, no Minister of Education[Then there was no separate Ministry for Higher Education, or Higher Education and Highways or Higher Education and Water Management; as we enjoy today under the scientific method] in the history of Tertiary Education in Sri Lanka was popular with undergrads.
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