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Ragging in Universities – Is it a battle between Aesthetic and Unaesthetic?

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Among many national priorities discussed today, subject of Higher Education and Universities is prominent. Irregularities in university intake; lack of facilities, IT skills, English language proficiency and leadership; inadequacy in relevance, quality and applicability of research output and graduate output; mismatch with the job market, and ragging and its inhuman nature are among mattes drawn the attention. Parents, Academics, Non-academic and Administrative staff, support staff, student community, undergraduates, graduands, graduates, society, State Universities, UGC, Minister and the Government all are concerned and express dissatisfaction over the affairs of state universities. Issues start before a student enters the University and continue even after graduation. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, in 2017, out of 253,330 students who sat for GCE (Advanced Level) Examination, 163,104 (64%) had qualified for university entrance, but only 24,000 (14%) seats were available in state universities.

During the current discourse on “University Education”, ‘ragging and its inhuman nature’ is identified as the most disturbing factor. I am (un)lucky to have come across UGC Circulars, innumerable articles published in Journals, and print media, and some reports related to ragging. 

Ragging is understood as part of the university sub-culture which aims at socialising the newcomers to adjust to the new environment. This is intended to break the ice and also allows juniors to get to know seniors. Ragging has become a fashion or one can say a routine in universities. Many causes are attributed to ragging. Victims of ragging face problems from physiological, psychological, emotional and behavioural to changes in cognitive patterns, Stress and Physical injuries.

One thing I would not forget is how I was ragged by my seniors and how I ragged my juniors. Once I was asked to empty a pond located in front of a girls’ hostel with a coconut shell. I still cherish the incident. Ragging was not a subject discussed in university parlours a few decades ago. But, today it’s being discussed more than technology, innovation, research, quality, and university ranking. Opinions are being made by policymakers, academics, medical, psychological, education specialists, journalists, disciplinarians, and others in a long list. Majority of them are University products of yesteryear. They, like me, bear and cherish the memories of their university days. “The Committee of the Vice-Chancellors and Directors (CVCD) in a statement issued in July 2020, categorically condemns all forms of ragging in educational institutions of Sri Lanka and no Vice-Chancellor or Rector would condone and support ragging or protect perpetrators. However, the CVCD believes that ragging is a complex issue that needs many interventions for it to be eliminated from the Sri Lankan Universities…………….”
“Eradicating ragging requires a bottom-up approach that goes beyond punitive measures; ragging is a phenomenon that cannot be viewed in isolation from the country’s socio-economic context; there is a degree of societal tolerance when it comes to various forms of violence, and ragging is one such example where there is impunity; violence in campuses is enabled by the lack of monitoring and accountability at different levels”. These are some sentiments expressed by panellists at a webinar on the ‘violence in Sri Lanka’s Higher Education Institutions’ held in June 2020.

 These views suggest that we look at ragging only as a curse but ignore the cause behind the curse. Ragging took a mild form of playing the fool during our time in the university. Now it takes the form of sexual and physical abuse. Ragging is only the tip of the iceberg. Its underneath lays the social, cultural, economic erosion during the last 40 years. The economic background of the present student community is completely different from student days of ours who writes, speaks, recommends, decides, and takes punitive measures. We were born and bred in a prosperous, producer-driven real economy built up by rural-based Senanayakes and Bandaranaikes. It is today, replaced by a debt-ridden, service-oriented, import-dependent, declining financial economy created with unprecedented overnight liberalisation introduced by Metropolitan based JRJ. The present student generation is born and bred in the latter mentioned economy. Economic erosion caused by the so-called open liberal economy is pardonable as we can please our eyes, rather than the tongue, with chemical infected apples and grapes instead of sweet tropical mangoes, papayas, pineapples and bananas at a wayside fruit stall. But, never the social, cultural, moral, value erosion and the degradation from a knowledge-creating free education introduced by Kananagara with a well-dispersed Central College network to an examination focused training by “Nihal Sir” at a wayside tuition shop. 

Majority of the University students are coming from economically weak, deprived, marginalised, uneducated families. Their parents do not have a stable source of income. They depend on charity, loans or even petty thefts. Some resorts to brewing illicit liquor, drug trafficking, stealing. Some parents are bedridden. Majority of students depend on Mahapola or other grant schemes. There are some students who pay only the room rent from the grant they get and send the balance home to settle their paralysed mother’s medical bill, or to buy a packet of milk powder for their young sister. Those who lack food for the body come in search of food for thought to University. They are deprived of both. Gamage, Siri, (2017), in his article on “Psychological, Sociological and Political Dimensions of Ragging in Sri Lankan Universities” says

‘Those from lower socioeconomic and rural backgrounds see those from well to do families and urban schools or with western outlooks in behaviour (dress, hairstyle, English language ability, social contacts, etc.) as class enemies who needed to be tamed and put in their place.’

During our days in the university, the entire academic staff was present on the premises from morning till dusk. We, the students had access to them and consult on any matter. There was a close relationship between academics and students. We did not have to seek extra mentoring. We were known by names and even by our nicknames. Today, academics are more absent than present on the premises. They are busier on outside assignments. Some universities employ more temporary/visiting lecturers than the permanent staff. Students do not find teachers for mentoring, consultation or a sweet chat. When you talk to academic members privately they admit that a wedge is created between them and students. Students vent their feelings, annoyance, frustration on other students and juniors. Ragging is one consequence.  

There are brawls and disputes arising among students due to many reasons. Some are personal; some are romantic; some are difference of opinions; some are ragging. They all go into the basket of ‘Ragging’. Ragging is not always initiated by seniors. See the following extract taken from a report of an inquiry conducted by a retired High Court Judge on a complaint made against senior students on ragging. 

“The complainant student Ms……is basically responsible for the incident as she had initiated by doing something unacceptable………..”. 

We write about present-day university products and prescribe punitive actions against the perpetrators of ragging in good faith of eradication. But we are not sensitive to economic, social, cultural changes (erosion) taken place at large in the society. Present form of ragging is only the symptom of a disease or a pandemic. Eradication of ragging needs a long process of addressing the causes spelt out above rather than the curse alone. At present, mentoring and counselling facilities are arranged by Universities and parents for the victims. But, Counseling is more needed for perpetrators. There is a need to take a holistic view of the picture rather than addressing the elimination of ragging in isolation. 

Reference: Ragging; Its Evolution and Effects: A Literature Review with a Special Reference to Sri Lanka - Gunatilaka H. Department of Business Administration, University of Sri Jayewardenepura  - International Journal of Research and Innovation in Social Science (IJRISS) |Volume III, Issue X, October 2019|ISSN 2454-6186
Chandrasena Maliyadde has served as a Secretary to three Ministries before his retirement. He is currently a Vice President of Sri Lanka Economic Association. He can be reached via chandra.maliyadde@gmail.com

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