We will also have to engage and listen to those outside the universities, particularly those who are marginalised from entering the university
The great Capitalist crisis in the making over decades has been pushed over the cliff by the Covid-19 pandemic, and its devastation is going to reshape societies. Indeed, as the world sinks under an economic depression, many social institutions built over decades if not centuries are likely to go through tremendous change.
How will our ideas about universities change during these times of great social upheaval? Crises inevitably lead to change, and what will be the impact of the current depression on the way the universities are governed and the processes of teaching and research?
Debates on the idea of the university have a long history. And in Sri Lanka over the last many years, we have been debating the problems with our universities; including the type of governance, the relationship of the curriculum taught to the world outside and the contribution of research in universities towards socio-economic rejuvenation.
In this column, I raise some questions about the future of our universities by drawing on past debates in Germany about the idea of the university, and some discussions here in Sri Lanka about authoritarianism and the university system.
Habermas and the German Universities
I draw from the writings of the German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas to articulate the problems inherent in the idea of the university. At the Free University of Berlin in January 1967, during a time when universities around the world were hotbeds of radical student movements, his lecture titled, The University in a Democracy – Democratisation of the University reviewed the direction of German universities during the decades since the end of the Second World War, particularly after their complicity with the Nazi regime. Two decades later in 1987, in an important article titled, The Idea of the University – Learning Processes, he continued his discussion on the history of ideas about the university.
Habermas’ narrative begins with the early nineteenth-century idealist thinker Alexander von Humboldt, who saw universities as generating the ideas necessary for society through teaching and research. However, Humboldt’s idea of the university as a universal life form concerned with truth and science is contradicted by the development of modern societies which compartmentalises knowledge into expert domains and away from universal preoccupations. Furthermore, universities are often manipulated and corrupted by the interests of regimes in power. While universities had to free themselves from the Church – which refused them the autonomy to pursue science – with the support of secular states, in reality, the universities succumbed to the interests of secular regimes.
It is in this environment that Habermas and other intellectuals continued the call for the democratisation of the universities.
In a series of discussions organised by a number of academics in Sri Lanka over the last couple months on the themes of ‘Authoritarianism and the University System’ and ‘Inclusivity and the University Space: New voices on the COVID scene’, many professors, lecturers and graduate students identified various forms of hierarchical, exclusionary and arbitrary mechanisms in universities.
This situation in turn creates feelings of resignation, lethargy and even fear among academics. They also identified many dictates of the University Grants Commission, the administrative circulars within the universities, to the functioning of academic departments themselves as characterising authoritarian administrative/micro-practices.
The recent measures to bring about changes in universities are often justified by the World Bank and other international agencies under the guise of curriculum revision and quality assurance. Such measures are also brought about in an undemocratic manner while claiming to produce “employable graduates”. In reality, job creation has to do with the economic policies pursued in the country; the lack of job-creating industrial policies and succumbing to jobs destroying trade liberalisation are the real problems. In fact, the current depression may make this point amply clear, as those who are gainfully employed themselves are thrown out of jobs.
We need not search for radical perspectives to refute this discourse of “employability”. In fact, if we look into the elite archive of the Central Bank, the 25th Anniversary Commemoration Volume published in 1975, has the following to say:
“Greater emphasis on the development of the peasant economy was essential in the light of the revolution which had taken place in the country during the last 30 years in the field of education. From 1946 onwards, even before the country attained independence, Sri Lanka had put into effect a scheme of free education for all categories of students. The greatest beneficiaries of this scheme have been children from rural areas. Rapid development was necessary to accommodate the skills and aptitudes of the large numbers who were leaving the schools and universities. Moreover, the earlier pattern of development would not have created adequate employment opportunities for an increasingly educated workforce with their social aspirations and educational attainments.”
This serves as a powerful critique of what we now hear from our policymakers and business elite who are calling for the reform of the universities for the sake of “employability”. While the universities need reform for various other reasons, creating employment through the production of suitable graduates comes out of insipid arguments. Indeed, unemployment of graduates is a consequence of flawed economic policies.
In my view, at the heart of the recent discussions among academics, was the idea of the university, and that should begin with the democratisation of the university. Sadly, both in the North and the South, despite our tragic three-decade-long civil war that also ravaged our universities, neither self-reflection nor democratisation has been a priority.
In this context, do we start from within the university, which has been ossified by decades of hierarchical management? Or should we focus on how forces outside the university are further undermining its democratic functioning; where the current conjuncture with the economic crisis and the rise of the authoritarian political culture are drastically reshaping social institutions?
In our discussions, one of the professors suggested the need for future forums to continue to engage and listen to junior lecturers and students, and to me, that echoed the words of Habermas:
“What Humboldt said of the communicative association of professors and their students is true not only for the ideal form of the seminar but also the normal form of scientific work: ‘If they (students and younger colleagues) were not to gather voluntarily around the teacher, then he should seek them out to get closer to his goal by combining his more experienced powers (which for that very reason, however, tend also to be more easily one-sided and less vital) with their weaker power, which is still impartially and courageously striving in all directions.’’
Undoubtedly the discussion on the idea of the university in Sri Lanka needs to begin with those within the university.
Therefore, we will also have to engage and listen to those outside the universities, particularly those who are marginalised from entering the university, and in their way confronting authoritarianism and pursuing democratisation.