A little anecdote about one of America’s most left leaning liberal arts schools brought back memories of my undergraduate days in our university system. First, here is the story about the American school. Evergreen State College, a progressive liberal arts school in Olympia, Washington has been known for its left-leaning student activism, in part nurtured by the school curriculum itself (which reportedly shuns grades). The school has been holding an annual day of absence during which Black students and faculty would voluntarily leave the campus to evoke the spirit of a Douglas Turner Ward play to highlight the under-appreciated role of the coloured people in America. This year, the student-activists have asked that all the White people leave the university, instead. A biology professor, not a right-wing hack, rather a supporter of Berny Sanders has objected, arguing that there is a huge difference between a group voluntarily absenting to highlight their grievances, and a group asking another to go away. The latter is an act of oppression in itself, he contended.
In response, students confronted the professor in profane language, demanding his resignation; he went into hiding, fearing for his safety and the school was convulsed in race clashes. Property was damaged and additional police were called in.
This should sound very familiar to us since this is what happens in our universities every other month, though they do not necessarily involve teachers, since they rarely confront students’ ideological demagoguery. But, students who represent an alternative thought get the beating every so often.
"The education and social-cultural life in universities should be structured in a way to help them acquire those missing properties"
There is a near consensus that our student politics is rubbish. However, it takes a bit of circumspection to find out why it has been not just backward, but also intolerant.
Marxism infused hard left is inherently exclusivist and monopolistic and in the process of securing its domination, it forces out other competing ideologies from the shared space. To that end, Stalin and Mao reigned over mass murder and Gulags while Castro and his peers in Eastern Europe locked up dissidents in thousands. Our own socialists like Rohana Wijeweera chose to slaughter his ideological rivals both of the soft left and the capitalist right. Our university politics draw inspiration from that political ideology and it is no wonder that there had been no alternative political thought there ever since the JVP established its monopoly in universities.
This is not a problem unique to Sri Lanka. India’s flagship universities like JNU suffers from the same ills where the political left has refused to share free space with the other competing voices and now cries foul when a resurgent Hindutva Right fights back helped by the BJP’s political dominance.
In Sri Lanka, this insular and arcane ideology has turned our universities into rotten places. It has deprived students a genuine exposure to the real world and either cut short or distort their rite of passage to be part of the future elites.
Our students are admitted to universities either through merit or as a result of affirmative policies. Due to unequal social cultural milieu they come from, they suffer from distinct shortfalls in certain basic skills -- some of which are taken for granted by those coming from well-to-do socio economic backgrounds, but have to be inculcated in students of less privileged background, if the latter are to compete in a level playing field with their better off peers. The education and social-cultural life in universities should be structured in a way to help them acquire those missing properties. Proficiency in English is one such, though not the only one. However, it cannot be overlooked because the English language opens doors to a world of opportunities and knowledge. However, our university education has failed to fill in those gaps, nor does it offer a cosmopolitan conditioning effect. This failure lies at the heart of the mess which defines our universities today.
Now the government has published advertisements in newspapers urging students not to become pawns of vested interest groups. However, the problem is that in the insular subculture of university politics being a pawn itself is fashionable. Students, whose insecurities have not been addressed by an antiquated education, tend to find a sense of belonging and self-importance by being part of such a group. Newspaper advertisement cannot address this problem.
One should break the thread of insularity and ignorance that keep reinforcing students’ perceived grievances and insecurities. A closer look would reveal a correlation between the rising student discontent in universities and a growing number of vernacular language student intakes and admitted courtesy of compulsory Swabasha education policies. The problem with Swabasha education is that it gives very limited reference points, and much of it is often arcane. Even that limited knowledge is of little utility since outside the halls of academia, the rest of the world works in English. Thus, in the little insular cocoon of universities, an equally insular ideology of student politics has consolidated itself. A more cosmopolitan education should have been able to confront that, however such an education was not possible without the English language. Now the optimists believe that the proliferation of knowledge thanks to information revolution would address that vacuum. However, much of that knowledge or at least the useful ones, is in English, and if the current status quo persists, the future would be much more polarizing than today. The increasingly self-evident truth is that, other than a few major languages, speakers of vernacular languages such as ours would either have to learn English or risk losing benefits of globalization.
"In Sri Lanka, this insular and arcane ideology has turned our universities into rotten places"
Newspaper advertisements would not solve the current problem in universities. Instead, the government should proactively involve or co-opt the private sector in remaking the university curriculum and set a minimum English proficiency level as a requirement for graduation. Universities do, of course, have English requirements, but they are a sham. Instead, universities should be asked to adopt an internationally recognized test such as IELTS and set a minimum threshold of marks as a requisite for graduation. In the ideal conditions, such requirements ought to be fulfilled within the first year, before the students pick their Majors, which should enable them to pursue degrees in the English medium. That would also make students work and therefore less tempting to take to the streets. The government which invests billions on free university education should be able to provide vouchers for students to obtain their English test results, if the universities are not equipped to provide that education. Soft skills imparted on students through such an endeavour would drastically improve the return on investment on higher education. Equally, involvement in the private sector would have a major spin off effect and over time multiply the human capital in education and promote infrastructure in English education which could cater to all our youth who desire such opportunities.
Newspaper advertisements can hardly achieve any of the above.
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