We witnessed yet another student protest in Colombo last week that led to a clash with the Police guarding the entrance to the official residence of the Prime Minister.
Though student unrest is not new to this country, what is necessary to recognise at the outset is that it is undoubtedly a manifestation of a deep-rooted socio-economic malaise that needs to be understood and responded to in a rational and reasonable manner. It is unwise to dismiss it by simply saying that it is the work of a group of unruly students. In fact we have done this several times in the past over the last four decades.
For instance, in the late 1980s, universities were in turmoil and violent demonstrations were a common occurrence. The authorities then had to suspend university teaching for an extended period of time.
When the universities were reopened in 1989, a considerable amount of groundwork had to be done to restore normal university life.
The University of Colombo for a number of years became a beehive of diverse activities aimed at supporting students to get back into a meaningful, productive and enjoyable university life. Professor G.L. Peiris, the former Foreign Minister, was the Vice Chancellor then.
"This situation is unlikely to change unless we re-organise our economy and the education system to ensure that youths leaving school and university have something to look forward to. There are no ad hoc solutions to these structural problems. If we wait longer without exploring rational and reasonable ways to respond to issues that university students and schoolchildren face, youth unrest can turn ugly once again, as it did in the past. "
He and many others who are in high office today are fully aware of what was done in the above regard. Since I was in charge of student affairs during that period, I have an intimate knowledge of the efforts involved. Several prominent people in government and public service today were students then and no doubt benefitted from such efforts in many ways.
As mentioned above, student unrest usually is a manifestation of a deeper structural problem in society and economy that deserve well thought-out policy responses.
Since I have written extensively on these issues based on my empirical research I do not intend to go into an in-depth analysis here. Suffice is to say that we have a good understanding of what is wrong with our education system and how it adversely affects the life chances of underprivileged youth who are often politically mobilised by various interested parties from time to time.
It was several months back that a group of students at the open-university put up a makeshift shelter at its Nawala Road entrance to campaign against
the authorities on the basis of some stated grievances.
"They know that higher education is often a blind alley. But, then there are others who want to go into higher education either because they want to do better or are intellectually more curious"
They also staged several protects in Colombo to draw the attention of the government to their issues. What we witnessed a few days ago was another demonstration by university students, this time with the participation of a larger group of students.
Yet, with the change of government, there appears to be no change in the response of the authorities. The minimum that is required in a situation like this is to appoint a committee of enquiry to go into their grievances and see how best these can be addressed with a view to defusing the situation.
As mentioned before, student unrest is a manifestation of a deeper problem that needs to be properly understood and appropriate measures should be taken to address it. Given the complexity and the enormity of the problem, no attempt is made to discuss it here. But, once again, suffice is to say, that the country’s education system has little to do with the structure of the economy.
We had six universities in the late 1970s, when the economy was still controlled by the State. The graduates passing out of these universities were absorbed by an extensive State sector.
There were already signs of graduate unemployment in the late 1960s.
The first batch of unemployed graduates was cleared by the United Front Government in 1970. As is well known, 1971 JVP uprising was aided by a growing unrest among university students and young school students. While the State controlled economy was being actively unbundled by the UNP regime that came to power in 1977, thereby reducing State sector employment, universities began to proliferate across the country.
Today, we have sixteen universities. Where can these thousands of mostly non-English-speaking graduates go after their graduation?
Can the State sector absorb them- as the previous regime did with no consideration for their future prospects or productivity?
The private corporate sector has almost no room for them, as there are enough English-speaking youth either returning from overseas education or leaving many private educational establishments in the country.
But, the simple fact is that we do not have a much of a productive private sector to talk about. Most of the private sector firms are glorified traders engaged in buying and selling, banks that recycle money and a service industries dependent totally on imported equipment and gadgets.
Most of these companies usually need school leavers to service their customers at super markets, banks, finance companies, service centres.
Where can the graduates go in such an economy? The Liberal Arts graduates are the hardest hit, though even general science graduates are not spared.
Not many rural youths want to pursue higher education any more, particularly in the Arts Stream. This is evident from official data from the Ministry of Education. A large majority of them leave after GCE (OL).
They know that higher education is often a blind alley. But, then there are others who want to go into higher education either because they want to do better or are intellectually more curious.
Yet, once they complete their education, they do not face a bright future.
This situation is unlikely to change unless we re-organise our economy and the education system to ensure that youths leaving school and university have something to look forward to. There are no ad-hoc solutions to these structural problems. If we wait longer without exploring rational and reasonable ways to respond to issues that university students and school children face, youth unrest can turn ugly once again, as it did in the past.
We are fully aware of the consequences of unmitigated youth unrest not just for youth but for the rest of our society.