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The Future of Academic Freedom in Sri Lanka

Academics in the Sri Lankan context and elsewhere are to be the authors of key narratives and ideologies in the society.


by Saumya Liyanage

Public attention has been drawn towards Sri Lankan academia and the State University sector when two prominent Vice-Chancellors were sacked by the executive president of Sri Lanka. After Prof. Ratnam Vignaswaran, the former VC of the Jaffna University was dismissed a handful of current and retired academics issued a statement condemning the situation and discussed the consequences that the academic community in the country would face. The latest dismissal of Prof. Sarath Chandrajeewa, VC of the University of Visual and Performing Arts (UVPA) also raised a question of academic administration and political power by a group of internationally well-known academics in the South Asian region and elsewhere. 

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Furthermore, the JVP parliamentarian Mr Bimal Rathnayake questioned at the Parliament about the removal of both professors and the fate of contemporary Sri Lankan Universities and unending political interferences. A few but thoughtful academics in the country wrote online commentaries and articles about the current situation. However, it is sympathetic to note that despite the outcry of international and a few local academics expressing concern for the outlawed removals, what action that the Sri Lankan academics have taken so far in response to the current crisis of the University sector? This article mainly focuses on this silence or the ‘darkness’ engulfed in Sri Lankan academia and the role of the academic community in higher education.

Academics

Academics in the Sri Lankan context and elsewhere are to be the authors of key narratives and ideologies in the society. In theoretical means, though intellectuals are supposed to play a key role in forming the social consciousness of the country, it is clearly evident that the current academic community in the Sri Lankan Universities are somewhat hypnotized or rather galvanized in the wake of current political interferences in the Higher Education sector. Taken the recent dismissal of Vice-Chancellors and the situation posed to question the University as an autonomic entity, local academics have poorly or rather not responded to the situation created by those dismissals. They seem to have lethargically ignored the issue or shown their disinterestedness towards what is happening in the larger context. These incidents have already created a public outcry that needs attention and discussions to be directed towards the future of Universities and academic freedom. But with this hypnotization of academia, it is clearly signified that the majority of Sri Lankan academics are self-centred creatures who get the best advantages and opportunities in the country while unconsciously or consciously contributing to the educational exploitation prevailing in the higher education sector.


Hegemony

It is vital to note that political philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s theorization of the concept of hegemony and the role played by academics and intellectuals in society. In Gramsci’s analysis, the hegemony is something that is slightly different from Marxian analysis of ideology and it further captures both the ‘domination’ and the ‘submission’ of a particular group of people to certain power regimes (John S., 2006). These dominations are played through intellectual and moral leadership given by those privileged individuals and groups. There are two ways that the concept of hegemony can be elaborated: First, hegemony can be operated as an individual identity and secondly it can be represented as an institution. However, in the context of Sri Lankan academia, these two-sided operations can be seen. For instance, academics fabricate their own stories and rhetoric to teach society how “education is so vital and precious”. They show themselves as examples of successful ‘individual achievers’ who have currently positioned themselves in the upper level of the society. One of the major ideologies developed in academia is that “if you work hard and achieve educational goals, the poverty could be overcome”. Further, these individuals are a part of institutions where many ideologies are continually produced: some Universities favour their own graduates, naming them as ‘our products’ to continue the tradition of recruiting the same ‘product’. Alumni associations are operated in celebrating and supporting existing systems of power and ideological structures of academia and society. They celebrate and honour their so-called ‘traditions’ annually. Student unions operate in the same terrain providing false promises to new students and present themselves as saviours of novices while continuing barbaric ‘sub-cultures.’ However, the question is in what capacity that Sri Lankan academia has contributed to battle against the domination of oppression and the continuation of political and ideological interferences in the University sector? Referring to Gramsci’s ideas, Agustí Nieto-Galan (2011) argues thus:

In the rural, pre-industrial and feudal world of the Ancient Regime, traditional intellectuals such as clergymen would have monopolized the construction of a specific hegemony, but in spite of their continuing influence, in the capitalist industrial world, other kinds of intellectuals became progressively more influential: new professionals, judges, experts, teachers, civil servants, and scientists. Thus, organic intellectuals emerge from these groups (2011, p. 457).

As Galan argues, the clergy has played a key role in forming hegemonic structures of ancient societies but as it is observed, in the Sri Lankan society, this ancient phenomenon can be seen as revitalized in the political arena by contemporary clergymen trying to promote nationalism and patriotic sentiments. No civil servants, scientists, University professors or teachers come out and stand along with mass struggles. The question is whether new intellectuals such as teachers and scholars at academic institutions play their designated roles in such crucial situations when power interferes the stability of academic freedom and justice? Instead, some academics in the University system are a part of the suppressive regime and they openly and shamelessly theorize why they continue to support these militarized Governments. Referring to these opportunistic tendencies, French writer Julien Brenda argues that these intellectuals ‘used to sell themselves too often to political and economic interests’ (2011, p. 458). Hence, intellectuals are hibernated to the extent that they choose certain safeguard approaches to social issues and political calamities because they do not want to sacrifice their comfort jobs or peaceful livelihoods. There is no threat for them to be losing their jobs because of lack of research, publications or knowledge dissemination. The role of the academic is becoming a mere master of tuition. Gramsci identified such traditional intellectuals as ‘dilettantes or parasites’ (Jones S., 2006, p. 87).

Virtual struggles

The current resistance to power and political uncertainty in Sri Lanka is largely displayed and demonstrated through online social media platforms. It was evident that when the dismissals of Vice-Chancellors of Jaffna and UVPA were announced, the major outcry against those removals first germinated through social media. Today, people choose these social media as platforms to share their thoughts and outrages because it is the safest as well as the most convenient way of conveying their disagreements. Virtual struggles are becoming a more and more popular mode of resistance. People do not need to present themselves to the public where their ‘body presence’ is a part of the demonstration and the shield to the counter-power performed on streets. Hence the ‘pain of presence’ and being vulnerable to ‘bodily co-presence’ with the military can be bypassed through being virtual. I don’t deny the fact that social media has the power to develop discussions and forums towards certain issues and problems in society. In the recent past, we have seen that many young and socially conscious groups of people in society directly involved in social media discussions. These discussions range from intellectually rich arguments to more vulgar types of conversations. Even the academic community has got involved in such online forums by commenting and providing statements on political indecency and corruptions. However, virtual struggles are becoming a safer and an isolated mode of practice where individuals can express their disobedience or dissatisfactions while protecting their bodies at home. This is the nature of academic struggles currently seen in response to more tangible issues in the University sector.

Intellectuals

In general, academics are defined as a group of people who represent and safeguard academic freedom. In the classical sense, these intellectuals represent the progressive ideas of society. ‘Although intellectuals were traditionally associated with certain rhetorics of independence and freedom of thought, they continued to contribute in a more or less conscious way, to the construction of a specific hegemony, serving specific élites’ (Nieto-Galan, 2011, p. 458). Although the dominant conception related to the academic community in Sri Lanka and elsewhere are more resistant to the ruling class and the social unjust, in the practical sense, they are the more vulnerable and least resistive creatures in the society. This nature of non-resistive and hypocritical behaviours can also be identified through how they react or engage with social issues and situations. Thus the majority of academics in the University sector are very much subjugated by the bureaucracy and political power. They like to be subjugated and to get suppressed by officials and politicians the way that they suppress students. As Gramsci postulates, individual and institutional hegemonic structures are at play within themselves. These pervert group of academics do not want to resist or change the existing power relations because when they need to betray some academics, they get help from the same pervasive political power. In this sense, the Sri Lankan academia is interdependent through its own act of feudalism and political submission. They make use of politics and they are also being used and exploited by the same system. Hence, the majority of so-called University academics are not organic intellectuals who represent people or their socio-political issues in the country but a pedagogical system that is consciously contributed to strengthening the feudal and elite power relations in the University sector and beyond.

Obedience

The domination of various power structures established over the Universities have overruled the administration of Universities and it is clear that these power structures continually operate and dominate the intellectual rigour and the power of negotiations of academics. Similarly, the power relations between authorities and academics and also between teachers and students in the University sector still lie in the feudal domain. As teachers expect such obedience and non-reactions from their disciples, academics also maintain the same submissive relations with their big Others. Such pervasive human relationships are being sustained in the University system for decades and these psychopaths have ruined the academic integrity of the Universities. Given the discussion about the current role of the academics, Edward Said argues:

Today’s intellectual is … a … professor, with a secure income, and not interested in dealing with the world outside the classroom.… All that we have now … is a missing generation which has been replaced by buttoned-up, impossible to understand classroom technician, hired by committee, anxious to please various patrons and agencies, bristling with academic credentials and a social authority that does not promote debate but establishes reputations and intimidates non-experts (Nieto-Galan, 2011, p. 458).

As clearly and critically explained in the above statement, today’s academia is something that continues to be stagnated and intellectually distorted by liberal economic agencies and their policies. It is visible that these liberal educational reforms and operations have been continually imposed in the Sri Lankan higher education sector for the last two decades. The part of such neoliberal reforms is the competition of university ranking and also the introduction of commercially viable innovations and establishments of industry linkages. So-called ranking and trading of research have also contributed to increasing the malfunctioning of the academic community where they are misguided by those neoliberal projects proposed by educational authorities. Research allowance for academics is also interpreted as a mere ransom: ‘All cats love fish but hate to get their paws wet’. These fake research cultures have therefore created an ‘alienated effect’ through which the academics can sustain themselves without engaging socially sensitive issues. The role of the academics and their relation to the research culture is not an essential part to secure the job. The corrupted academic culture is continually nourished and sustained through academic malpractices. But again, we are at the verge of selecting an unpolluted, uncorrupted president who would eradicate the corruption and unjust in this country. The contradiction continues within the University and the society.

Conclusion

It is well-known that intellectuals such as Albert Einstein criticized the ‘Nazi power’, ‘Jewish Problem’ and the devastation of nuclear power during World War Two. He did engage with the public domain and provided his views and critiques towards highly politically relevant discussions at the time. Similar to this example, one may argue that there are ad hock struggles in the public domain currently fuelled by academics and opinion-makers. This may further appear to the public that University academics and public intellectuals are highly engaged with the current political issues. However, it should be noted that they more or less consciously contribute to the establishment of another hegemonic system or ruling elite where the counter-hegemonic forces could be reinforced to suppress the organic intellectual movements. In doing so, these academics and activists subjugate themselves to the power and popularism where they lose the most vital part of their careers – intellectual freedom and academic integrity.

*Saumya Liyanage (PhD La Trobe) is an actor and a Professor of Drama and Theatre, currently working as the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of the Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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