A remedy as dangerous as the malady

An open letter to all university heads

| by Jayantha Dhanapala

(November 17, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) This an open letter Friday Forum has sent to all Vice Chancellors of Universities, members of Senates/Councils of Universities, Deans of Universities, all academics of Universities, the University Grants Commission Chairman and Members , the Secretary and Officials of the Ministry of Higher Education and the Minister of Higher Education
Dear Colleagues,
The Friday Forum is very concerned that the standing of the national State universities is being adversely affected by recent events.
Politicization of the public service may well have spread to the universities. Matters in which university authorities like Faculties, Senates and Councils can and should exercise their legitimate decision-making responsibility have been taken over by the University Grants Commission (UGC).
Academic freedom and autonomy in academic matters has been a feature of the national university system from the time the University of Ceylon was established in the 1940s. These values have been confirmed by a Supreme Court decision where academics challenged certain amendments to the Universities Act as constituting violations of university autonomy and academic freedom.
However, recent pronouncements, even in Parliament, about the method of choosing Vice Chancellors by the Head of State seem to run contrary to the Universities Act passed by Parliament itself. The recent interference by a Vice Chancellor of a university in the choice of visiting staff by a Faculty has occurred, and a pre arranged meeting with an invited speaker had to be cancelled apparently due to nonconformity with the procedure of obtaining the Vice Chancellor’s permission. In the matter of the award of honourary degrees the primacy of the Faculties and Senates could be eroded if political standing becomes a major criterion governing choice of recipient.
Politicization of the public service may well have spread to the universities. Matters in which university authorities like Faculties, Senates and Councils can and should exercise their legitimate decision-making responsibility have been taken over by the University Grants Commission (UGC). A very recent example of this is the instructions issued by the UGC to all universities that they should employ the same private State security company on campuses.
There seem to be attempts by the Higher Education officials in the bureaucracy to break the hold of the Inter University Students Federation on university students. It is undeniable that student politics through the activities of unions has often resulted in indiscipline, intimidation and violence perpetrated on campus. However, to counter these negative features of campus life and student activism by developing politically linked youth movements within the universities is fraught with danger. This is amply demonstrated by the violence that has plagued campuses from the 1960s.
The Friday Forum has pointed out that the recent leadership programme for new university entrants with the involvement of the military (with only unofficial use of academics, who surprisingly seem to have acquiesced in some history related content which is inaccurate and does not promote harmony in our plural society), is counterproductive. This programme, the forcible deployment of the ex-military personnel run private State security service, and the politicised shramadana by pre-university students, are manifestations of the erosion of university autonomy and creeping militarisation of universities. There is a growing move to undermine tolerance for diversity and viewpoint difference – the very essence of academic freedoms in universities. The independent role of Faculty Boards, Senates and Councils seems to be increasingly replaced by decision making on the part of individual senior administrators like Vice Chancellors and Deans. It is a matter of regret that the apathy of the academic community which is heavily represented in all these university bodies has encouraged these erosions of their own academic freedom. Is this also another example of the growing authoritarianism and militarization in the country as a whole?
The recent salary debates, in which very sadly the UGC and Vice Chancellors seem to have been in opposition to their own staff and their unions, actively undermining their legitimate claims, were most unfortunate. It is surely the duty of the UGC, the Vice Chancellors and the Higher Education authorities to work together to create an environment which satisfies academics so that the highest quality of staff are attracted to and remain in the state universities.
Current developments seem to be preventing Universities from giving leadership in the important task of nation building through peaceful and vigorous articulation of divergent and contrary opinions. What is needed as we face the current challenges of development in a post conflict period is intellectual freedom in our universities. There is of course a responsibility cast on academics not to abuse such freedom (which abuse of any kind when detected the Institution itself must deal with), but use it to visibly and audibly articulate as many different evidence based points of view as possible. If such freedom is eroded, and democracy and good governance undermined (either by higher authorities from outside or apathy and impotence within) in institutions of higher education, it could in turn have repercussions on the young people of our country. Dissatisfaction amongst youth which fostered the insurrections of 1971 and 1988/89 in the South, and the 30 year armed conflict in the North, could manifest itself again with disastrous consequences.
We appeal to all academics in the university system to seriously reflect on what is happening within their institutions and to exercise the legitimate powers, rights, and responsibilities given to them under the Universities Act. Some university academics have spoken of an “academic spring” and a resurgent commitment to academic autonomy and independence. We hope that this will attract the support of a wider constituency in the university community. Your engagement and interest is critical to prevent an irreversible decline in the public education system of this country. The future of university education and that of future generations of young people lies in your hands.
We welcome an exchange of views with the academic community on these matters.
Jayantha Dhanapala
On behalf of Friday Forum, the Group of Concerned Citizens

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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