27 October 2015

Student politics, anomalies and responsibilities

This was first published five years ago in the ‘Daily News’ on October 26, 2010.  Coincidentally, it was published exactly one year after a related article was published in the same newspaper: 'Will pro-JVP students ever learn?' Relevant even today, I believe.  
I recently wrote about vandalism, focusing on two university students who had been arrested for defacing a wall with graffiti and extrapolating to other forms of defacement of public space, especially by politicians. A friend of mine, agreeing with my general thesis, faulted me for not elaborating on the plight of undergraduates, their right to protest and the need to respond to legitimate grievance.

One of those arrested, Udul Premaratne, the Convenor of the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) was released and arrested again (along with 14 students of the Ayurveda University) a few weeks later on charges of damaging public property. Everyone was later enlarged on bail so they could sit exams, except Premaratne who was not granted relief because he was no longer a student.

The students had demanded the opening of the Outpatients Department at Ayurveda Hospital in Rajagiriya and were protesting the hospital’s lack of medicines, which severely affects their practical training courses. The protest was not non-violent. Students’ frustrations, real or imagined, spilled over the parameters of protests that are sanctioned by the law. The Police stepped in.

It has been argued that Premaratne’s incarceration was politically motivated. He has led the IUSF for over two years now and is seen as the key mover in the recent rise in unrest in the university system. He has not done himself any favours of course by violating the law, inconveniencing the public and even earning their wrath for promoting party politics when the students he mobilizes for protests ought to be in their classes doing justice to the public funds being used to educate them. Does this mean, however, that students should not protest?

Personalities do make a difference of course, but discontent and agitation can hardly be explained by the charisma of a single individual. There are issues in our university system that have been neglected by the relevant authorities for years. The mismatch between education and the job market naturally frustrates the undergraduate population. Lack of commitment on the part of the academic staff, curricula that are not updated as per the requirements of new research, trends and realities, and poor facilities also contribute to creating unease in universities.

Some of these issues can be addressed and corrected, others are more difficult. If there was a perceivable effort on the part of authorities to address the structural flaws of the system and correct them, then students might be less impatient, although one cannot count on this since student politics unfortunately is determined to a large extent by the prerogatives of the political parties that have a handle on student organizations.

Two things need to be done to keep student agitation to a minimum and within non-disruptive and non-destructive dimensions. First, a comprehensive review of the system of education in terms of the demand and supply pertaining to the entire gamut of occupational categories needs to be done. For too long, we’ve blundered our way from decade to decade believing that the market will absorb those we train or believing that we are giving our students marketable and useful skills. There has been very little done by way of reviewing intake for each sphere of education and matching these with the demand in each relevant sector. Mismatches cause slippage; some fall in and others fall out and end up in jobs that they were not trained to do; meaning, a gross wastage of public funds.

I believe that failure to address these anomalies feed into fears, apprehensions and frustrations which make undergraduates easy prey to predatory political animals that have for decades made the university system their traditional hunting ground. We cannot however fault the IUSF for taking on these issues because they are real concerns for students. It is to blame the JVP, for instance, for engaging in cheap politics, but this is not sufficient dismissal of student agitation.

The other dimension of the problem that I believe has been neglected for a long time is the matter of civic education. The stark negative of free education that stands up like a sore thumb is that students have been pampered beyond belief and have taken for granted all that the State does for them.

We have students who have benefited from a State that has placed far greater value on welfare than it should who have absolutely no sense of the amount that the public has invested in each of them and therefore a woeful lack of responsibility in how they conduct themselves.

How many undergraduates pause and reflect on the kind of bill that the public has had to foot on their behalf, from the day they were born, one wonders. From the moment that the midwife visits an individual’s mother when he/she is still in her womb, through delivery, medical attention and medication whenever sick, and education right through to the securing of a degree, he/she is hardly conscious about monies spent and responsibilities that ought to accrue.

They graduate believing that the people owe them a secure and remunerative job. They believe that they have a right to soft loans so they can purchase a vehicle, a house and a lifestyle that conforms to their teenage dreams.

They are not to blame, though. The fault lies in the fact that their education lacks systematic instruction on what has been spent and the responsibilities they have to bear throughout their lives to the public. Students are hardly aware of the how difficult it is for a country like ours to spend the amounts spent on free education and free healthcare.

Perhaps if students are required to engage in some form of social service during their tenure as undergraduates, it would help them get better perspective and acquire more responsibility in how they conduct themselves in the classroom and outside it.

I should add a third factor that serves to ‘legitimize’ student protest: the gross wastage and corruption in all levels and the politics of patronage that is so conspicuous. Doesn’t give students the right to deface walls, hold university officials hostage, break down walls and so one, of course, but it helps students justify to themselves the violence they perpetrate.

There is irresponsibility, then, and not only on the part of students. There is an urgent need for comprehensive review of education. Yes, it’s been ‘urgent’ and oft-repeated. Students like Premaratne, if they are really serious about educational reform, should not wait on Government; they should take on the task themselves. Self-criticism is not a bad thing. I am sure that Premaratne and others like him are pretty selfless in their politics. We need such people.

And we need to make sure that they are engaged with as adults and in intelligent ways. They have their flaws; the system has its faults. There has to be conversation and that conversation should not take place on walls (or in their breaking).