14 January 2023

On academic activism

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Scroll down for previous articles]  

We have in the past seen university lecturers agitating for better salaries, a bigger slice of the budget for education and so on. All good. All necessary. Concerted and collective activism for syllabus improvement and raising overall standards in the university probably takes place, but perhaps goes unnoticed on account of low newsworthiness. Also underreported is knowledge-production.

Every year, literally thousands of undergraduates write dissertations or submit final year project reports on a wide range of subjects, all supervised by lecturers. Every year hundreds of articles authored by Sri Lankan academics are published in peer reviewed journals. Every year hundreds of books on numerous subjects are written and published. Every year there are dozens of symposia organised by various faculties in the university system, each and every one of them generating rich discussion.

It is inconceivable that all of these efforts are unrelated to the burning issues of the day. In other words, a significant portion of what academics add to the sum total of human knowledge could inform policy and thereby make things better or correct flaws which have persisted simply because no one knew any better. After all, many of the papers presented at seminars and conferences, journal articles and books do contain recommendations based on findings and theories constructed based on such.

Now it is patently clear that whatever connection there is between academics and policy makers is accidental rather than systemic. Simply, there is no formal conduit to channel knowledge produced by academics into the policy-making framework. All we have are the occasional and often ‘tokenish’ consultants and consultations in committees and boards.

We do know however that many academics engage in research not just for the pursuit of knowledge but with the hope that findings could be used, be applied and make a difference to society.  So what can academics do if governments are not interested?

They can band together.  There are such forums. Indeed any documentation of the proceedings of any symposium would indicate that academics to ‘club together’ (in a good way). What’s missing, perhaps, is communication. And of course the scandalous refusal of policy-makers to take into account ‘science’ when coming up with strategies to solve a problem or improve things.

The Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (HARTI), the nation’s premier research outfit mandated to explore the social, economic, political and environmental aspects of the agrarian sector, recently mulled the setting up of an Academic Alliance for Anticipatory Research/Action. The proposal got the green light from the Board of Governors. Theoretically, such a body could play a significant role in understanding what’s happening and what could happen, and therefore come up with appropriate strategies.

The university system is an army. Each university is a battalion. There are professors, lecturers and students. Tens of thousands. It’s not that everyone has to do everything. But let’s take something like the damage caused to crops by wildlife.

It should be possible for, say, students following a particular course be given the task of studying the phenomenon in a particular village or Grama Niladhari division, supervised of course of the particular lecturer and following appropriate training in survey methods. Students in Agriculture Faculties and those in the social sciences reading for degrees in sociology, economics and geography, or even Science Faculty students studying statistics could be thus tasked. Imagine the wealth of knowledge that could be obtained if relevant departments in all universities came together, formulated a strategy and implanted it! And just imagine the kind of scholarship that databases that such exercises produce could inspire!

Such an alliance could work not just with HARTI, but all research institutes in the state sector, especially those with a mandate for policy advocacy. On a wide range of subjects. For example, in the agrarian sector, traditional agricultural systems could be documented and traditional practices enumerated. Food availability could be mapped too — there are hundreds of edible plants, fruits, berries and yams that are simply absent in the discourse on food.
There are so many areas they could explore; climate change, conflict, disaster risk reduction, early warning, famine, food security and sovereignty, humanitarian information systems, humanitarian policy, livelihoods, migration, nutrition, malnutrition, refugees, research methods, resilience, safety nets, social protection and other topics as warranted by circumstances and policy prerogatives.

That’s activism. Of a different kind. As important as the kind of activism that gets headlined in newspapers. Activism that complements the agitational thrust of the 6% demand (for education) led by university lecturers and students. It could be called an academic pursuit. Indeed, there would be some who would insist that this is integral to the academic profession.

Policy-makers simply would not be able to ignore such scholarship, such activism. Perhaps something that the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) could mull over sometime. That’s tongue-in-cheek, of course. It doesn’t have to be a FUTA project. Not all academics associate scholarship with the kind of activism FUTA has engaged in. However, there is activism and activism, and that of the kind alluded to above is as or more important. Doable. Must-do, some might argue, simply because it is never possible to say ‘I’ve paid all my dues on account of benefiting from free education.’  

Other articles in this series:

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road