Dying for an education

Exactly a fortnight ago, Shanilka Dilshan Wijesinghe became the latest victim of ragging in a university in Sri Lanka. Before Wijesinghe, there have been dozens of others who have taken their life due to unbearable ragging. Thousands more suffer in silence, not wanting to sacrifice a lifetime of studying or to disappoint their parents. Then, out of the 25,000 that gain university entrance every year, around 2,000 of the brightest drop out, unable to cope with ragging. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is something really rotten in our higher education system.
One is at a loss to understand how a country that fought the most brutal terrorists in the world and put a stop to their terrorism, is allowing a bunch of student terrorists to destroy the university education system and with it, the future of the country. Today’s university students are a very different breed compared to those who walked through the hallowed halls of these seats of learning in the not-too-distant past.
From pre-independence up to around the early 80s, our universities were world renowned for producing some of the best academics, who could hold their own against the best in the world.
In the mid 80s, the JVP-affiliated student movements infiltrated the student unions and took control of universities. Today, they have a stranglehold on almost all universities except in Jaffna and the Eastern University. The extent of control is such that even the academics are now well within their orbit.
As a result, universities have become the political playthings of this radical group with a socialist bent. The Inter University Students Federation is therefore having a free run in the absence of any other political influence in the university domain.
It is unfortunate that this group, which feeds off the system, is allowed to have things their way in the name of freedom. Sadly today, the concept of free education has been perverted beyond all recognition. Sri Lanka is supposed to be one of the most literate countries in the world with a literacy rate of over 90%, yet it is also a country where university students kill themselves regularly, unable to bear student terrorism.
Every other day, roads are blocked either in Fort, Battaramulla, or somewhere else due to student protests. These students come prepared for the standard dose of tear gas and water cannons and are ready to exercise their collective muscle on the men in khaki. No one really knows the reasons for these protests as even the media will only report on the fact that a protest took place and the Police did what they had to do.
The issue is that these student excursions have far-reaching consequences on the lives of ordinary people struggling to make ends meet. Think of the thousands who are crammed in boiling hot buses, stuck in traffic for hours. Think of the thousands of vehicles stuck in traffic, burning fuel imported with precious foreign exchange. Think of the thousands of productive man-hours lost to the economy because some students have an issue with something or the other. The collective losses may well run into the billions of rupees. And the irony of it all is that the education cost of those protesting is paid for by those suffering due to their actions. At the end of the day, it is the tax money of the ordinary citizen that funds university education.
The student groups that are destroying the universities do not realise that those who have the means will never enter a local university but will seek higher education overseas. Thousands of students now take this route and as a result, the country is losing millions of dollars of precious foreign exchange that is being pulled out of the country to fund overseas education. Worse still is the brain drain.
The culture of impunity that prevails in the universities is shocking to say the least. The stories of ragging that leak out at regular intervals, illustrate the mentality of those who perpetrate these acts and the fact that even houses are taken on rent specifically for the purpose of ragging is certainly cause for concern.
It is disappointing that the governments of the day have left a wide berth to the terrorising student groups, not wanting to burn their fingers dealing with them. Instead, they prefer to be deaf and blind to the goings-on in the universities, preferring instead to focus on budgetary allocations made towards education. Emboldened by the silence of the powers that be, the student groups go about their business through sheer intimidation, knowing well that though some may complain, all will comply.
It is time that the authorities woke up to the reality that higher education is being destroyed by a small group who are holding the entire system to ransom in order to further their political goals. The law of the land must apply to every university student and they must be made aware that actions have consequences. The authorities must meet fire with fire. A counter movement is required to take on the might of the Inter University Students Federation and break their stranglehold on innocent students whose only concern is obtaining a university degree. Every student must be guaranteed peace of mind to focus on studies and not worry about terror within.
An enabling environment should be created for whistle blowing and the full force of the newly-introduced Witness Protection Act should come into play to protect those who stand up to terror.
Meanwhile, a ray of hope emerged from the most unlikely place last week when the radical Ava group in Jaffna, which itself is connected to various terror acts in the North, issued a decree that all forms of ragging must cease at the University of Jaffna.
It is clear that things have gone out of control in universities be they in the North, South, East, or West.