Ragging gets ugly
By Maheesha Mudugamuwa
Ragging at state universities has gone from bad to worse with torture chambers discovered in some and little action being taken to control the situation.
During the last two years, a total of 1,989 students left state universities due to inhumane sexual and gender-based violence at the universities.
“The situation has gotten out of control in state universities,” University Grants Commission (UGC) Chairman Prof. Mohan de Silva told The Sunday Morning. The UGC is the apex regulator for universities and higher education institutions.
In February, an incident was reported from the Faculty of Management of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura involving verbal harassment towards new entrants and not allowing them to attend lectures. In March, a fresher of the Diyagama Campus of the University of Moratuwa committed suicide as he could no longer bear the brutal ragging, which had continued for many days, conducted by a group of seniors.
Four students of the Eastern University who were subjected to ragging had been hospitalised due to injuries in June. And in July, a second-year student of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Ruhuna disclosed in detail to the media how he and other new entrants were allegedly subjected to ragging and sexual abuse by senior students last year.
Although these incidents are shocking, the UGC Chairman stressed that what was reported in the newspapers was just the tip of the iceberg.
Are universities safe?
According to the latest statistics of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, at present, there are 15 universities and 19 higher education institutes in Sri Lanka established under the authority of the UGC, having a total of 116,388 undergraduate students.
The UGC Chairman said that the actual number of incidents could be much higher than what had been reported in media.
A graduate of the University of Ruhuna, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Sunday Morning that most of the cases were not reported as the victims subjected to those inhumane acts of violence were afraid of revealing information.
Elaborating on the ragging she experienced a few years ago, the student said: “The early days of university life was a mess; it was a struggle to survive, but I failed and stayed at home for months without going to university. I missed the first few lectures, but I decided that I should not tolerate their inhumane acts. For girls, the seniors didn’t physically rag us, but it was different for the students at the university hostels.
“Almost all girls were verbally abused. Once, they asked us to be in a queue – a boy, a girl, and a boy. So I was sandwiched between two boys of the same batch. One had the decency to cover the lower part of his body with his file cover. Then the seniors pushed from the both sides of the line. But I didn’t tolerate the act; I started yelling at them. Everyone looked at me in shock because they knew that if you refuse to respect the so-called seniors, you will be ragged the most in the batch.
“But fortunately, I was summoned by the President of the Student Council where I explained that they were trying to psychologically mould us into feeling like we were all of the same class. It was the last day of ragging in my university life,” she added. She said the seniors had the mental attitude that they were born and raised in a different background and that others should also experience the “tough lives” that they had endured.
“None of us complained to the university authority as we realised that they had no power in the university premises – universities were totally operated by the so-called student councils allegedly funded by political parties,” she stressed.
“There are a number of students I know who went through this sort of verbal and physical abuse, and I’m pretty sure the situation at the university is far worse now,” she said.
Even though her experience is much better than the stories reported in the newspapers where students have been tortured, abused, and sometimes killed, she highlighted that all sorts of violence – both physical and mental – should be eradicated and the safety of all university undergraduates should be assured by the authorities.
Whose responsibility is it?
The student said that the recurrence of these sorts of activities, carried out under the guise of “welcoming” or “integrating” new entrants, raised disturbing questions on the responsibility of the university management and the regulatory bodies entrusted with the duty of ensuring the safety of university students.
When The Sunday Morning queried UGC Chairman Prof. de Silva on why the ragging continues, he stressed that the reason for the recurrence of such violence in state universities was due to the wrongdoers not being held responsible and accountable for what they do.
“According to the Universities Act of 1978, the task of ensuring state university discipline is vested with the vice chancellors and university student councils. Unfortunately, this is not happening. The council is appointed by the UGC, but they are kept oblivious to what is happening in these councils. The councils meet once a month – they come and listen to the stories,” he stressed.
Explaining further, Prof. de Silva said: “We have taken this very seriously. During the last two years from 2017, the UGC has established a centre in the UGC called the Standing Committe on Gender Equity/Equality and appointed Senior Prof. Uma Coomaraswamy as its Director. We’ve negotiated with UNESCO and got the service of a 24-hour hotline. We’ve created a safe environment for students who have come and shared their grievances.
“This is not happening in the university because of the fault of the vice chancellors, but because this ongoing physiological and physical taming in Sri Lankan state universities is institutionally made acceptable. A common opinion has been created in the universities that without this, you can’t survive. It is as pathetic as it sounds,” Prof. de Silva added.
According to him, the UGC has conducted workshops for UGC-appointed councillors, vice chancellors, and deans, and it is also planning to hold workshops for marshals, proctors, senior student councillors, hostel wardens, and additional registrar and administrative officers of all state universities to explain the gravity of the issue.
In addition, the UGC is closely working with the Attorney General’s (AG) Department to explore the possibilities for revising the Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act of 1998 because at present, under the 1978 Act, the sole responsibility is with the vice chancellors and student councils.
“At present, I use the powers of the Minister as the UGC is powerless on this matter,” Prof. de Silva said.
Need for change
Meanwhile, the attempts made by the UGC Chairman to tackle the ragging menace were criticised by the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF), claiming that the entire university system should be changed.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning, IUSF President Maheel Bandara stressed that “ragging” was not a new phenomenon in state universities and the so-called seniors who studied at these universities over the last five decades should take responsibility.
“This didn’t happen overnight. It was a practice which has now become a tradition. Since 1998, the IUSF has opposed ragging and violence in state universities, but it couldn’t be solved by punishing,” he said.
“The entire university system is going backwards compared to other universities around the world. Students are not experimenting new things. Instead, they are repeating what’s already written in books at exams,” he added.
Minister vows stern action
However, speaking to The Sunday Morning, Minister of Higher Education Rauff Hakeem said that the UGC was taking steps in consultation with the Police and the AG.
“The issue appeared to be that most of the VCs (vice chancellors) are trying to handle this with velvet gloves because of the pressure brought by the student unions,” the Minister said.
“This is a violation of the law. These things have to be taken seriously and I’ve instructed the UGC Chairman to take action immediately. In some places, some children have been driven to the point of suicide. We have also noticed that almost 1,500 more students didn’t pursue their courses. Students are leaving because of the harassment during ragging. This should be corrected, and we will take stern action,” he added.