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What next from undergrads?

What next from undergrads?

2012 Dec 11

By  Sandun Jayawardana
University students are often in the news, and it seems for the wrong reasons more often than not. They engage in protest marches, strikes, and even riots. Apparently, they have no regard for anyone, but themselves. Not only do they expect to be given a ‘free’ education, they expect the government to actually go out of its way to find employment for them once they graduate. Needless to say, given the reactions we get from various quarters whenever such issues are spoken of, society at large seems to view university students as a bunch of freeloaders, troublemakers, and pawns in a political game.   

However, my question is, do those who simply dismiss university students as ‘troublemakers’ truly understand the wider issues at work within the university system? I believe most do not, and the most vocal voices that speak disparagingly of the country’s undergraduates have probably never been to university themselves. That is not to say of course that only those who passed out from our universities are qualified to comment on the state of the country’s university system and the mentality of its student population. However, I believe unless you have walked in someone’s shoes, it would be very difficult for you to truly understand the issues they face. 

It is not impossible to get into an undergraduate’s shoes.  In my case, I had no choice, for I was once an undergrad. I graduated from a Sri Lankan university and I do not hesitate to say that the few years I spent as a university student are still the best years of my life. I came from the South and a boy’s school where 100% of my classmates were Sinhala Buddhists. 

While I will forever be grateful to my alma mater for the education I received there, it was the university that truly broadened my horizons. It brought me into contact with a variety of people from all over the country, representing many religions and ethnicities: people who were wonderfully unique in their own way. While I am thankful to my lecturers for all the hard work they put in, much of the ‘higher education’ I at least received at university level came from spending those few years among my peers. It was the time spent among them that I believe helped mould me to become who I am today; and I’m quite satisfied with how that’s turned out. 

However, these years were not without their problems. My violent introduction to the world of student politics came within a month into my first year, when one fine day, I heard a commotion and saw the never-to-be-forgotten sight of an ‘ayya’ (senior) coming down the hill of our university with blood streaming from an open wound on his head. I soon learned that those who advocated ‘democracy’ in the wider world were not prepared to tolerate the concept when their own power within the university was threatened. The long standing practice of ‘ragging’ was also there. This has been used for years now as a tool to enforce conformity among the student population so that it accepts a particular political doctrine. 

It would be safe to say that I was never a great admirer of some of the so-called ‘student leaders’ who professed to speak for ‘us’ during my time at university. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize that however dictatorial they may have been, if not for their protest marches, strikes, and in some cases riots, the lives of most undergraduates would probably have been a lot harder. It was these student leaders and their fellow activists who braved suspension, expulsion, tear gas and police beatings to raise the issues the student community was facing. 

Their methods may sometimes have been questionable, but many of their demands were legitimate. Lack of lecture halls and lecturers, hostel facilities and libraries are just some of the more pressing issues that continually plague the country’s universities. If not for the efforts of these student leaders, some of whom I held in the utmost contempt, there is a fair chance that the powers that be would have continued to ignore these issues. This does not mean I advocate every single action the student unions or their leaders take, but I do believe those who dismiss them as mere political pawns and troublemakers fail to see that truly pressing and legitimate issues lie behind many of these agitations.

Soon after the recent terribly bloody Welikada prison riot, I spoke to a prominent sociologist working as a lecturer at a State university. In explaining what may have driven the prisoners to act the way they did, one factor he pointed to was the extremely cramped nature of the prison and how as many as 16 prisoners would be housed in a cell meant for only 4 persons. “This is quite similar to what we see in our university hostels,” he added dryly. The fact that he chose to equate student hostel accommodation with a prison left me aghast, but those who have seen the interior of many of our student dormitories would have to agree that it is an apt comparison. 

The difficulty in ensuring the employability of graduates is also a pressing issue for many. All too often, the private sector is heard complaining that our graduates are unemployable due to their lack of basic skills such as English language and IT. However, are university students solely responsible for this sad state of affairs? What can you expect from a student who comes from a village school where there are no English teachers and no computers? Not everyone has the capacity or the means to become proficient in English and IT during the few years they spend at the university. Those facilities need to be provided for them at school level. The problems related to that are far more extensive and I feel, beyond my capabilities to go into for at present.

Now we come to the fundamental question. Why are university students held in such a negative light in society nowadays? I believe the problem is student politics has deteriorated to such a level that the State can quite easily paint the student community as foot soldiers of this or that political party. This has allowed whatever government that’s in power to simply dismiss legitimate student grievances as non-existent issues brought forth by anti-state forces intent on destabilising the government and the country.

This has been the case for decades now. Even whilst I was at university, I witnessed the uncomfortable sight of politicians gracing various functions organized by student unions. Students have every right to hold whatever political opinions and support whatever political parties they choose, but the risk is that if student unions and their leaders openly swear allegiance to a political party, they risk being branded as activists of that party, whereby all their actions are judged as such. Can student unions and their leaders forge a path whereby they can convince society at large that they are fighting for the welfare of the student community and not for a political party? That is the question. I certainly don’t know the answer to. I sure hope someone does.

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