|Thursday, 7 March 2002|
A group of citizens representing a wide cross section of civil society have expressed deep concern and apprehension regarding the situation that has developed in the Law Faculty of the Colombo University and the Medical Faculty in the Ruhuna University.
They claim past compromises that condoned serious student indiscipline have created conditions for a minority of students to act with impunity. When universities are close whenever such situations arise, majority of students who are not to blame for indiscipline are denied their right to pursue their studies, the citizens note. In this respect, they call for a re-examination of the norms and rules governing student activity to protect democratic rights of all students.
They also call upon the Government to initiate a wide public dialogue to examine measures to ensure peaceful functioning of universities. A media release issued by the group of citizens says:
"In both cases (Colombo Law Faculty and Ruhunu Medical Faculty - Ed) the sequence of events has been similar. The students have been dissatisfied with certain decisions taken by the management and have engaged in protests leading to disorderly and criminal conduct and the abuse and intimidation of members of the staff. Some of the acts that have been reported have been shameful and incredibly uncivilised in the context of universities and student communities engaged in higher education.
What concerns the public is that these are not isolated incidents. They are part of a familiar pattern. They have led to a serious loss of public confidence in these institutions.
These are institutions which are fully financed with public funds, students receive generous public assistance to which the people rich and poor are contributing.They are also the institutions that are producing the professionals, administrators and other educated young persons who will occupy position in our society in the future. It is therefore of utmost importance that our society takes concerted action to remedy this situation.
"First we have a lesson to learn from past compromises which have condoned serious acts of student indiscipline. These have created the conditions in which a minority of students have frequently acted with impunity. Therefore in the present instance it is vital that the normal process of discipline be allowed to take its course without any external interference.
The University must receive the fullest support of the government, the politicians and public to maintain law and order and the right environment for learning. There is also a lesson to be learnt from the success with which the Universities have been able to control ragging.
In that instance there was no compromise in regard to the basic norms of civilised student conduct, the University was empowered by special legislation on ragging to bring the full force of the law against ragging and the staff took united collective action to ensure that the rules are observed. The same firmness of purpose and unity of action is needed in cases of serious student misconduct.
"Second we are deeply distressed that in situations of this nature the action of a minority of students leads to the closure of the Universities or the faculties concerned.
Consequently the large majority of students who are not to blame are denied their right to pursue their studies. It is essential that the government and the university authorities re-examine the present regime of law enforcement in the University which enables a minority of students to act with impunity and create a situation in which the normal teaching activities have to be suspended.
The student population must be subjected to the normal enforcement and protection of the law at all times as other citizens; the university authorities must be empowered to take the necessary action to ensure such protection and enforcement. While corrective action is taken, the rights of other students should be protected and closure of universities should be avoided.
"Third it is essential to establish mechanisms which motivate and enable the majority of students who are intent on peacefully devoting themselves to their studies to represent themselves more actively and contribute to the protection of the learning environment. For this purpose the norms and rules governing student activity must be re-examined and revised to protect the democratic rights of all students.
"We are not unmindful that students may have their own grievances and frustrations and the present system may be deficient in granting them redress. We however think that these issues should be addressed independently. They should not be allowed to deflect attention from the present issues that relate to charges of student indiscipline and the punitive and corrective action needed to deal with them.
"We urge that the government initiate a wide-ranging public inquiry and dialogue to consider the present state of the universities and examine the measures that need be taken to ensure a peaceful and orderly environment for learning and teaching. Such a dialogue should involve all the stakeholders in higher education - the academic community, the student community, the parent community, politicians, professions which receive the products of the university, the employers who engage their services and other relevant sections of the public."
The signatories to the media release:
Godfrey Gunatilleke, Chairman, Civil Society Foundation; Basil Illangakoon, Executive Governor, Marga Institute; Rev. Fr. Oswald Firth, Director, Centre for Society & Religion; Kingsley Rodrigo, Paffrel; Tyronne Abeygunawardena, Director Production, Young Asia Television; H.A. Wimalagunawardena, Ex-SLAS, former Secretary, Science & Technology; E.L. Wijemanne, Former Secretary, Ministry of Education, Governor Marga Institute; Dhammika Amarasinghe, Ex-SLAS, former Chairman, Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation; Sulochana Peiris, Supervising Producer, Young Asia Television; Hilmy Ahamed, Managing Director, Worldview Global Media Ltd.; Sharmini Boyle, Chief Editor, Worldview Global Media Ltd.; Avanthi Sahabandu, Supervising Producer, Young Asia Television; Ariyaseela Wickremanayake, Managing Director, Master Divers (Pvt.) Ltd.; Rev. Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, Chairman, Centre for Society and Religion; Ajantha Athukorale, President Bar Association of Sri Lanka; Myrtle Perera, Senior Research fellow, Marga Institute; Dr. Devanesan Nesiah, Member Board of Governors, Marga Institute; Asoka Gunawardena, Chairman, Finance Commission; Dr. T. Jeyasingham, National Peace Council; Dr. Shelton Wanasinghe, Member Board of Governors, Marga Institute and Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives; Dr. P.N. Thenabadu, Tyrell Ferdinands, Impact Organsiation; Bogoda Premaratne, Chairman, National Council for Religion and Peace; Tony Seneviratne, Habitat; S. Jagath Kumara, Samurdhi Sangamaya; S.H.A. Gunasiri, Palath Rajya Lipikaru Sangamaya; Nimal Punchihewa, Legal Consultant MDDR; Sman Rathnapriya, Government Nursing Officers Union; Rev. Kalupahana Piyarathana Thera, Manawa Hithawadi Bhikku Peramuna; Rev. Buddhiyagama Chandrarathana Thera, Vanni Community Foundation; S. Sivagurunathan, Movement for the Defence of Democratic Rights; Dr. Jehan Perera, National Peace Council; Dr. A.T. Ariyarathna, president, Lanka Jathika Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya; Paul Perera, Director, Community Education Centre; Aneeta Fernando; Lakbime Mavuwaru Ha Diyaniyo; Wimal Fernando, President, Paltra Institute; Mahinda Haththaka, Journalist; Lieutenant Commander Bandula Dahanayake; Samson Jayasinghe, Samasevaya; Chandrarathna Bandara; Director, Samadeepa Samaja Kendraya.
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