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Anti-intellectual behaviour of university students

Sir Ivor Jennings, the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya, lucidly explained the goal of modern university education as follows:

The fundamental task is to produce men and women who are capable of fulfilling any function in the world that may fall to their lot, citizens of high intelligence, complete moral integrity and possessing energy, initiative, judgement, tact, and qualities of leadership” (Jennings, 1948).

This statement provides a yardstick against which the modern university education can be measured. The purpose of this article is to examine the fundamental challenges the Sri Lanka universities face in realizing the above laudable goals.

As a university academic serving for over 15 years at Sri Lankan Universities and six years in international universities, I had the opportunity to read and closely observe the inner workings of the Universities and the challenges they face both in Sri Lanka and outside. As highlighted by many policy makers and academics, a long list of factors have contributed towards the decline of the Sri Lanka universities.

Among them, the politicization of the universities, poor quality academics, lack of competition among the departments and the universities, opening up of universities with minimum facilities, in sufficient research grants and facilities and the brain drain among both faculty and students are most significant and warrant detailed examination.

However, these problems pale in comparison when one studies closely the anti-intellectual behaviour of Sri Lankan university students led by the student union sympathetic to JVP, the subject matter of this article.

Sadly, the most notable feature is the destructive behaviour of the Sri Lankan University students since the 1970s and especially since the late 1980s when the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) took control of the students’ unions using intimidation, violence and terror against the larger student body to subdue the students into their ideological and political control.

The JVP and the informal, if not illegal organization called Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) and the Socialist Student Unions turned the Universities into centres of anti-politics and recruiting ground for future JVP carders.

During the last 30 years and especially the last 15 years, the JVP and its affiliated student unions thus began to turn the above goal - producing the university students who are generally incapable of fulfilling any function in the world that may fall into their lot, citizens of poor intelligence, lacking moral integrity, and devoid of energy, initiative, judgement, tact and qualities of leadership.

Exploring the answers to the question as to how did the JVP and its affiliated student unions created this unfortunate transformation is the theme of this article. The empirical basis for this article is the Faculty of Arts at the Peradeniya University but the experience in other Faculties at Peradeniya and in other Universities have many parallels and thus the issues raised here is more systematic covering of the entire university sector.

The main strategies through which the student union and its leaders undermine the intellectual authority of the university and establish what is essentially an anti-intellectual and anti-democratic often violent and ideologically suppressed student culture are ragging, opposing democracy in student politics, deliberate creation of chaotic events, undermining the national and university rules and regulations.

Let me elaborate on these subversive and perilous tactics of the student unions and leaders by highlighting not only the practices but warning the readers of the ruinous repercussions they inflict upon of the University education in this country.

Before I proceed, I need to tell the readership of the profile of the contemporary University student.

As we all know, only a few students who are qualified the national level examination have the opportunity, more correctly the priviledge to enter the University. These privileged few are actually the cream of the nation with all the potential to take the country into new heights in every sphere of activity and to become men and women as Sir Jennings hoped, provided they are not hijacked by student union extremism, lunacy and improvidence.

What happens to the genius of these students once they come to the University at the hands of deleterious student leaders?

The University students today, are no longer children under the age of 18 but matured men and women whose average age is about 22 years when they enter the University. They are adults.

The University students of today are men and women entrusted with the sacred responsibility of democratic right to vote and engage in responsible politics and to become a beacon of light and an example to the larger nation in democratic politics.

But what happens to these men and women once they come to the University at the hands of pernicious and harmful student leaders? The University students today, come from ordinary civilized families of this nation.

These students are the best in their schools, not only in academic performance but also in their ethical and civic behaviour as good, decent and law-abiding children. But what happens to these adorable students once they come to the University at the hand of indecorous, evil-minded and immoral JVP student leaders?

The majority come from the poor and lower middle class backgrounds. They are the hope of their families to bring economic prosperity and social prestige.

But what happens to these students with all the potential to lead this nation in the fiercely competitive global economy at the hands of backward and hypocritical student leaders who continue to see the world through the failed extremist socialist dogma which preaches that eliminating the rich is the only means of eradicating poverty by hating affluence, money, profit, private capital, economic competition, globalization and innovation!

The answer to these questions are all known to this nation but what is not known is how do the student unions and leaders have been able to make this transformation inside our Universities which are funded by the tax paid by the ordinary citizens of this country. The rest of the article is an elaboration of this dangerous process.


Ragging mobilized by the student leaders with their overt and covert blessings and support from the JVP student unions in the University is no longer poking fun at the new students or trying to create a leveled social field among the students coming from diverse economic, social and cultural backgrounds as pontificated by the student union leaders when they address the new students and parents on the opening day of the University.

The era of ragging as a social equalizer and an initiation into the University culture is long gone. Ragging has today become a political and a terror weapon used primarily to ensure the continuing domination of JVP political power within the Universities. Gone are the days, when ragging was a phenomenon confined to the bounds of the University.

Today, the ugly hand of ragging has spread to the very homes of the students and it starts immediately after they receive the selection letter from the UGC. The network of present and former students, secretly approach the selected students and pressurize them to bring a defined set of attire (ankle high black skirts for girls and black pants without belts for the boys, rubber slippers, and a backpack).

The fear of the unknown, mixed with the fear of the generally known dangers of ragging at the University push the students and sadly their parents to comply with these dictates.

Back at the University, the student union demands an active role in the official process of welcoming the new students primarily to gain legitimacy among the new students and their parents attending the welcoming ceremony.

Although it is not required, neither necessary, the authorities eventually budge into their demands which include an official speaking slot at the welcoming ceremony which is addressed by the Vice-Chancellor, the Dean and other senior officials and academics, and separate time slots for union organized activities during the official initiation period which may run into several days.

The writer is attached to the Department of Geography, University of Peradeniya.

To be continued



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