A people’s university and a national crisis

By Shamala Kumar

I began thinking about this article when the Kuppi Collective began studying the government’s plans to enact labour reforms. We had initiated discussions with others, including academics, to understand the situation and quickly realised the highly controversial nature of these reforms and their potentially serious repercussions. Yet, hardly any debate regarding these reforms seemed to emanate from within universities.

Considering the potentially grave implications of the proposals, the silence raises questions about whether universities are adequately fulfilling their role as institutions integral to our democratic system. In this article, I explore why universities seem disengaged in critical debates, and analyse how changes in education policy and the neoliberal character of the present moment contribute to further disengagement from our role as active agents in democratic processes.

Contrary to what one might expect, Sri Lanka’s public universities and university teachers’ job roles do support public engagement. Many who discuss higher education reforms seem unaware of the emphasis given in our promotion schemes and work norms for engaging in “national development” activities. This is quite different from the job description of an academic who works in a high-ranking university in a global north setting where the primary focus is on securing funding and publishing in high impact journals.

This is also different from the expectations of those working in local non-state higher educational institutions where teaching is emphasized. Furthermore, most university academics in Sri Lanka maintain ties with national and international bodies aligned with their areas of expertise and serve the public as experts in their respective fields. Thus, the lack of engagement in such dialogue is not because of a lack of space for engagement beyond the confines of universities or because of a lack interest on the part of academics.

Challenging structures of power

The problem seems to lie in the types of engagement that occupy university teachers. As others, such as Noam Chomsky and Cornell West have observed, academics can work to consolidate existing systems of power, or can confront, question, and challenge them. In Sri Lanka, this means that our work may support the prevailing authoritarian regime and antidemocratic system; we may uphold neoliberal ideological positions that serve the class interests of the elite.

Alternatively, we could align ourselves with the marginalized majority that constitute our country and world. The former brings with it State support and political patronage, while the latter can be unpopular, leaving us vulnerable and open to attack. Perhaps this partly explains the lack of discussion on issues like labour reform and the rather tenuous alignment of our work, more generally, with the concerns of those who are systematically marginalized and excluded in economic and political structures of this country.

But university teachers hold positions of privilege with substantial space to speak. These freedoms are unique, particularly in the repressive environment of the present moment. Spaces for public discourse, especially when critical of the State, are rapidly shrinking. Most recently, Natasha Edirisooriya’s arrest drastically diminished the space to use comedy to spotlight the absurdities of our political class, and the arrest of Bruno Dinakara, critical vlogger, reduced freedoms within social media spaces – freedoms that had been curtailed during the previous President’s tenure, or even earlier. These arrests have occurred within a context of increasing repression against any form of public protest or even gathering. University teachers’ positions, in contrast, have protections that give us the space to speak.

We also have privileged access to information with which we can question problematic ideological positions, potential hidden intentions and misrepresentations that drive government actions, and provide the historical and global context in which these actions occur. In Sri Lanka, as an integral element of our policy on free education, we are awarded some independence from the interests of capital as well.

Unlike in many universities elsewhere, our work is not contingent on self-funding through grants and fees. As a result, our ‘accountability’ to funding agencies and private capital is relatively lesser. Instead, our universities operate through public funds raised through the collective labour of the people. Thus, our lack of critical engagement in public policy and our unwillingness to support and augment voices on the margins, is deeply troubling.

Silencing through education reforms

Reforms to education policy are also in the offing, which will likely make our silence even more tangible in the future. We can guess the direction the reforms are likely to take, based on the trajectory of changes that have occurred in university administration and function in recent times. These changes to how universities operate have done little to strengthen the ties between universities and the politically weakest segments of the country.

For instance, the emphasis placed on publication statistics by the University Grants Commission (UGC) to gauge research performance rewards scholarship of global relevance over work that engages with local problems. High impact journals, those that determine “hot topics” in research, are likely to accept articles that address these global rather than local concerns.

Furthermore, as (the already miniscule) public allocations for research contract, university teachers may need to align their research with the interests and ideologies of funding agencies, at the expense of work that address locally specific concerns. The space to carry out research that challenges such institutions and their concerns and ideologies may also contract over time.

With respect to teaching, universities, steered by the UGC, are placing greater weight on technical skills, both in the content of existing courses and in new degree programmes. These changes in content come with a cost as the emphasis on technical solutions, de-emphasizes understanding the ideologies and historical contexts which have produced and sustained the roots of problems.

For instance, students in agriculture may be tasked with finding ‘solutions’ to the cost of importing fertiliser but the curriculum may not address the ideological and historical causes for this dependence on imported and costly fertiliser in the first place. Such technically-oriented curricula may train students to formulate technical solutions that align with government policies, but may not help them to think critically about the ideological framing and roots of the issues involved.

These are not trends that are specific to Sri Lanka. Globally, standardized curricula as a marker of “quality” through costly local or international certification bodies have gained popularity. Standardisation further alienates people from education because standardized curricula are based on global benchmarks, for the most part, and leave little room for teaching and learning that is responsive to the present moment. This was evident during the pandemic, when we continued to teach the same content while the world, as we knew it, was falling apart. The proposed educational reforms are likely to cut public funds for higher education, making access to higher education conditional on whether a student can access funds for it. These changes will be justified as necessary because of the prevailing crisis situation.

Crisis, however, is a feature, rather than the exception of a system driven by global capital and weak government. In crisis, there is urgency requiring immediate responses accompanied by attacks on any depth of analysis, on contextualizing and “theorizing” – they are viewed as needlessly “complicating” matters, impractical and even dangerous. For instance, any analysis critical of the government’s negotiations with the IMF have been attacked as futile and rejected. Problems within crises are, instead, narrowly framed, devoid of a critique of their ideological foundations. This, however, is not the way we at universities must confront issues, as such simplistic framings can neglect those rendered marginalized and silent.

Within this ethos, how can we claim spaces in universities for public engagement on critical issues, such as labour reform, particularly aligning ourselves consciously with those who have the least voice within systems? How can we guard against educational reforms that further disengage us and how might we challenge larger national and global trends that distract or intimidate us into complacency? Perhaps, first we must be conscious of our function in expanding democratic spaces. We must deliberately create spaces for the public in universities.

Last Saturday’s Open day at Peradeniya seems a step in the right direction. The university can transform into a public space, open and welcoming to the public, always and not just on “open” days. Further, we must create dialogue in universities and elsewhere which provoke us to speak out when changes in policy or university administration affect our capacity to call out governments whose actions are not in the best interest of the people. To this end, let’s begin by framing the proposed debt restructuring, the most recent attack on working people, within the historical context of the bond scam, which resulted in an immense loss of public funds that are yet unaccounted for, and deliberate on how we can arrive at socially just solutions to debt restructuring such as the wealth tax, which remains elusive and off the table.