Free education is the canary in the coalmine

By Nicola Perera

In the national media of 21 August 2022, the UGC Chairman goes on record saying that, as university authorities deliberate the possibilities of bringing students back to campuses while the nation grapples with a devastating economic collapse and the pandemic, online education will continue to function as an interim measure. He said that data facilities had been provided to students and discussions have been held with telecom providers to strengthen signals, and, in the meantime, students need to find areas with stronger signals. Let me translate plainly what this means in this third year of online teaching in my classrooms.

The fundamental prerequisites for online education are a computer and a stable internet signal to minimise, as far as possible, the physical and mental disruption inherent in the transition to the virtual classroom for the student. It has become an unremarkable fact that the overwhelming majority of students, in this country, from primary to tertiary levels, since the onset of the pandemic, at some point received or, even now, are receiving an education, including sitting for examinations, via a phone screen. It should not need to be said that this represents a tremendous hardship, and no students, not in kindergarten, let alone university, should be squinting for hours and hours to learn through a phone screen.

Numerous families still cannot afford smart phones or data cards. Those with more than one child in school and/or university, and one phone between them, contend with the extreme difficulty of balancing one child’s education against another’s. The number of students dropping out has increased, mostly in schools with the least resources, and among families with the least resources, with parents usually engaged in the informal economy in menial labour jobs, as families became, and continue to become severely impoverished. Children have prematurely entered the labour force instead of continuing to learn. In my classes, I have watched attendance plummet over the last three years. Students communicate privately of being unable to join lectures because of needing to work in garment factories, in bakeries, in garages, in the sweatshops of the FTZs here, and in West Asia, to support their families instead of devoting themselves to their education.

Then take the issue of a stable internet connection. Early in the pandemic, the media spotlighted children on roofs, and trees, to tap into a signal, presumably the kind of initiative the UGC Chairman demands that students should show. My classes have been whittled down to those who live in areas with sufficient signal strength to even join a Zoom class for an uninterrupted period, in between power cuts. What happens to the rest? Have we reached the point where climbing trees and roofs and travelling distances, from home, in search of a viable mobile signal to follow online classes, or sit for an online examination, are taken for granted as a reasonable demand to be made of students? This is the situation encapsulated by that much-bandied-about and utterly execrable phrase, the “new normal.” At our wits’ end and at the very edge of desperation and despair, I have begun calling individual students to attempt to teach them over the phone, but even then, there is a significant percentage of students who will sit for examinations with little to no learning, if they do not simply abandon university altogether.

The vast majority of students in state education – from primary to tertiary, and particularly in the humanities in universities – are from socioeconomically marginalised backgrounds, and their opportunities to educate themselves, and the quality of the education they receive, are marked by their lack of privilege. Free education in this country, from primary to university levels, was envisaged at the dawn of the post-colonial nation as a measure of democratisation. The goal was to fashion citizens who would be treated as equals in a democratic society. It held out a promise of access for all—that no child would be denied education due to poverty—and through that access, socioeconomic mobility. But the pandemic, and the current economic turbulence, have only heightened the process of attrition where dwindling state, and public, commitment to free education, is leaving behind the most vulnerable of our students, those who would most benefit from free education. Amidst fatuous pronouncements by our education authorities, signaling that online education is a desirable step towards a modern technology-driven economy, there is little space to question what kind of education experience we’ve had over the last few years. It has been atomised, alienating, and psychologically draining, instead of a process or self-realisation and individual and collective empowerment, of broadening intellectual horizons. Constrained by the online format, inadequate telecommunications infrastructure, intermittent power cuts, and economic struggles, education has become little more than a hurried shoving of watered-down facts at students – not the intellectual, political, social awakening that university education in particular should be.

Where does this leave us? We, in the university community, must be sensitive to and strongly advocate for the needs and aspirations of all our students, concertedly resisting the ad hoc and unsound UGC policies promulgated with neither adequate consultation nor recognition of the glaring lack of basic facilities. State policy has consistently been, and remains, fundamentally hostile towards our most vulnerable, marginalised citizens, which, over the decades, the nation has grown indifferent to and even complicit in. Yesterday’s ingrained liberal middle- and upper-class contempt toward student protestors on the streets, struggling to protect free education, leads us directly to today’s quietism towards state repression of student activists calling for democratic revolution. Make no mistake, the state of free education is the canary in the coal mine for the health of Sri Lanka’s democracy. This is why safeguarding free education must be a central tenet of our continued struggles towards a broader, more meaningful democracy and socioeconomic justice.