Imperative for Academics to engage the public in times of crisis

By Aruni Samarakoon

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the UN conference on Sustainable Development Goals at the University of Hull, in the United Kingdom. The theme of the conference was ‘Just Transition for Sustainable Development,’ and the popular discussions were spearheaded by natural science scholars who proudly presented new research—funded by private companies—on innovative technology for renewable energy.

During the discussions, a few social science scholars raised a significant question: How can new knowledge on innovative technology for the energy crisis be distributed evenly, especially when the research is funded by private sector companies aiming for surplus profit? The majority of natural science scholars at the conference presumed that policymakers should take responsibility to ensure that technological solutions are delivered equitably. They argued that this could only be achieved within democratic systems, leading me to pose this question to the audience: “If democracy thrives in a given context, equitable distribution of resources may be possible, but what would happen in a scenario where democracy is dying or withering away?” In response, Prof. Julian Agyeman of Tufts University, USA, offered a brilliant answer: “Collective effort is necessary to restore democracy and uphold it for social justice.” Prof. Agyeman’s answer prompted me to think about the academic role, particularly in the social sciences, in raising the public’s collective consciousness to restore democracy for social justice. This Kuppi article explores the gap in Sri Lankan higher education and the need to organize collective efforts or foster collective consciousness for social justice in the current crisis.

Universities and public engagement

Contemporary academia sees universities shifting from open intellectual discourse to a more business-oriented model, affecting their role in propagating universal knowledge. Ronaldo Munck, Helen McQuillan, and Joanna Ozarowska emphasize the growing importance of universities’ public engagement during economic austerity. However, capitalist systems’ evolution has limited universities’ capacity to fully embrace this role in public engagement, as discussed in “Higher Education and Civil Engagement: Comparative Perspectives” (2012).

The term “public engagement” in the academic context refers to universities’ active involvement and interaction with the broader community. This engagement entails a multifaceted process that encompasses both social and spatial interpretations of societal realities. Moreover, it plays a vital role in elevating and organizing political consciousness among the public, fostering a discerning evaluation of social, economic, and political environments.

The dilemma of organizing collective consciousness to restore democracy has been discussed in the Kuppi series, with attention to the emergence of social-economic disparities that threaten the democratic governing system of the country. For instance, Shamala Kumar, in her Kuppi article (08/11/2022)), highlighted We, the public, including academics, must remain vigilant about the current crisis situation in Sri Lanka, which poses a threat to democracy. The most viable and imperative solution is to reinstate democracy through collective endeavors, as advocated by Prof. Julian Agyeman referenced at the outset of this article.the disparity of crisis impacts on the public. She cited an everyday example of witnessing the struggles of women during her drive to the university: “As I drive to work each day, a luxury that I can still afford, I regularly see women with huge stacks of firewood, balanced on their heads, walking home having taken on the burden placed on them.” More recently, in an article titled ‘A People’s University and a National Crisis’ (04/07/2023), Shamala presented a self-critique of the academic’s role in the current crisis, touching upon academic engagement with labour reforms.

The labour reforms proposed by the government essentially aim to exploit workers’ rights and labour, with provisions to extend the working day to 16 hours from the current eight hours per day, with a one hour break, and maintain wages without a minimum standard. Sixteen hours of work per day in any industry, without the protection of a minimum wage policy, amounts to serious laboir exploitation and rights violation. Imagine the garment industry, where women comprise the majority of workers, workers sitting in small chairs, bending their heads down, and pushing the sewing machine pad for 16 hours, enduring the unbearable conditions of labour they face. Considering that Spain has legalized day-offs for period pain, one may question whether these Sri Lankan women in garment industry can afford such reprieve, or whether they will be asked to work for 16 hours per day instead.

A significant event was the realization of a statement signed by 116 academics that expressed a critical evaluation of the government’s prospective labour reforms. The statement was published in a public space (

Missing threads in academic work

How have we acknowledged and addressed the issue of social-economic disparity in the distribution of resources under the theme of free education? How much attention have the university quality assurance programmes paid to this inequality in access to ‘free education’? To what extent do university curricula reflect social-economic disparities? As academics, our inquiry should focus on identifying whether university modules address labour exploitations.

Sri Lanka recently celebrated 200 years of the Tea-economy. How many graduates have hailed from the Tea-plantation sector in the last two centuries? Narayan Punniyaselvan, a graduate of the Colombo University, in Political Science, was the first in Glassaugh Estate, Nanu Oya, to obtain a university degree in 2022. The Tea-plantation sector assumes a pivotal role by contributing substantially to the country’s surplus labour, thereby generating essential economic output and government revenues, which, in turn, support the maintenance of the country’s free education system. However, it is noteworthy that despite their considerable contributions through economic inputs and indirect taxation, surplus labourers from the plantation sector have seldom benefited from the advantages of the free education system. How have we, as academics, examined such disparities?

Academics in the social sciences are increasingly instructed by the University Grants Commission (UGC) to produce ‘skilled labour’ to be integrated into the labour market. For years, the ‘unemployability’ of social science graduates has been highlighted in the media and within policy circles. It has been argued that these graduates end up in public service, which, in turn, has been defined as a mal-efficient structure. Many projects have been introduced since under various funded programmes to improve the skills of social science undergraduates, such as computer literacy and communication in the English language.

I do not deny the reality that social science graduates lack the aforementioned ‘marketable’ skills, but my question is whether all these programmes resolve the problem? Where can these graduates go with these skills? What is the scale of the Sri Lankan labour market? According to the Department of Census and Statistics (2022), in the first quarter of 2022, the total number of employed persons in Sri Lanka was estimated to be 8.4 million, among whom about 47.1% were in the service sector, 27.9% in the industry sector, and 25% in the agriculture sector. Despite efforts to improve the skills of social science graduates, through various programmes, the limited options provided by the labour market pose a challenge for these graduates. A critical aspect to explore pertains to how academics in the field of social sciences, who are tasked with implementing the UGC recommendations on skilled labour, perceive and integrate these intricate social realities into their pedagogical practices.

It is important to clarify that my intention is not to suggest that Sri Lanka’s higher education system completely disregards current social issues. Rather, my inquiry revolves around the adequacy of their engagement and proactive efforts in addressing these pressing concerns. Specifically, I seek to ascertain whether their initiatives and actions are sufficient to effectively address and contribute to the resolution of these matters.

The way to go

Organizing public consciousness holds significant political implications, wherein academics play a pivotal role despite the challenges faced by the current Sri Lankan academia. A historical example that exemplifies the collective action of academics and the public in securing the right to education is the march from Galle to Colombo in 2012. Similarly, academics bear the responsibility to unite in collective efforts to advocate for the rights of the public, particularly labourers in various industries across the country. This includes issuing statements and raising public awareness about the potential risks and hazards pertaining to prospective labour rights. In my observation, academics are struggling to connect with public consciousness due to their workloads, time commitments, and ethnic and class consciousness. However, if academics cannot engage with the public, their survival will also be questionable in this crisis.

We, the public, including academics, must remain vigilant about the current crisis situation in Sri Lanka, which poses a threat to democracy. The most viable and imperative solution is to reinstate democracy through collective endeavors, as advocated by Prof. Julian Agyeman referenced at the outset of this article. Central to this restorative process is the revitalization of university public engagement, a notion that Sri Lankan higher education institutions must actively embrace. This involves enhancing the curriculum’s content to reflect the complexities of social reality, fostering open spaces for public discussions, reevaluating historical movements to garner fresh insights, and critically scrutinizing government policies with despotic undertones, particularly those pertaining to labour exploitation. By recommitting to these active and participatory practices, academia can significantly contribute to the preservation and advancement of democracy in Sri Lanka, fostering a more informed and engaged citizenry capable of collectively addressing the challenges facing the nation.