The Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) was formed in 1978 and remains the largest student led organization in Sri Lanka to date. It represents the voice of student councils and action committees in 15 higher education institutes including all the major universities and technical colleges in the southern part of the island.
Sanjeewa Bandara serves as the current convener of the IUSF. Despite being arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned under fabricated charges, he shows a strong sense of resilience in the face of tragetd political repression. 'What matters most is whether we really care about the future consequences of the draconian government policies ' he says.
JDS' Kithsiri Wijesinghe* spoke to Sanjeewa Bandara on government cut backs, marketisation of education and ongoing collective union action of the university academics.
Excerpts of the interview follow:
JDS: The crisis in the education sector has been brewing for years and it now seems to have reached a point where the entire education system is on the brink of collapse. How does the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) respond to the worsening crisis?
Sanjeewa Bandara: At the moment we are working round the clock, putting all our effort to explain the magnitude of the crisis, build awareness and to mobilize the masses. The government however, seems determined to snatch away the right to free education while laying the foundation to make education a privilege by offering more springboards for the private investors to enter the education sector. They are also determined to crush any opposition which is emerging against their plans. The immediate plan is to implement drastic measures which would ensure reduced state intervention in education sector and more cut backs.
JDS: Given the fact that the government has repeatedly denied any plans to privatize education or to implement further cut backs, how do you justify your allegations?
SB: What the government is doing is just a routine denial. Let me put the facts straight. Sri Lanka, along with many other countries, is obligated to reach the benchmark of devoting 6% of the GDP to education. Setting this benchmark was not done by the striking university academics or the students - it is an international obligation that Sri Lanka is bound to respect. But if you don't want to turn a blind eye to the grim reality on the ground, you should be able to see the widening gulf between the promise and performance. At the moment, the government has only allocated 1.8% of GDP to education, which represents one of the lowest in the region. As a matter of fact, this is even less than the amount that was allocated during the tenure of previous government, which remained at 2.9%. This exposes the undeniable fact that the government is dodging its responsibility to safeguard free education.
During the past few years, many rural schools were forced to shut down due to lack of funding, as the government deliberately refrained from allocating sufficient funds. The parents were deterred from admitting their children to some of these schools, as the government had plans already in place to close them down. Consequently, over 350 such schools have been shut down during the current president's term of office while the parents have been forced to bear the burden of absorbing the maintenance costs. They have to pay admission fees, facility fees, school development fees etc., apart from providing the basic material needs such as desks and chairs. Therefore in reality, the government's denial does not make any sense at all.
JDS: How do such policies affect the university system?
SB: There is not much difference as far as government's strategy is concerned. We are already witnessing drastic cuts in state funding to the universities while commercialization of university education has been accelerated. Due to lack of funds, the universities have gradually been forced to invent and redesign the course content to meet the market trends. The commercialization of higher education will inevitably bring the market competition further into the university system which will have a huge impact on student and academic life. We are already witnessing the consequences and there is a strong tendency to turn education and knowledge into mere commodities. When the profit becomes the primary concern, the quality of education fades away and it affects the social values as well as ethical standards upon which the society is grounded. The aim of the whole plan is to establish a cheap, flexible labour pool through a market oriented education policies in order to create a generation that has no passion to expand their intellectual horizons through a social oriented education. You can already see how determined the government is in introducing private medical colleges, universities etc.
For example, the private medical college in Malambe, Colombo offers a medical degree for about 6.5 million rupees. The students hailing from wealthy families who didn't even managed to get through their Advanced levels, can simply walk in and come out as doctors while the children of the less privileged classes will be blocked from entering into a university even after excelling A-levels, simply because they have fallen short off a few marks.
There is no other intention behind the sugar-coated education reforms than commodification of education. When education becomes a commodity, it becomes a luxury only few can afford.
JDS: There is an ongoing strike action called by the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) for several months now. The action has gained momentum, despite the government's stubborn stance. What is the IUSF position?
SB: The strike action is remarkable in every sense and it has raised confidence inside the trade union movement while strengthening the collective faith in organized action. That is why it has gained a considerable popular support. When the university academics decide to take to the streets, it re-energized the whole working class layers and therefore it carries a historical importance. We, as the IUSF, have pledged our unreserved support to the academics from the beginning and we have called several student protest actions in solidarity with them. We continue to stand by them and firmly uphold their important demand to allocate 6% of the GDP to education.
At the same time, the IUSF condemn outright the intransigent and repressive behaviour of the Government, which wants to terrorize the striking academics into submission.
JDS: You mentioned about the cut backs in education and reduction of state funding. But during the war, when the government continuously increased defence spending at the expense of education, health etc., there was no real opposition from many quarters including the student movement in the south?
SB: There had been shortcomings. I agree. But even during the war time, the IUSF continued it's struggle to safeguard the educational rights. We campaigned against privatizing public education and demanded increased spending on education. But I know that the responsibility to confront the government was subordinated to 'patriotism' by certain sections during the war. Patriotism was used to anesthetise the south politically and to gain opportunistic political advantages. But we think that the masses have now realized the blunder they all made as they are now being forced to pay for their mistakes.
JDS: But I think you missed the crucial point I wanted to make. My point is whether the student movement understand the complicity they have in their own predicament. Don't you think that the Sinhala student movement has also been instrumental in legitimizing and strengthening a repressive state - which now you have been compelled to confront - by failing to challenge its' brutal war policy against the Tamil people?
SB: We do have a self critical understanding regarding the past. Many realize the errors only after making it. Generally, individuals as well as organizations tend to change their thinking and their work, only when they come to realize the grave mistakes they committed and their destructive consequences. The same rule applies to us as well. It is true that we failed to prevent each and every arrest and abduction carried out against Tamil students during that period. But it does not negate the legitimacy of our current actions. We are promoting the north-south dialogue through special programs between students while we continue to campaign against disappearances, militarization and other rights violations in the north.
For example, when some of the Tamil student leaders were recently attacked, the IUSF visited them and made representations on their behalf. We are also in the middle of a process in building up our relationship with the Tamil community in general through frequent discussions. These steps need to be seen as positive developments.
Kithisiri Wijesinghe worked as a journalist attached to several Sinhala language weekly newspapers and periodicals including Ravaya, Mawbima and Diyesa journal. In March 2008 - while working for the news website Outreachsl.com - he was arrested by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) along with senior journalist J.S.Tissainayagam, and detained. He now lives in exile in Europe.