The compulsory leadership training introduced by the Higher Education Ministry for university students has come under severe criticism by University Academics. Many insist the ongoing leadership training program violates the University Act and allege it is an insidious method to provide military training to students.
The compulsory “leadership and positive attitude development” program for university entrants may have been suddenly sprung on unsuspecting students by the ministry of higher education but it is conducted by the military and overseen by the ministry of defense and is a three week program undertaken at some 30 military camps around the country. Each prospective student, male or female, will be schooled in disciplines including physical drill, conflict management, history, Sri Lanka’s future and global changes.
“It is disheartening to note the way these programs were introduced. Neither the Ministry nor any government official has any legal power to create and implement such programs for university students. It is the university academic staff that has the power to implement any extra programs for the students. Since this has been introduced and implemented to gain ‘political mileage’ for certain groups in the government but not by the university academics it violates the university act completely,” a member of the University Grants Commission(UGC) told the Lanka Independent on conditions of anonymity.
He further raised concerns as to the way the Supreme Court dismissed the five petitions filed by three individual students, a group of student activists and by the Ceylon Teachers Union. The Petitioners pleaded that the rights of students would be infringed if they were forced to undergo a residential training program in army camps without regard to their beliefs and cultural sensitivities. But the petitions were dismissed, and the first batch of students commenced their training this May.
“This should be debated in public. The Supreme Court would have cited the reason for the dismissal of the five petitions. If the judiciary acts in such a dubious manner, it is then clear that government pressure is behind such decisions” he alleged.
According to this source although the UGC has the authority to overlook university functions and admissions, it is up to the university academics to decide on the students’ university education.
“This decision was solely taken for political gain. The Minister I suppose wants the attention of his superior. In this country
politicians want to do something that could boost their image. This is one good example. The Higher Education Minister S.B.Dissanayake was once humiliated by the university students and in order to get revenge he wanted to suppress them. As a result of such suppression one university student from the Ruhuna University was killed due to alleged police brutality. Minister Dissanayake became unpopular as the general public criticized him openly. He then remained silent for some time and has now taken centre stage by introducing leadership programs for university newcomers in a military environment,” he added.
Academic sources who only spoke on conditions of anonymity further queried as to why the leadership program’s study guidelines carries a photograph of the Defense Secretary Mr. Gotabaya Rajapakse.
The very fact that hardly anyone was willing to speak on the record for fear of terrible reprisals is a sad reflection of the state of the country and the culture of impunity that now prevails.
Moreover this training of students under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence and Presidential sibling and Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse comes at a time there is unprecedented scrutiny of the activities of the armed forces, its top brass and particularly the commander in chief President Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother during the last months of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The Defense Secretary has made no secret of his mindset in these matters such as the fact that hospitals outside no fire zones are legitimate targets in times of war. And it is in the backdrop of allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity leveled against the armed forces that this program was launched. The Training also started just one month after a UN report by a panel of experts commissioned by the UN Secretary General released in April, found credible evidence of serious violations of Human Rights laws by both the armed forces and the LTTE.
That said some experts have also pointed out that compulsory military training is contrary to the values of freedom of opinion and expression, robust discussion, respect for opposing views that is at the core of university education. They opine that the curriculum and study guidelines also tends to discourage tolerance and focuses only on reinforcing a mono ethnic viewpoint.
Speaking to the Lanka Independent also on the basis of anonymity a student who underwent the leadership program in Maduru Oya military camp described as to how a fellow female student broke her left ankle at a Physical Training (PT) programme.
“It was surprising for us to note as to how these female students were asked to follow rigorous PT programmes. I studied in a mixed school and I have seen how our teachers did not allow the girls to do painstaking exercises. Even I have seen as to how my mother advised her two daughters to avoid many exercises for their betterment. But however the way these young girls were asked to follow rigorous exercises I was surprised. In this instance this girl had to jump over a parapet wall. When she broke her ankle she was rushed to the hospital but they did not even have the courtesy to inform the parents, it was the hospital that had informed the parents,” he claimed. “According to the orthopedic doctors, she has to be in bed for at least three months,” sources also said.
These reactions by students many hailing from villages and traditional backgrounds must be taken in the context of Sri Lanka’s culture and beliefs and traditions and its propensity to shield and shelter young girls before marriage. Making this kind of training compulsory has already been likened to military conscription and unlike youth programs like the cadet corp this is not voluntary.
Many have accused the Rajapakse government of using this program to identify troublesome elements in universities who may
potentially lead a formidable rebellion against its repressive family run empire while a few have felt the program will actually help students.
Yet another student who underwent the leadership programme in the Boosa army camp said that they were severely admonished by the military officers who told them not to dirty the camp premises.
“True the students should not dirty the camp premises which were kept meticulously clean. But there is a way that we should be told. We were told that if we were found strewing garbage all over we would be severely punished. All of us had to undergo the three week course in abject fear,” she said.
Another student who underwent the programme at the Diyatalawa camp told Lanka Independent how a fellow male student fractured his leg after jumping over a high wall.
“He underwent an emergency surgery and was brought back to the camp without sending him home. In addition we were given many lectures on table etiquette. Ironically however even the military officers who conducted these program did not know proper etiquette,” he said.
Meanwhile Prof. Arjuna Aluwihare Emeritus Professor of Surgery, University of Peradeniya and a highly respected past chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) told the Lanka Independent that the concept of giving leadership training to university students was not new.
“When I was the Chairman UGC (1989 to 1993) programmes were conducted on English and IT training, Sri Lanka history and environmental studies. If the UGC was planning the same programs it would be very useful but these programs should be held within universities,” said Prof. Aluwihare.
According to Prof Aluwihare it was unfortunate that the UGC too has either been sidelined or has failed to fulfill its responsibilities to consult with universities before this was implemented. We certainly do not object to leadership training for new entrant students in the national university system. They need to be exposed for personality development opportunities. But however, such programs have to be implemented by the universities in order to maintain their standard of teaching. That was how I introduced orientation programs. The Ministry should be able to resource further in upgrading programs,” said Prof. Aluwihare.
When asked whether the leadership program was meant to decrease ragging in universities, Prof Aluvihare noted that all the public statements that have been made in this regard cannot be understood.
“Unless the UGC or Higher Education Ministry speaks about this we cannot make any comment,” he said.
But however he said that it was unfortunate that the Inter University Student’s Federation (IUSF) that speaks and work towards the betterment of university students was silent on ragging issues.
The IUSF is yet to come out with a statement on ragging. It would have been interesting to see if they could put a complete stop on ragging. When I was the Director of Student’s Welfare in the Peradeniya University during 1975- 1976 I could stop ragging there,” Aluvihare said.
All attempts to contact Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayke and Higher Education Ministry Secretary Sunil Jayantha Nawaratne for their comments on this extremely important issue failed as they were apparently too busy to speak to the media.
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