Mindset of rebellious university students
by Dr. Tilak S. Fernando reporting from London

"The best things in life are free - the things people value the least are those very things that they receive free". We have heard these quotations before, but when the two are equated together what do we get in Sri Lanka? The University Education.

What is glaring in front our eyes today are the symptoms of the malady that have infected the student population - the difficulty of not accepting student responsibility for one's actions and of being unaccountable to any other than oneself. Today, students are keener in picketing, striking, ragging and demanding the right to commit offensive acts while forgetting their duties. Rather than studying they are willing to paint posters or forcibly occupy property that does not belong to them, at the drop of a hat!

How often have we heard about the Arts Faculty students staging 'Sathyagrahas' (hunger strikes) and even threatening to fast-unto-death, if need be, in their attempts to secure the release of their rebellious student friends who were either suspended or expelled for ragging new comers and/or intimidating lecturers.

There is no doubt; the ragging has been part and parcel of university life anywhere in the world. Sri Lanka is no exception and it has existed for decades. Traditionally new entrants to a higher seat of learning are given a cordial welcome. They are accepted, guided and assisted by senior students, whereas in Sri Lanka the experience of a new entrant to a University can be a nightmare because of the 'indecent and inhuman' ragging. This has been going on for decades without much change. A one-man Commission (V.W. Kularatne) appointed by the Government some years ago revealed that, "Even after 20 years, perversion and sadism persisted at our seats of higher learning".

The malady that university students suffer today is from their inability to look at a situation in its larger framework. They are unable to see things in proper perspective. They will give undue importance to a minor issue or incident, but very little or no importance at all to an issue or incident that really merits. Since they are lucky enough to be a part of a small percentage to enter university in this country, it would be sad to lose that opportunity by either suspension or expulsion.

Equally, it would be even worse if students were allowed to get away with behaviour such as stripping newcomers of their rights, their dignity, their self respect and their clothes whenever they attempt to disregard all forms of authority. Prior to entry into a university, every single student signs a document promising that he/she will not rag, and if he/she is caught doing so, he/she will accept the responsibility and the consequences. From time to time some undergraduates have been suspended for ragging in our universities. In extreme cases students have been expelled for intimidating lecturers. Their punishments may seem harsh but so were their actions.

The majority of senior students do not seem to consider ragging of new comers to be a wrong act. Instead they seem to consider it as their right as seniors. Having ragged and been punished for it, the students may deny their vicious acts. They also may deny intimidating lecturers. This trend of not accepting responsibility for their actions becomes a serious problem as these young adults are the very people who will one day be holding key positions in various sectors of Sri Lanka!

There have been occasions where buckets of urine and faeces have been thrown at some of the students attending lectures during student protests and strikes. The verbal abuse of those attending lectures, and those who attempt to do so have been threatened and in rare occasions it has lead to even stabbing.

Universities employ hundreds of academic and non-academic staff and their wage bill amounts to millions of rupees a month. Besides these, the electricity has to be switched on, and the faculty buildings and gardens have to be maintained daily if and when students boycott lectures, either by conviction or fear, and the wastage that these students are guilty of, therefore, is no small amount.

Behind all student defiant actions is the underlying statement: "We can do whatever we want, whenever we want, to whomever we want. If we get into trouble because of it, or are punished for it, we will make as big a commotion, as big a fuss as we can, and finally we can get away with it. We can make the authorities give in to us."

If this is the type of stock and the brand of thinking we are going to have in our universities as undergraduates, how long can the authorities and the public afford to allow a few distorted mind-sets to cripple the future of thousands of other students for the sake of a few irresponsible and selfish students?