Ridding party politics from university Ruhuna’s path to success | Sunday Observer

Ridding party politics from university Ruhuna’s path to success

28 November, 2021
Construction work in progress at the Ruhuna University
Construction work in progress at the Ruhuna University

Ragging is a political process and the survival mode of the Frontline Socialist Party. They use new students to collect money for their political objectives by threatening and harassing them, claiming that collections are for free education. But they are the ones actually destroying free education, said Vice Chancellor and Senior Professor in Pediatrics of the University of Ruhuna, Prof. Sujeewa Amarasena.

Ruhuna University Vice Chancellor, Senior Professor Sujeewa Amarasena 

He said one of the major success stories of the University of Ruhuna is the elimination of ragging. “Today, the university has less influence from political parties because of stringent measures. Students are much happier and free,” the Vice Chancellor said.

He also spoke of the achievements of the university during his tenure in the areas of teamwork and collective responsibility, good governance and accountability, human resource development, participatory democracy and transparency, and rule of law, justice and equity.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q: How did the university carry out education activities during Covid-19 lockdowns?

A: We were able to continue education activities uninterrupted even amid the lockdowns. Just three days after the first lockdown in March 2020, we were able to start online programs, which was a great achievement.

By that time, we had obtained the ICT and infrastructure facilities, through which we started online education in every faculty. We started with the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty. Within a month after the first lockdown, we were able to transfer completely to the online mode.

Most universities were not able to bring in students to universities for the last 18-20 months. But we brought down students in batches and conducted exams and practical training under strict health guidelines and completed the courses. All the students have completed their education despite the lockdowns due to our immediate action. As a result, we were able to graduate students every year.

In 2019, due to the non-academic staff strike and Easter attacks, we had to close for four months. Despite that we were able to complete our academic activities and conducted the convocation in December.

In 2020 too, we completed all academic activities and held the convocation.

Even in 2021, despite the multiple and longer lockdowns, we were able to complete academic activities online and physically under Covid-19 guidelines. We have now graduated 1350 in all expect two faculties – Engineering and Science.

They are now having practical work and exams and they will graduate before the end of the year. By March 2022, we are planning to hold the convocation for 2021. We have maintained education activities without long delays. This wasone of the biggest successes in our university with regard to education.

Our Medical Faculty is functioning almost 80 percent. Only one batch is behind schedule. We ensure that the students are vaccinated. We have 10 faculties in the university and at least one batch is engaged in educational activities inside the university. Students physically attending classes are less than 25 percent from each batch from each faculty, which is the current guideline.

I believe we can graduate them early. I also encourage our staff to work extra hours to catch up and complete the activities. By 2022, we are hopeful that all faculties will function normally.

Some of the 2020 A/L students have got the cut off marks and we are hoping to start the Medical and Management Faculties on December 13 and the Humanities Faculty on January 10. We have an effective and workable plan.

Q: What measures did the university take to uplift students’ mental health during the pandemic?

A: We held many activities to uplift their mental health and well-being during the past 18-20 months. These include cultural activities such as singing competitions, debates, dramas, religious activities, discussion of books and ‘speak English better’ initiative. Students showed great interestin this.

The cultural centre had activities every week. The staff development centre increased the training programs for staff. They hold two trainings per week now. Library services have become 25 percent as an e-library service. We have made available 500 most essential books on the e-platform. We have conducted many activities to uplift students’ mental health.

Q: Were the student intakes affected during the pandemic?

A: We have increased the intake of students, which is a huge achievement. We increased by 1,500 students from the 2019 A/Ls. The government decided to increase the intake from 30,000 to 40,000. Out of the 10,000, we have absorbed over 1,500. All other 19-20 universities had to take only 8,500 as a result. By doing so, our Medical Faculty became the largest in the country in student number.

Six faculties – Science, Humanities and Social Sciences, Management, Fisheries and Marine Sciences and Technology and Allied Health Sciences, and Engineering – doubled their intake. Engineering increased from 275 to 535, Science from 400 to 710, Management from 325to 650, Humanities from 400 to 750, Allied Health from 130 to 230, and Fisheries from 100 to 210.All our faculties increased the intake but these six doubled. We actually supported the government to absorb more students and relieve the burden on other universities, UGC and government.

Q: What is the status of infrastructure development work during the pandemic?

A: We have completed the Faculty of Management buildings and they are ready to be occupied by students. We have a new language laboratory and a computer laboratory with over 150 computers, increasing the computer hours to several thousand per week. We completed the open art theatre and open sports complex with provisions for basketball, tennis, volleyball, and netball. It is ready to be opened once Covid-19 and weather restrictions are lifted.

Our Engineering Faculty is the only one in a state university to have the Marine Engineering and Naval Architecture degree program. We have a new building for this completed in Hapugala. The Faculty of Technology at Kamburupitiya completed its auditorium, lecture hall building, office, laboratory and departmental space. The canteen will be opened in January.

We also built and carpeted an 8km road network in the Agriculture Faculty spending Rs.99 million from consolidated funds. In Wellamadama complex too, we have completed 4km of road. Both these road rehabilitation programs were long overdue and not launched for thelast 40 years.

We are also getting two new buildings for the Faculty of Medicine. One is the Professorial Wards Complex (PWC) with 10 floors for final year training with new teaching space and laboratories. We hope to open it at the end of 2022 or early 2023. Another 12-storey building is coming up to accommodate 300 students each in five batches.

We are utilising additional space shared by other faculties too. The Faculty of Allied Science was established in 2017. But it doesn’t have permanent buildings yet. Therefore, buildings are under construction for the faculty and will be opened by the end of next year. Until then, the students in this faculty are learning at buildings of the Medical Faculty. We are sharing space and this is not a practice in other universities. We have made it clear that buildings belong to all the students and resources should be shared. Students are treated equally and given facilities to learn.

Q: Comment on the student welfare at the university.

A: We have identified students, especially in the Humanities Faculty, with economic hardships. We are not distributing scholarships in equal amounts to faculties. Rather, we identify the needy based on the annual average income of parents. Education is polarised towards the rich. Medicine and Engineering students are richer than the Humanities and Management Faculties.

For example, we got 70 scholarships from a funding agency and only one student was eligible from the Medical Faculty and a majority went to the Humanities because they had more economic hardships. This is a different approach to scholarships.

For the students, the biggest relief for them is freedom. They are absolutely free to do what they want. We eliminated ragging in the university within three months since I assumed office as Vice Chancellor in March 2019. First year students had to wear white or black for one year so that they can be easily identified for ragging.

They were also given a coloured file indicating what they need to do.

I got rid of all this and allowed them to wear what they wanted. Then nobody was able to discriminate between a new student and a senior student. Our academic staff also helped them with showing them how to get about.

With regard to the Sri Lanka University Games, President Maithripala Sirisena was the Chief Guest in 2019. It was not allowed by the students earlier to bring politicians.

But the President is the Head of State and we were able to invite him. He gave us Rs. 10 million to develop the sports facilities at the university. This was utilised for the outdoor sports complex.

Q: Comment on the status of university hostels.

A: Hostels are controlled by university students’ unions and all unions are controlled by the Frontline Socialist Party. Not a single university is able to avoid their control. But I managed to control their behaviour.

I created a hostel reserved for new students (1st year hostel) so that senior students cannot enter. It is controlled by academic and non-academic sub-boards. They have full authority to report any incident.

This separation actually brought down expenditure on power and water bills. In the past, the hostels were used by Frontline Socialist Party members - total outsiders - to live in and control the behaviour of students. With the separation, the boys’ hostel electricity bill came down from Rs.96,000 to Rs. 50,000 a month. This is what political parties are doing to the money allocated to free education. I informed all that every cent coming to the university should be spent on students. The student is the most important person in the university, not the Vice Chancellor.

Q: What were the challenges and criticism encountered by you when implementing these strict measures?

There have been challenges and I had to take measures against those who went against our values. In my tenure, only three students were sacked - it was the decision of the Council of University of Ruhuna that included 29 members. One was from the Medical Faculty who forged examination documents and examination results, which was a serious offence.

The other two were activists of the students’ union. They said that they were the President and Treasurer of the students’ union. But they were not. The President and Treasurer are nominated by the students. But the two students were appointed by the Frontline Socialist Party, which was invalid. They had taken the position by force.

Most of the time, students are elected uncontested because of the use of thuggery. The Frontline Socialist Party assaults anyone else contesting. So no one wants to contest as they don’t have the backing of political parties. But we accept those who got elected nonetheless. It is signed by me. Once all 10 faculties elect their own students’ unions, we call all of them for a meeting to elect the University of Ruhuna Students’ Union President and Treasurer.

However, in the incident of the two sacked students, an election like this never took place. We elected the students’ union but the Party appointed the President, not the Vice Chancellor.

I wrote many letters informing the two students that they were not legally appointed and not to use these designations. But they use this title in the media to air their views. The media has not bothered to get the truth either.

For the past 20 years, I have had posters pasted in public places against me by the Frontline Socialist Party and the JVP with derogatory terms. For the first three-four months in my term as Vice Chancellor, they campaigned intensely against me. Now they are trying to get rid of me again through false propaganda because I don’t allow injustice or ragging. I even got a letter of appreciation from the mother of Ovitigala Samantha - a student at Sri Jayewardenepura University, assaulted and killed as he spoke out against ragging.

Ragging is a political process and the survival mode of the Frontline Socialist Party. They use new students to collect money for their political objectives by threatening and harassing them, claiming that collections are for free education. But they are the ones actually destroying free education.

In 2019, I was informed that at least 300 students had gone to various locations in the Southern Province, 10 students each covering even small towns and collected at least Rs.300,000from each town totalling Rs. 9 million. Thishad gone directly to the political party. If anyone questions this, they would be assaulted and I have evidence to prove this. The party depends on the students for their financial survival.

In addition, they depend on the first years for their political survival. The crowds for the rallies are brought from the universities. From Ruhuna University, they take at least 10 buses to Colombo for protests. So, when I got rid of the union fears from the mindsets of new students, they stopped going to protests.

Some were assaulted but they didn’t go. Today, crowds have fewer university students as other universities have also stopped sending their students too.

As a result, political parties are reducing their cadres and they have to do jobs to find money as many are removed from the party pay sheets.

Q: How have the students benefited with reduced influence from political parties?

A: Today, the university has less influence from political parties because of these stringent measures. Students are much happier and free. They also try to learn English which the first year students were not allowed to in the beginning. This is also a huge achievement.

When ragging was prevalent, those speaking in English were asked to balance the dictionary on their heads and walkas a punishment. If they are caught wearing shoes, they had to remove them, put it over the neck and walk barefoot. The parties try to change the students’ personalities and destroy it for their own benefits. It is a political motive to have unemployed graduates as they are used for protests to capture political power using student movements.

For the past two years, we have been able to increase the employability of our Humanities graduates. In all other faculties within one year, employability was 95-100%. A lot of them become employed within six months of graduation. In Humanities, this figure was only 55% in 2019. In 2020, this is now 80% - increased within one year. With regard to students’ perception of learning English, 70% think that their English skills are good. This has created many other openings for them.

Q: How has university administration improved during your tenure?

A: For 40 years, our university did not have a clean audit report. But in 2020, I obtained a clean audit report to ensure honesty and transparency of finances. Also for 40 years, we never had a good annual report. But we managedit last year.

Our ranking is #2 in the country and overall, we are within the top 8 percent in the world. We have a separate committee to feed data and I think we can advance.

We have changed the entire sports structure and funding. For example, we generate funds through fee-levying courses. Two percent of the money earned goes to sports and the cultural centre.

I have also established a grievance committee for each faculty, including the distance education unit, so that students can talk about their problems. In the next few years, I hope to establish a university ombudsman so that any appeal can go there before courts.

Ultimately, we need to be transparent. I ensure transparency in recruitments too. All interviews for recruitments are video recorded and taken on merit. I don’t have a single case in courts challenging recruitments during my tenure.

We have also many Covid-19 control activities. I was in the technical committee to control Covid-19 and we maintained a call centre for Southern province. We gave our hostels as quarantine centres. Our vaccination programs werecarried out successfully.