Editorial: A new approach to student issues | Sunday Observer

Editorial: A new approach to student issues

We all know what a university students’ protest used to look like: hordes of placard-carrying students pushing against road barriers and Riot Police, with Police resorting to the use of water cannons and tear gas. Some students are beaten while others are arrested. In the meantime, there is chaos on the roads as many of them are closed and traffic builds up everywhere in the city. Pedestrians and bystanders are caught in the ‘crossfire’ so to speak, as students run helter skelter. Dejected, they head home without meeting anyone in authority to listen to their problems. This is how student demonstrations have ended every time, under all previous Governments, regardless of the venue – Presidential Secretariat or the University Grants Commission.

Just last week, university students came marching into Colombo, perhaps fully expecting to receive the same old treatment. The Police too were out in full force, perhaps expecting to give the same old treatment to the students. After all, both sides are by now used to this cat and mouse game.

But just one directive that emanated from the Presidential Secretariat changed all that. “Let the students in” was the directive issued by none less than President Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself. He also instructed the Police and PSD to let in a student delegation to discuss their problems. This took both sides by surprise but relief was also written on the faces of both, the students and the Police, for a student-police clash is one that no one relishes, least of all the public caught in the middle for no fault of their own.

The protest was staged in front of the President’s Office by the students making six demands including an increase in Mahapola Scholarship grants and early payment of arrears. As the President and the Secretary to the President were engaged in a pre-planned official duty, Additional Secretary, Rohana Abeyratne and the officials of the Ministry of Higher Education were instructed to hold discussions with the students. It was decided to allow as many students as possible that could be accommodated in the conference room and the officials patiently allowed everybody to air their views and grievances.

The officials conveyed the demands of the students to the Secretary to the President and received instructions from him in this regard. Following the discussions, the students dispersed in a peaceful manner. It was so peaceful that many people did not even know a protest had taken place, until they watched the evening news bulletins. This was a fresh approach to dealing with the demands of student protestors, that tackled the contentious issues head on without leaving the Police to deal with them. We hope that trade unions in the public sector would take a cue from this incident and realise that discussions should always be preferred over demonstrations and strikes. It is easy to thrash out issues in a discussion rather than in a violent confrontation.

In fact, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Government have taken a commendable stance on school and university education aimed at making productive citizens. He has championed the cause of the 150,000 students who are left without viable employment or higher educational opportunities even though they have qualified for university admission. He has also already started a program to provide employment to nearly 50,000 graduates in various fields.

It was revealed last week that around 20,000 students leave for overseas annually for higher studies, which costs the country foreign exchange equivalent to Rs.50 billion. This is a huge sum that can otherwise be diverted for development and social welfare. The Government, which is formulating guidelines for studies abroad after the tragic deaths of three Sri Lankan students in Azerbaijan, is keen to ensure more educational opportunities locally for students with GCE A/L qualifications. Indeed, Sri Lanka should have more private institutions that offer degree pathways.

“If the Government as well as the private sector can ensure that a high standard of education is provided by local universities and other higher educational institutions, it may even be possible for us to start attracting international students to study in Sri Lanka and convert the higher education sector into a foreign exchange earner for the country,” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said, addressing the Convocation of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University held at the BMICH last week.

President Rajapaksa has pointed out the importance of universities offering degree programs that will help the graduates to be gainfully employed. The 21st Century is widely acknowledged as the Knowledge Century and our universities should be able to match the job mart requirements thus created. They should also be able to attract more research opportunities. In an encouraging sign, a team of academics of the Faculties of Science and Medicine from the University of Colombo recently received the first US patent for their discovery of a compound that shows significant anti-cancer activities. The team from UOC has discovered a compound extracted from the mushroom Fulviformes fastuosus showing significant anticancer activity against Rhabdomyosarcoma, which is an aggressive and highly malignant form of childhood cancer.

Many new technologies ranging from Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Robotics, the Internet of Things, Biotechnology, 3-D Printing, and Automation, will reshape our world over the coming decades. Our universities would risk being left out of the global education scene if they do not embrace these trends from now onwards. A radical new approach to education grounded on reality and future challenges will serve Sri Lanka’s future interests well.