By Gamini Weerakoon
Higher Education Minister and Cabinet Spokesman Bandula Gunawardena in the current election campaign has been promising to establish so many universities reminiscent of politicians in the past promising to open public toilets in towns where they were addressing political rallies.
We have been unable to keep an accurate count of the promised universities but we can recall promises made to Kalutara, Matara, Badulla (or somewhere in the Uva), Nuwara Eliya, Anuradhapura (or somewhere in the district) and more.
In the initial stage of university education, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) had only one university that produced world class graduates who shone in international academia and fora. Now we have 15 state-run universities but internationally recognised graduates in this country are hard to find.
When Bandula Gunawardena speaks of ‘universities’ we are wondering whether he is speaking of ‘tutories’ of which he is an acknowledged authority having made a name for himself as a tuition master (Tuition Sir) before his entry into politics. Bandula G should know that establishment of a university requires massive investments — land, buildings, equipment and non-academic staff and more importantly, academic staff with doctorates. But the brain-drain is continuing. Graduates, who have been granted scholarships abroad, are reluctant to come back home. Perhaps Viyath Maga thinkers of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa may say that this country has a surfeit of intellectuals and no more are needed.
Is Gunawardena, when speaking about universities, thinking about his tuition classes of the past where GCE-O and A/L students were packed into small shacks or ‘bana maduwas’ of temples and the like for lectures? These still are like garment factories working apace to produce examination results—anticipating examination questions and preparing answers, tipping off likely questions and regurgitating what has been crammed up on to examination papers.
Those hapless girls in tuition classes aptly summarise their fate, say a well-informed source: ‘Pass unoth lucky, fail unoth Juki’— If we pass we’re in luck, if we fail no option by Juki (Juki being the brand name for sewing machines used in textile factories).
This is not the vision of British politician and intellectual Benjamin Disraeli on what a university should be: A place of light, liberty and learning, on which most modern universities are modelled.
Is Gunawardena thinking of vocational training institutes when he promises universities? Perhaps in election campaigns pledging universities to towns and villages goes down better than vocational institutes with electorates. But is this offer of universities — in cricketing terms — off the bat of Bandula G or is he selling it to voters on behalf of his supreme boss?
With the accent now on education being oriented to employment, are the ‘universities’ that are being pledged round the country by Bandula G nothing more than vocational training institutes? No doubt vocational training institutes are very much needed but why call them universities? It downgrades universities from the present status in the minds of undergrads. And they will not like that. Recall the protests that rocked the Yahapalanaya government when SAITM (South Asian Institute for Technology and Medicine) was to award medical degrees?
Bandula Gunawardena is a graduate of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura and has a doctorate from the Hanban Institution which is the Centre of the prestigious Chinese Confucian Institute. Thus, he would know all about universities and ‘tutories’.
Considering the manifesto of Gotabaya Rajapaksa under the grandiose title of ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’, it does appear that the proposed ‘universities’ being touted around the country by Bandula G are projections envisaged by his leader, declared in the 2021-2030 Decade of Skills and Development in Sri Lanka. It is ‘a move to herald a transformational phase of educational reform and skills’ development for the nation’.
Among the objectives are: ‘Reduction of unskilled labour to 10 percent, create global technocrats and position Sri Lanka as the epicentre for human resource development in Asia by creating a digital future- fit citizenry……
Sri Lanka as the ‘Epicentre for Human Resource Development in Asia! We can only say: Great! Wow!
But it also begs the question whether Gotabaya R will be there till 2030. He will be 81 years old and his older brother and political mentor Mahinda, the prime minister, will be 84 years old and Paradise Isle will be transformed from a democracy to gerontocracy.
How long will be Rajapaksa brothers expect to go on if the public support they seem to anticipate will continue unabated? If they wish to retire there will be the younger brother Basil who is a dual citizen of America and thus be debarred from holding political office unless the present constitutional provisions are blown up sky high. Then there are the sons and nephews sprouting out in the Ruhuna. Will the dynastic baton be passed on to them or would Gotabaya’s military personnel proliferate a military regime?
All these are yet hypothetical questions? The Sinhala electorate is polarised to the extent that the Rajapaksa supporters today refuse to consider any eventuality of their leader Gotabaya being out of the seat of power. For the die-hard Rajapaksa supporters, he will go on and on…. They refuse to see the end of this dynastic history. Is this the end of Sinhala political history now that the UNP has fragmented?
The term ‘End of History’ came into vogue after the end of the Cold War in 1992 when Francis Fukuyama, an American academic in his book, the End of History and the Last Man, concluded that the end of the Cold War is not just passing away of an era in history, but the end of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western Liberal Democracy contradicting the Marxist and Hegelian theories. Twenty-eight years, later Fukuyama’s theory seems to be in tatters with the citadel of Liberal Capitalism tottering.
Samuel P Huntington, author of the Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order expresses a view more applicable to Lanka. He says: History ends at least once and more occasionally in every civilisation. He speaks of civilisations of ‘universal states’ where people become blinded to the ‘mirage of immortality’ and are convinced that theirs is the final form of human immortality’.
Sri Lanka is certainly not a state which spread ‘a universal civilisation’. But certainly, going by pronouncements of staunch supporters of Gotabaya R, there is the ‘mirage of immortality’ of the Sinhala race coming down from Ravana (There is a popular TV serial now running on Ravana with some learned academics participating).
Huntington points out to the mortality of states and empires over time: Roman Empire, Abbasid Caliphate, Mughal Empire, Ottoman Empire not forgetting the British Empire on which the ‘sun never set’. But to Sinhala hardliners rallying round the Pohottuwa Party, the mirage of Sinhala immortality remains and Gota is the flag bearer.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not made any such claims at any time but many such supporters of his do. This probably enabled his convincing victory securing 52.25 percent of the presidential poll last year despite minority electorates of Tamils and Muslims overwhelmingly voting against him.
Nationalist leaders in this time of the 21st Century are in vogue. There is Donald Trump in the United States, Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China (president for life). Does Gotabaya Rajapaksa of little Lanka fit in?