Home » Re-inventing the Idea of University: Response to Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda Part 1

Re-inventing the Idea of University: Response to Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda Part 1


Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Guardian

A recent article published on Groundviews by Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda titled Re-inventing the idea of University: Some Reflections and Proposals deserves wider attention. Given the fact that the university education sector has not been the subject of critical reviews instituted by the government or universities themselves and there are wide ranging criticisms of the way universities are managed as well as about the university academic culture, the critical assessment of Sri Lanka’s universities and their directions is a timely contribution.

Contextualising the establishment and decline of universities in Sri Lanka producing graduates with mediocre attributes and skills as well as the move away from liberal humanist foundations to a neoliberal economic management model and ideology are key features of the article. The ideas and assessments included in the article cannot be discarded as another academic piece of writing for the consumption of those in the academic world only. Points made should draw the attention of wider public, policy makers and those in the government.

Professor Uyangoda starts with the assertion that the educated Ceylonese colonial elites who received their education in Ceylon and later from British universities were cosmopolitan colonial subjects. They were the founding fathers of university who derived impetus from liberal humanism for a secular university suitable for the local conditions in the early twentieth century. Professor Liyanage Amarakeerthi who wrote a book about the university also derived inspiration from the same vision.  Both agree on the idea that we need to reinvent the university in Sri Lanka and the inspiration for this can be derived from the progressive aspects of the thinking by founding fathers.

The second important point he makes is that, “After it was first set up in 1921 as a University College of the London University and then in 1942 as a fully-fledged university, this public institution in Sri Lanka has achieved mixed results”. In his view, university played a major role in the upliftment of underprivileged classes in the society for many decades e.g. students, academics and employees. Notwithstanding the decay experienced since independence, the university system has functioned as a transformative agency or space with some capacity fulfilling its social mission.  It has been an important public institution for social emancipation for the “underprivileged, marginalized and structurally excluded social classes”.

In order to reinforce his argument, he cites the public service and university staff composition. “If we look at the changes in the social origins of the Sri Lanka’s massive public service bureaucracy as well as the university academic staff occurred since the 1960s, we can immediately see how the free education and vernacularizing of the university education have enabled the brightest of the under privileged social classes to achieve social emancipation by non-violent means.”

These are powerful words except that his article does not include a critical assessment of the social emancipation he talks about. For example, whether it involved the uplifting of social classes in a wider sense or individuals who were able to be socially mobile in a narrow sense and whether any material upliftment of the under privileged was associated with a corresponding ideology or consciousness that served the interests of many in such classes or the few who were able to climb the status ladder.

Professor Uyangoda explains that the neoliberal policies adopted since the late 70s threatened the original form of university and its role as envisaged by the founding fathers. i.e., to provide liberal humanistic education to students including underprivileged classes. The ideological package on the utility of university education that came with the neoliberal reforms cast “serious doubts about the economic rationality of education in the social sciences and humanities”. The policy makers and university managers saw them as unjust and illegitimate.

According to Professor Uyangoda the new policy initiatives and reforms applicable to universities “were conceived by a tripartite coalition of the World Bank, the government, and the higher educational bureaucracy in the university system as well as the Ministry of Higher Education. They were guided by reform imperatives necessitated by the shifts in the world economy caused by two change waves, (a) market-led economic globalization, and (b) world-wide neo-liberalization”.

He elaborates how the neoliberal policies have been threatening the very existence of the university founded on liberal humanistic values and facilitating the upward mobility and social emancipation of underprivileged citizens and communities in the following manner: “The social emancipatory and democratizing potential of the university education through its reach to the economically poor and the non-elite social classes has come to a deadlock. This deadlock is ideologically sustained by the argument that the social change function of the university education needs to be abandoned because it is an economic burden to the so-called tax payer…. Therefore, as this argument goes, relieving the state, the market, and the tax payer of that unprofitable economic burden should be a policy priority”.

Although I consider this article as a significant intellectual contribution, while agreeing with the idea of university as a transformative space and agency where corresponding consciousness ought to be nurtured, and an ethic for governing such transformation with a social justice focus is necessary, I have several more concerns and questions about the ideas presented.

Firstly, why he regards the liberal-humanistic paradigm as the desired source of inspiration for developing a pluralistic ethic governing university organisation and culture by excluding for example postcolonial and decolonial critique of the colonial-modernist education process in the former colonies of the global south.

Secondly, why he considers the continuation of the university education model that helped students from disadvantaged backgrounds to obtain a university education and join the academic or professional ranks such as being civil servants may produce a different result compared to the conformist ethic, attitudes and behaviour that by and large characterises university’s teaching and learning culture.

Thirdly, how he expects the universities and their respective staff and student communities “to re-establish their links with the society and the citizens, and thereby make the university an organic social institution” through adopting or reusing the liberal-humanistic paradigm rather than a post-colonial-decolonial paradigm.

Fourthly, if liberal-humanist pluralism of the old paradigm adopted in the establishment and promotion of University in Ceylon has been replaced by a neoliberal university since the 1990s, what hope can be placed on reapplying it even with an added social justice focus into the future? In other words, can it generate the necessary consciousness and ethic or a transformative university as he recommends?  Alternatively, are there more suitable paradigms that can be applied for the same purpose?

As Professor Uyangoda calls for a framework of liberating and transformative ethics, a social space and public culture what are the principles of liberating normative ethics that can activate collective life of solidarity in the university? They are freedom, liberty, equality in the individual, social, ethnic, cultural and gender domains, justice, non-violence and freedom from prejudice.

One question arising here is to ask liberating from what? Is it the neoliberal economic interpretation of university education or narrow nationalistic interpretations that go against liberal humanistic ones or something else? We should not forget the fact that the university student, employee and academic community are also highly stratified communities. For a long time, the common thread binding these communities in the University of Ceylon (later Peradeniya) was the mythical nature or romanticism associated with the residential university environment and the mysticism associated with the university education. These qualities evaporated in time to come as the inequalities in the university system and the wider world emerged along with the political and economic reforms and changes. Therefore, talking about a common ethic or public culture for the university can be chasing an unrealistic dream. What could work is to search for a platform for the underprivileged classes who are unable to be upwardly mobile and get stuck in a system that favours some and excludes many.

Professor Uyangoda is making several useful arguments and explanations about the way the modern university evolved in the Sri Lankan context as part of broader politico-economic and social changes.  However, his arguments and articulations also raise substantial questions that we need to address from a postcolonial and decolonial perspective as well as purely from a historical, sociological and factual basis.

He does not offer any practical strategies or ways to achieve such transformation or social space either. Providing a vision for the future of university is one thing but coming up with a set of strategies is another. In my view the latter is equally important as the former. Freedom, liberty, equality are desirable ideals but if we look at the recent history in the country, academic staff and students have been struggling to achieve these not only for themselves but also for the whole country by protesting and advancing a critical discourse aimed at the failings of country’s governance. A similar critical discourse is required about university governance and management as well as the disciplines that are held in high esteem but may not address the needs of contemporary society or even the needs of underprivileged.

Upward mobility is limited to a few 

I have a problem in defining the process of education whereby underprivileged classes were able to enter various professions and be upwardly mobile as social emancipation. In my view it is a limited and narrow interpretation of what happened during the last few decades corresponding to the underprivileged classes and their life chances/opportunities. Surely some of them have been able to move from their underprivileged circumstances to be in a materially well to do position due to the work and other opportunities that came later. Whether such advancement can be designated as social emancipation is highly questionable. My own view is that the middle class standing and its ideology seem to have been a self-serving and highly individualistic one rather than one leading to social emancipation, if we interpret the latter as a broader process where it leads to the emancipation of a whole segment of society. Many more graduates from the underprivileged classes did not get the opportunities as envisaged and in fact had to take up arms against the government even to seek equal opportunities in the employment sphere from both Sinhalese and Tamil society.

We should ask whether upward mobility of the underprivileged has served the under privileged classes in general or it served those who had been upwardly mobile only? Are there other ideals or goals that we need to achieve through university education? By limiting our focus to liberal humanism and disciplines as we inherited from the colonial times and being reproduced under post independent conditions, are we really serving the least advantaged and their interests? Or are we serving the interests of the globalising system by producing professionals required and the State system that keeps a lid on emancipatory forces in the country by continuing with university without an emancipatory ideological space suitable for present conditions?

Since the inception of University of Ceylon and its transformation to be University of Peradeniya and later the establishment of other universities in Colombo suburbs plus provinces, universities have produced graduates in various specialised fields and in general degree programs. This process helped those from underprivileged social classes to join the ranks of the urban middle class as they found employment in the government services and the private sector, some as professionals such as engineers, doctors, senior administrators, scientists. Others found employment in lower-level government services in cities or in rural areas as clerks, teachers and development officers. This allowed some of them from rural areas to relocate to urban areas with better facilities, live in better housing, educate children in better schools and network with other professionals and even politicians – opportunities that they would not have been able to access without the university education. A large number accessed employment opportunities available in the global economy for skilled workers and settled in other countries with their families as permanent or temporary migrants. In the process they and their children transformed their identity, language and culture as well as the way of living to become citizens of other economically and socially developed countries.

The paradigm, which Professor Uyangoda calls liberal-humanist, was not able to cater to hundreds and thousands of university graduates’ aspirations after the higher education was massified in the 70s and after.  The government response was to create more universities that taught same subjects. Diversification was limited mainly to bricks and mortar, not to the way either knowledge was sought or imparted. If the underprivileged and semi privileged graduates who joined the ranks of professionals adopted a middle class consciousness that separated them from the rest of society including the ones they emerged  from in the first place and functioned with a self-serving and individualistic mentality promoted by the neoliberal, globalised economic system, there is very little hope that a progressive social consciousness can emerge from them other than limited philanthropic activities to support temples, schools, hospitals and less advantaged in the urban and rural areas whether living locally or abroad. Thus, the question is whether promoting liberal-humanistic paradigm can help in the creation of a suitable social consciousness for today for social transformation (economic, political, cultural) even though it helps some graduates from underprivileged backgrounds to become members of the middle class?

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