Home » Re-inventing the Idea of University: Response to Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda Part 2

Re-inventing the Idea of University: Response to Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda Part 2


Photo courtesy of WSWS

Middle class consciousness, non-involvement in politics

The middle class consciousness of graduates who were able to climb the social ladder (we call it social mobility in sociology) was shaped by the modernist education they received in the university on one hand and the non-involvement in politics on the other hand (though a very few participated in party politics and secured better employment opportunities while sharing power as middle managers in government institutions including universities, being secretaries of ministries or obtaining director positions). Non-involvement in politics, national or provincial, was due to several reasons. Firstly, the modernist education suggested that as social scientists we ought to study the social reality (economic, political, cultural) as detached researchers/social scientists. This came from the colonialist mindset of social scientists, anthropologists, humanities scholars from the west who were not familiar with the local custom, idiom, values, language and culture and employed research assistants to translate what they saw and heard in the field.

Secondly, as undergraduates and graduates they developed the idea that politics is a dirty game and it is better to be gentlemen and women and lead a life without unnecessary troubles from politically involved and motivated sections of society, basically political class or families. Political persecution of opponents and the use of law enforcement system against them by those in power is a common feature of Sri Lanka’s political culture. It is criticised when politicians are in the opposition but they tend to maintain it when they come to power. The idealised role of gentleman and woman has its origins in the University of Ceylon in its early days when the university trained a limited number of public servants for the civil service and scientists, professionals for various specialised fields. They were afforded privileges by the British colonial government including better residential facilities that allowed the perpetuation of western oriented lifestyle, mastery in western disciplines, and even opportunities for study abroad.

Radicalised student community

In the later decades, especially since the 60s a large number did not get such employment opportunities and they had to struggle in life without a regular income. Many of them had to come to the road protests demanding the politicians to provide employment. Such protest activities and affiliations with political parties with a progressive and one would say somewhat radical orientation created a different consciousness among the unemployed graduates. Knowing the gloomy future set for them by the system, even students joined such protests while learning in universities. This is a common sight in contemporary times.

The consciousness and ideology of such radicalised students and graduates is thus rooted in their own predicament as well as the underprivileged circumstances of their parents and families with rural or peri urban backgrounds. Their consciousness and action are not bounded by the liberal-humanistic education they received via university education in terms of various disciplinary knowledge. They are nurtured by the anti-establishment political ideology and education not fit for the time or place available nationally. Such students and graduates comprising a large segment of the university undergraduates and graduates with an anti-hegemonic consciousness occupy an underclass in Sri Lankan society who tend to put their lives at risk to confront the security forces in Colombo streets when they are joining other affected workers and professionals who are organised into various trade unions, professional associations such as nurses, teachers, workers in banks, ports and so on. Professor Uyangoda has not considered the predicament of this class of graduates in his articulation of the university and university education by choice or error.

My view is that a university that facilitates social mobility for a fraction of the underprivileged and able to join the gravy train either in the government sector or non-government sector is not a university. It has to serve a much broader role if it is to be liberatory. One has to start by reforming the disciplines, management and governance as well as more fundamental reforms in course structures.  Inspiration for such emancipatory work can come from decolonial and postcolonial thought and practices from the global south.

Liberal humanist and neoliberal paradigms vs decolonial perspective

The liberal-humanist paradigm and the neo liberal economic and managerial paradigm are not two separate paradigms. One has emerged from the other or at least they are closely linked. We have to examine such close connections for a better understanding. I believe that the university education itself has to be transformed if it is to transform the mindset, attitudes and behaviour of undergraduates and graduates not by imitating the liberal-humanist paradigm as such but another paradigm that speaks to the underprivileged conditions of existence of many. Such a paradigm is available in the field of decolonial thinking and action nurtured by a range of scholars from Latin America, Africa, Asia, Caribbean and elsewhere in the global south. Continuation of higher education in the western idiom (liberal-humanistic) either in universities in Lanka or in Britain, wider Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand where a decolonial way of thinking, teaching and research is not nurtured is not going to help those struggling, underprivileged graduates on the streets seeking a better future. The system, including the university system, has failed to do so in the past and will fail to do so in the future unless we change course in a significant way.

Liberal humanistic disciplinary teaching and learning

Liberal humanistic teaching in the university at least in the social sciences and humanities was heavily based on Western European and later American disciplinary knowledge that included Western epistemological paradigms of thought and practice. They provided a lot of information about what happened in history, European and American civilisations, struggles of the under privileged and enlightenment movements, socio-economic and political changes, industrialisation and emergences of science and technology plus the social sciences and creative work, emergence of democratic system of governance, norms and values, concepts of equality before the law, human rights and freedoms. At the same time, emergence of capitalism was seen as a fundamental change leading to the economic, social and cultural prosperity along with the modernist, liberal humanistic education. In later decades, other critical ideas including Marxist and Neo Marxist interpretations of society and government based on capitalist ethic entered university discourses mainly via social sciences.

Nonetheless, the academic dependency on Western knowledge, epistemology and methodology continued along with the attitude that the university educated graduates were a special class of people with a unique capacity to identify issues and problems in society due to their wide reading and education, critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. They were supposed to hold unique skills in planning, conceptualisation, development, administration and understanding the complexities in the post-colonial context. However, this image deteriorated along with the decay in the universities and the departure of many Western trained academics in the 70s and the erosion of university culture due to the politicisation and lack of seriousness in the academic pursuit of knowledge in the disciplines and potential solutions to national problems. A change in the academics themselves from searching for excellence to be mere managers of departments and faculties or teaching in a hierarchical way considering students as listeners rather than active learners whose views and ideas also mattered set in place. Even with the changes in political ideologies that entered the minds of underprivileged students, university authorities continued with the old paradigm of providing disciplinary knowledge in social sciences that originated in Western Europe and/or North America as the acceptable idiom of scholarly and scientific pursuit.Staff training procedures that had been established earlier continued and university staff got promotions if they secured qualifications from Western universities although later on a few secured qualifications locally or from Asian universities.

The match or relevance between the knowledge, epistemology, methodology and perspectives absorbed from Western universities and published research and the needs of local socio economic and political context was never questioned critically as a continuing exercise. Imitation of western paradigms of thought and research and inclusion of collected research data from the country into the paradigmatic frameworks or models imported from the West was considered the standard practice acceptable to Western supervisors. Application of research data to Eastern paradigms and frameworks of thought was not considered part of the acceptable academic exercise. This is how the distance between the university and local society emerged in the first place. Organic links that should have nurtured between the University pursuit of knowledge and the society where students came from disappeared. In such a context, to argue that the source of inspiration for re-inventing the university should come from a tradition that the forefathers of university in Ceylon promoted by way of secularism and liberal humanism is to deny the dependency relationship created by adopting such colonial paradigms of thought and action in the university and knowledge construction and dissemination process.

Initially in the 50s and early 60s, such education was limited to a select few students from well to do families from urban areas plus some who were lucky enough to get a scholarship such as J. Tilakasiri who became professor of Sanskrit at Peradeniya. Graduates were able to enter the government civil service and other professions as planners, scientists or doctors. Others joined the private sector establishments. What allowed the students from underprivileged backgrounds to move upward in the late 60s, 70s and after was the patriotism, national and cultural leadership in the country some of whom came from similarly underprivileged backgrounds. The concept of free education promoted by Mr. C.W.W. Kannangara in the State Council and the bilingual central schools established in the provinces became the catalyst in transforming the university established by the colonial elites from a privileged institution to be one that provided mass education coinciding with the entry of underprivileged students from lower socio-economic backgrounds with little knowledge of English. The decision to provide teaching in the vernacular since the 70s accelerated this process. In time to come, political leaders saw the expansion of universities as a popular policy and even went in so far as to establish more universities in distant rural areas. It was a practice that exhibited supplying more of the same i.e., British or Cambridge model of university that was the basis of Peradeniya. In time to come with the introduction of faculties like management, American model also entered the scene.

It was not a matter of liberal humanism per se that was at play in the conduct of university affairs. What prevailed underneath liberal humanism was the idea of modernity and modernist education i.e., the idea of progress and liberty as achievements of the west, therefore superior to those existing in traditional societies of the periphery. This concept continues to dominate the thinking of university academics and others associated with the university policy making and management without much critical examination.  Its footprint can be observed in the article by Uyangoda and his faith in the liberal humanistic paradigm as the saviour of university also.

Theoretical explanation

If we follow a neo-Marxist interpretation of social change or transformation and believe in different forces of production and exchange (capitalist mode of production), what we see in terms of the two segments – one privileged and the other still under privileged – is the clash of classes underneath the democratically gained power of the ruling class (diverse as it is). One segment is able to participate in the governance system as bureaucrats, middle managers (some as so-called intellectuals) and the other as disempowered, unemployed, under privileged, protesting individuals. The former use the tools of knowledge acquired in the university for their sustenance and in Uyangoda’s terminology to contribute to the social and economic development. The other partially use the tools acquired in the university combined with their political ideology nurtured by parties like the JVP and FSP to mount campaigns of opposition and a critique of the existing system/arrangement. The net result of the competition between these two segments or social forces will produce an outcome in favour of the existing system or against it. In the post independent history of Sri Lanka, we have seen several key instances when the competition turned violent and produced social upheaval. The Aragalaya itself was a product of the simmering tensions in society between competing political and social forces.

Way forward

 My view is that the progressive academic staff and students as well as policy and decision makers need to derive inspiration and lessons from the post-colonial-decolonial thought applicable to global south in developing an anti-hegemonic university drawing from the indigenous traditions of thought and practice applicable to critical thinking on the subject-not limited to nationalistic, ethnic and other narrow considerations.

We also have to do away with segregation of university teaching and learning as well as research bounded by artificially constructed disciplinary boundaries and walls and allow students to seek knowledge from multiple disciplines and sources, local and foreign. We need to stop the current practice of treating fellow citizens by the academic profession as research subjects only. Instead, they ought to take an interest in the problems the citizens face and devising solutions as part of the job.

We need to consider university teaching as a vocation rather than a management role tied in with the university hierarchy for certain privileges such as promotions, overseas trave and leave. We all have a one or two excellent and committed teachers in our lives who went beyond the call of the profession to actually cultivate the minds when we were in schools and universities. It is they who made a difference compared to those who considered teaching as a job and follow the book or curricula to the letter. Through their teaching approaches and methods, they opened our eyes and ears to a historical and contemporary topic, inculcated a way of thinking and reflection, comparative method, and to be able to independent thinkers. What is lacking in universities today are such teachers with a broad vision of teaching. For example, when I was in the school, I had a teacher (did not go to university) who was able to go through a literary work and explain the intentions of the author, who he or she addressed it to, what subtle ways he/she employed to address the power, overt and hidden messages communicated.

Developing a framework or approach to critical thinking grounded in the society and its social contradictions where one is able to distinguish fact from the fiction is the need of the hour when we talk about university and its redirection.


Transformation is necessary in all areas of society. Only an emancipated citizenry representing the highly oppressed segments can generate the necessary consciousness from their experiential knowledge combined with identification of distortions introduced through education and higher education followed by an action plan with clearly defined goals and strategies can be the vanguard of an anti-hegemonic project of liberation informed by the work of decolonial scholars. Continuing with intellectual paradigm such as liberal humanistic or pluralistic that accommodate diversity in theory alone to produce more and more functionaries for the existing system devoid of a liberation ideology and consciousness will not be the answer. Middle classism is a self-serving ideology that taught university undergraduates to think about themselves as a special class of people different from the society that they came from and live a detached life as researchers, administrators, scientists and social scientists. Instead of detachment what we need today is involvement with society, social groups and segments that are struggling to make a living and provide a better future for children as well as to reform the system in their favour. Voices of the weak need to be organised for an emancipatory project by incorporating the lessons learned from global south and articulated by eminent decolonial and postcolonial scholars. This is the missing link in the university even after 70 years of country gained independence from Britain.

From a decolonial and postcolonial perspective we have to raise the question as to whether the social sciences and humanities disciplines which have their points of departure and paradigmatic foundations from Western contexts, epistemologies and methodology – not necessarily Sri Lankan contextual relations – are in fact liberating disciplines? Whether they keep turning emerging generations of Sri Lankans including from underprivileged classes to be someone who becomes aliens in their own society merely because they are able to climb the status and material progress ladder to belong to urban middle class as detached individuals? A progressive vision for the university today needs to inculcate a consciousness and an ethic in the university community to be empathetic to the struggles of the disadvantaged with practical actions, not only ideological empathy.

Read Part 1 here: https://groundviews.org/2023/10/27/re-inventing-the-idea-of-university-response-to-professor-jayadeva-uyangoda-part-1/

What’s your Reaction?

Leave a Comment

To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture.
You can enter the Tamil word or English word but not both
Anti-Spam Image