Universities: realising the true potential | Sunday Observer

Universities: realising the true potential

15 January, 2023

“Today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders” may be a cliché, but it also happens to be true. But the problem is that the voice of youth is rarely heard in the country’s development process. President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has announced a 25-year plan to attain developed status by 2048 (the 100th anniversary of Independence), has perceived this lacuna perfectly.

It is vital, therefore, to get the views of youth on all aspects of development including education, health, finance, social welfare and infrastructure projects. We have paid a heavy price for neglecting youth aspirations on at least three occasions – 1971 and 1988/89 and even the battle in the North has its origins in the marginalisation of Northern youth, though it was hijacked by the LTTE terrorist movement later.

It is doubtful whether successive Governments drew the appropriate lessons even from these massive upheavals. Even the recent Aragalaya was a manifestation of the frustrations of youth, at least until its trajectory was commandeered by certain extremist political parties with a history of violence. Nevertheless, some of the issues raised through the Aragalaya still remain unanswered.

One such issue is the creation of ample opportunities in Sri Lanka itself for skilled youth. The lack of such opportunities has driven desperate youth to leave the country in search of better prospects. This is not surprising, given that out of the 150,000 or so students who qualify for university admission, only about 40,000 can actually enter the State universities. The others are left to their own devices.

President Wickremesinghe, himself a university graduate who has experienced the travails of youth, has vowed to tackle these inequalities and give the youth a better future. He has said maximising the contribution of youth in the future development plans of the country through a ‘National Youth Platform’, a great opportunity for the youth to present their vision of the country’s future to the Government and policy planners. In this respect, President Wickremesinghe said the future development plans of the country should be prepared not for today but for the next 25 years.

He has noted that the expectation is to maximise the contribution of the youth, adding that when the centenary of Independence is celebrated in another 25 years, the youth of the country will be the leaders of the country. The President pointed out that the youth can present their vision, plans and creative skills to the Government through the National Youth Platform for building the developed country that they desire.

Accordingly, it was proposed to implement these programs with the participation of the universities based in the districts of Colombo, Galle, Jaffna, Kandy and Batticaloa.

This is a welcome move, as it will give the university students a target to achieve, apart from their studies per se. Right now, the more radical student groups seem to be on the streets most of the time, making purely political demands that have nothing in common with their studies. This is also a good opportunity to review the university courses as well – some of them have little or no relevance to the modern-day job market and those who pass out with these subjects often become total misfits who are unable to find employment.

After all, Sri Lanka is probably the only country in the world with an “Unemployed Graduates Association”. This in itself exposes the sheer futility of some of our university courses and degrees. As the President has pointed out, our universities must also branch out to relatively new sectors such as tourism, a US$ 7 billion per annum industry with great potential for youth participation.

The State must also not give into pressure from student bodies and trade unions over the establishment of private universities, which Sri Lanka needs to stop the flow of foreign exchange to foreign universities and also to attract foreign exchange from foreign students. Besides, it will help at least some of the thousands of students who are unable to enter the local State universities for want of a mark or two. It was rather unfortunate that SAITM was sabotaged, but the Government must now be determined to establish private universities regardless of any attempts by groups with vested interests to scuttle those projects.

In the meantime, the authorities should address the twin evils of drug use and ragging in universities and other seats of higher learning. It was reported that some of the students who attacked an academic of the Peradeniya university and his son recently were high on ICE (Crystal Meth), one of the most dangerous narcotics. This is an alarming trend that has spread to schools as well, according to the latest reports. Strict security measures should prevail to prevent the entry of dangerous narcotics to schools and universities, to ensure that the future of the youth does not get bleak.

Ragging is the other scourge that blights our university system. All Governments have tried to eliminate ragging with no success. Ragging is mostly carried out by senior students from depressed backgrounds who seem to have a grudge against new students from the upper echelons of society. It should actually be recognised and treated as a mental condition.

Sri Lankan universities lack a system of counselling and guidance for students, which might help address this issue. The University Marshal system too should be strengthened. Stern action should be taken against identified raggers in any institution, to deter would-be raggers.

If these vexed issues are addressed in earnest, there is no doubt that the university system would be able to make a much bigger contribution to the envisaged 25-year national development drive.