Sri Lanka’s student representatives could never be accused of lacking enthusiasm or commitment. In the mass protests seen frequently on our island last year, concerning everything from education to fuel prices, power shortages and issues in public transportation, they played a leading role.
Their influence on the quality of education at Sri Lankan universities is, however, much more doubtful. Student bodies often function as the youth wing of political parties; clashes with police or rival student groups over national political issues are common, but largely unrelated to classroom matters. It is too easy, however, to blame nefarious external forces for the disengagement of student politics from universities. It is more difficult to admit that, in many Sri Lankan higher education institutions – as in South Asia in general – student welfare is accorded zero importance.
Students’ unions, too, have done little to improve student welfare, such as by cracking down on “ragging”: the abhorrent practice of subjecting new undergraduates to degrading initiation rites that, at their most extreme, have led some students to leave university or even commit suicide. And universities themselves routinely dismiss student complaints, with some institutions referring those unhappy with their courses to medical doctors rather than admit to any failings themselves.
Sadly, academia has, for many scholars, become a very self-centred profession, with students given very little attention or care. Mutual respect between student leaders and academics is very low. Maybe this is understandable when promotion and funding depend solely on research success, with few incentives to improve undergraduate teaching. But it cannot go on. Improving the bond between student and lecturer will be essential to improve the culture within Sri Lankan universities.
Students’ voices are heard loud and clear in most Western universities. In many countries, undergraduates are becoming increasingly involved in the improvement of their own learning experiences, with universities seeking their input into programme design, mode of delivery and teaching and learning outcomes. Their views reach senior management via teaching evaluation surveys and student media, but also through the hard work of student representatives – from course reps to elected student union officers striving to improve education standards and general conditions.
Sri Lankan universities also have student reps, who are beginning to put aside partisan politics and begin a new phase of constructive, education-focused engagement. But universities must also change, and become more receptive to their feedback.
Too often, faculty in Sri Lanka use the sanctity of “academic autonomy” as an excuse to ignore suggestions from students that could improve their courses. Moulding the intellectual lives of students is, of course, important, pushing them into areas where they are challenged and taken out of their comfort zones. But it is also important to foster an open environment in which students can speak honestly about the teaching that they receive.
In most areas of our work in higher education, students are the stakeholders who are best placed to rate the quality of delivery. This has been recognised by the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency, which several years ago chose to embed students within quality assurance teams – who, in turn, can look for evidence that institutions are listening to their student advisory committees. But student engagement in quality assurance is still at an early stage in developing countries, and it will probably take time before students are seen as true partners in the academic community. Many Sri Lankan scholars still dismiss the notion as deluded nonsense given students’ relative lack of experience in the university setting.
However, young people bring valuable insight and perspective on university life given their arguably greater exposure to the modern world and modern expectations. For instance, their input into the provision of university services for students with learning or physical disabilities is vital if we want to makes our campuses more disability-friendly.
Creating a culture of meaningful partnership between educators, students’ unions and students is vital if Sri Lankan universities are to become better learning environments.
Janadari Wijesinghe is a writer on higher education issues and development in Sri Lanka. She is deputy secretary for academic affairs at the University Grants Commission in Colombo.