|Wednesday, 27 November 2002|
Point of View : Ragging: whose house is on fire?
by Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole
Much is made of ragging. We say it is bad, students are bad, call out the cops, put the bad guys behind bars etc. All of it has some merit. Despite all the remedies and ever-hardening attitudes against it, the problem does not go away. Why?
The US black militant of the 1970s, Malcolm X, spoke of two kinds of slaves, the house and field slaves. When the owner's house is set ablaze, the house slave would try to douse the fire while the field slave would say, "Burn it down brother!" For it is not his house.
I put it to you that instead of university students (house slaves) with a stake in the system, we have created disfranchised students (field slaves) to whom what happens to the university does not matter. They have no stake in it. It is true that the students have many faults. But the remedy requires the staff also being responsible for good order, not just the students.
The university is a community of students and staff, with no meaningful relationship between them. It is as though the university is for us staff and the students are there merely to give us staff a reason for being.
This breeds resentment among students.
Let me indicate some factors that prompt me to say this:
1. Students' feelings of powerlessness: Many staff members treat students like dirt. At Peradeniya, freshers are told by their seniors that they must not ask questions in class and those who do would be noted and punished at examinations. Students believe this because there is no appeal for re-scrutiny of exam scripts.
This belief of how evil we are is bolstered by the recent discovery at Peradeniya of sackfuls of unmarked exam scripts on which grades and degrees had been issued. It seems that the argument given for it, that there is no regulation that scripts should be "marked," is allowing the culprits to argue that notes were taken from the scripts and then marks issued from them! Even as we staff urge students to study hard, we ourselves have just 3 or so hours of work a week.
We who categorise students as first class, honours, fail, etc. (and sometimes love that power we have over them), maintain that we are all equally good teachers deserving time-based increments and must not be evaluated as teachers. We argue that students cannot be trusted to evaluate staff (contrary to the findings of learned studies). Indeed, the recent unmarked scripts show that staff cannot be trusted to evaluate students.
Proper evaluation before confirmation of staff would eliminate the few among us who fail as teachers and call their students buffaloes and ungrateful dogs and earn us a bad name while alienating students.
2. Sauce for the student goose - sauce for the staff gander: We take a very strict and merciless attitude to students cheating at their immature age, but I have pointed out to the UGC cases where we staff who are mature and supposedly role models to our students have cheated to get our promotions to the professorship. At two universities in the US where I have taught, first time student-cheaters were treated with some lenience and their files had a sealed envelope containing a description of the incident, with the outside marked: "To be opened in case there is any violation by the student and, if still unopened at graduation, to be destroyed at the time."
In contrast in Sri Lanka a committee recommended stringent punishment for a student having a bus ticket on which something was scribbled in such small letters that no one could read it. We staff cheat in our work (the unmarked exam scripts, cancelled lectures that do not come to light because of no teaching evaluations etc.). If we recognized our own fallibility, we could perhaps learn to treat students with greater compassion.
3. Mismanagement of funds:
Today budgets are being slashed and students find it hard to support themselves.
Yet there is massive wastage of public funds and fraud at our universities.
Equipment (including one for Rs. 21 million) lies unused for the teaching for which it was intended at the engineering faculty. A building contract awarded to a company (seemingly fronting for internal staff) has been halted because of irregularities in purchasing. Students see this every day because the project involved building a second storey to meet immediate classroom needs and now we do not even have the ground floor.
Where do we stand as role models to our students with such public and daily display of our dishonesty? How seriously can we expect them to take destruction of property during student riots?
4. Tamil alienation:
As a Tamil professor to whom Tamil students bring their complaints, I see how alienated some of them are and would readily say "Burn it down brother!" They are denied access to training slots at the CEB and SLT for security reasons and have been asked to copy the diaries of their Sinhalese friends so that they can be examined and passed. But the system will not examine the issues. Many English medium courses have at least parts of lectures in Sinhalese - I have complaints from Peradeniya, Sri Jayawardenepura, Moratuwa and the Open University. At the latter a daring student passed up a note saying "Could you please teach in English - A Tamil student." The lecturer, a head no less, answered in Sinhalese why he is teaching in Sinhalese which the student did not understand. Can we expect Tamils to cooperate in dousing the fire that is gutting our universities?
Tamil alienation at Peradeniya is rarely discussed. May 1983's attempted ethnic cleansing of the campus, the non-implementation of the recommendations of the council report on that attempt, and the election to Dean of a person named for negligence in that report, are all vividly etched in Tamil memory. So also the elimination of the internationally renowned Devanathan, D.Sc. Lond., from the services of the university. (He had his sabbatical leave approved upon which he sold his car, vacated his quarters, and accepted an air ticket. Then just before leaving his leave was cancelled by Peradeniya's VC with no sound reason. He resigned with little choice and left for the US).
An example of a flashpoint from this alienation is the lighting of firecrackers by some Tamil students in Akbar Hall when Elephant Pass fell to the LTTE. Some Sinhalese students responded by trying to collect contributions for fallen soldiers from Tamil students. A nasty incident was barely averted through good leadership by student leaders and the authorities.
5. Staff as raggers and thugs: When Varapragash was killed during ragging 5 years ago at Peradeniya, a student interviewed on TV said he had been ragged by staff. Although the university moved against students, the student who granted the interview was called up for an enquiry.
The university is a community. A community and its relationships require mutual respect, giving all components a stake and accountability by all. In such a community, it is very difficult for one component to "Burn it down" instead of seeking dialogue to douse the fire. Indeed, in our own personal lives, when we have a relationship and there is a dispute, we would seek dialogue and try to rectify the misunderstandings. On the other hand when we have dispute with someone for whom we have little respect, it is easier to explode and throw away the relationship.
So it is in a university. Staff must show respect for students and behave accountably and incorporate students in the community in its true and full sense. This means, first, that there must be serious punishment for staff misbehaviour and non-performance. At present there is impunity in general and punishment only for staff who question the system.
And second, to include students, the student judiciary is something that is worth trying out. I have been involved with such a body in the US. It works.
People here tend to say that it won't work here but including students in the community requires first recognizing them as responsible persons.
The judiciary is elected and handles all matters of discipline. It holds formal hearings and issues judgements that include dismissal. As a professor I have had to present cheating cases to my own students. One charge was thrown out, but others upheld.
Students took it very seriously, issued periodic reports to the community on every case that came up and the system was seen to have integrity. And because students decided on the punishments according to statutes drawn up by the community, there were no riots.
(The writer is a senior lecturer of the Engineering Faculty of the Peradeniya University).
Produced by Lake House