Another bid to end ragging | Daily News


Another bid to end ragging

Higher Education Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardena has unequivocally pledged to eliminate the scourge of ragging in our universities within the year. He, no doubt, would receive the encomiums of all parents who wish to see their children go through the process of higher education and reap the benefits of the country's free education system without undergoing the inhumane, humiliating and even traumatising treatment that goes by the name of ‘ragging’.

Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world which offers ‘full education’ to all, literally from the cradle to the grave. Sri Lanka boasts an entirely free education system right up to university level. Less than 30,000 students are admitted to universities every year, leaving thousands of students to find alternative means of higher education. In fact, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his Policy Statement, speaks of the need to ensure a brighter future for those students left out of university by offering viable alternatives.

Thus, students who enter the State universities must consider themselves extremely lucky. Universities must not only be centres of knowledge, they must also be examples for exceptional discipline.

‘Ragging’ was originally a brief part of the welcome extended by the senior students to the incoming ‘freshers’ and was meant to be no more than a set of games to induct the new students into the university community. But over the post-colonial decades, what was originally some comical antics evolved into oppressive activities in which the senior students humiliated the freshers by various means to subjugate them and enforce a social hierarchy of power among the students. Today, the physical and mental harassment of new students is the nastiest form of indiscipline in our universities.

Despite many efforts over the years to rein in this social menace, it still prevails in all our universities and in the technical/vocational and training colleges. There have been many deaths of university students in the past that have been attributed to ragging.

Sometime ago seven students – four of them female – were arrested for ragging a female student at the Kelaniya University which brought to the fore societal concerns on ragging. Shockingly, the incident came right after the successful conclusion of a consultative dialogue on preventing ragging and sexual and gender-based violence in universities.

It was reported that the Kelaniya student had been ragged excessively because of her ‘Western’ dress that included trousers. Universities do not have a dress code or uniform per se and nowhere does one find a prohibition on long pants for female students. That is strictly a matter of personal choice. It is regrettable that senior students, who are often thought of as future leaders, resorted to this kind of harassment.

Studies carried out on the topic of ragging some time ago revealed that many of those who engaged in ragging were from depressed social backgrounds. Another finding was that a majority of these raggers are students from the Arts stream with a chip on their shoulder who take delight in inflicting harm on those whom they perceive to be hailing from superior social backgrounds.

All this boils down to a social problem which the authorities ought to tackle at the root, if ragging in the universities is to be controlled to any degree of success. One recalls one-time Higher Education Minister Richard Pathirana making a similar determination to end ragging in our universities, introducing tough regulations to combat the scourge but with little success as subsequent incidents were to prove.

Bringing in the Police does not always help as the students usually view them with suspicion, but some form of outside authority can help the process of cultivating better discipline in universities along with the University Marshals. Many students do not report incidents of ragging due to fear, but universities should have a communications mechanism that enables students to contact the university authorities and/or police confidentially.

The authorities must also study how foreign universities maintain discipline among their vast student populations. Neighbouring India, for example, has a more robust mechanism for dealing with ragging incidents. There have been many calls to make ragging a criminal offence and the authorities should explore this possibility.

Universities are not merely centres of academic learning. Their real aim is to produce useful, law-abiding, civilised women and men who will contribute to society and state. Violent and humiliating ragging, has no place in a civilized society.

Worse, the institutional disruptions arising from bouts of ragging violence are taking their toll on the smooth functioning of our academia. Thus, an end to ragging will help keep our universities functioning without interruption.

The combination of ragging and constant student unrest has driven the more wealthy parents to send their children overseas for their higher studies resulting in the country losing valuable human capital, not to mention the loss of foreign exchange. Our Universities have seen their global rankings decline - another factor recently alluded to by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

This is all the more reason for Minister Gunawardena to be wished full success in his mission to keep our universities free of disruptions like ragging.

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