University Politics and the Students’ Future
Man, (also woman) is considered a political being. It is simply not possible for a person, either male or female, young or old, to completely isolate his/her self from politics. If nothing else, we have a political structure at home, which we call the domestic politics. Most of the youngsters are, however, unaware of what it means to involve in politics for a large part of their lives. And then, they pass examinations and enter into universities, and, tadaa! They find themselves in a maze of political activism.
University Politics has a history as old as universities themselves. At first, it was only a set of rebellious, radical youth who tried to come up with answers for the injustices they face. However, by today, politics within universities have spread in a larger area, with more grave complications, which, if not handled or monitored wisely, result in a complete wastage of the future of the students, and of the resources of the country.
In Sri Lanka, university students spend more time on the roads than in lecture halls, and there is always some faculty closed somewhere due to the administration not being able to hold down the fights and riots that break out within. There are, obviously, two sides in this issue- political brainwashing and the actual youth frustration. Let’s try to be not-so-judgemental here and hear out both the sides. And thus, this is only part one of this article. Here let us understand the university student.
I was lucky enough to interview a fresh prey. Kidding, but no kidding. I got the chance to interview a first year undergraduate of the Faculty of Arts, of the University of Colombo, ‘the’ most prestigious university in Sri Lanka. The questions were, as I felt, well timed (with my luck) since the faculty just opened after a closed time period of two weeks, as a result of violence that broke out between two Student Unions within the faculty. My conversation with the messy-haired, energetic youth, Ishara, known as ‘Lee’, went as follows.
- When you first came to university, what kind of an idea did you have on the concept ‘university politics’?
For my idea, there were two sides that influenced it- things I already knew, heard from peers and seniors who are friends, and also the things I saw once I actually came here. I think it’s the same for everyone. Before you come to university, you have a vague idea what it would be like. But things change when you actually get involved.
- What will you define as ‘university politics’?
I’d say it’s not ‘university politics’ in the first place. It’s ‘Student Politics (“ouch…” says the writer). If you ask me what that is, well, it is a struggle to win the rights of the university students. Look at it like this. There are many facets of it. If we take our faculty, here we have two separate unions. You can choose where you want to side with. If not, there’s another set, who claim to be neutral, but being neutral is also taking a side. So in my opinion, student politics is a natural happening in universities. We all do some kind of political work. We voice what we want for ourselves. Say, if you feel that your scholarship funds should increase, you have to voice it. Student politics deal with these matters.
- In what ways does this go wrong for the students, as you think? What are your, negative consequences?
Well, first thing is, only a few can survive once they step out to the real world. Some of us spend our whole university career for student politics and we get backward in studies. And once we leave, we find we are lost outside. Another sad thing is, we get divided. When we come here, we are all a bunch of nervous freshers, but once politics get hold of us, we become almost enemies. That is something I personally don’t like.
- What is the reason for these divisions? And also the fights among opposing groups?
The main reason is, we don’t have unity. Which actually fuels this is, the fact that you can believe in any political ideology you like. You can freely from groups, which in one way is good and democratic, but in another way creates divisions that sometimes engage violence.
- One last question Lee, as you think, do Student Political parties need the backing up of an outside political party? And is student politics necessary in the University?
What I believe is, we act out both roles of the student and the citizen, and therefore, we sometimes take part in the common state affairs and issues, and one might find us supporting a certain political party at such instances. We, therefore, occasionally need their help. But, I believe we have to be strong enough to carry our own fight.
And as to that last part of the question; Yes. Student politics has to exist, because no rights will be won without a struggle.
As we can see, the people who are fresh out of school have a limited experience regarding the politics in universities. It is through involvement that they get to understand what it is. And it can be seen ,that unlike what we think as university students who are wasting their time in these youth movements, they do have a point. And they know the pros and cons of it.
Since this was only the ideas of a first year student who very recently started working with university politics, I again interviewed someone who you can call, ‘experienced’ in the system of university politics.
Kashmir Karunanayaka, a third-year medical student of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo has worked as the Union Leader of the Medical Faculty Students’ Union. Born to a family with a political background, this radical, charismatic orator had some important insights regarding what he is a part of.
- According to you, how big is the role played by ‘Student politics’ in a university student’s life?
There are two aspects for this. Ideologically and in reality. In an ideological point of view, student politics should be there, not to influence the State, but to help students. For the common good of everyone, these student political unions maintain laws and etiquettes which creates a common background for the students. The students are in an eternal struggle, to win their rights and facilities. But ideologically, these laws should not be oppressive. They should not be thrust upon students. And they should only be aimed at the common good of all. But in reality, this doesn’t happen all the time. When and if the seniors get carried away with the ideas of seniority, they use ragging as means of instilling fear. In some places, in some universities therefore, rag seasons are very oppressive. This shouldn’t be like that. The main role of student politics should be to fight for the facilities- better buildings, good lecture halls, sanitary facilities…, and to create an equal atmosphere for the students.
- What makes an undergraduate get involved in politics? What incentives evoke these radical behaviors?
This is a very broad question. There are many reasons. This depends on the person. For me, even from school days I was very radical, and I had a political family background- my father worked as a JVP leader once. So it was natural for me. It is the same for some students. They are natural leaders and they are elected from among their peers to lead them in a movement. Then, the next set are those who seek attention. These are dangerous people. They have no idea what real politics is. They use student politics to their own benefits. This is bad, because they will not be working for the common good of students. The other set of students are a very curious sort of people. They also don’t have an idea about politics, and they join a student union with the herd mentality, just to go with the crowd. They are not bad, but are not reliable, because they have no clear idea as to what they’ve got themselves into. Other than these reasons, there are ideologies thrust upon them. Seniors often try to convince them as to what they should believe in.
- You were a union leader at one point. Based on that experience, what do you personally expect through Student Politics?
Well, most of the unions believe it is their duty to hold pickets and rallies for everything the governments do. I don’t believe in that stuff. Than in many other countries, we are blessed with “free education”. The people, not the government, are spending money for you to learn. So you hold a duty towards them. You have a responsibility to protect what you already have, for the future generation. Beyond that, the matters of the government, that is not a union’s concern. There are many important issues within faculties. In my faculty, we have only one washroom for 1200 students. That has been like that for over ten years now. Mainly, if I ideologically ran the union, I’d improve the life standards of the students. They are already in an alien place. They live in hostels, boarding places, they have less to eat. So a union should solve these problems first. Than trying to solve the matters of the government, because you should not meddle with ‘dirty’ politics. It is not for us.
There’s an accusation that an outside political party always triggers the students, and that the student movements are not actually ‘student’ movements, but occasions where students are used by politicians. What’s your opinion on that?
Some student unions are student wings of outside political parties. This is true. Even though most of us don’t want to accept it, it is truth. Most powerful student unions are student wings of political parties. And it is true that for some crisis situations, support from outside political parties in needed. But, i firmly believe that student politics should be independent, without meddling with political parties. And there are some purely student-driven unions in many universities, which work really well for the benefit of the students.
- Final question, what kind of an effect does University Politics have on the future of an undergraduate? What are the negative and positive effects?
First let’s talk about the negative aspect. One common issue is, the lengthening of the academic years of universities. It is absurd and disadvantageous. Therefore one bitter truth is these union clashes will always delay the academic time-period of students. Also, youth is wasted in roads. It is also true. Since the government is unable to solve students’ problems, students have to eternally struggle wasting their time. This is because of the inefficiency of the government. But, there have been some impressive victories of student unions as well. The increase of the ‘mahapola’ scholarship funds is one such occasion. But truly speaking, because of the university political systems not being updated and due to the inefficient administration, there are more negative points than the positives.
As we listen to these young people trying to express themselves, it can be seen that it is not solely a waste of time they spend struggling, as the common belief goes. The university students, as it seems, have no choice but to take matters to their own hands due to the inefficient administration. It can be assumed that they do not get much opportunities at effective dialogues with the administrative officials. These students have a point, and they are struggling to prove their point. And as we often think, rather ‘misbelieve’, these student movements are not unorganized or without a vision. They do have a vision, but there is no way for them to clearly discuss what their vision is.
It can be seen that this is a pathetic situation. From the students’ point of view, they are doing what they see is right, to preserve their rights. So, to get a balanced view of this matter, in the next article we will see how the administration views university politics.