A young Mr. Dharmakeerthi had recently posted the image I have herewith uploaded as a recent Facebook post: “I am proud to be from a non-governmental university”. In accompaniment is a substantial text in which Dharmakeerthi makes a defensive apology for Private University Education. Some of the highlights of his story — misreadings and substanceless meanderings, really — are as follows:
- Education is education whether it is “private” or “government”.
- The Private University student paid for their studies, but it doesn’t mean that they received their grades for the money they paid. They were received for the “effort we invested” (verbatim).. “We never wasted a single penny of that investment our parents made for our education”.
- (To “Revolutionary Students” of State Universities) Dharmakeerthi says to be thankful for the “free education” they are receiving at the “Cost of people” and to make sure that “each penny invested by the country on behalf of you is worth it”. He urges the State sponsored students not to regard Private University students “with jealousy and hate” but to “invest that time on studies and be a good citizen”.
A pedestrian on cyber sidewalks is dictated by commonsense to leave people like Dharmakeerthi alone, as, clearly, this is someone engaged in an extremely shallow reading of the “State vs Private” education debate which has many deep and complex implications. Initially, I engaged with the post in passing, specially, since Dharmakeerthi is defensive and apologetic of his Degree and as he misses the deeper ethical dimension of the against-Privatization line, which, for me, is crucial. But, at the time of writing this, this post — which is one of several similar posts being circulated across the web in recent weeks — has notched 1000 odd “likes”, including those from a few young men and women I see and meet on a daily basis. Some of them even share this bizarre post, saying “I am a State University student, but, I agree with this 100%…”, which is sad to say the least.
Why is the post Dharmakeerthi has shared bizarre? Why is its uncritical sharing, to say the least, sad? At the risk of sounding reductionist, the ethical debate underlying the “State vs Private” conflict has to be re-iterated even though I am quite aware that it is a more complex debate. But, for the purpose of documentation needed for this post, I am led to spread out some of its cardinal aspects as follows:
- The right to education is fundamental. It is an ethic and a right, and it has been provided constitutional grounding.
- Education, donored through an institutionalized mechanism, can benefit from parameters and benchmarking, ensuring relative consistency and quality. In the Sri Lankan system there is a merit-based prioratization in selecting candidates to Universities. This is an ethical base evolving from the more socialistic, welfare-friendly aspects of government.
- When Education is commodified, the merit-oriented base is (can be) ruptured, resulting in a parity between those who can “purchase” that education, and those who cannot. This is unethical, given that not all candidates are of the same economic footing.
- Sri Lanka, at present, has high pressure at the bottleneck into Bachelor’s courses. Cut off marks are competitive and intake is limited. Candidates within the top 5-10% of their GCE A/L lose out on Entrance.
Under these circumstances, Dharmakeerthi’s argument that “all Education is Education” is a misreading of the worst kind. In the above context, how can the 3600th in a list that only permits 500, bypassing the 501st on the back of a healthier purchasing power be ethically rationalized? Life is not always about survival of the fittest: specially, when it comes to matters of morals and ethics. The more consistent answer to the dilemma is what is at the heart of many of the Activist organs agitating for Fair and Free Education: a meaningful and efficient expansion of the system, policy-making and a channeling of funds and facilities to reach this end.
Phrases in Dharmakeerthi’s post, such as, “the Private University student paid for their studies… they received their grades for… the “effort [they] invested” and “[they] never wasted a single penny of [the] investment our parents made for our education” are anti-intellectual in their rhetoric and shows a shallow assessment of the debate at hand. His feel-good euphamisms aside, can one reduce the on going struggle for a “Free and Fair Education” — for one which activists and students stake their careers and futures — to a “waste”, in a simple cost-benefit sense? Who is Dharmakeerthi to patronize and give pontific advice to the political convictions of collectives that strive to avert crisis at their own cost; who are now told by this Superior Being “to be thankful for the free education” at the “Cost of people”? The Student Activism is told not to view Private University students “with jealousy and hate” but to “invest that time on studies and [to] be a good citizen”. That, all issues will be solved by a magic genie.
The struggle for Free and Fair Education is accented by the belief and faith for an expansion and further democratization of Education opportunities. The main agitation on the part of numerous activists engaged in the struggle is to increase state responsibility in order to meaningfully further facilities, resources and cadre intake. It is perceptive of the standardization of education and the teaching and learning mechanism to meet an acceptable level within an environment of “equal access” and equinimity. Unlike what Dharmakeerthi suggests, there is no “hatred” or “jealousy” underpinning the struggle for Free Education. Nor is the Student Movement’s / Activists’ struggle one against the individual students of Private Universities. It is a struggle against an abused ethic, and one carried out in view of a more acceptable, democratically-honed access to Education.
Why I am saddened, at one level, is because Dharmakeerthi’s bizarre pronouncements seem to have stirred a response — a huzzah — in some contemporaries with whom I try to engage critically and politically on a weekly basis. Some of these persons are socially privileged and members of an “elite niche” on campus, whose worldviews and preoccupations are not necessarily complementary with the expectations and aspirations of students with “lesser” social clout. Yet, these are young minds whose political consciousness, one hopes, may spot a naive, baby-statement when one is on offer. Their personal prejudices against Left Wing Student politics and their alienation from the University at large have misted/corrupted their aptitude in critically engaging with a post like what is under our scrutiny.
“I am proud to say I am from a non-govt university”: where does the pride come from? What is the catalyst of such pride? In an ethics-free application, purchasing power may dictate one’s consuming a degree-education. But, still, why “pride“? Or, is this as hollow a statement as Dharmakeerthi’s reading of Education as a whole: a cheap cut-and-paste from the “I am proud to be….” series, which is a cheap moment of a larger counter-intellectual drive which sweeps us to-and-fro at every turn?