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Decolonising SL universities

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BY KAUSHALYA HERATH

Recent socio-political debates in Sri Lanka on higher education suggest that universities are being viewed as neo-liberal institutions set up to produce human capital for the market. State imperatives to produce employable graduates with the desired mix of knowledge, skills, and competencies to serve the (global) economy have translated to a growing marginalisation of the arts in favour of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programmes at universities. How come our universities have uncritically embraced this approach to higher education? Is there still potential to shift the vision of higher education to one that envisages universities as places of critical learning, that produce passionate thinkers, as well as contextually relevant knowledge, in the service of humanity?

Colonial knowledge systems

Movements to decolonize universities are spreading across both the global North and South. When it comes to the Global South, however, the education institutions, and structures that continue to date are a legacy of cultural colonisation under western imperialism. As Edward Said argues In Orientalism, what we know and understand about our histories and ourselves has been constructed through Western epistemologies and lenses. Post-development theorists, like Andre Gunder Frank and Arturo Escobar, further point out that the development process that created underdevelopment in so called third world countries, has also marginalised other ways of imagining those countries and their knowledge systems.

Our universities currently follow deductive approaches to producing knowledge. Our undergraduates are taught theories and models developed in the West with little regard to their relevance to the local setting. The gaps and epistemological power hierarchies we experience in our higher education institutions and in society at large when we bring these knowledge systems to practice, could be also due to such cultural irrelevances. As Nihal Perera discusses in Transforming Asian Cities, we try to understand Asian cities through theories developed to understand cities elsewhere. This is common in most disciplines whether in the humanities or natural sciences. We seem to be unable to free ourselves of the colonial knowledge apparatus that continue to inform and shape our educational institutions, including the universities.

Today, many degree programmes include practicums or internships to sensitise graduates to corporate work. While such training opportunities do enable students to obtain hands-on experience, and “learn by doing,” this should not permit industry/corporate actors to dictate what they expect of graduates or influence the curriculum. The requirements of the corporate sector are not limited to the knowledge and skills to perform the work but also include “soft skills” to fit the neoliberal workplace. Universities, once the executors of cultural colonisation, are being colonised by the corporate sector, where the university must produce an employee to match the corporate culture.

 

Inciting passionate and critical thinking

Universities should be places where individuals who already have certain types of knowledge and sensibilities can come together to dialogue and build on their knowledge. Yet, this is not what is happening in most universities today. Most often it is assumed that undergraduates enter higher education institutions possessing zero knowledge on a subject. From this perspective, the sole purpose of a degree programme becomes support for students to stock up on knowledge. Overlooking or dismissing experiential knowledge as irrelevant is oppressive and even violent.

If we are to ignite passion in our undergraduates to explore and understand societal problems, we need to make pedagogical processes more relevant to their histories, experiences and aspirations. Developing vernacular epistemologies to read our own spaces and society is critical to developing grounded solutions to address societal problems. Critical pedagogies that employ bottom up or inductive approaches towards understanding local social processes are crucial, especially in the current moment when we are seeing devastation unfolding before our eyes with no foreseeable solutions in sight. Universities should develop mechanisms to understand and theorise local knowledge systems. How the universities can decolonize and indigenize knowledge production without going into the other extreme of nationalism is a bit tricky and will require dialogue and reflection.

Instilling in students the idea that they can collaborate in knowledge production processes, and be designers of their own theories and knowledge, is a responsibility universities hold.

The prevailing examination system at our universities values individual achievements over collective efforts. The closed book examination system and individual assessments reinforce and entrench individualistic ideals of achievement. Shifting towards collective approaches to knowledge production may create spaces that help undergraduates to grow into passionate and critical thinkers. While there are some informal systems and collective efforts led by students, it might be worthwhile to brainstorm how classrooms can adopt such methods, understanding that some of these may themselves be marginalising or violent.

The social sciences and humanities must necessarily play a role in this huge undertaking. However, as discussed previously in this column, the arts are increasingly being discredited and delegitimized at multiple levels. While the hierarchy between the natural sciences and the arts is pushing students to select STEM streams, this means that young people often select subject streams without passion or a sense of purpose.

 

Education for work?

After the Advanced Level exams every year, I receive calls from numerous young people hoping to enter a state university from different parts of the country. A common question, whether from district firsts or those with marginal marks, is “which degree programme will get me a job quickly?” Often the question is not even about what kinds of jobs they will get after their degree, but rather how soon they will get a job and how much it will pay. The passion to do something other than pursuing materialistic ideals of individual ‘success’ seems to have got lost somewhere along the way in the process of being educated.

The separation of passion and employment is also a form of divide and rule. Your contribution to the economy in terms of work must remain separate from your passion and other interests, which you are expected to pursue when you are no longer working for the neoliberal market. The separation of work and passion, like the separation of work and vacation, is happening through forms of coloniality.

As much as arts and humanities education are disdained in Sri Lanka for producing “unemployable” graduates, STEM education is also narrowing down to a technical orientation to produce graduates who can fit into the capitalist economy. While higher education as a whole is losing its humanity as well as philosophical touch, this power struggle is also leading to increasing compartmentalisation of STEM and arts education.

The multidisciplinary approach in STEM degree programmes is withering away to only accommodate more technical modules that will enable specialisation in specific tasks, but not enable critical intellectual readings of larger contexts. For example, this year, the BSc (Hons) in Town and Country Planning programme at the University of Moratuwa has changed the entrance criteria for new applicants. Earlier, students who fulfilled the required cut-off mark from any stream could enter, but now applications are entertained only from students from the natural sciences. The decision to restrict a multidisciplinary degree programme to students who took natural sciences subjects at the Advanced levels speaks to the hierarchical understanding of natural sciences and humanities, and the increasing compartmentalisation of degree programmes more broadly.

In a time when multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and/or transdisciplinarity are being promoted worldwide, our higher education institutions are applying more and more restrictions and compartmentalising programmes to be free of the social sciences and humanities. The Moratuwa example is just one example among many; recent curriculum changes in STEM programmes in state universities display a similar trend. Adopting “employability” as a benchmark, and marketing degree programmes on this basis, could be a key driver of developing arts-free technical curriculums in STEM education.

In conclusion, colonisation of the university system is ongoing with various pressures to conform to utilitarian approaches that seek to create employees for the global economy. To decolonise the universities, and create critical thinkers and passionate scholars, it is imperative that we make university curricula more relevant to the sensibilities and experiences of our undergraduates and indigenize knowledge production processes. The social sciences and humanities would necessarily play a major role in this undertaking.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies. 

 

(The writers is PhD student, University of Dundee, Scotland, UK)



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Features

TNGlive relieving boredom

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Yes, indeed, the going is tough for everyone, due to the pandemic, and performers seem to be very badly hit, due to the lockdowns.

Our local artistes are feeling the heat and so are their counterparts in most Indian cities.

However, to relieve themselves of the boredom, while staying at home, quite a few entertaining Indian artistes, especially from the Anglo-Indian scene, have showcased their talents on the very popular social media platform TNGlive.

And, there’s plenty of variety – not just confined to the oldies, or the current pop stuff; there’s something for everyone. And, some of the performers are exceptionally good.

Lynette John is one such artiste. She hails from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, and she was quite impressive, with her tribute to American singer Patsy Cline.

She was featured last Thursday, as well (June 10), on TNGlive, in a programme, titled ‘Love Songs Special,’ and didn’t she keep viewers spellbound – with her power-packed vocals, and injecting the real ‘feel’ into the songs she sang.

What an awesome performance.

Well, if you want to be a part of the TNGlive scene, showcasing your talents, contact Melantha Perera, on 0773958888.

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Supreme Court on Port City Bill: Implications for Fundamental Rights and Devolution

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The determination of the Supreme Court on the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill was that as many as 26 provisions of the Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution and required to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The Court further determined that nine provisions of the Bill also required the approval of the people at a referendum.

Among the grounds of challenge was that the Bill effectively undermined the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and infringed on the sovereignty of the people. It was argued that several provisions undermined the legislative power of the People reposed on Parliament. Several provisions were challenged as violating fundamental rights of the People and consequently violating Article 3, read with Article 4(d) of the Constitution. Another ground of challenge was that the Bill contained provisions that dealt with subjects that fall within the ambit of the Provincial Council List and thus had to be referred to every Provincial Council for the expression of its views thereon as required by Article 154G(3).

 

Applicable constitutional provisions

Article 3 of our Constitution recognises that “[i]n the Republic of Sri Lanka, sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable”. Article 3 further provides that “Sovereignty includes the powers of government, fundamental rights and the franchise”. Article 3 is entrenched in the sense that a Bill inconsistent with it must by virtue of Article 83 be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the people at a referendum.

Article 4 lays down the manner in which sovereignty shall be exercised and enjoyed. For example, Article 4(d) requires that “fundamental rights which are by the Constitution declared and recognised shall be respected, secured and advanced by all the organs of government and shall not be abridged, restricted or denied, save in the manner and to the extent hereinafter provided”. Article 4 is not mentioned in Article 83. In its determinations on the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution Bill, 2002 and the 19th Amendment to the Constitution Bill, 2002, a seven-member Bench of the Supreme Court noted with approval that the Court had ruled in a series of cases that Article 3 is linked up with Article 4 and that the said Articles should be read together. This line of reasoning was followed by the Court in its determination on the 20th Amendment to the Constitution Bill.

Under Article 154G(3), Parliament may legislate on matters in the Provincial Council List but under certain conditions. A Bill on a matter in the Provincial Council List must be referred by the President, after its publication in the Gazette and before it is placed in the Order Paper of Parliament, to every Provincial Council for the expression of its views thereon. If every Council agrees to the passing of the Bill, it may be passed by a simple majority. But if one or more Councils do not agree, a two-thirds majority is required if the law is to be applicable in all Provinces, including those that did not agree. If passed by a simple majority, the law will be applicable only in the Provinces that agreed.

 

Violation of fundamental rights and need for a referendum

Several petitioners alleged that certain provisions of the Port City Bill violated fundamental rights. The rights referred to were mainly Article 12(1)—equality before the law and equal protection of the law, Article 14(1)(g)—freedom to engage in a lawful occupation, profession, trade, business or enterprise— and Article 14(1)(h)—freedom of movement. Some petitioners specifically averred that provisions that violated fundamental rights consequently violated Articles 3 and 4 and thus needed people’s approval at a referendum.

The Supreme Court determined that several provisions of the Bill violated various fundamental rights and thus were required to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The question of whether the said provisions consequently violated Article 4(d) and thus Article 3 and therefore required the approval of the People at a referendum was not ruled on.

The Essential Public Services Bill, 1979 was challenged as being violative of both Article 11 (cruel, degrading or inhuman punishment) and Article 14. Mr. H.L. de Silva argued that a Bill that violates any fundamental right is also inconsistent with Article 4(d) and, therefore, with Article 3. The Supreme Court held that the Bill violated Article 11 but not Article 14. Since a Bill that violates Article 11 has, in any case, to be approved at a referendum as Article 11 is listed in Article 83, the Court declined to decide on whether the Bill offended Article 3 as well, as it “is a well-known principle of constitutional law that a court should not decide a constitutional issue unless it is directly relevant to the case before it.”

A clear decision on the issue came about in the case of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution Bill; a seven-member Bench of the Supreme Court held that the exclusion of the decisions of the Constitutional Council from the fundamental rights jurisdiction of the Court was inconsistent with Articles 12 (1) and 17 (remedy for the infringement of fundamental rights by executive action) and consequently inconsistent with Article 3, necessitating the approval of the Bill at a referendum.

When the 20th Amendment to the Constitution Bill sought to restore the immunity of the President in respect fundamental rights applications, the Supreme Court determined that the “People’s entitlement to remedy under Article 17 is absolute and is a direct expression of People’s fundamental rights under Article 3 of the Constitution.”

In the case of the Port City Bill, however, the Supreme Court only determined that certain provisions of the Bill violated fundamental rights and thus required a two-thirds majority, but did not go further to say that the offending provisions also required approval of the people at a referendum.

Perhaps, the Court took into consideration the Attorney-General’s assurance during the hearing that the impugned clauses would be amended at the committee stage in Parliament.

However, Parliament is not bound by the Attorney-General’s assurances. In the absence of a clear determination that the clauses concerned required a referendum as well, Parliament could have passed the clauses by a two-thirds majority. The danger inherent in the Supreme Court holding that a provision of a Bill violates fundamental rights and requires a two-thirds majority but makes no reference to the requirement of a referendum is that a government with a two-thirds majority is free to violate fundamental rights, and hence the sovereignty of the People by using such majority. It is respectfully submitted that the Court should, whenever it finds that a provision violates fundamental rights, declare that Article 3 is also violated and a referendum is necessary, as it did in the cases mentioned.

 

The need to refer the Bill to Provincial Councils

The Port City Bill had not been referred to the Provincial Councils, all the Provincial Councils having been dissolved. The Court, following earlier decisions, held that in the absence of constituted Provincial Councils, referring the Bill to all Provincial Councils is an act which could not possibly be performed.

In the case of the Divineguma II Bill, the question arose as to the applicability of the Bill to the Northern Provincial Council, which was not constituted at that time. The Court held while the Bill cannot possibly be referred to a Council that had not been constituted, the views of the Governor (who had purported to express consent) could not be considered as the views of the Council. In the circumstances, the only workable interpretation is that since the views of one Provincial Council cannot be obtained due to it being not constituted, the Bill would require to be passed by a two-thirds majority. Although not explicitly stated by the Court, this would mean that if the Bill is passed by a simple majority only, it will not apply in the Northern Province. The Bill was passed in Parliament by a two-thirds majority. The Divineguma II Bench comprised Shirani Bandaranayake CJ and Justices Amaratunga and Sripavan, and it is well-known that the decision and the decision on the Divineguma I Bill cost Chief Justice Bandaranayake her position.

It is submitted that Article 154G (3) has two requirements—one procedural and one substantive. The former is that a Bill on any matter in the Provincial Council List must be referred to all Provincial Councils. The latter is that in the absence of the consent of all Provincial Councils, the Bill must be passed by a two-thirds majority if it is to apply to the whole country. If such a Bill is passed only by a simple majority, it would apply only in the Provinces which have consented.

The Divineguma II determination accords with the ultimate object of Article 154G(3), namely, that a Bill can be imposed on a Province whose Provincial Council has not consented to it only by a two-thirds majority. It also accords with the spirit of devolution.

A necessary consequence of the Court’s determination on the Port City Bill is that it permits a government to impose a Bill on a Provincial Council matter on a “disobedient” Province by a simple majority once the Provincial Council is dissolved and before an election is held. What is worse is that at a time when all Provincial Councils are dissolved, such as now, a Bill that is detrimental to devolution can be so imposed on the entire country. It is submitted that this issue should be re-visited when the next Bill on a Provincial Council matter is presented and the Supreme Court invited to make a determination that accords with the spirit of devolution, which is an essential part of the spirit of our Constitution.

 

 

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‘Down On My Knees’ inspires Suzi

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There are certain songs that inspire us a great deal – perhaps the music, the lyrics, etc.

Singer Suzi Fluckiger (better known as Suzi Croner, to Sri Lankans) went ga-ga when she heard the song ‘Down On My Knees’ – first the version by Eric Guest, from India, then the original version by Freddie Spires, and then another version by an Indian band, called Circle of Love.

Suzi was so inspired by the lyrics of this particular song that she immediately went into action, and within a few days, she came up with her version of ‘Down On My knees.’

In an exclusive chit-chat, with The Island Star Track, she said she is now working on a video, for this particular song.

“The moment I heard ‘Down On My Knees,’ I fell in love with the inspiring lyrics, and the music, and I thought to myself I, too, need to express my feelings, through this beautiful song.

“I’ve already completed the audio and I’m now working on the video, and no sooner it’s ready, I will do the needful, on social media.”

Suzi also mentioned to us that this month (June), four years ago, she lost her husband Roli Fluckiger.

“It’s sad when you lose the person you love but, then, we all have to depart, one day. And, with that in mind, I believe it’s imperative that we fill our hearts with love and do good…always.”

A few decades ago, Suzi and the group Friends were not only immensely popular, in Sri Lanka, but abroad, as well – especially in Europe.

In Colombo, the Friends fan club had a membership of over 1500 members. For a local band, that’s a big scene, indeed!

In Switzerland, where she now resides, Suzi is doing the solo scene and was happy that the lockdown, in her part of the world, has finally been lifted.

Her first gig, since the lockdown (which came into force on December 18th, 2020), was at a restaurant, called Flavours of India, with her singing partner from the Philippines, Sean, who now resides in Switzerland. (Sean was seen performing with Suzi on the TNGlive platform, on social media, a few weeks ago).

“It was an enjoyable event, with those present having a great time. I, too, loved doing my thing, after almost six months.’

Of course, there are still certain restrictions, said Suzi – only four to a table and a maximum crowd of 50.

“Weekends are going to be busy for me, as I already have work coming my way, and I’m now eagerly looking forward to going out…on stage, performing.”

In the meanwhile, Suzi will continue to entertain her fans, and music lovers, on TNGlive – whenever time permits, she said,

She has already done three shows, on TNGlive – the last was with her Filipino friend, Sean.

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