Mr. Chancellor Sir, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, distinguished members of the Faculty, graduands of Sabaragamuwa University, Ladies & Gentlemen,
An honorary degree is the highest accolade a University can confer on a private citizen like me and I accept this honour with all humility and gratitude. It is, for me, a gift as precious as a gem from your gem-laden region. I have just returned to Sri Lanka after an extended stay abroad where I was fortunate and privileged to receive some degrees and awards. The receipt of an honour in my own country, however, has a unique cachet that is both heart-warming and edifying. It is for the same reason that I continue to be deeply grateful for the fact that my entire undergraduate education was in the University of Peradeniya enabling me to bond inseparably with my peers and to be influenced deeply by my cultural heritage.
I myself hail from the Central Province, but members of my extended family have married into Sabaragamuwa families. My father, as Principal of two schools in Ratnapura, worked for many years to educate the youth of this region. My own links with Sabaragamuwa have been confined to memorable tours of the province famously blessed by God Saman and rich in natural resources including that priceless asset of primary tropical rain forest and biodiversity -- the Sinharaja Forest Reserve -- a World Heritage Site the treasures of which, I hope, will never be bartered away in the pitiless marketplace of globalization. The earliest record of human existence in our island-nation was in pre-historic times and this has been discovered in the Balangoda region making the Balangoda Man our common ancestor. Later in history the people of Sabaragamuwa played their heroic role in the struggle against Western colonialism and, more recently, in post-Independence nation building.
Your University was established in 1995 and this is your sixth convocation. You are a young University developing in a period of accelerated change, both globally and nationally, as we function simultaneously at different geographical and time scales thanks to the ICT revolution. You have the advantage of learning lessons from the experience of older universities in imparting a value-based education that is at the same time of economic benefit to society.
I am no expert on education but I cannot but be distressed to read in the newspapers, after my return to my roots in mid June of this year, reports of student clashes in our Universities followed by University closures. Student unrest is of course not new to Sri Lanka and I must admit I went on strike in the University of Peradeniya in the early '60s. The escalation of violence however, including vicious assaults on rival student factions resulting in tragic deaths and the wanton destruction of University property, is unprecedented. It cannot be condoned.
A number of very perceptive articles have also appeared in the media analyzing the causes of student unrest and prescribing various solutions for it. I have no doubt that they are based on solid experience and are well intentioned. But we cannot really expect our Universities to be perfectly tranquil ivory towers of learning when our nation is undergoing so much political, economic and social ferment.
It seems to me that the fundamental nexus between the community and the University has also broken down. In the five and a half decades of our existence as a modern nation-state we have been cruelly convulsed by two insurgencies in the South, a secessionist uprising in the North resulting in prolonged conflict and terrorism, a polarized political culture with rampant violence and corruption and a consequent deterioration in the standards of governance. Together with this economic management that is a grotesque compromise between donor-driven IBRD/IMF policies and politically expedient pay-offs to party funders and other supporters has stunted economic growth. The brutalisation of our society through war and terrorism has seriously undermined the stability of our society, warped its traditional institutions and created a proliferation of lumpen elements.
Can one seriously expect the Universities of our country to be unaffected by all this? It is hard for our young students to focus on their studies and look forward to a secure future if this is the society and country they are going to inherit. How many role models are there in the community at large that our students can look up to and respect?
The relationship between the community and the University is at the best of times a troubled one. The famous battles between 'town' and 'gown' in Oxford -- the oldest University in the English-speaking world -- is symptomatic of the uneasy adjustment between the conventional mores of the community and the autonomy and academic freedom of the University.
Basically the link between the community and the University is a symbiotic one. It also rests on a bedrock of mutual obligations and shared values. Youth is without doubt one of the most exciting periods of one's life. It is a period of undiluted idealism when one has the courage of one's convictions unburdened by responsibilities. Whether it is the heroine Antigone in the Greek play of Sophocles written and staged around 2500 years ago or Sinhabahu in Ediriweera Sarachchandra's contemporary Sinhala play, we have come to respect the unalloyed reaction of youth rebelling against authoritarianism and standing up for justice and freedom.
Society must not seek to stifle this spark of idealism in youth unreasonably for it is this spark, transmuted in the crucible of life, that will motivate future generations of our country towards sustainable human development.
At the same time youth, and especially University youth, have a responsibility towards the society that pays for their education by channeling their idealism constructively and not destructively. There is never an excuse for wanton cruelty to others in the form of 'ragging'; there is never an excuse for murder or assault in the form of political protest and there can never be an excuse for harming your teachers because you disagree with them as institutions of authority. The selfish indulgence in protest for the sake of protest is very different from legitimate dissent from established opinion. Rebels without a cause that resonates in the wider society they belong to are isolated and ultimately rejected.
Universities do not only provide a training of the mind in all disciplines ensuring a steady supply of human resources for the nation. It also sustains and develops the intellectual and cultural base of society, preserving our cultural identity and making our society take pride in our own achievements. The community on the other hand must ensure that Universities are adequately funded and that opportunities are provided for youth to develop their talents to serve the nation. The tragic gulf between the brothers Somaweera and Nimal in Gunadasa Amerasekera's 'Asatya Katawak' need not be as unbridgeable as it seems. We are all part of one community and one nation that must respect each other and fulfill our different but complementary roles.
Demographic projections show that the percentage of the population over 60 will increase globally in what is called the 'graying' of the world while the percentage of those under 25 will decline. The old age dependency ratio is estimated to triple in developing countries. Sri Lanka is very much a part of this trend and we have to plan our investment in university education accordingly.
The right to tertiary education is fundamental but to fulfill that the unplanned establishment of more Universities without competent staff and adequate facilities can be counter-productive. The privatization of tertiary education through the multiplicity of glossily advertised foreign university affiliated institutions in our country will undoubtedly reduce the burden of public expenditure on University education. But will it not also exacerbate the divide between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' in an already fragmented nation with dangerous political and social consequences? As we build another layer of privatized education on top of the profusion of so-called 'International' schools are we creating a new class of the privileged based on the financial capacity of parents to buy a better quality education?
I have no doubt that policymakers have studied the political and social repercussions of these trends in our country. The solution clearly is to improve standards in public education at all levels while continuing to give parents the right to private education. For this a major increase in public investment is needed. The misallocation of resources for defence forced upon us in the last two decades may at last be ending and this is a hopeful sign for our Universities.
It is always useful to situate ourselves in the global context if only to give ourselves a sense of proportion. UN statistics show that Sri Lanka's Education Index, which goes towards the assessment of our Human Development Index, is above both the global average and the South Asian average. But this should not make us complacent for we are below a number of countries in the developing world especially those in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Increased public investment must go hand in hand with other methods to improve the quality of education in our Universities. Distance learning, maintenance of standards through reviews of the curricula, more attention to the employability of graduates through interaction with local companies and other innovative programmes can be devised and are going on already.
The private sector has responded to the Government's appeal for job creation for graduates and its Sarasavi Saviya programme. This is very promising. It will give undergraduates greater hope that there will be a certain prospect of productive employment at the end of their period of study instead of the despair of certain unemployment which fuelled student agitation in the past. The Government has also launched the Improving Relevance and Quality of Undergraduate Education project (IRQUE) supported by a World Bank credit.
While the improvement in the quality of education in all our universities is obviously necessary I believe caution is needed in the stress on relevance. What in fact is 'relevance'? Who decides what is relevant and what is not relevant? Today's relevance may not stand up to tomorrow's needs and we may well find ourselves with a surplus of IT qualified graduates and doctors who may either have to emigrate or swell the ranks of the frustrated and politically explosive graduate unemployed. Relevance could also be related to comparative advantage. From that perspective Sabaragamuwa University would, for example, have great potential for building its Departments of Archaeology, Gemology and Forestry as centres of excellence not just in Sri Lanka but in South Asia.
My point is that we need to have a balance in all disciplines so that we have a nation with not only scientists and technology proficient graduates but also those well versed in the humanities. Notwithstanding this I am glad to see that the community has responded to the needs of our University students through these programmes which I hope will succeed in closing the gap between the community and the University.
I would like to conclude with a plea for the active involvement of our Universities in the national effort to convert a very fragile cease-fire into a permanent political solution for inter-ethnic harmony within a united Sri Lanka. Both the faculty and the student body of Sabaragamuwa can reach out to their colleagues in the Universities of the North and East in numerous ways to reduce the mistrust and misperceptions that have built up over the decades. All our Universities can plan ahead for devolution of power in anticipation of constitutional changes that must come. It is a unique moment in history where our national survival as a pluralistic and united democracy is at stake. It behoves the Government to mobilize the best and the brightest intellectual resources in our country to craft a solution that is both comprehensive and durable.
Let us remember the words of the Buddha to the quarrelsome monks of Kosambi at the Jetavana monastery as recorded in the Dhammapada " The others know not that in this quarrel we perish. Those of them who realize it have their quarrels calmed thereby." Your generation has more to gain from reconciliation and peace. You can help to heal the wounds of war. To re-open these wounds would be the death of our nation. Again the Dhammapada is our guide "'He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me -- the hatred of those who cherish such thoughts are never appeased."
I thank you again for the honour you have done me in giving me an honorary doctorate and for the courtesy of patiently listening to my remarks.