Harin Corea, contemporary at Peradeniya University, has opined that the ‘free’ in ‘free education’ is a misnomer and moreover dangerously misleading in terms of the mindset it creates, nurtures and entrenches. He elaborates thus:
‘“Free” implies at-no-cost. However, the cost of this education is borne by the community and should probably be called “community-sponsored” education, and in our case, more specifically “tax-payer- sponsored” education. Just changing the terminology, might serve to remind the so-called “champions” of “tax-payer-sponsored” education, that it is neither “free” nor their God (or Marx) - given “heritage” in any form.’
Harin continues: ‘It is the very category they identify as the “enemies” of tax-payer-sponsored” education that is actually paying for it - i.e. the so called “capitalist mudalalis”. And what if tax-payers whose children cannot access “tax-payer-sponsored” education, would like to have some other educational institutions where they could individually educate their own children at their cost?’
This is a complex issue, clearly. In general I am opposed to making education a luxury. I am also opposed to denying higher education 80 percent of the students who have qualified for the same, just because the state is lacking in resources. If the country requires 100 doctors and the state can fund the education of just 20 medical students, for example, and if 80 more have qualified, they should not be forced to wander into some other career if they can afford to pay for their education.
I am not in agreement with Harin on the issue of ‘taxpayers’ to the extent that there is no one who doesn’t pay taxes. One doesn’t have to fill relevant forms or have a certain amount of one’s pay cheque held to be counted as someone who pays taxes. We pay taxes when we buy seeni (sugar) and the-kola (tea leave); corporate entities routinely pass the tax-buck to the consumer, or rather extract it from the consumer plus a little bit more. Profits don’t fall from the sky. They are in fact nothing more, nothing less than the congealed form of surplus value generated by unequal terms of exchange embedded in given production relations.
What is important to me in Harin’s conceptualization is the un-free character of education. He is absolutely correct in that the term ‘free’ has misled generations of students and helped work out all notions of ‘responsibility’ in the mindsets of the beneficiaries. A lot of things come together to make higher education possible and students are for the most part pretty much unaware of a lot of the relevant factors.
Way back in 1985, there was a proposal to dismantle the Peradeniya University and toss its parts all over Kandy, which was to be called ‘Vidyarajapura’ (if I remember right). The Arts Faculty was to be shifted to Dumbara (because, it was argued, all you need is a black board and some chalk - no white boards back then), the Medical Faculty was to go to the Peradeniya Hospital. Agriculture was to be shifted to Mahailuppallama. The prison was to be moved to Peradeniya. It didn’t work out, happily. I remember, however, Prof Ashley Halpe observing that opposing Vidyarajapura makes no sense at all if the university community does not recognize the importance of everyone, the non-academic staff, the academic staff, students, senate etc., in making the university what it is. He might have added (I can’t remember if he did) that the university is also made by all those who in one way or another contribute towards the relevant budgetary allocation.
The university is not made of students, their grievances and aspirations. It is made of all these things plus curricula (badly in need of rehabilitation), laboratories, libraries, hostel and recreational facilities, processes of teaching/learning and research (again, badly in need of rehabilitation), limited resources and woefully inadequate human resources. It is made also of anger, malice, petty in-fighting, caste-consciousness, racism, egos, academic dishonesty, lack of integrity and, as Harin points out, a scandalous reluctance on the part of student activists to recognize that the university does not belong to them but that they belong to the university and this too only for a brief period of time.
The university belongs to the general public. It belongs to the man who ‘paid’ taxes when he purchased 100g of tea. It belongs to everyone who laboured, from Day One to this morning. ‘Public’ is a better term, but ‘community-owned’ is sweeter and might infuse that little bit of responsibility in those who rant and rave about this thing called ‘free’ education but do not do the one thing that justifies their studentship, i.e. be serious about learning, acquiring knowledge and comprehension.
When the student sees the Senate Building, or the lecture theatre, or the library or the swimming pool or any other part of the university, when he/she hears a lecturer, uses a computer, sits on a park bench with friend or lover, does he/she see ‘community’? Does he/she see mother, father, grandparent and neighbour? If they did, then they would hesitate when they vandalize walls. They would see that they are drawing a sharp instrument across the face of their parents and themselves.
This is not to say that agitation is out of order. It is not. Young people should stand up and give voice to concern, protest that which they believe should not be allowed to continue without objection. There has to be, however, a sense of proportion, a sense of responsibility. These facilities are not the best in the world. They are all we have, though. They are where their children might end up 20-30 years from the moment they break chair, desecrate wall and scream at a lecturer.
Time is long. At some point we have to look in the mirror at who we are and what we have done. When we do this, if we see everyone who contributed to that image, then it is a short distance to ‘seeing’ university (for example) and recognizing in its every element, that thing called ‘community’. If we all did this, we would duly abandon the term ‘free education’ and replace it with ‘Community Education’. Harin and I might argue about the contours of ‘community’ or the identities of ‘contributors’, but we will agree that it is certainly larger than those who people the university at any given moment in time. Or the Government of the time. email@example.com