After 227 days, Satyagraha campaign which was held in front of the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) came to an end on July 31, as the demands of the students were met by the University Grants Commission (UGC). The UGC agreement was accepted in writing by the OUSL students union on July 29 and the student union met with the UGC on July 30 for a final discussion.
Thus it may seem like the issues of the OUSL students have been solved. However, the OUSL student union convener Amila Sandaruwan said, “We accept this as a temporary solution.” Thus, it is clear the struggle of OUSL students is yet to be a closed chapter.
One may question the reason for the satyagraha, and what the students were protesting against. Their issues revolve around the right to education and at what cost should this right be made use of. When considering the demands of the OUSL students union, one is forced to question the use of a country having a large number of schools and universities if these cannot be afforded by most citizens.
Earlier this week, anyone passing the OUSL would have seen the placards near the Nawala entrance. The hut housing protesters also caught the attention of passersby. Yet, how many are truly aware of the reasons for the protest and how many dismissed it as ‘just another complaint by unappreciative university students’?
If one took time to read the posters and placards, one would know the students were protesting against the increment of course fees in OUSL. Amila Sandaruwan has continually expressed his views about the fee increments. Speaking to The Nation, he explained how the student union was formed and the reasons behind the satyagraha.
The situation at the OUSL before 2012 was totally different, Amila Sandaruwan said. He explained that there were no student unions and any students who protested against any fee increments were suspended. This meant that students often gave up and accepted whatever the university administration threw their way. However, with a 40 percent increase of semester fees in 2012, there was a student uprising.
While fee increments have been given priority in the protests, the oppression of students is also fought against the OUSL students union. According to students, there was a time in OUSL when students weren’t allowed to remain in the university premises after five. Any student in university after five was suspended. This applied to students who were in the premises in the evening to study.
“There was a 120 percent increase in fees in 2013. This was for the engineering faculty, but there were increments in other courses too,” Amila Sandaruwan said. In May 2014, five to six students got together to solve the issues faced by students.
Thus an OUSL Students Committee was formed. A month later, a complaint was made to the Committee to the University Grants Commission (UGC), following which the students union was formed and demonstrations were organized.
On August 12, 2014, students protested in front of the university, and five students who were part of this were suspended. Slowly, the situation at the OUSL got messy, especially when students who were suspended came back to university. Thus on December 3, a petition was made to the UGC and a protest rally was organized. The UGC Secretary had made the students a promise to present them with a solution in 14 days.
Fourteen days later, on December 17, the students hadn’t received a response. Thus they decided to launch an endless satyagraha. That evening a discussion was held, and Amila Sandaruwan said they were told by the UGC that they (the UGC) won’t change their decision to increase fees and that it is the UGC, and not the students, that run the university.
In January this year, the OUSL students union joined the Inter-University Students Federation (IUSF) directly. Prior to this they had worked with the IUSF but wasn’t directly a part of the Federation. “The IUSF is involved with all university issues and so we are concerned about OUSL issues too,” IUSF convener Najith Indika said. He explained that, “education shouldn’t be sold for profit,” and it is against this that they have been constantly fighting.
During the 227 days the satyagraha was held, the OUSL students union, along with the IUSF held a number of marches and token strikes and has continually push their problems forward.
On July 30, a day after a rally to the UGC, Amila Sandaruwan said they will be bringing the satyagraha to an end on July 31. “We received the UGC letter on July 30,” Sandaruwan said, adding that final discussions were held on July 31. “We accept this as a temporary solution,” he said, explaining that, “in addition to agreeing to reducing the fee increments to 10 percent, the UGC also agreed to remove the suspensions of students.”
“The OUSL students union has agreed to end the satyagraha and have agreed to our proposal,” UGC chairman Prof Mohan De Silva said. He explained that they will stick to the basic principle of a 10 percent increment which OUSL students agree to. De Silva said, “The OUSL structure is complex and thus this is a complex issue.” However, while the fee structure will be mainstreamed, no drastic fee increments will be made.
“I’m not involved much in the students union, but because of the increase of fees, I believe the union should hold the protests,” an OUSL student who wished to remain anonymous said. She explained that many students dropped out of university because they weren’t able to pay the semester fees. A similar story was said by Udara Wijitharathne, an engineering faculty student.
“My brother also joined the OUSL and the investment is doubled in our family,” Wijitharathne said. When asked if the university offers any scholarships, he said, “I don’t know a single student who receives the Mahapola scholarship.”
“Some students had to find part time jobs, so they studied during the day and worked during the night,” a student added.
“It was once a problem for only a certain crowd, but now the fee increments have become a problem for all. Although we can’t always do it, there have been instances when we collected money so our friends could pay their semester fees,” she said.
While many sit in their air-conditioned vehicles complaining about traffic, students ask for a fair system until their voices are hoarse. The activists don’t have it easy as they have to fight for a reduction of semester fees, raise awareness about the issues they face while also completing their courses and sitting for exams.
Since the OUSL focuses on distant learning where students can follow a course while working, it isn’t easy to have an organized students union. There are many students, even those who are employed, who face issues especially due to the raised fee, but they are unable to join the satyagraha or demonstrations because they’re employed.
When asked how the students union manages to communicate with other students, Sandaruwan explained they distribute leaflets, hold meeting and talk with the students. “It is difficult, but it’s our duty,” he said.
“Most students who join the OUSL are those who didn’t meet the Z-Score. A/L results aren’t an accurate measure of one’s knowledge or abilities as most people go for a number of tuition classes for their A/L subjects. Those who can’t afford tuition classes get low marks, can’t gain admission to universities and are thus left with few options. Private universities are incredibly expensive and thus people who wish to gain higher education are only left with the OUSL as an option.
Thus even if the students work while studying, their families are not financially stable. This is worsened by the fee increments that are often sudden and high. There were fewer re-registrations, Sandaruwan explained, adding that the OUSL balanced the fewer number of re-registrations by accepting more new registrations.
When asked how they managed to take part in the satyagraha while also studying, Madushani, an OUSL student, said they used to study in the hut. “When there are rallies, some of us would go for it while the others study. Later, those who studied would explain the lessons to the others,” she added.
“There are many difficulties, but we fight through them because victory is worth it,” Sandaruwan said.
“Social attitude is that one should join the struggle but continue their own activities or academics,” Najith Indika said, adding thatwe involve the parents of students as they too understand the struggle faced by their children.
“My brother is also involved in the union and our parents also understand the issue so they don’t protest,” Wijitharathne said.
During the satyagraha, the OUSL saw a change of vice chancellor. This could have been a reason for the solution offered to the students union. “We don’t think there is a problem with the individual, but the position he is in,” Sandaruwan said.
The way OUSL dealt with the issue also led to a situation where the UGC had to intervene. “The change of leadership allowed us to solve the issue,” UGC Chairman Prof. Mohan De Silva said.
In fact, from what Sandaruwan says, it is evident that the OUSL administration merely justified the fee increments without looking into why the students were protesting against it. “The administration told us that due to a larger number of students there were more expenses. We understand lab expenses for engineering students. But what about the social sciences students? Most of them only come to the university for exams, so what are the expenses for the social sciences degree?” He questioned.
“Some of the students had to pawn jewelry in order to pay semester fees. The university administration never questioned how the students made payments,” Madushani said.
The UGC’s decision to meet the demands of the students can be considered a great battle won by the OUSL students union, but their problems or concerns don’t end there. One of the reasons for the fee increments was unnecessary expenses in the university, Amila Sandaruwan said.
He explained that while the university claimed to have no money and thus justified the fee increments, they build a large cafeteria which the students never asked for. While this may seem ungrateful, it also seems unnecessary when taking into account that the students would rather pay less than have a large and fancy canteen. “Facilities should be maintained, but we never asked for a canteen like the one they have built. Firstly, look into education and then provide facilities,” Sandaruwan said.
“We are not being given valid reasons for the increment. Added to this, the changes made are not constant. Any increments should be constant and affordable,” Madushani said. She added thatwe are given various answers and there is no stability. We are given temporary solutions.
“We also plan to fight for free education and a few lecturers have also agreed with us on this,” Sandaruwan said. He explained that free education will help educate the working class and this will contribute greatly to the development of the country.
When the UGC proposed reducing the fee for old students but not for new students, the OUSL students union refused to accept this as, “the solution has to be for today and tomorrow and it should help all students and not just a few.”
“Most people can’t continue to be part of the students’ struggle after they leave university because family life and jobs get in the way. But we hope to continue this battle and fight for the rights of students until the very end,” he also added.