SRI LANKA: Students to learn soft skills in army camps

Sri Lanka's universities have been embroiled in controversy over a Ministry of Higher Education announcement that some 20,000 students will receive training each year at military bases in order to learn 'soft skills'.

The ministry announced last month that it will collaborate with the army to hold a three week programme for 'freshers' from 18 universities in May.

"What we are attempting to do is to send a civilised and disciplined graduate out into society - one who will not be a burden but an asset to the country," Higher Education minister SB Dissanayaka (pictured) said in January.

Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education, Sunil Jayantha Nawarathne, insisted students would not be given military training. "We are not giving them 'military training' but in collaboration with the Defence Ministry, we will offer them soft skills courses with leadership training," he told University World News.

"We are giving them lessons in discipline which will be beneficial for the students right throughout their lives. What I want to ask those who criticise this move is, is it wrong for them to learn discipline?"

Most of the country's student population come from rural backgrounds. "They have the necessary academic qualifications but once they finish their degrees, can't get proper jobs as they have no skills in leadership and in communicating in English," said Nawarathne.

"So what we will do is to teach them basic etiquette in dressing up, how to use cutlery, how to groom yourself for an interview. But where can you give training to 20,000 students in just three months? The only places available are military camps. As you know, we do not have any other infrastructure available to give them such training and so as a result we opted for military bases," he added.

However several opposition parties and student groups are looking at the move with suspicion, particularly as the government continues to deny any military or political motive. Some insurgent groups in the country continue to have residual support on university campuses.

Spokesman for country's largest minority party - the Tamil National Alliance - and Member of Parliament for the predominantly Tamil Jaffna District, Suresh Premachandran, told University World News the party had been kept in the dark by the government.

"How can the military give lessons in soft skills? This is utter nonsense," he said.

Premachandra argued that if students needed training in soft skills, this could be provided after they obtained their degrees. "Why do they need to know how to face interviews, even before entering universities? If the education authorities are so adamant, can't they get a civil organisation to conduct these courses? "

Students believe the move is aimed at containing students protests over private universities - a bill to allow such universities to set up in Sri Lanka is imminent. Last year major student unrest erupted over government plans to allow in private institutions rather than upgrade existing universities.

Rasika Ekanayake, secretary of the Kelaniya University General Student Union, a constituent of the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF), said: "We want to know whether they are giving freshers military training. What are they trying to discipline us for? We don't know what the real motives are behind these [military training] moves, but we know for a fact that this will not solve problems faced by university students."

Ekanayake told University World News: "Lack of soft skills is not the main problem for students. Lack of resources is. Our universities lack a lot of fundamental facilities such as lecture halls, laboratories, hostels, libraries. There's also an acute shortage of academic staff in some universities,"

The student leader added: "What they mean by 'discipline' is to suppress students and prevent them agitating for their rights. But what we want to tell them is that if you solve student problems will be absolutely no need for us to agitate."

The umbrella organisation of Sri Lankan university student bodies, the IUSF, and the hardline nationalist Marxist party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna-JVP (Peoples Liberation Front) which considers campuses as its stronghold, are also up in arms. But they do not currently appear to have a strong vocal movement in or outside universities.