University students’ unions – then and now



By Hm Nissanka Warakaulle

It is strange how the undergraduate unions have changed from what they were up to the latter half of the last century and the transformation to what they are at present. The Students Unions were not legally mentioned in the 1942 Ordinance which established the University of Ceylon, transforming the existing University College to a fully-fledged university. But the Students Union existed both in Colombo and Peradeniya.

They were never involved in protests or picketing at any time. This was so until under Rama Somasundaram’s (an old Kingswoodian) leadership the first strike by the undergraduates of the Peradeniya campus was staged as a result of the dhoby not bringing the washed clothes in time. This was staged during the time Sir Ivor Jennings was the Vice-Chancellor of the university.

This strike hit the headlines of the newspapers of the time, and if I remember correct, there were pictures of the male undergraduates in sarongs! This strike did not affect anybody outside the university, and it was settled as soon as the laundered clothes were brought to the campus.

The next strike launched by the Student Union was in the first term of the academic year 1959. Our 1959 batch had just entered the university and we had really enjoyed the freshers’ week, when this strike was launched. Most of us were not aware as to the reason for this strike. Sarath Amunugama (later Dr.) was the President of the Students Union.

Every morning during that week the undergraduates would meet in the Arts Theatre and some seniors would address the gathering. On one such day whilst a senior undergraduate Tudor, got onto the stage to address the gathering he was interrupted with humorous remarks and catcalls. He lost his temper and said, “You can interrupt me after I finish” This led to howls of laughter from the audience. After one week the strike was called off and the fun ended for us as freshers.

There was a march by the undergraduates in 1961 when Patrice Lumumba was assassinated on January 17 that year. This march was undertaken by the general body of undergraduates and not initiated by the students union. The students marched to Kandy up to the statue of Governor Ward just past the Queen’s Hotel when there was a heavy downpour. Some of the undergraduates tried to pull the statue down, but to no avail. It was only possible to bend the sword a little. No other damage was done.

It was only in Part X of the Higher Education Act, No, 20 of 1966 that the Student Unions and Student Councils were given legal status. The functions of the Student Council were stipulated in section 60(2) of the Act. In section 60(2)(e) it was clearly stated “to assist the University authorities to maintain discipline among students”.

Section 61 of the above- mentioned Act specifically stated that “No Students’ Council, or Faculty Students’ Union of a Campus or a University shall have any affiliation with any political party whatsoever.”

The subsequent Acts pertaining to the university system such as the University of Ceylon Act, No. 1 of 1972 (in Part V) and the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978 (Part XIV) clearly indicated the functions of the Student Unions. In section 114 of the 1978 Act it is stated that a Student Assembly shall have no affiliation with any organization or body outside the Higher Educational Institution to which such Assembly belongs.

Though section 117 states that the University Grants Commission (UGC) shall prescribe by an Ordinance the duties and functions, and the other matters pertaining to Student Assemblies, this unfortunately has not been done to date though over 45 years have elapsed.

Before 1966, though there was no mention of the Students Union in the Act, the unions were established and functioned effectively publishing a magazine with contributions from the undergraduates. At Peradeniya elections were conducted in the different Halls of Residence. The office bearers so elected formed the Students Union by electing the union office bearers from among their numbers. The main function of the Students Union was to publish the university magazine with articles and poems contributed by undergraduates.

The Students Union never organized strikes, picketing, etc and there were no posters pasted on walls or graffiti scribbled on walls. This is quite a contrast to what prevails now. Whenever a student or some students of any university is/are meted out a punishment for committing an act contrary to what is expected of an undergraduate, the Inter University Student Front (IUSF) would immediately spring into action and organize either a protest outside the particular university or march up to the UGC to demonstrate.

The IUSF takes up cudgels not only regarding university matters, but even national political matters which do not have any relevance to the university system. The IUSF has no legal standing as it has not been named in any of the Acts covering the university system. As such, it is strange how the Ministries, UGC and Universities give recognition to an illegal organization.

I remember during the time of the amalgamated single university, some students belonging to the then Vidyodaya Campus came to the Vice-Chancellor’s office and climbed the wooden staircase (in the building now within the United Nations compound) thumping their feet, walked up to the Vice-Chancellor’s table and the leader, who was the President of the Students Union sat down in front of the Vice-Chancellor (uninvitedto do so) and told him that he was there to look after the students’ interest and if cannot do so to get out! Later this leader was a Cabinet Minister and at one time he was assigned the portfolio of Higher Education!

In the 1980s, the students of all universities got the bright idea of having an inter university student union comprising students of all state universities and it was established under the name Inter University Students Federation (IUSF). Now this union is not a legal body as there is no mention of it in any of the Acts governing the universities currently in operation. But yet it is given due recognition by all governments that come into power and the UGC.

(The writer, an alumnus of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, is a former Registrar of the University of Colombo)


Hit Counter provided by technology news