Posted on September 17th, 2022


Britain had two types of universities in the 1940s, the elite Oxbridge and the non-elite Redbrick. The elite universities, Oxford,  and Cambridge catered primarily to the aristocracy and rich upper class pupils who, after university   went  back to their estates or  to high powered  careers in  the public service. A limited number of middle and working class pupils also studied in these universities, usually on scholarships. They went on to become teachers and principals of schools.

Redbrick Universities were established in the major industrial towns of the north of England. They catered to bright middle class students who did not have the   social connections needed to enter Oxbridge.  These Redbrick universities, though good, lacked the snob value of the elite universities.  Both sets of universities were intended for the upper and middle classes, not the working class.

Our Vishva Vidyalaya” is a western import, modeled on the university in Britain.   The British Empire decided on Oxbridge for its   colonies, ignoring the fact that Redbrick was more appropriate. They spoke of Oxbridge when University of Ceylon was created by the British rulers in the 1940s.   Redbrick would have been better, but what came in was Oxbridge.

University of Ceylon was nowhere near Oxbridge of course. But it was Oxbridge in the sense that the   academic staff had studied at Oxbridge and the subjects taught reflected Oxbridge thinking. Not only was the University a western import, it was also teaching, with much gusto, the stuff which came out of Oxford, Cambridge and London. The undergraduates were mainly upper middle class and the University of Ceylon conformed to the notion that  a university was an upper class and upper middle class institution.

It was hoped University of Ceylon would help in the creation of a westernized elite who would support British rule in Sri Lanka. That actually, was the whole purpose of setting it up, though the stated purpose was to provide higher education to ignorant natives.  Vice Chancellor Jennings wanted the residential facilities at Peradeniya to be used to create westernized persons out of the local bunch that shuffled in. The first warden of Sanghamitta Hall was   British, Ms M. E Westrop, who was in the island as Inspectress of Girls’ English Schools.

But this did not happen, it went the other way. University soon changed from an upper and upper middle class institution to a more democratic one.  In the 1960s, with Swabhasha, students from lower socio-economic stratum, from rural and low urban background started coming to universities.   

This new group, who had successfully entered University through a competitive exam having studied in the Sinhala medium, had the confidence and the aggressiveness that came with this achievement.  They were happy to be at Peradeniya with their friends, and they heartily disliked the westernized elite who were also there. There was deep resentment of this elite. I saw this at first hand In Peradeniya in the 1960s.

A comfortably middle class institution now suddenly became populated with undergraduates from the lower class. They came from a different culture with another set of values and resented the ‘alien’ class nature of the institution they had joined.

 Unrest in the university started almost immediately.  The first strike against the administration was in 1962 or 1963 and it was directed from outside. The Vice Chancellor’s lodge at Peradeniya was burnt in 1965.   A commentator wrote in, after watching a video clip on ragging in university, saying I experienced all this in 1968.

University admission was given a new twist in the 1970s .The Advanced Level examination marks, which were the basis for university admission, were converted into Z-scores and each student was given an Island rank and a District rank. 

 UGC then started a lopsided new policy for selecting students for university. 40% were selected on marks and 60 % on district quotas, with special emphasis on backward districts. This meant that the group who ‘failed’ was numerically more in the university than the group who passed”.  This   would surely lead to a volatile situation in any University anywhere in the world.   

There were several other issues which the authorities had not thought of. When 60% of the University places were given to those who had not qualified, it prevented 60% of those who got good marks from entering University. This is a serious violation of rights. Further   the district quotas discriminated against poor urban schools in developed districts.

The foundation for university education is provided by school, a fact which is often forgotten. The obvious solution,   to provide a limited number of good university level schools in these districts was ignored. Instead freshers unable to cope with the sudden change to university education were brought into university with no preparation.

The justification offered for the district quota was that the district lot would also have   got good marks if they only had gone to a better school.  The reality however, was that the district quota group, less well taught, was unfit for university education.

This  method of recruitment gave the  university  a mix of well prepared and ill prepared undergrads jostling together.  This would have made university teaching very difficult, would probably have led to a high failure rate at exams and the production of a poor quality graduate. In other countries, notably USA, a graded system of university education is offered, catering to differences in intelligence as well as the ability to pay.

The elite model of university has collapsed, we have gone for the mass model observed analysts.  Report of the Presidential Commission on Youth (1990),  suggested that the quota system, if it was to continue, should be according to school, not district. It is schools should be graded, not districts.  It would be best, however, to return to the merit system that was in operation up to 1960.  The government  decided to reduce the district quota, and increase the quota for merit admission, but later  withdrew the decision.

Weeramunda (2008) did a survey of university violence in 2007. District quota is responsible for student unrest since it brought into the universities large numbers of students who were ill-equipped for university education, who failed examinations regularly  and who, particularly when they failed at examinations, vent their rage on the university system at large, observed   Weeramunda. The district quota students could not cope with rigorous standards of the university. The failure rate was as high as 50%.

The freshers targeted for ragging were mostly from the backward rural areas who had come into university under the district intake.  They are mainly rural, lower class, coming from far off schools, added university lecturer Nirmal Devasiri.     A television discussion on Campus Rag also made similar observations. Undergraduate speakers said that those ragged  came from the backward districts on quota system. Parents are poor laborers, farmers or are unemployed. (https://youtu.be/soLc2eUih3M)

A clear profile of those who did the ragging also emerged.  It was found that the raggers and the ragged came from the same socio-economic group.  UGC report stated that the students, who engaged in ragging, hail from rural backgrounds, come from low-income households, live primarily in university dorms, and have had a troubled childhood and suffered from a variety of mental problems. The Campus Rag television discussion  agreed that  those who did the ragging have had a difficult childhood   due probably to poverty.  

The ragging group  can also be recognized by their looks, as the majority of them have grown their hair and have a beard. In contrast, students from financially stable families and coming from urban backgrounds were less likely to get involved in ragging.

UGC report found that students involved in ragging had obtained a low academic score at the Advanced Level Examination. UGC report observed that students‟ engagement in ragging is dependent on their Z-Score value at the G.C.E Advanced Level examination.  Z-score of 2.0 was considered above average. Only 1.7% of students with Z-Score greater than 2 were found to be harassing their juniors through ragging.  9.5% of students who scored less than two Z-score at the G.C.E Advanced Level examination were found to be doing the ragging. Based on these facts, it can be concluded that students who perform relatively low at the G.C.E. Advanced Level examination are more likely to be engaged in ragging in the university, said UGC report.

Ragging is also more common among students who are studying in their mother tongue and in arts faculties said UGC. As a percentage, students of the Faculties of Arts (Humanities and Social Sciences) are more likely to be engaged in ragging. Students involvement in ragging is relatively low in Faculties of Medicine and Faculties of Engineering, continued UGC report.

Students studying in the Tamil medium are the most likely to engage in ragging. Secondly, students studying in the Sinhala medium are more likely to rag other students, whilst students studying in the English medium are less likely to do so, concluded UGC report.

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