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A conspiracy to kill Sri Lankan universities?

A conspiracy to kill Sri Lankan universities?

2011 May 23

Our university system is in turmoil. University teachers are ridiculed because they have resigned from their voluntary duties over a pay dispute. Politicians are busy pointing accusing fingers at one another. Minister of Higher Education S. B. Dissanayake blames it all on a breakdown of discipline instigated by the JVP and an international conspiracy. University Grants Commission (UGC) is busy investigating ways and means of punishing the protesting teachers and provoking the non-academic staff against them. The new university entrants are enrolled for a ‘leadership’ training programme in military camps. Where are we heading as a nation?

All parents without exception want their children to receive the best of education. The main reason for the blossoming of private tuition classes is this thirst for education with a view to facing competitive examinations. Sadly, the worst bottleneck for further education in Sri Lanka is at the tertiary level. Despite the pledges given by successive governments over the last 50 years, even to date, the national universities can only accommodate only one fifths of the students who qualify for university education. This is equivalent to just 3% of this age cohort. Thus, 97% of our younger population, irrespective of their good performance at the GCE (Advanced Level) Examination may not enter a university. This is despite all of us, big and small paying taxes through our noses for the government to ensure equity in the educational sector for our children.

University teachers emerge from the aforesaid 3%. In some areas of study, more than 50% of the graduates leave Sri Lanka for good, due to many reasons, economic and non-economic. Some do remain in Sri Lanka, not merely because they cannot find foreign placements in greener pastures, but out of choice. They just cannot do way with their duty to serve the motherland despite many difficulties and deficiencies. University teachers are ultimately the best lot out of our own graduates who have chosen to live in Sri Lanka due to their love for the country.

It is noteworthy that the university teachers have been one of the sections of the workforce difficult to be persuaded to resort to trade union action. That is why their unions too were considered tamed and powerless as they had never resorted to any aggressive action against any government or to any activity detrimental to the nation’s well-being. Thus, they were perceived as a ‘cool’ selfish lot.

In fact, the opposite of this is true. University teachers are against to any activity that would jeopardize national interest. They have remained resilient vis-à-vis numerous provocations and hardships. However, there comes a time when one has to say ‘enough is enough’.

Firstly, we all are fully aware that the best investment the government can make for national development is in education. This is why most countries (developed and developing) spend well over 10 % of total government expenditure on national education.

Spending on education has hit the rock bottom In Sri Lanka, just 3% was allocated in our last budget. Therefore, it is no surprise that students and teachers in the state-run schools and universities are equally suffering as consequence of extremely poor funding. It has been already shown that university academics in Sri Lanka receive the lowest pay in the SAARC region. Thus, it is no wonder that teachers are compelled to resort to trade union action due to exceptional economic stress they endure to make the ends meet. This is sad but true.

The Minister of Higher Education should inquire from his Secretary of Higher Education and compare the facilities he enjoyed at Peradeniya as a student with what he is providing in the same university to its current students today to understand why the students are so agitated. The Secretary would remember the luxury star class residential accommodation he enjoyed, along with full facilities for entertainment supplemented with healthy nutritious food provided virtually free of charge. Time was when students considered a university a home away from home. Opportunities were freely available in this unique secure, peaceful educational environment of the university campus, with easy access to health care facilities and unbridled freedom. Today, hostels are overcrowded and not available for all students. Students live on a meagre diet. Their academic environment is poor. Our national universities are indeed in a sordid state. The impact of this is reflected in World ranking status of our universities, approximately at 3000th or below. Our country’s best performing 3 % of the students are given an awesome task of doing higher education in this horrible atmosphere.

An important idea in the definition of a university is the notion of academic freedom. This denotes the freedom of inquiry by students and faculty members as the foundation of the mission of the academy; scholars should have freedom to teach or communicate ideas or facts (including those that may not be to the liking of external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression, job loss or imprisonment. Training in military camps is unlikely to nurture these concepts. This is not a feature prevalent in the world’s top ranking universities.

The government has invited foreign universities to introduce higher education programmes in Sri Lanka. This is a good move, as more students will be enrolled for higher education locally reducing the exodus of students to foreign countries for higher education and minimizing the foreign exchange drain. However, we will receive all those benefits only if national universities can compete with their foreign counterparts in the context of quality of programmes offered and retain the best teachers and best students. This will depend on the quality of infrastructure, productivity of the human resource and the quality of students.

Foreign universities are not going to import teachers to conduct their programmes, as it would be very expensive. Since the salaries in Sri Lanka for academics are one tenth of that in the developed countries, it would be cheaper for them even to recruit local teachers by paying three times what they draw at local universities. Unless the current salary dispute is sorted out urgently, most university academics will opt for positions in the branches of foreign universities to be set in Sri Lanka and will avoid being subject to such a degree of economic stress and humiliation at the hands of politicians. This will be another form of ‘brain drain’ i.e. from national universities to private universities and the net impact will not be different to the brain drain out of the country.

If our best teachers in the national universities were to be attracted to foreign campuses in Sri Lanka, in the context of current environment, the national universities would find it extremely difficult to maintain quality higher education programmes. In fact, some university programmes are already not attracting enough students.

With a shortage of quality teachers at the national universities and our best students opting to study elsewhere, the demand for national university academic programmes will diminish with time. This trend, once established, will not be easily reversible even if remedial measures are taken by a future government. This will only bring more and more revenue to foreign universities, where they would teach our students using our own staff for a fee and take profits abroad.

Is there a local or international conspiracy to kill our national university system? Isn’t it incumbent upon us all, and not just the Minister of Higher Education or the UGC Chairman to prevent ourselves going down this slippery, treacherous slope?

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