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Monday, May 16, 2011

Saving State U: Why We Must Fix Public Higher Education

The title of this note is borrowed in full from the Nancy Folbre’s book with the same title published in 2010. Nancy Folbre is a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. We, the university teachers in Sri Lanka, have to prove occasionally that we read books since the present government and its Minister of Higher Education seem convinced otherwise. Providing completely a new interpretation to his famous speech in Parliament, where he stated that the government would increase the salaries of the university teachers substantially to place them on par with the salaries of the university teachers in the neighbouring countries, the Minister of Higher Education, S B Disanayaka, has revealed the hidden agenda of his government’s policy on higher education. Minister informed us on Tuesday evening through the electronic media that he had suggested the salary structure ranging from Rs. 70,000 for a new recruit to Rs. 200,000 for a senior professor assuming that the state universities would be transformed themselves into money-making ventures that would make the payment of higher salaries for dons possible. He further stated that the university teachers would be allowed to engage in money-making activities and receive a portion of those earnings. If the position that the Minister has outlined represents the policy of the UPFA government, I would argue this government is going to reverse unequivocally the basic norms and principles of free education introduced by C. W. W. Kannangara in the 1940s. It seems that the government wants to turn the sphere of higher education to a ‘flea market’. Let me begin with the conclusion. I was able to become a university teacher because of free education and I am aware that many of my colleagues in the university system might not have reached their present positions in the absence of free education. Hence, my conclusion is that this effort to kill free education and the norms and principles associated with that is extremely dangerous and would destroy remaining elements of social democratic welfare state in Sri Lanka. So the people in this country unequivocally and unconditionally should stand against this effort.

Three architects of the government policy are Dr. P. B. Jayasundara, Secretary to the Treasury, Dr Sunil Jayantha Navarathna, Secretary, Higher Education and Prof Gamini Samaranayaka, Chairman, University Grants Commission. The irony is that all three gentlemen mentioned above are products of free education. It is interesting to note that ‘Kicking away the ladder’ (once again the title of the book by Fredrich List, a well-known German economist in the nineteenth century) has become the axiom that governs the thinking of high level state bureaucracy. How to make the universities money-making institutions? There are two ways of doing it. Let me use this market jargon although I am not familiar with that kind of thinking. First, the universities can sell its products to the highest bidders. Education is costly so that these huge costs should be paid either by the immediate receivers of education or by the state or by the private and community philanthropists. Although all three mechanisms have been in operation, in Sri Lanka, it has been the state that provides much of the resources needed for education. The system has worked well and the achievements of Sri Lanka through this mechanism are commendable. Secondly, university can also earn by providing consultancy services and fee-levying courses. Although the contribution is not significant, this mechanism has been in operation for some time. Nonetheless, the government seems to move beyond that by dismantling the free education system at the tertiary level. Are we heading for a paradigm shift?Are we traversing the same path that was nicely depicted in relation to the decline of US state universities by Jim Duderstadt, former President of the University of Michigan in the words, "we used to be state-supported, then state-assisted, and now we are [merely] state-located"? The higher education system that Minister Dissanayake and the state bureaucrats envision would totally destroy the state university system making them operate like a ‘flea market’ and completely switching off the mechanism that has acted so far as a great equaliser reducing hierarchical structure in society that existed prior to the 1960s. Hence, as Falbre puts it: "Saving public higher education can help us sustain the social contract, on which a competitive market economy must be based. It can offer citizens a way to reaffirm their faith in principle of equal opportunity." Secondly, when the university dons are led by administrative compulsion to raise funds, their teaching and research will be adversely affected. We have to remember that our universities are basically teaching universities.

When the idea of private universities surfaced some time ago, it was said that the private universities would be complementary to the state university system. Now the cat is out of the bag! It appears that the government plan is to make eventually the state universities an appendage to private universities by allowing the principle of market to govern the entire university education system in Sri Lanka. It is an absurd to envision that the university education system should be allowed to be governed by the principle of market. We all know market is efficient and effective in many instances. Anyone who read Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation would understand the limits of the market, i.e. what the market cannot do. Many great products are not the products of the market. Neither Dhammapada nor Marx’s Capital is a market-driven product. The attempt to measure the value of public goods by their immediate returns is not only absurd but totally incorrect. Falbre opines: "Public higher education produces more than just [degrees] –certificates of human capital with high pay off in the private market. It develops broader capabilities that students deploy citizens, friends, partners, and parents. It nurtures hope, curiosity, confidence, diligence and care. The value of this output will never be fully captured by measures of future earnings. Like the value of our ecosystem and our legacy of human knowledge, human capabilities surpass the metric of the market."

Sri Lanka has failed particularly in recent years due to multiple reasons to keep what we produced in the sphere of higher education. A lecturer in the Faculty of Science informed me on our way to Colombo to attend FUTA executive meeting, that almost all special degree physics and chemistry graduates in recent years had left the country. The Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education has recently revealed that 550 mid-aged academics have refused to return after their post graduate or post-doctoral studies. This is not the fault of the producers of those high value products, but a fault of the policy makers and the bureaucrats who back them. It is high time the government reflected on the past experience and addressed this issue without blaming the teachers of the state university system. Many countries in the Asian and African region spend a substantial amount of state funds on education. The figure in Sri Lanka is comparatively low and lower than that of some African countries where per capita output is much much lower.

The writer teaches Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya.

E-mail: sumane_l@yahoo.com

Link: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=25469