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Sunday, May 22, 2011

The UGC and the Universities Today

By Savitri Goonesekere

The academic communities were present in large numbers at the recent funeral of the late Professor B. A. Abeywickreme, Emeritus Professor in the faculty of Science, University of Colombo, and former Vice Chancellor of the university. As I entered the cemetery, an employee of the University of Colombo who recognized me rushed up and offered me an academic gown to wear, like the other ‘dons’ who were present. I thanked him and politely declined the gown. I am one of those old fashioned academics who believe that academic robes should be worn at ceremonial academic events. As I followed the funeral procession, I reflected that the Vice Chancellor, Staff and others dressed in their academic robes of office were perhaps participating in a final ritual that would see the demise of values on academic freedom and university autonomy that an older generation believed were the essence of respected seats of higher learning. I was a member of the UGC and a university academic and administrator, when these values, handed down to us by our predecessors, still seemed important. And yet today, Vice Chancellors, academics and university trade unions are passively watching while core principles of university autonomy in the present Universities Act 1978 are being violated by the University Grants Commission and the Ministry of Higher Education.

The Universities Act has clearly indicated that university academics are not government servants regulated by the State Establishments Code, and norms that apply to the public service of the country. The University Grants Commission is not a government department placed under the Minister and the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education. The powers of the Minister in relation to universities are defined by the Act. The Commission is authorized to function as an independent regulatory authority within the framework of the Act, which incorporates the concept of university autonomy, and the recognizes the distinct powers and responsibilities of University governing bodies (Councils) and University Senates responsible for all academic matters. These principles and the structure were recognized by the Supreme Court as a dimension of the concept of academic autonomy in universities enshrined in the Universities Act and international standards, in the celebrated case of Udagama and Others v Minister of Higher Education. Certain changes to the Universities Act including amendments to the provisions in the Act regulating the appointments of heads of departments of study were rejected by the Supreme Court as a violation of this important concept. The case must be familiar to the legal officer at the UGC, law teachers in the university system, Unions and university administrators. Extracts are published in the University of Colombo calendar of 2000. The UGC under the Chairmanship of the late Professor S. Tillekeratna, engaged in a consultative exercise to propose reforms to the Universities Act that would give more academic autonomy to universities, restricting the UGC to a standard setting and funding authority like in many other countries of the Commonwealth. This was considered essential to enable universities to become competitive institutions that could also generate and use their own funds for research and development. A new Universities Act drafted to reflect these perspectives was submitted by the National Education Commission to the government in 2005. Some academics like the current Vice Chancellor of the University of Ruhuna were involved in these consultations, and the preparation of the Act.

And yet, recent events indicate that University academics are permitting the UGC to regularly take decisions in violation of the Act. For example:

(1) S. 73 of the Act provides for retirement of teachers, indicating that a university teacher confirmed in the post continues in office until he/she reaches the age of 65, or if this event occurs in the course of the academic year, at the end of the year. Since this is a statutory provision, the UGC or the Minister have no power to change this except by an amendment to the Act. Yet a cabinet decision, communicated by the UGC to a University Council has been implemented, in violation of the Act, enabling a person who has retired to continue as a Dean of a Faculty. S 33 and 49 of the Act clarifies that the Dean is a fulltime officer of the University elected from among the Heads of Departments, who must also be permanent (tenured) members of staff. A professor who has retired may be employed again on contract but not as a permanent member of staff. The Dean receives certain payments and the Vice Chancellor as Chief Accounting officer and the UGC will have to explain to Parliament and Auditors at some time, how these payments are being made, and an appointment held on a Cabinet decision that violates the law.

(2) Powers of the UGC are specified by S 15 of the Universities Act which authorizes the Commission to determine in consultation with the Councils and Senates, the courses to be provided by Universities. We are told that the Ministry has now decided that all first year students shall follow a course in a military camp or facility. How did the UGC allow the Minister to make this decision? Was this discussed by the UGC with the Senates and Councils of Universities, as required by the Act? To permit the UGC or Ministry to determine the content of courses without discussion with university Senates violates the provisions of the Act on the universities powers regarding teaching programmes.

(3) The University Grants Commission (not the Chairman) issues circulars within the scope of provisions of the Act. Any changes in provisions to the Act can only be made by Parliament (through amendments) to the Act. This has been respected by all earlier governments. Yet on 3 May 2011 the UGC Chairman has issued a circular, apparently in his individual capacity, purporting to change the provisions in S.51 of the Act, which deals with the terms of appointment of a head of department of study. Following usual practice, there is no reference to the meeting of the Commission that adopted this circular. The circular strangely refers to S.51 (3) and ignores its content, thus constituting an administrative decision in violation of the Act.

The Universities of Sri Lanka like respectable academic institutions all over the world have systems of governance regulated by laws. There was a time in the not so distant past when Chairmen of UGC, Vice Chancellors and senior administrators, Councils and Senates understood that they had responsibilities to ensure transparent accountable governance in these institutions according to powers given to Councils and Senates by the Act. Members of these bodies now seem to have become active or passive parties to undermining the very fabric of universities as academic institutions of the nation. Some Vice Chancellors as Chief executives seem to pursue their personal agendas and political affiliations, with no questions asked by the university bodies like Faculty Boards, Senates and Councils. The concept of "following orders" seems to have replaced the concept of academic voice and participation in decision making on matters that concern universities.

When the last salary revision took place decades ago, the academic community, consisting of University Trade Unions, the UGC and Vice Chancellors were in close contact, working together in negotiating with the government to advocate for a just and fair salary structure. I recall how Prof. Arjuna Aluvihare, Chairman UGC at the time, Professor Dayantha Wijesekere, VC of the Open University and senior Professors who were union leaders were actively engaged together in negotiating with government to adopt a new salary structure. Today we witness the unsavoury spectacle of the Chairman UGC and some Vice Chancellors on a collision course with University Unions as witnessed in the UGC Circular of 3 May 2011. Academics refer to the unprecedented manner in which one Vice Chancellor addressed a union before a key decision was made on the proposed industrial action, reportedly even demanding that staff should not go on strike. Recent contributions by academics in the press indicate how academics are abused or treated as conspirators against the government when they seek to exercise the trade union rights that they have legitimately exercised for decades. In the past, Vice Chancellors dialogued with union leaders and tried to negotiate a settlement and prevent a strike. They did not use their official status to interfere with a union’s right to freedom of association and industrial action.

Should Vice Chancellors, Senates and Councils unquestioningly accept these violations of the Act and the erosion of their powers, and follow what are in effect "orders" that violate the law under which universities have been established? Three Universities have either a Faculty or Departments of Law. Why are these teachers so silent when these violations are taking place? Some travel overseas, write and present erudite papers on human rights. But do they discuss these issues of rights and governance with students or raise them in appropriate fora such as Faculty and Senate meetings?

The current trade union action for salary increases is based on a long standing need to rectify anomalies, in a context where other public institutions like the Central Bank and the judiciary have witnessed salary reviews. The newly appointed UGC has two members who were respected Vice Chancellors and administrators in the university system. Hopefully they will give new leadership and understanding on the role and responsibility of the UGC under the Universities Act, and help to resolve the current salaries dispute.

However academics too will gain more public support for their cause if they fulfill their responsibilities and act collectively to safeguard the core values on which our academic institutions have been built over many decades of higher education in this country. Vice Chancellors, Deans, Chairmen of UGCs and University Faculties and Senates, with the full gamut of professors and academic staff must give the leadership that these institutions desperately need to sustain transparent accountable and democratic governance in universities. Caliban, writing of the "Disease of Sycophancy" in the Island of 27 April 2011, refers to the "putrid example" of servility in the University community. Symptomatic of this sycophancy, as he describes it, is "holding on to positions that are not their rightful due, stooging the benefactors, acquiescing and covering up their misdeeds or inadequacies, and basically betraying the sanctity of the office they hold." When the Sri Lankan University system crumbles beyond repair, like many other public institutions in this country, the public will come to realize that, as Martin Luther King once said, this was not just because of a few sycophants, "but the appalling silence of the majority."

Link: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=25885