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Monday, June 20, 2011

The Crisis in University Education

The Island 20/06/2011

BY H. Sriyananda

No one would contest that there is a severe crisis in University education, as much as in education in general. The fact that there are serious crisis in other spheres too should not blind us to overlook this as just another issue facing the country.

But what is this crisis about? And why is it receiving so little attention in a country that is traditionally very much concerned about the education of its children? I would like to suggest that this is because of the complexity of the issues involved, and that the potential participants in the discourse are fragmented in many directions.

The immediate issue, from the point of view of University teachers is the positive disregard and the lack of respect shown to their profession by the government and the resultant discounting of their long-standing requests for a salary revision. . From the student’s point of view, it is the ‘leadership training’ that has been made compulsory for all new entrants to the state universities. Others have raised the issues of University autonomy, low quality of teaching, the near absence of research, lack of responsibility and accountability, the on-going privatisation of higher education and a host of others. In the absence of a general policy regarding salaries and wages, a possible settlement regarding the salaries of academics while disregarding all the other related issues will lead to plethora of other demands from other sectors. However, an immediate resolution of this issue is of utmost urgency – the Universities have been dysfunctional for more than a month now, and any further disruption will result in further deterioration of the state University system, perhaps making any restoration impossible.

We need to recognise that these are inter-related problems, but also come to some agreement about the priorities. The immediate priority should be getting the Universities back into ‘normal’ functioning, while recognising that ‘normal’ functioning has long been unsatisfactory. This should involve a reasonable settlement regarding academic salaries, while proposing a salary structure acceptable to other sectors of the University staff.

The contention that the country can ill-afford a substantial increase in academic salaries does not hold water, given the very high salaries paid (and perks provided) to others by the state. The huge expenditure on other unproductive demonstrations of the power and glory of decision makers is also a point at issue. Few people have the courage to publicly question the vanity of spending a small fortune on the celebration of Vesak and of the military victory (it is inconceivable how these two can be reconciled), even though these are discussed widely in private.

It is unreasonable to assume that the other problems of the Universities will go away if the salary issue is settled. Even with an attractive salary structure, the Universities will have to rebuild the atmosphere of tolerance and freedom if they are to attract quality staff. The amendments to the Universities Act that have made the appointments to the top academic posts (those of Vice Chancellors) into political appointments need to be rescinded if we are to start on the path of recovery. The making of the Vic Chancellors into political animals has resulted in the politicisation of everything including the curriculum that has now culminated in the introduction of a training programme designed from outside the Universities.

It is regrettable that some former Sri Lankan academics who now live overseas have opined that autonomy only applies to Universities in the west. This ignores the traditions that were in existence in this country (say, at Mahavihara and Abhayagiri, which were propounding contrasting theories) long before there were any institutions worth mention in the west. It reminds me of the words of Macaulay that Indians need no education, as they were destined to be coolies governed by the British, who will do all the thinking for them!

It is becoming increasingly apparent that there is a movement afoot to systematically discredit and destroy the state universities, perhaps to create an opening for the proposed private Universities. However, it is worthwhile to note that the best private universities in the USA are NOT profit making institutions, while any private institution in today’s Sri Lankan context would be for the sole purpose of making money, and their quality would invariably be even lower than that of the present state Universities. It is possible that the authorities assume that the quality of University education can be measured by the accent (even that is unlikely, given the parallel movement towards ‘speaking English our way’) and the ability to use a PC for word processing and e-mail. You do not require Universities to produce operatives for out sourced call centres.

The words of Prof J E Jayasuriya in his ‘Education Policies and Progress during British Rule in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) 1796 – 1948’ where he stated that the movement to destroy free education commenced on the very day that the (free) education ordinance was enacted, is true even today.

It is only pressure from the public that will ensure that the crisis is sorted out without further delay by granting a reasonable salary structure for the academics, re-establishing the independence of the Universities and ensuring their public accountability by suitable legislation and avoiding a future conflict by resolving as-yet-to-arise salary issues of the other staff. It is only public pressure that forced the then government to introduce free education in the early 1940s, and it is conceivable that only public pressure will enforce a solution to this problem today.

On their part, the academics must demonstrate that they are ready to respond to such a reform that is bound to present them with many challenges.