Academic Degrees, Professorships and National Honours

by Edward Gunawardena

(November 11, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sometime back I wrote an article, ‘A nation of Doctors and Professors’ which was published in a leading Sunday newspaper. I remember writing several letters on the subject of JP’s too. Several other concerned citizens have also been expressing their views often. Erudite editorials have appeared in newspapers. The national concern of the gross misuse and abuse of Doctorates and national honours is such that even the Mahanayakas have spoken.

With regard to the awarding of academic degrees and the use of academic titles it is surprising that the University Grants Commission has remained silent and inactive. The UGC is the authority in Sri Lanka to approve degree awarding institutes. Apart from the statutory powers it enjoys under the Higher Education Act. of 1978, it has a duty and moral obligation to foster and uphold academic traditions and the dignity and honour of the academic community. Academics too have a duty to safeguard the honour of their respected profession.

Only recognised degree awarding institutes, which of course are recognised Universities can confer doctorates. Basically there are two types of Doctorates, earned Doctorates and Honorary Doctorates. To earn a Doctorate one needs to have at least a first or second class first degree or a Master’s degree and several more years of study or research. An original contribution to knowledge in the form of a thesis is often a mandatory requirement. An Honorary Doctorate is conferred on a person who has made an outstanding contribution to the furtherance of knowledge or to the well being of society or the prestige of the nation.

In the late eighties I was Advisor to the UGC. Dr. Stanely Kalpage was the Chairman. The Higher Education Authority of Pakistan wrote to the UGC complaining that a doctor from Sri Lanka who had a string of impressive honorary titles in his letterhead including a Knighthood, was conferring Doctorates on persons for a financial consideration. The UGC could do nothing about this than to inform its Pakistan counterpart that the person concerned was not authorised to confer degrees, and to take appropriate action under the laws of Pakistan.

Unfortunately there are no laws even in Sri Lanka to prevent such conferment of Doctorates. In my view to enact an appropriate law may be difficult because there is nothing to prevent a person calling himself ‘Doctor’. The Oxford Dictionary defines the verb (to) doctor inter alia as ‘castrate or spay, patch up (machinery etc.), adulterate, falsify’! The consoling factor that emerges is that we in Sri Lanka can indeed look at some of our Honorary Doctors in a new light. They could very well be experts at castrating dogs, patching up, adulterating or falsifying!

The academic title Professor is also grossly abused today. In the academic tradition a professor is a Teacher of high rank especially the holder of a Chair or senior teaching appointment in a University. Such a person is not entitled to use the title ‘professor’ once he quits the job or retires, unless he has been conferred Professor Emeritus status. Such eminent academics continue to be addressed as ‘professor’. Perhaps only a handful of such persons, exist in Sri Lanka.

As regards academic degrees there are two other trends that are of concern and should receive the attention of the UGC. The first is the large scale advertising of degrees, diplomas etc by numerous teaching institutions claiming affiliation to all manner of Universities and educational institutions in the world. Eager parents pay exorbitant fees and register their children even without being aware of the existence of the term ‘Recognised University’. The demand for tertiary education is such that even ‘Sakviti’ type scams are possible.

The second is the reluctance on the part of degree holders to mention the University from which the degree was obtained. Often have I seen names of persons in advertisements, newspapers and other documents with degree such as MBBS (Sri Lanka), MBA (USA). The fact is that there are no such degrees.

Countries do not award degrees only Universities do. Doctors with MBBS should write MBBS (Col.), MBBS (Sri Jayawardenapura), MBBS (Ruhuna) etc. Similarly those with other degrees should mention the University after the letters denoting the degree. If the UGC, Universities and employers show interest in this regard, those with degrees from dubious or unrecognised Universities or other educational institutions can be found out.

As for national honours except for the highest honour the Deshabimanya, all other honours ranging from Justice of the Peace to Deshamanya have been devalued with unlimited numbers being ‘honoured’ including criminals and vagabonds. The truth is that no sane person attaches any value to these so called National honours today.
- Sri Lanka Guardian