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Challenges in university education in Sri Lanka

Post independence Sri Lanka was a society and an economy in transition seeking and forging a common identity and vision. The foresighted policies of offering education for all and the unleashing of latent social forces created a demand for the expansion of university education particularly in the Social Sciences and Humanities.

by Prof. Gamini Samaranayake

(October 27, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Being a person born and bred in Anuradhapura and also as one who studied at Central College of Anuradhapura, it is a great honour and privilege to deliver the 20th Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara Annual Memorial Lecture. First of all, I wish to express my gratitude to the present Director General of the National Institute of Education (NIEU) Dr. Upali Sedera and the organizing committee for their kind invitation. However, initially it was late Professor Lal Perera who intimated to me to deliver the prestigious lecture on the occasion of the last memorial lecture delivered by Professor Carlo Fonseka. I am deeply sorry as Late Professor Lal Perera is not with us today to witness this memorable event even in my life.

The title of my presentation is ‘Problems and Challenges of University Education in Sri Lanka’. I believe the theme is very relevant and appropriate considering the present global and national context in relation to university education. The main focus of my presentation is to examine and analyze problems and challenges besetting university education in Sri Lanka in the context of the changing university system at global level. One of the great challenges faced by many governments is trying to keep their higher education system abreast with the changes that occur at the global level to avoid being left behind while protecting their countries from being overwhelmed by demand for progress.

This presentation shall be divided into five major sections. The first part briefly examines developments and changes in relation to the university education taking place at global level. The second part deals with the vision of late Dr.C.W.W.kannangara regarding university education in the country. The third part examines the origin and development of university education in the country. The fourth part deals with problems and challenges of the university system in Sri Lanka while the fifth or final part draws on the way forward in the context of Mahinda Chinthana- future vision 2010.

My field of study is not education or higher education but Political Science. My knowledge regarding university education is based on my experience as a university teacher, Head of Department, Vice Chancellor, and Chairman of the University Grants Commission. It is a pertinent question to raise that the subject of education confines to methods of teacher training or covering higher education. A few universities in the country maintained either a Faculty of Education or a Department of Education. The University of Colombo, Eastern and Open University have a faculty while the University of Peradeniya and the University of Jaffna have a Department of Education. Either faculty or department does not specialize higher education. As a result, there is no discourse on status or development of higher education in Sri Lanka. Only available debate is regarding establishing private universities in the country.

Kannangara’s vision

The report of the Special Committee on Education chaired by the late Dr. C.W.W. Kanangara is confined to secondary education and barely touches on university education. However, the scope of his analysis is so wide that it encompasses the nexus between education at all levels and citizenship and nationhood. The lack of specific reference to university education could be attributed to two factors. The first is that Sri Lanka was a long way away from achieving universal primary education free of charge on an equitable basis. Second, the trajectory of university education was already set in motion and the preliminary steps had been taken to establish a university. Nevertheless, the late Dr. Kannangara had a farsighted vision of how education in general, inclusive of university education, would contribute to a local definition of development in the country. Therefore, I shall focus on some of the salient aspects of his report that remain valid for all levels of education and national development in Sri Lanka.

To him the character of an educational system depends upon the character of the society for which it is designed. He assumed that the task of the committee was to recommend an educational system that established and sustained democracy. Hence, education was the means that supported every child to reach his or her full potential and equipped them with the life skills to play his or her full part in nation building, sustaining democracy and national development. For this end two main broader objectives had to be met. The first was that the state had to support every individual to achieve the highest degree of physical, mental and moral development of which he is capable irrespective of his wealth, or social status. Secondly, individual should be able to use his or her abilities for the good of the nation. Thus, he aimed at democracy, equity and equality from the educational system breaking barriers of exclusion and discrimination stemming from ethnicity, class or caste. His vision was so far sighted that he envisages a liberal and flexible national education that provides the space for experimentation, discourse and creativity which we today interpret as learner centered education. As a result the country’s educational system had to originate from the ethos of the country and must be a system designed for the country. In this context he was able to predict the dangers of a lack of national unity and argued for the translation of the concept of diversity as strength rather than a divisive factor. He emphasizes the importance of establishing national unity through education and inculcating tolerance, nationalism and non racial discrimination through education that was the means of citizenship building and nation building. It is indeed a very broad and farsighted vision if understood and interpreted to action.

The aims of education were divided as general and particular aims. The general aims of education is the preparation for life in its material and spiritual aspects which are defined as life skills in the Education for All Goals which we are striving to meet by 2015. The particular aims are: 1. Mental development or mental discipline, 2, Culture and character and efficiency. Mental development means the increase of intellectual power, while culture means a kind of intellectual polish. Efficiency means ability to work well and may be measured by one’s ability to render social service as a citizen or by one’s success at a career.

Kannangara’s education outcomes therefore are very much linked to the concepts of higher education that we are grappling with, such as the promotion of lifelong learning, training for professionalism and a learner centered education. For him the character of the university is unitary and residential and the university is autonomous and has the liberty of academic freedom. The report realized that the establishment of the University of Ceylon would not in itself effect a complete break with the domination of London degrees. The Executive Committee had decided to permit the continuance of London examinations until the University of Ceylon was in a position to provide adequate facilities for all students capable of benefiting from university education. Thus, his vision of university education was based on the British model of the university but adapted to the local context and the building of nationhood and national development.

Changes of university education

The origin of the university in the Western sense goes back to the medieval Europe with the establishment of Oxford, and Cambridge. However, the university in modern sense started in the latter part of 19th century. Initially Latin and later German dominated scholarship and science now English is the global academic language.

Higher education is not an isolated phenomenon subject to vagaries of external and internal pressure. However, there is a strong belief that universities and cemeteries are not willing to change or move but both have to change due to internal and external forces. Let us take the external pressure. They are due to globalization and internationalization of university education. Globalization comprise broad economic, political and other trends and it also involves Information Technology (IT) the use of English, the rise of the private sector, the marketization of higher education and related aspects that are more or less inevitable results of the rapidly diversifying and changing global environment. Internationalization means a package of policies that government or education institutions develop to cope with the global environment such as providing academic programmes in foreign languages and sponsoring students to continue their studies abroad. In the case of internal pressure we note that enormous pressure being exerted towards our universities by the student union controlled by the radical political parties. They opposed any form of changes identified to be introduced in university education.

There have been significant effects of globalization and internationalization. Of them, access, quality and equity are noteworthy. Access to higher education has been rising rapidly all over the world. In the late 1960s there was no country in Western Europe where the Gross Enrolment Ratio was higher than 8 per cent. Currently the GER is more than. As a result, the model of higher education has changed from elite to mass. For example, enrolment at the university of Delhi is 309,000, while Anatolia University in Turkey has over one million. The second significance impact has been the quality of higher education. Quality of higher education is normally measured on the basis of the following criteria: modernize class rooms, libraries, laboratories, study halls, syllabi, and methods of teaching and evaluation. The significant impact is to improve equity.

The origins and development

As you all aware, the origin of university education in Sri Lanka goes back to the latter part of British rule. The establishment of the University College in 1921, as an institution that prepared candidates to sit for the external degree of the University of London, marked the beginning of university education in our country. The University of Ceylon, established in 1942 under the provision of Act No. 20, was the first native university with power to offer degrees. The guiding principles at that time were that a university should be unitary, residential and autonomous. Consequently, the first university was established in Colombo and subsequently moved to Peradeniya in 1952 after much debate regarding the most appropriate sites for a university. The University of Ceylon followed the model of Oxford and Cambridge popularly known as the ox-bridge model. It was a fully planned residential university with English as the medium of instruction until 1959. The majority of students were drawn from the urban middle class families and elite status was granted to those who passed out of the university. The number of students who entered was about 900 at the beginning but increased to about 3500 by 1951. The University of Ceylon was the one and only university that existed at that time with campuses in Colombo and Peradeniya, until 1959.

Post independence Sri Lanka was a society and an economy in transition seeking and forging a common identity and vision. The foresighted policies of offering education for all and the unleashing of latent social forces created a demand for the expansion of university education particularly in the Social Sciences and Humanities. However, due to the limitation of English as the medium of instruction these demands were not met. The then Vice Chancellor Sir Ivor Jennings was astute enough to moot the idea of establishing a second university in Colombo. He was a member of the committee though he did not place his signature on the report.

The year 1956 marked a turning point in the expansion of access to university education in Sri Lanka. After the election victory of the Mahajana Ekksath Peramuna (People’s United Front) and the formation of the coalition government headed by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956, the underlying aspirations of a hitherto un-represented social force came to the fore. The pressures of increasing the number of students to the Arts and Social Sciences with the medium of instruction in Sinhala and Tamil languages came to be forcefully articulated. It was not only a social pressure but also a political pressure by upgrading two leading Buddhist Pirivenas, Vudyodaya and Vidyalankaraya, to the status of universities. The two newly upgraded universities too were made to follow the prevailing Ox-bridge model. Simultaneously, Sinhala and Tamil were introduced as the languages of instruction in university education along with English as a medium of instruction. These changes had a far reaching impact on the development of university education in the country.

In the meantime, the government intervened to regulate and coordinate university education through the Higher Education Act No 20 of 1966. This act created the National Council of Higher Education (NCHE). The Vice Chancellor became an appointee of the Minister of Higher Education. The allocation of funds and control of expenditure, selection of students and members of governing bodies were appointed by the minister.

The next stage of expansion in university education took place after the election victory of the United Front (UF) coalition headed by Sirimavo Bandaranaike in May 1970. The U.F government also introduced a new University Act in 1972 merging all universities under one umbrella and named those outside its purview as campuses. The Act of 1972 was similar to the Act of 1966 by the fact that it reduced the autonomous character of universities and changed every aspect of university administration. Universities Act No 1 of 1972 consolidated government control over universities. The two Acts were a complete departure from the University Act No 20 of 1942. Later during the same regime, the University of Ceylon was named the University of Peradeniya, while the Colombo campus of the University of Ceylon was declared an independent university, named the University of Colombo. During the same period, the technical college of Katubadda was up-graded as a university, which specialized in engineering and the Jaffna University was established in 1975. The former was renamed the University of Moratuwa after 1978.

The next phase of expansion in university education took place after the election victory of the United National Party (UNP) under the leadership of J.R. Jayewardene, the first Executive President of Sri Lanka. The establishment of the Ministry of Higher Education in March 1978 was the major step taken by the government. Another major change was the introduction of the University Act No 16 of 1978. The Act of 1978 reverted to the tradition and practices of university education before 1966. The important feature in the Act of 1978 is the assigning of full autonomous status to the then campuses, upgrading them to university status. The establishment of the University Grants Commission (UGC) which serves as a buffer between the university and the government was a significant step in university education in the country. The main functions of the UGC are planning and coordinating in keeping with national policy, regulation of administration, maintainance of academic standards, selecting of students for state universities, and allocating public funds to higher education institutions and control of expenditure.

The President is empowered to appoint and remove Vice Chancellors in consultation with the UGC. Due to the financial support of the staff and accountability to the public, the universities in Sri Lanka are controlled by the state through several regulatory agencies and other institutions. They are as follows: the Ministry of Higher Education, University Grants Commission, University Services Appeals Board, Auditor General and the Treasury. Due to politicization of higher education the student and employee unions strongly impinge on the autonomous and academic freedom of universities.

This was also an era when it was felt that political and administrative decentralization was imperative to address the issues of unequal development and the pressures of issue of university expansion. Therefore, the University of Ruhuna was established in 1978 and the Eastern University was established in 1980. Eleven Affiliated Universities were established under the provision of University Act of 1978, after the second insurrection of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) from 1987-1989.

It is evident that the political and economic ideologies of the political parties that governed the country impacted university education. During the period of the People’s Alliance (PA) in 1994 there was a demand from the students of the Affiliated Universities with a backing of the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) controlled by the JVP to upgrade such institutions to university status. Consequently, three new universities were born by merging eleven affiliated universities. The two first universities to be established, conforming to such transformation, were the Universities of Rajarata and Sabaragamuwa in 1996 and University of the South East was established in 1986. The University of Wayamba was established in 1999. In the meantime, two new universities of an innovative type were established as the Uva Wellassa University and the University of the Visual and Performing Arts in 2006.

Currently, there have been 14 traditional or conventional universities along with three campuses, one Open University with 27 study centers, 16 undergraduate and post-graduate institutes and 8 degree awarding institute under the per view of the University Grants Commission (UGC). Almost, 80,000 internal students are studying at our universities. Besides, there are two religious universities under the Ministry of Higher Education. There is one university under the Ministry of Defense and one under the Ministry of Vocational Training. Thus, there are 19 universities and said institutions of higher education operating under the principle of Free Education introduced by Dr. C.W.W.Kannangara since 1945. Statistics are not available regarding involvement of our students in universities of foreign countries. According to my estimate, nearly 8,000-10,000 students are going abroad for higher education annually. Besides, there are about 50,000 students enrolled within 60 to 70 cross border institutes established with the approval of the Board of Investment (BOI) in the country. They cater to those who are unable to get admitted to a state university in the country or afford to finance university education abroad. Thus, annually 80, 000 students are involving for higher education in different forms and modes. As a result, the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of Sri Lanka is estimated as 21%, the highest in South Asia.

( The Writer is a Chairman, University Grants Commission )

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