Universities in Sri Lanka and International Standards

To be frank, we all know that many new regional universities in Sri Lanka are equivalent to teacher training colleges or high schools in relation to qualifications that many staff members hold and far inferior to many national schools in terms of infrastructural facilities that they have at the moment.

by Dr Jayaratne Pinikahana

(October 08, Melbourne, Sri Lnaka Guardian)I read the news item about raising the standards of five universities in Sri Lanka up to international level. Dr Sunil Navaratne, Secretary to the ministry of higher education has announced that Peradeniya, Colombo, Moratuwa, Sri Jayewardenepura and Kelaniya Universities have been selected for this project under which infrastructure, curricula and many other aspects of these universities would be improved in order to maintain the international standard of our universities. This is an excellent project where a few selected universities would become Sri Lankan ‘Ivy League’ universities in future. No body could argue against the idea of improving the status quo of all the universities in Sri Lanka let alone the international standards. But I am just wondering how they have selected these five universities out of 15 other universities in Sri Lanka. It is not Einstein stuff to recognise the fact that all regional universities have been left out. If someone’s predilection was in the equation, it would certainly be a big sting in the tail. In the face value, choosing four metropolitan universities in Colombo and the Peradeniya University (this is an obvious choice) seem to be imbalanced within the context of overall university system in Sri Lanka. In order to get the balance right, at least one regional university should be included in this cohort.

It is a plain fact that a little over 20% of the population live in urban areas and the others are living in rural and regional areas. There is nothing wrong with raising the standard of at least one ‘regional’ university like Ruhuna University together with other metropolitan universities. As we all know, the Ruhuna University has established all the major faculties including medicine, engineering and agriculture together with arts, science, management, and fisheries biology. This is the only university in Sri Lanka with the exception of the Peradeniya University to provide higher education in all the three major areas of agriculture, medicine and engineering. I have, no doubt, in my mind that the academic staff at Ruhuna University are comparatively well qualified, highly dedicated to scholarship and well deserve to be recognised. Most of all, the infrastructural facilities are well established and located in fantastic locations in Wellamadama, Kamburupitiya, Galle and Hapugala. On the basis of ‘regionality’ and other considerations, the ‘best regional university’ in Sri Lanka to be upgraded to the international level is the Ruhuna University. As a former member of staff, I am really fascinated by the standards they maintain in many undergraduate programmes and I can see the makings of a great international university in the Southern Sri Lanka. I would therefore hope that authorities in the ministry of higher education would take into account the regional factor on top of other considerations when selecting universities for upgrading that has been announced.

A survey in 2010 showed that China had 6 universities together with four in Hong Kong, four in Taiwan and three in South Korea among the top 200 universities in the world. On this list, the University of Colombo came 600th in the global ranking. In 2005, the Colombo University was ranked 492nd but it slipped back to the 601st position in 2010. Even the Dhaka University in Bangladesh is ranked higher (551st) than the Colombo University in 2010. It is a fact that many developing universities are not wealthy enough to pay for this evaluation and for this reason other universities in Sri Lanka may not have paid for the evaluation on which the global ranking is made. Nevertheless, we need to make every effort to get into this exclusive club of elite universities in the world.

To be frank, we all know that many new regional universities in Sri Lanka are equivalent to teacher training colleges or high schools in relation to qualifications that many staff members hold and far inferior to many national schools in terms of infrastructural facilities that they have at the moment. During the last few years, the ministry of higher education together with the UGC have been working on IRQUE (Improving Relevance and Quality of Undergraduate Education) project funded by the World Bank to improve the quality of the higher education and it seemed to be heading in the right direction.

Staff shortage in many regional universities seems to be far worse than in many ‘metropolitan’ universities like Peradeniya, Colombo or Moratuwa. It is still the same old story about academic staff salaries which are much lower than similar grades in financial services sector, private sector or even in the NGOs. These days, good academics seem to be an ‘endangered species’ in Sri Lankan universities but fortunately some brilliant academics with an insatiable appetite for teaching and research have chosen to serve our universities. The government needs to solve their pay issue immediately once and for all. In the globalised economy, people with marketable skills are looking out for better opportunities and they are ready to leave our shores for greener pastures whenever the opportunity presents itself. That is what has happened over the last three decades or so and regrettably the trend continues. If the government is willing to increase the salaries of academics as proposed by the University Staff Association, a lot of things will change for better. This would encourage the exiting staff to remain in their current positions and attract the qualified persons in other sectors to join the university staff. This will also encourage the expatriate community to come back and serve their motherland. There seen to be many academics in the expatriate community in a range of disciplines including me who are prepared to come back and serve the country provided basic facilities and reasonable job opportunities are offered.

The government cannot make our universities internationally competitive unless the university academics make most out of their opportunities. As The Island editorial on 6/10/2010 has stressed, the academics need to ensure their university career come up to scratch and it is their bounden duty to help regain the old glory of academia by making a greater contribution to science, technology, art and culture. Good academics need to be at the cutting edge of research. I don’t see a rigid dividing line between research and teaching and good teachers need to be at the cutting edge of scholarship in order to help students see the dynamism of academic work. University education means questioning and re-positioning and the philosophy of good university teacher should rest on fostering self-instruction, formulating questions rather than answers. The university teachers primary pedagogical role is to help students learn how to search for and construct a complete answer through the question-and-answer process.

In the main, they need to improve their bilingual skills and take their work to national and international audiences. Some Sri Lankan scholars have become ‘international authorities’ in their respective fields and currently, there have been very promising young academics in new and old universities in Sri Lanka who can become national and international authorities in their respective fields. The current university system is characterised by a dearth of quality researchers owing to lack of funding for research. There is no easy way out of this problem unless the government sets up a research funding body like Australia Research Council (ARC) to fund peer reviewed academic research projects. At the same time, universities will benefit greatly by establishing links with the industry, mainly private sector. In China, an estimated 5,000 companies are directly linked to academic institutions as joint enterprises. It is time to deviate from traditional concept of university research and establish some links with the industry, both public and private for collaborative research.

The writer can be reached at jpinikahana@epilepsy.asn.au

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