Improving University System

by Sumanasiri Liyanage

The great majority of men and women, in ordinary times, pass through life without ever contemplating or criticising, as a whole, either their own conditions or those of the world at large. (Bertrand Russell, 1918)

(December 13, Kandy, Sri Lanka Guardian) Lunch time meeting of the university teachers at the Arts Theatre of the University of Peradeniya was definitely an eye-opener. The meeting was convened by the Federation of Peradeniya Teachers’ Associations (FPUTA) with the objective of discussing the salary proposals of the university teachers included in the budget 2011 presented to the Parliament by President Mahinda Rajapkasa. The well attended meeting unanimously expressed displeasure of the university academic community at those proposals. Some argued that the proposals had shown the government’s total ignorance of the real situation of international research and publication and the existing promotion system in the universities. So the university teachers present felt that they had been insulted and humiliated by the proposals in the Budget 2011. Having listened carefully to all the comments made by the university teachers belonging to eight faculties of the University of Peradeniya, I began to wonder if the government was actually serious about the idea of making Sri Lanka a knowledge hub of South Asia.

If the government is serious about the notion of making Sri Lanka a knowledge hub in the Indian Ocean region, it has to treat the universities and other research organisations as the central element in that strategy. I do not wish to enter the debate of the setting up of private universities in Sri Lanka to which I do not have serious objections provided such a step will not go against the fundamental principles of Kannangara Reforms or disturb the social mobility mechanism initiated by them. Hence, when I say universities I include private universities as well.

What is to be done to improve Sri Lankan higher education and research? Let me begin with a personal narrative. I joined the university teaching profession in 1970 and my all inclusive salary at that time was Rs. 705. The salary was similar to the salary that President Mahinda Rajapaksa as a young MP received in 1970. I was selected to the Central Bank for the post of staff officer in the same year with the initial salary of Rs. 700 but with pension and other fringe benefits. So if you express this in a form of equation, these three services, training, research and dissemination of knowledge, governing the country and administration and research, were treated equally in the early 1970s. The starting salary of the Sri Lankan Administrative Service in the 1970s was lower and around Rs. 650. In the course of the last 40 years, things have changed. If one compares the salary structure of those three services today as one important indicator, one would realise how all successive governments have wittingly or unwittingly downgraded university academics and university education and research. So when Minister of Higher Education informed Parliament some time back that he would take steps to increase salaries of the university teachers to place them on par with salaries of the university of our neighbouring country, India, where the average per capita income is much lower than that of Sri Lanka, we all felt that the government was really serious about the improvement of university education and research. However, the budget proposals show a complete reversal. This may not surprise anybody as the President reneged on his own promise of Rs. 2,500 salary increase for all public servants.

Why should university academics be treated as a special category? It is relevant to note here that the universities adopt one of the most demanding schemes of promotion. They should acquire within a given time limit a post graduate degree with a research component. At every step university teachers have to prove with evidence that they are continuously engaged not only in teaching and research but also in dissemination of knowledge and national service. I can once again cite my own experience. When I applied for a promotion after nearly 40 years of service, my application was turned down on the basis that my service to the country and university was not adequate and I had not done sufficient contribution to the dissemination of knowledge (I assume that the selection board might have come to a conclusion that the knowledge I had disseminated was detrimental to the capitalist society) though, according to the selection board chairman, the points I had received for my research and publication exceeded the required limit. The implementation of such a tough system of promotion has made university academia a special kind of service. What does it signify? If a country is aiming at promoting economic development focusing more on advanced knowledge and technology, it has to improve and promote its tertiary education and research institutions. University system has everywhere and everywhen played a key role in this endeavour. Since universities are no longer attractive places to work, there has been a continuous problem of losing trained and qualified teachers and also recruiting new quality people. If we take a balance sheet, universities lost many people as they migrated to other countries and joined the private and public sectors there. In addition, many university teachers have been forced, due to financial reasons, to perform tasks that do not need their expertise (like private tuition and non specialised consultation). Hence, if the government is serious about transforming Sri Lanka into a knowledge hub in the next 6 years or so, the first task it should focus its attention on is to make the Sri Lankan state universities dignified places of work.

We have so far treated universities primarily as institutions that cater to undergraduate teaching. Time has come to extend this idea and develop universities as centres of research and post graduate training. In Sri Lanka, there is no big private sector that is ready to finance research and development. As a result, the state has to play once again a major role in financing research in multiple fields. The setting up of private universities will not immediately address this issue as they would focus mainly on undergraduate teaching and on courses like MBA. So the setting up of private universities is not a panacea for the burning issues of higher education. Private universities would definitely help accommodate more students who are qualified for higher education at the university level especially on technical subjects. Since the law intends to include a clause that each private university should offer need-based scholarship for 20 percent of the total students admitted to them, they would also not disturb the existing mechanism of social mobility. However, I have doubts about their capacity to earn foreign exchange by attracting foreign students. Of course, those institutions may help some extent foreign exchange saving as some parent would send their children to them instead of sending them abroad. As a student of political economy, I wish to note one disadvantage of allowing private universities. One of the problem with private sector investment in this country is that they prefer to invest in trade and service related sectors rather than in the manufacturing sector. Movement of capital is not towards manufacture but towards trade and services. A country that aims at achieving structural transformation of its economy always should focus on how to inverse this general tendency. Private universities like international schools would be another easy investment for private capitalists who tend to invest in non-manufacturing sectors.

I am very well aware that the improvement of the state university system is not the sole responsibility of the government although as I have argued above it has a principal role to play in achieving this goal. The academic community can play a role of great importance especially as change agents in this whole exercise. If we look at the reforms introduced in the last two decades, they are not well thought out. Moreover, the main concern of the reforms is formal changes instead of dealing with the substance. Let me give an example. In the last two decades lots of money was spent on the improvement of quality. Any university teacher would agree that the quality of our products have deteriorated significantly in spite of and, I believe, because of these reforms. Another important change should be in the recruitment procedure of our university system. The criteria that were laid out in the 1950s should be changed taking into consideration the changes that have taken place in the last two decades.

Let me end with caveat. I am not an expert on the subject of higher education. However the laymen have to flag issues so that experts will provide answers. Hence, the objective of this article is to throw out some idea for further discussion in which the experts can come up with ideas based on their special knowledge.

The writer teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya. e-mail:

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