Sri Lankan Universities: Where we are heading?

by Nilantha Ilangamuwa
March 25, Jaffna-New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian “Standards are badly down from the once high standards we had, ”Prof. Mr. Ratnajeewan H. Hoole said in an interview with the Sri Lanka Guardian.

S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole, D.Sc. (Eng.) Lond., Ph.D. Carnegie Mellon, IEEE Fellow, DoB 15 Sept. 1952, is the UGC Coordinator for Engineering at University of Jaffna on assignment till further notice and is tasked with setting up an engineering faculty at University of Jaffna. He has held full-time engineering positions at Harvey Mudd College, University of Peradeniya, Drexel University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Michigan State University, National University of Singapore and Ecole Nationale Superieure d'Ingenieurs Electriciens de Grenoble; besides industrial positions at PA Consulting Services and as a consultant at several American companies. He has written hundreds of papers, several books by leading publishers and has also worked as an Adjunct Professor of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Harvey Mudd and Drexel University. He returned to Sri Lanka with his wife at the invitation of his Excellency the President who promptly upon their arrival issued a directive to absorb them back into service. It is a testament to the UGC’s efficiency (or lack of it) that a presidential order remains ignored 6 months after its issue. His wife, Dr. Dushyanthi Hoole, who resigned a professorial position in Connecticut to serve, remains unemployed despite the directive which tells the story of why Sri Lankan universities are failing. The Presidential Directive which was produced in USAB Appeals 689, 798 and 799 is now a public document and is produced here.

Here is full text of the interview;

Question: Good Evening Prof. Hoole, I hope that you can hear me well. Welcome to the Sri Lanka Guardian with compliments. What can you tell us about the present situation in your academic profession and also present developments in the Jaffna peninsula?

Answer: Yes your questions are quite clear. But I must correct you. I am Mr. Hoole now, having lost my title Professor when I resigned from RPI to accept His Excellency’s invitation to return and serve. I became Doctor when I got my Ph.D degree but reverted to Mister from Doctor when I got my higher doctorate from London. His Excellency kept his word promptly upon our arrival on 2 September 2010. On 13 September he issued a directive to the UGC to facilitate our reinstatement following our illegal terminations at Peradeniya and our transfer of service to Jaffna. It is an irony that when a Sinhalese President orders our reinstatement that Peradeniya and Jaffna can evade the directive for six months. Peradeniya I can understand because the Court of Appeal has already written of the university’s “personal animosity” towards me which the court determined is “clearly perceivable.” The Human Rights Commission had found that the then Head of Chemical Engineering did not want my wife to serve there and that the VC “had dealt maliciously” with her. But Tamil Jaffna doing this to another Tamil? Jaffna in response to the President’s directive simply says they have advertised! As you may know, a professorial appointment takes one and half years to process and a Senior Lectureship six months. I suppose the plan is to correspond till I get tired and go away. Anyway in Sri Lanka the professor title is cheap. Even the UGC claims the title for its members who are not entitled to it. So Mister Hoole will do fine. Thank you.

As for my present professional situation, the President has committed himself to me verbally to appointing me as Vice Chancellor of University of Jaffna. But I have been asked to wait till the elections are over so as not to create any problems for him during elections. The problem now is that the elections are over everywhere except in Jaffna where they are on hold because of legal challenges. The court is expected to rule on May 5 and the Elections Commissioner has to give at least 25 days’ notice before the elections are held. So it could be a long wait.

I as an individual can wait but can the university system wait? At present the previous VC is continuing as Acting VC and he too says he is expecting to be appointed VC. What this means is continuation of the old ways. There are several well founded accusations on the sexual harassment of women, improper promotions to the rank of professor, swindling, etc.. I have personally spoken to staff members who have seen a VC in action with his female students. I am attaching an Auditor General’s report on fraud at the Medical Faculty which I received as a UGC member implicating the third contender for the post of VC who ordered the equipment bypassing tender procedures and attempted to make payment without any paperwork or delivery of equipment as the Auditor General remarks. A retired engineer whose sister was once on the Council and the Finance Committee informs me of being shown MA candidates in education frolicking with their supervisor in the afternoons and how contractors are advanced 50% and then paid 100% ignoring that an advance had already been paid.

The engineering faculty which I am in charge of planning as Coordinator is blocked because my mandate from the UGC is to make my proposals via the Senate and Council to the UGC, but the Acting VC as Chairman of the Senate will not even put up my papers on engineering to the Senate. The UGC is aware of the problem but are hampered by the fact that the university is an independent institution.

Most worrisome to me is that no one, especially no one on the Council or the UGC, wants to do anything about these things. Any new VC who can put a stop to these goings-on would need to be congratulated.

As for the peninsula, things are great. Life is relatively cheap and simple. People look different perhaps because of the shift in population. Because of the war I suppose people are more violent – robbers are violent and school teachers terribly so compared to my times. Rather paradoxically the army and police are the only groups that are not as violent as they were till just recently. I very much hope they stay this way. There was a spate of robberies around December by ex-militants but the army has extensive checking at night now so the robberies have abated. People always grumble. First they grumbled about the robberies. Now they grumble against the check-points and sudden examinations after 6:00 PM.

Q. What do you think of the present situation in the university system in Sri Lanka?

A. Not enviable. Standards are badly down from the once high standards we had. The professional schools (engineering, medicine, dentistry) and special degrees are still very good so long as they teach in English. Where they teach in Tamil or Sinhalese, there is no outside check on their scholarship so anything goes.

Q. Meanwhile reports say that the teachers of all the universities in Sri Lanka are going to strike. What is the reason behind it? How will it affect the universities’ general life?

A.The basic issue is salary. The academics want more. From the science/professional faculty perspectives, most of us with Ph.Ds can find some gainful employment abroad so we think we are making a big sacrifice as indeed we are, and therefore need to be compensated. In engineering many of our students start in the private sector at a higher salary than ours. Our claim to better pay is reasonable but there is a big hole in our position.

The UGC for long years has been controlled by the humanities and social sciences folk. By and large governments – all governments – have been overawed by our qualifications and thought that qualified people are honest and therefore they let us run the system through the UGC. We academics, being as dishonest as people from any other sector of life, have used this freedom to feather our nests. Thus while science people maintained fairly strict standards, the arts/law/management/business people allowed easy paths to becoming senior lecturer with one-year master’s degrees and some nominal research while science insisted on two years of full time research or a PhD. Solid arts people with PhDs also lost esteem by being lumped with the rest. Engineering and agriculture were in the middle with a 2-year master’s degree with some research rather than a degree with 2 years’ research. That is, people of very different quality were paid the same salary as senior lecturers and professors. And we now have in the arts faculties some people who cannot find a teaching job in a good quality private school working as teachers in our universities. Pro forma satisfaction of promotion criteria have professors who printed 5 copies of a book just for the selection committee and never read since.

Thus when arguing for higher salaries, the good cause of the science and some arts teachers with 2 full years of research is used by clever academics to prove well-deservedness. Politicians with their native intelligence now see through this charade and know that it is just a small fraction of us who hold high qualifications while the rest hold bogus credentials. Government, alive to the situation, is very reluctant to pay us knowing that the majority of us do not deserve the high salaries we demand. But some of us do deserve this. This is the conundrum. So politicians in their weaker moments agree to raises but when the budget reality sets in are reluctant. Breaking word instead of saying no firmly from the beginning upsets many decent academics. I understand why my science and engineering faculty colleagues are so upset.

The real culprit is the UGC for authorizing through their misused powers the same high salaries for two very unequal groups. I do not even for a moment argue that arts people are inferior to science people. But I do say that most of the arts people through their historically dominant status in the UGC have authorized unreasonably high salaries for themselves without the Ph.D./research qualification we saw some years ago in the best of the arts people.

Instead of fighting the politicians I wish our academics would file action against the UGC for allowing a system of paying the same salary for some very ordinary people and some very highly qualified people. I am no lawyer but I think a good case can be made to overturn the system resting on the arbitrary authority of the UGC rather than reason. Unfortunately the unions, dominated by the arts people will not agree to doing this and will speak of the brotherhood among academics!

Q. Recently the Minister of Higher Education pointed out that the Government is planning to start private universities. Is it a positive development in Sri Lanka in terms of the success of the education system?

A. Talk of private universities is a sign of our (the public’s) frustration with academics. In the name of academic freedom, many of us do not come to work (while many work hard). We teach a few hours a day saying we are doing research but most of us have no substantive research record to produce at the end of the year. Since annual assessment is not done and raises are routine, those who work are never rewarded. But society somehow treats us as gods so it is difficult for anyone to tackle us or break our monopoly based on high flown rhetoric. Private universities may be the way the government has chosen to fight us.

But are private universities the right way? Are they positive? I do not know. If the private universities run themselves as true universities fostering teaching and learning with full-time academics, it would be great. But what I fear is that these private universities, instead of hiring full-time staff, would hire the best of the state university teachers with good hourly pay. We academics would not object. Paying on an hourly basis would be very cheap for the private universities. But its effect would be to diminish the very little research we already do in state universities and reduce university professors to tuition masters. That is, the state would be paying for the teaching at private universities (For us to take on hourly work in private universities would be possible only when we have a steady base of pay through employment in a national university). Only time will tell whether this is good; but I am skeptical about the altruism of Sri Lankan businessmen who typically own private universities.

Q. It is very common that there are conflicts between the students and teachers of our Universities. Recently one of our Vice Chancellors said that he asked students’ parents to check the virginity of their female children. Also there are many deadly fights between students and teachers. What do you think of the present situation in these institutions?

A. In every society there are eccentrics. The VC who wanted female children checked is an anomaly and I do not think we should make much of it. Overall our university folk are balanced people and are doing well except for staff/teaching standards and leadership. I see academics in regional universities working very hard without adequate staff, grading and teaching with no time for research. So naturally teaching will suffer as they are caught up in a vicious cycle. I see students who are extremely polite and looking up to us teachers for leadership. But we teachers fail them when a few of us penalize them for disagreeing with us or give grades without even grading as has happened all too often. One statement from me cannot typify our vast, complex and disparate university system. Similarly one standard fits all, the UGC should learn, does not work in assessing teachers’ qualifications and pay. We cannot as we presently do, equate a paper from a particular field with a paper from another. They must fine tune the system. We teachers also must stop pretending that we are all equal with equal claims to pay, producing equal degrees from disparate universities.

Q. How can we overcome those difficulties which you mention throughout our discussion? What is role of the civil society?

A. I am no Solomon. But treating people well, giving them their due, being nice to each other, being honest and upholding the rules for all – if I can do this as VC, I think in my little sphere I would be doing much to improve the system. I think this is the heart of the problem. I see people being denied well-deserved promotions and appointments and having to file legal action to get what is theirs while many who deserve nothing are getting promoted or appointed. As a result academics and even students are reluctant to disagree with anyone for fear of reprisals. So change becomes impossible. As a tiny example, recently a department very short of staff wanted a well qualified person as a second examiner. The Acting VC who did not like the person who was proposed, made some acerbic comments about the person as Senate Chairman and denied the request saying the person had to have a permanent position to be a second examiner. But everyone in the Senate – professors, department heads, faculty board representatives, all people with power – kept quiet knowing that very often an outside examiner was a retired person without a permanent job. Why did these people of power not tell the VC that he was off? I believe that it is because they are all cowed down, fearful that disagreeing would mean denial of some privilege or even a well-deserved promotion for themselves later by the VC. Such persons will naturally produce equally cautious students just like themselves.

The only good part of the story is this. The Department Head whose proposal was rejected through his memo and had been absent from the Senate when it was taken up, raised such a big rumpus that the Second Examiner was later appointed without Senate approval and finished his work in time for the exam. There are two points in this – one, the system functions outside the law in allowing an unapproved examiner and, two, there are still very brave persons who win by making a big noise against unjust decisions.

This therefore is civil society’s role – to make a big noise when they see wrong.

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