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What ails our Universities?


The role of universities in developing a knowledge based economy depends to a great extent on the quality of education provided. It is essential that even the 17% of the total student population passing out from the universities need to be given a satisfactory education/ training. The quality of education in a university depends to a considerable extent on the undergraduate and post graduate courses provided, and the other related facilities such as library, laboratory and field. In most of the faculties in the recently established universities, these basic facilities are not at a satisfactory level.

by Dr. C.S. Weeraratna

(May 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Knowledge society and knowledge-based economy are the latest catch words in the field of Education. Knowledge, skills and resourcefulness of people are critical to the building up of a knowledge society which is crucial for achieving the objective of a knowledge-based economy. Universities play a prominent role in achieving this objective. A very comprehensive paper on University Education, by Mr. Eric Silva, a former Secretary of Education, published in a series of eight articles in recent editions of The Island, highlighted the unplanned expansion of university education which has resulted in a very unsatisfactory situation in the university system.

At present there are 15 universities in Sri Lanka. Graduates qualifying from these universities have a very significant role to play in all the different professional/non professional spheres of the country which are important in achieving a knowledge–based economy. However, only about 17% of students who get qualified to enter universities get admitted. For example in the year 2009,125,000 students who sat for GCE (A level) qualified but only 21,500 (17.2 %) were admitted.

Inability to utilize a large percentage of human resources in the country to contribute to the endevaours in achieving a knowledge society tend to retard to a great extent the socio-economic growth in the country. Insufficient opportunities for higher education cause serious problems leading to youth unrest, and as a result of inadequate local opportunities for higher education, a large number of students go overseas to follow various courses. In the year 2009, the total outward remittances for educational purposes were around Rs. 2 billion.

Quality of Education:

The role of universities in developing a knowledge based economy depends to a great extent on the quality of education provided. It is essential that even the 17% of the total student population passing out from the universities need to be given a satisfactory education/ training. The quality of education in a university depends to a considerable extent on the undergraduate and post graduate courses provided, and the other related facilities such as library, laboratory and field. In most of the faculties in the recently established universities, these basic facilities are not at a satisfactory level.

Closely related to academic standards in universities is the relevance of the courses offered by the universities. While around 40,000 graduates remain unemployed, employers complain that their training is of no use to them. If what the employers say is correct, has there been a concerted effort by the UGC to modify/change the university courses so that the graduates are more useful? UGC, through their standing committees need to examine what the deficiencies in the courses and take appropriate measures to rectify them. The Dept. of National Planning should play a more active role, interact with the employers and advice the UGC on the modifications/changes that need to be carried out. Perhaps these changes may not need additional expenditure.

University Academic staff:

The success/achievements of a university deepened to a considerable extent on its academic staff. Currently there are around 5,700 in the academic staff of the 15 universities. Nearly 2,500 of them have postgraduate qualifications. By being involved in research/extension and other related activities, they could make a significant impact on the socio-economic issues affecting the country. A large number of them are highly committed and go out of their way to contribute to improve the output of their institutions. If not for them, the various programmes and activities of professional societies, such as Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS), which have an catalytic effect on the socio-economic development of the country, would come to a halt. All these are done on a voluntary basis.

Most of them have to work under very trying conditions. Some of the basic facilities necessary for the staff to carry out their work satisfactorily are not available to them. Although staff quarters available for the academic staff of Peradeniya University, most of the staff in regional universities such as Wayamba, Rajarata etc. do not have proper places to stay and they have to pay a considerable portion of their salaries on accommodation. Communication and transport facilities are limiting. I am aware of some university academic staff members who have to start early morning, walk to the bus/train station, and travel hundreds of kilometers to attend to various academic/professional meetings in Colombo or Peradeniya. These are done on a voluntary basis. When the staff member has to stay overnight in Colombo or Kandy, he/she has no place to stay and has to depend on a friend or a relation. Thus they have to face untold difficulties in attending to their professional work.

Most of the recently recruited probationary academic staff need to obtain post-graduate qualifications so that they could provide a better service. It will also raise the standards of the respective universities. Some time ago, there was a programme to send the university probationary academic staff for post-graduate training to oversees. This made it a possible to have a well qualified academic staff. However, there is no such a programme at present. It is essential that this programme is continued if we are to maintain/raise the academic standing of our universities.

Research

The university academic staff is expected to do research and extension. Their research out-put is given due consideration when they are given promotions. They need to publish their research findings. I brought to the notice of the UGC through the Chairman of the standing committee in which I was a member, the need to have a compendium indicating the research projects, conducted by the academic staff of universities of Sri lanka, and to publish the research papers of the university staff, at least in an annual journal. But this was not done.

Conducting research, especially laboratory/field research is a real challenge. Most of the basic requirements for research such as laboratory (equipment and chemicals) /communication/transport etc. are limiting. In spite of many difficulties, a large number of university academics conduct research. How have these research benefited the country? Ideally the UGC should have a programme to commercialize/make use of the research findings of the university staff. It is necessary to have an effective mechanism to interact with the industry so that the research findings could be used by them. It is then only that the research conducted by the university staff universities can have an impact on the socio-economic development of the country. Merely conducting research is not going to be of use nationally.

Practical Training

A common topic in some seminars/meetings related to education/employment is that the university students do not have sufficient practical training. Up to 1970s, G.C.E students in the science stream had practical classes in the respective subjects, and they had to sit for practical examinations. At present most students in G.C. E. A science classes have no practical classes and no practical examinations. As a result, there are some students entering the university science faculties who have never used basic scientific glassware such as a burette or a pipette. Hence, it is important that students in the science faculties get a practical training at least when they are in the university,. However, in most science-based faculties, especially those in the recently opened universities, students have to work in large groups, and as a result they do not get the opportunity to carry out these practicals individually. This is partly attributed to insufficient funds. Admitting students, providing them an incomplete course, and finally awarding a degree is deceiving the students and the country.

Student Facilities

Some Universities/faculties in Sri Lanka have been established almost overnight without any proper plan. The medical faculty of Rajarata University is the most recent example. A large percentage of the students in many universities have to stay away from their homes, and it is essential that these students have reasonable accommodation. Universities rent out private houses for students to stay but, most of these houses do not have adequate basic facilities. Some of these "hostels" which are suitable for around 10, about 30-40 students or even more are forced to stay. This causes students to protest. While millions are spent on building official accommodation for some politicians, the university students who are called the future leaders of the country, have to study under deplorable conditions.

If we are to build a knowledge-based society, which will eventually lead to socio-economic advancement of the country, it is necessary that an effective integrated plan is developed encompassing the primary, secondary and tertiary education systems in the country. The academic staff, students, parents and employers need to be involved in the development of such plans. The experiences of those who have faced the realities of the education sphere in Sri Lanka need to be obtained, and the actual problems at grass-root level need to be identified, and adequately addressed in such an integrated plan. The adhoc plans of the ministers and their ministry staff, such as the so called leadership training programme (it has many other components such as beauty culture, nutrition etc. A leadership training cannot be given in a 3 week period. It should be an in-built programme, perhaps from the secondary education stage) implemented recently involving a considerable cost, are of little use. Development of plans alone is not sufficient. Such plans have to be implemented effectively for which the commitment of all those involved is essential.


Dr. Weeraratna, (csweera@sltnet.lk) is former Professor of Agronomy at Ruhuna University and the former Professor of Soils and Water Resources at Rajarata University.



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