Pathological Symptoms of the Crisis of Higher Education in Sri Lanka

The government can crush the trade union action of the university teachers by employing the political, administrative and propaganda tools at their disposal. In the long-run, such a scenario would be a political defeat to the government and also a defeat of the university system itself. What is desirable is to reach a mutually acceptable ‘win-win solution’.
by  Prof. Gamini Keerawella

(June 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The deep-rooted crisis of the University System in Sri Lanka has come to the surface with the resignation of the university dons from their voluntary positions as part of the trade-union action of the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) demanding a reasonable salary revision. Even though the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) and the University Grants Commission (UGC) keep portraying that ‘the trade union action of academics has not had much impact on the university system’, the reality is that the normal academic and administrative functions have come to a standstill after the resignation of an overwhelming number of Heads of Departments in all the Universities of Sri Lanka. The utter incapability in handling the situation and the lack of acumen in crisis management on the part of the UGC and the MOHE has aggravated the salary demand of the university teachers to the present crisis.

However, the present crisis in the universities of Sri Lanka needs to be viewed in the backdrop of the broader systemic crisis that the whole university education system has been deeply engrossed with. In the face of the changed conditions of production, as well as the forces of production relating to the ‘knowledge industry’, i.e., the construction and distribution of knowledge, in the context of the globalization of education in the present information age, university education in Sri Lanka has reached a crucial historical juncture today. The intensity and extensity of global flow of goods, services, finance, people and images had increasingly made particularly university education a global commodity. As a result of these developments on the global scale, the role and the horizon of the higher seats of learning, and the mode of construction and distribution of knowledge, have undergone a profound change in the last three decades.

It is these developments that demand structural changes in our university system and rethinking of its role and modus operandi. The days that the universities in Sri Lanka had enjoyed the monopoly of higher education have come to an end. It must be noted that free education and the free health service, two key elements of the welfare network of the country, have been the main factors that contributed to Sri Lanka remaining in the high human development index throughout. What is meant by ‘free education’? Education cannot be free and the stark reality is that the burden of free education is borne by the people of the country to make it free for its beneficiaries. In order to reap the real benefits from the investment of the general public in ‘free’ education, it is imperative to ensure that the beneficiaries of free education are getting a quality education comparable to international standards. The thrust of the challenge is how to provide a competitive quality education of international standard with meagre human and physical resources while maintaining free education intact. If our higher seats of learning cannot provide what is required in a globalized educational environment with competitive substance and skills, free education would become an empty shell and a burden, rather than a source of strength. The private universities have already planted their outfits in Sri Lanka and the access to higher education in a large web of international universities is available through cyber space for those who can afford to do so. However, the main access to higher education for the overwhelming majority of our children is the national universities of Sri Lanka.

If the Sri Lankan university system is to play its role effectively as expected, it is essential that the universities must become vibrant seats of higher learning and innovative thinking. Far reaching changes are necessary in the university system for it to remain at the forefront of the construction and distribution of knowledge. It is definitely a multi-faceted process to be carried out assiduously with a clear vision and direction. Any delay on our part to initiate these changes in university education would result in pushing us behind while others are moving forward. The way in which the higher authorities in Higher Education responded to the salary demand of the University Teachers is a clear indication that they are groping in the dark. It is now high time to review the present anachronistic organizational structure relating to higher education. The role of the UGC which presently acts as the Commissar of Higher Education of Sri Lanka must be reviewed and its functions redefined to suit the changed higher educational environment. The academic administration at the individual university level also needs a drastic change to ensure more autonomy to take decisions within the parameters set out by an enlightened regulatory authority. In addition, the present recruitment procedure to the academic and non academic staff grades needs substantial revision. Granting tenure and promotions should be done only after a vigorous and fair screening process and only those who deserve should be selected and promoted. The ultimate aim of all these changes in academic administration is to facilitate the universities to become seats of effective higher learning and innovative research. The introduction of new programs and the revision of the syllabus of existing courses constitute a key element required to maintain the Universities of Sri Lanka as vibrant seats of higher learning. It is necessary to have multiple approaches to teaching and learning incorporating blended teaching and learning to enhance the delivery capacity of universities. The transparency and accountability in the evaluation system ares essential not only to create an environment of trust and good-governance in our educational institutions but also to ensure credibility of the examination system. Many initiatives have already been taken, in varying degrees, in many universities in the form of introducing new courses and revising the contents of existing courses, but there is still a long way to go. In order to go forward in that direction, to make our universities vibrant seats of higher learning and research, the most important aspect that needs urgent attention is to develop the human resource base of our universities. The recruitment of vibrant young graduates from inside and outside, those who show high potential to become world-class scholars, and giving them the opportunities and rewards are steps in the direction of developing the human resource base. The other is to attract qualified scholars and retain them in our universities with an environment conducive for good research and quality teaching. In the absence of a decent salary scale for university academics, at least comparable to the other South Asian Universities, there is a strong potential/tendency that the remaining qualified academic staff would also leave our universities making them asylums of mediocrity in the near future. The demand for a reasonable salary structure for university teachers should be viewed in this perspective. Accordingly, in order for the present free-education to be meaningful and effective, it is imperative that our universities need a rich human resource base. In order to recruit and retain qualified and effective staff, they should be offered a decent salary. Research and Development (R&D) funding in Sri Lanka is at 0.17% of the GDP while in India it has been 2% since Independence. It is generally considered that the prosperity of a nation is directly proportional to its capacity to generate technologies. Anagarika Dharmapala, as far back as in 1902, quoting an ancient authority stated that "education of a country is neglected when administers are bad".

It is true that a salary revision is not a panacea for all the ills that the university system is suffering from, but it would be the point of departure for other essential innovations. Without a strong and qualified human resource base, no innovation is possible. Antonio Gramsci, Italian Marxist and political philosopher, once stated that when the body politic is in crisis pathological symptoms appear everywhere. The way in which the UGC and the MOHE handled the salary demand of the university teachers is indicative of multiple diseases that the higher education system is suffering from. The behavior of the decision-makers in the UGC and the MOHE indicated that they manifest themselves as sordid symptoms of the crisis of higher education. The secretary of the Ministry of Finance looks at the issue of the salary demand of university teachers only from the point of view of COST in the short-run not considering BENEFITS in the long-run. One aspect of the development agenda of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government is to make Sri Lanka ‘the knowledge hub of Asia’. It is the duty of the relevant bureaucracy to find ways and means to implement it. Without a clearly designed program and a well-planned course of action, these lofty ideals ultimately become only political slogans. If the UGC and the MOHE had a little vision or perspective, the salary issue of the university teachers should have been used as quid pro quo to promote positive changes in the university system.

The responses of the Grants Commission and the Higher Education authorities to the trade union action of FUTA highlighted not only their arrogance and high-handedness but also their capacity to mismanagement. The utter incapability in crisis management and conflict resolution of the Higher Education authorities is the hallmark of their behaviour. As in the case of Medical Science, in Pease building the three steps followed are diagnosis, prognosis and therapy. Without diagnosing the problem correctly it is not possible to administer the proper course of therapy. Therefore, first of all, it is necessary to diagnose the problem. As for the systemic crisis of higher education in Sri Lanka, the UGC and the MOHE failed to differentiate the symptoms and the root causes of the crisis. Because of this ignorance, they failed to offer any course of viable therapy. The threats and intimidation carried out in the media and in circulars by the UGC one after another only aggravated the conflict. The age-old method of conflict resolution is negotiations. The essence of negotiation is mutual bargaining to find a common ground to reach an agreement by changing each other’s position.

According to Kal Holsti, the bargaining involves the establishment of essential positions, determination of areas where concessions can be made, and commissioning of credible threats and promises of rewards. The use of only threats is not within the fold of negotiation and it is nothing but use of violence to settle accounts. The UGC and the MOHE also disregarded the three well-established steps in the crisis management strategy: de-escalation, containment and resolution. The role played by the UGC and the MOHE contributed heavily to escalate the conflict. There is a total mix up of roles. In the negotiation process, there are different roles for different agents. These roles include facilitation, mediation and decision-making. The facilitator’s role is to set the table of negotiation and help the decision making parties of the conflict to commence and continue discussions or to implement an agreement already reached. In contrast, the mediator plays a dual role as ‘rule keeper’ and ‘interested party’which involves participation in negotiation, persuading parties to compromise and initiating substantial proposals for resolving the conflict. The UGC and the MOHE played neither the role of facilitator nor the role of mediator. It played only the mercenary role. It highlighted the fact that the regime needs good administrators who possesses administrative ability and crisis management skills in addition to political loyalty.

The strategy of the UGC and the MOHE in handling the trade union action of the FUTA is a utter failure. Their perception seems to be that the trade union action of the FUTA can be defeated by carrying out a virulent and systematic campaign based on five deceptions or myths.

1. The university teachers demand a 200% salary increase.
2. The Government has grated a 36% salary increase
3. Teachers are on strike.
4. The trade union action is led by a small group of anti-government elements
5. The present trade union action of FUTA is a part of an international conspiracy to discredit the government after the release of the Darusman report

In addition to the vicious and calculated media campaign which muddled the conflict out of proportion instead of helping to resolve it, the higher education authorities have also made a number of fundamental errors in handling the situation. First of all, they violated the basic principles of collective bargaining which constitutes the essence of the negotiated settlement. In collective bargaining, the parties to the conflict must be prepared to find a mutually acceptable position to find a solution to the problem. Accordingly, both parties should be ready to change their positions. When the Minister of Higher Education says that the trade union action is futile as the chance of getting their demand is only point 000001% he closes the door on a negotiated settlement. The strategy of the UGC and the MOHE in handling the trade union action in extenso is fundamentally flawed. Instead of genuinely attempting to find a solution to key issue of the conflict, what the authorities in Higher Education did was to attack university teachers. With all the difficulties and constraints, the state universities are the seat of serious researchers and good teachers. The artificial limb project of a group of teachers from the Medical, Science and Engineering Faculties led by Dr. H.J. Suraweera can be cited as a case. Last December I was invited to make a presentation in the opening plenary of the International Symposium on Social Resilience in Virginia, USA. Other speakers who addressed the plenary included Christine Wormuth, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Security, USA, Major General (Retired) Mahan Vilant, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister, Christian Sommande, Executive director, French High Committee for Civil Defense. It was the 26th international research conference that I have attended. I am compelled to say this because of the statements of the Higher Education authorities as to the absence of international versatility of our university scholars. Prof. Veranja Karunaratna of the Department of Chemistry of the University of Peradeniya of the have applied for four US patents during past four years and one (anti-diabetic compounds from Sri Lankan lichens) has been granted already. It is true that these scholars do not represent the majority. Instead of attacking all the university teachers as scum, what should have been done was to present a program of action to make serious research of international fame the norm rather than the exception. The most appalling aspect of its strategy to counter the trade union action of the FUTA is to discredit the products of our university system as ‘KALAKANNEES’ and GANJA KAROYOS. Discrediting the product of our universities in this way has far reaching implications, especially when they enter the job market. I admit that we have problems but this is not the way to address them. Even the well established and world class factories with a high degree of quality assurance methods may produce one or two sub-standard products. In such cases, these factories, find substandard products and discard them. The irony, if not the parody, in the university system may be that such substandard products that our university system has produced appear to have employed in the decision-making process of higher education.

The government can crush the trade union action of the university teachers by employing the political, administrative and propaganda tools at their disposal. In the long-run, such a scenario would be a political defeat to the government and also a defeat of the university system itself. What is desirable is to reach a mutually acceptable ‘win-win solution’.

Gamini Keerawella is presently a Senior Professor at the University of Peradeniya. He was a visiting Research professor/Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, University of Western Australia, Perth, Institute of Developing Economies in Japan and Centre for Contemporary Theory, India.

Tell a Friend