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Education – Right or Privilege

| by Gajalakshmi Paramasivam

( December 12, 2013, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) I write in response to the Sri Lanka Guardian article ‘Sri Lankan Universities Falling Apart’ by Darshini Wimalasuriya.

The author states ‘Major universities in Uganda, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe are now in a superior position than the Sri Lankan universities. Instead of educational quality Sri Lankan universities are now famous for violence, extremist student politics, strikes, low productivity, and moral decay.’

To me, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka, is of the standards that I practiced as per my belief in that Institution. I went to prison here upholding that high standard of the Sri Lankan Chartered Accountant, here in Australia. To surface readers it would have seemed that I went to prison because I refused to leave the University of New South Wales. To me this outcome confirmed that the law faculty of the University of New South Wales produces poor practitioners of law. Most of them use knowledge of law to earn money and towards social status. Both these are ‘external’ rewards and hence to that extent the University is no different to any other business. The greater this component in their resources or outputs, the lower the standards. But that would boost business especially in multicultural markets where culture based status is likely to be on the decline.

Once a senior Academic-Administrator of the University stated that according to a senior group of academics – standards have come down due to ‘foreign students’. That is the parallel of stating that I was arrested by Police for refusing to leave the University when asked to do so in the name of the Vice Chancellor. Foreign students are ‘recruited’ by Australians. When such Australians had their higher education largely towards earning money and status – they would be driven by the ‘fee’ paid by the student more than the deservedness of the student. All private students do bring the standard of the University down – not only due to their failure to get their higher status relative to fellow citizens using Common measures – but also due to being recruited because they can afford to pay money to get University entry. Such graduates would not be able to contribute to the ‘structure’ of a Public University that caters to the needs of the whole nation. By continuing to keep my Sri Lankan qualifications pure of other influences – I believe I was paying royalty to the structure that supported me. Likewise, at the family level. Where this is not recognized as being higher than status by the younger generation, we need to travel alone and that would convert our investments into Universal Energies. Then we would identify with any part of that higher education – even in the institution that is below ours in grade.

The parallel of this in governance is that a genuine administrator would travel beyond her/his position to contribute to the future, even when s/he undertakes the journey as a lone person – often ridiculed by those looking for immediate outcomes through the existing system. Not many go beyond their position limits to undertake this journey. At best they would include themselves with those who do so.

The author states ‘According to Mr. Navarathna Banda over 90 % of Sri Lankan university professors and senior lectures are under qualified and do not have a wider exposure. Majority of these university teachers are working in the same universities where they graduated and they do not have any overseas exposure or experience. Academically speaking their knowledge and experiences are stunted. Their knowledge is limited and outdated.’

One does not need wider exposure to be an effective academic. In a country like Sri Lanka where Political power is stronger than Administrative power – remaining local is advantages to academics. If they become global faster than their politicians, there would be ongoing conflicts with the politicians and through them effectively with the parents who elected these politicians. Given that many of Sri Lanka’s Universities are politically driven – foreign students would with political knowledge are likely to lead these Universities.

‘Sri Lankan Universities have student political groups that are manipulated by the extremists. When a new batch of students arrives at the University, they are intimidated and threatened to use physical ragging by the seniors. Often the new students are not allowed to have a dialog with the university lecturers, not allowed ask questions at the lectures, not allowed to take part in the English courses and not allowed to use the university library by these extreme student unions. The freshes have to wear non expensive clothes and for them it is prohibited to wear shoes. In some universities they are not allowed to take baths or clean themselves after using the toilet for a number of weeks. In some universities the students are not allowed to drink beverages like coca cola. This sanction was vigorously implemented at the University of Colombo and University of Kelaniya.’

To the extent graduates carry strongly positive memories of their Universities and value themselves through such status allocated by them – they contribute to diluting the negatives from the above. But where most graduates ‘forget’ about University’s real purpose (research and education) after using it to earn money and status – there is not enough ploughing back of benefits to reinforce the structure. Hence new students are vulnerable to ‘extremists’ – many of whom are former students and staff.

The author states ‘According to a prominent Sri Lankan medical doctor who is working as an associate professor in an American university, the quality of Sri Lankan medical faculties has come down. Majority of the Sri Lankan doctors who graduated in the past few decades have very poor English knowledge and they are unable to communicate effectively and professionally. He further says that Sri Lankan doctors lack attitudinal training, medical ethics and accountability towards their patients. According to the international ranking of medical schools many medical schools of the 3rd world countries such as Nigeria, Nepal, India, and Tanzania have beaten the Sri Lankan medical faculties.’

This is not merely due to the Medical Faculty itself but due to not accounting for cultural distances. One cannot use the same yardstick used in America to measure Sri Lanka nor even Australia. They need to be relative to the resources available and also the opportunities that have been facilitated over the years. The Sri Lankan doctor working in rural Sri Lanka does not need English. We have enough civilization in medical field that would support a local doctor in her/his conduct. It’s our colonial past that keeps tempting us and we end up being neither there nor here. English is only a language. In terms of culture – Sri Lankan culture is not second to English culture. Taken as a whole – Sri Lankan doctors continue to fit very well in English speaking countries and a good proportion of them are from the University of Jaffna. That’s where the community togetherness helps share each other’s skills as if we are One family.

The author states ‘Recently the Minister of Higher Education Mr. S.B Dissanayake told the media that he intends to invite overseas students to the Sri Lankan Universities. With current low grade of education quality, massive violence and frequent strikes in the Sri Lankan universities the foreign students might think twice to come to further their education in Sri Lanka.’

Sri Lanka has had the global experience in terms of racial diversity. Not many western universities are supported by experience in the elimination of racial discrimination. Hence to those who seek various aspects of this issue – including Human Rights issues – Sri Lanka is fertile grounds for Research. They must pay the global fee though – for our lives lost in this global issue are not cheap.

The author concludes by stating ‘Education is not a privilege. It is a human right. Higher education is the only hope and salvation to the Sri Lankans and do not let anyone to destroy it’

Basic Education is a right. But higher education is not. In some countries where taxes are collected on the basis of higher education – it is a right. Not so in countries where taxes are not linked to higher education. More importantly – only the voter who respects education and votes in that consciousness is entitled to be facilitated to educate her/himself out of Public funds. The rest have to make the choice privately. Everyone has the right to learn through self-education.

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