Reforms in Sri Lankan Universities

| by Aboobacker Rameez

( January 23, 2015, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)
It is heartening to see a suitably qualified person being appointed as the Minister of Education. It is even more heartening to see the Minister, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinghe, attempting to introduce much needed reforms to the universities.

One of the other important aspects that has credibly crippled the system of Universities in Sri Lanka is the appointment of non-academic staff by the politicians, particularly the Higher Education Minister, with the collusion of the Vice Chancellors, some of whom also include their candidates in the list to be appointed as non-academic staff.
There are two key important factors, which I think have contributed to the total collapse of system in the universities in Sri Lanka: 1) the process involved in the selection of Council Members; and 2) the process involved in the selection of Vice Chancellors. It is encouraging to note that the new Minister’s reform proposals have taken note of these factors. This article seeks to propose suggestions on how the system in the university could be made immune to political meddling and other influences, so that there will be good governance and the autonomy and integrity of universities intact.

Selection of Council Members

In the past, politicians including the Higher Education Minister, and respective Vice Chancellors of universities played a pivotal role in the selection process of council members. They were selected not purely based on their educational and professional qualifications, but based on their political affiliation with politicians or to their political parties. Vice Chancellors also exploited the opportunity, based on their influence with the subject Minister, in recommending to the UGC/HEM a list of names to be selected to the council. Hence, the council of some universities was constituted with individuals with questionable credentials. I know of a University Council where a brother of a former Higher Education Minister and a relative of the Vice Chancellor were appointed as members of the council. These members are provided personal transportation or their travelling expenses reimbursed; they are also provided with lodging, honorarium and other sitting allowances. These perks and privileges functioned prompting them to play a passive role in the councils, simply giving consent to the decision taken by the Vice Chancellors. It is true that Councils are deemed as mere rubber stamps in the university sector. However, we cannot wholly dismiss the important role these council members can in reality play. They can indeed play a constructive role in making the universities real hubs of knowledge and professional ventures where scholars of higher standard are produced. The sordid practice I mentioned above has not only brought the universities into disrepute, but it has degenerated the university system in Sri Lanka. Thus, it is important that the Higher Education Minister rethinks strategies for the selection of council members to make it corruption-free and efficient. There should be clear-cut criteria for the selection of council members. In my humble view, first and foremost, the criteria should not merely focus upon the educational qualifications of the applicants, but it should also encompass professional expertise and the industrial experience/expertise of those applicants. Secondly, meddling of politicians and Vice Chancellors of respective universities in the selection process of council members should not be permitted. A commission in the UGC, free from political interference, should be delegated with the task of selecting the council members. This process, I believe, will ensure the restoration of a well-organized system in the country, thereby empowering the council members as guardians of the universities, instead of mere rubber stamps.

Process of Vice Chancellor Selection

The lapse in the selection process of council members consequently affects the selection of suitably qualified candidates to the position of Vice Chancellor (VC) in Universities. More importantly, appointing the Vice Chancellors of Universities is so far the prerogative of the President of the country. Thus, politics plays a key role in the selection process of VCs. President favors, for appointment, those who are loyal to him and his parties from a list of 3 candidates forwarded to him by the UGC after being short-listed by the respective University Councils. The Manifesto of His Excellency President Maithiripala Sirisena categorically states that the “Senate of each University will be responsible for the selection of VCs in the future.” This is indeed commendable, not simply because the task would be entrusted to a non-political entity, but because the Senate is the highest standard entity, constituted with the Deans of faculties, the Heads of departments, and members of each faculties of the university, in terms of academic affairs and that they would select the most suitable persons in terms of educational and professional qualification, and administrative experience/expertise without undue political interference or other influences. If this is not possible to implement in the short run, I recommend that a professional committee/body in the UGC level free from political interference should be constituted with the responsibility of selecting the most qualified person from the 3 short-listed candidates recommended by the council of respective universities. It is indeed plausible to assume that people with little academic background/qualifications would be appointed even in the future provided that the status quo is not checked.

One of the other important aspects that has credibly crippled the system of Universities in Sri Lanka is the appointment of non-academic staff by the politicians, particularly the Higher Education Minister, with the collusion of the Vice Chancellors, some of whom also include their candidates in the list to be appointed as non-academic staff. This politically motivated outrageous trend needs to be arrested with an immediate effect, given the fact that such appointments brought the universities into disrepute to a greater extent. We hear that such politically appointed non-academic staff dictate terms to their administrative heads because of their political influence. Instead, competitive exams, constructive interviews and presentations are some other ways and means through which non-academic positions can be filled at the Universities. We are optimistic that the present Higher Education Minister will never leave a room for obnoxiously sordid practices to be perpetuated in the Universities.

Overall, this process, if it is revamped, will ensure the good governance and autonomy of the universities and thus universities will serve as places of genuine intellectual discourses, nurturing scholars with both theoretical and practical/applied knowledge to keep abreast with the modern trend of the world and Sri Lanka.

This writer is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at South Eastern University of Sri Lanka(SEUSL). He is waiting for the viva on his PhD dissertation submitted at National University of Singapore (NUS).