Crisis in universities: May explode if allowed to fester

Monday, 20 June 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

‘Mahinda Chinthana’ vision: The ‘Knowledge Hub’

An important policy proposal made in the ‘Mahinda Chinthana – Vision for the Future’ has been the development of Sri Lanka, among others, as a ‘Knowledge Hub’.

The knowledge hub concept has been justified on the ground that Sri Lanka had been a disseminator of knowledge to the rest of the world in the ancient times; this position has now been lost and should be regained.

There has been a significant drain of intellectuals and the educated out of the country in the recent few decades. It should now attract such drained talent back through a ‘reverse brain-drain strategy’ and the country should reform its education system to produce quality graduates who will become employable in the future.  

While upgrading Sri Lanka’s education system to international levels, the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ promises to ‘commence training programmes that directly target foreign markets’ and ‘restructure the education and knowledge systems suitably, so that Sri Lanka becomes a key hub for knowledge and learning in the world’.

This brief vision in the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ appears to be a response to the widespread dissatisfaction about the woeful state to which Sri Lanka’s higher education had degenerated by the end of the first decade of the new millennium.

This is a sad situation since even in the first decade of gained independence, the country’s university, the University of Ceylon, ranked on par with the University of London on which Ceylon’s university had been modelled.

There had been a frequent exchange of academics between the two universities, while theses and dissertations prepared by postgraduate students of the University of Ceylon were marked by academics from London as well. Many students from other countries, as farther places as Japan and Africa, had trekked to Ceylon to receive the quality education offered by the University of Ceylon.

In view of this, the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ vision of converting Sri Lanka to a ‘Knowledge Hub’ is timely and opportune. In my view, this, however, requires a cautious approach in reforming and restructuring Sri Lanka’s university system with the full cooperation of the university academics.

Lessons from other countries in the region

There are many lessons which Sri Lanka should learn from other countries in this regard.

In April 2011, a prestigious university in China, namely, Tsinghua University, celebrated its centenary. China’s President, Hu Jintao, an alumnus of Tsinghua himself, was the Chief Guest at the celebrations, while presidents and vice chancellors of a large number of world’s key universities including Yale and Oxford had graced the occasion.

Hu had an important piece of advice to the current management and students of his alma mater. Noting that there was a grave need for promoting the overall quality of China’s universities, he encouraged the academics to enhance their innovativeness and research capability and students to maintain their individuality by thinking independently. (available at:

Hu’s message was a stark reminder of the need for re-establishing the two core values on which Tsinghua was built 100 years ago: academic freedom and independent thinking. Therefore, to become a world class university like Oxford, Cambridge or Yale requires a complete change in the university culture and its appreciation by both the administration and the academics of universities.

This may be the reason for Tsinghua’s President, Gu Binglin, to put a very long date, not earlier than 2050, for his university to become a world class university, according to a report filed by the Hong Kong based South China Morning Post.

To become a knowledge hub catering to the rest of the world is not an easy task. As reported by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw in their famous book, ‘The Commanding Heights,’ India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had thought of developing a world class technological education system in India on the model of prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology of USA.

Accordingly, he started setting up Indian Institutes of Technology or IITs all throughout the country beginning from 1952. Over the years, these IITs became world class institutes of higher learning producing quality engineers not only for India but also for USA and Europe.

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew confesses in his autobiography, ‘From Third World to First,’ that he forced the National University of Singapore to be developed on the model of the prestigious Harvard University of USA so that Singapore could become an important knowledge hub in the region. Even the Bangkok’s Asian Institute of Technology, a prestigious international university in the region today, was developed in 1958 on the model of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

University core values

The core values of all these institutions are academic freedom (that is, freedom of the academics to teach what they consider as true and validated), independent thinking (that is, to think independently of the voice or the opinion of the administration), freedom of thought (that is, freedom to challenge established opinions) and freedom of expression (that is, freedom to express what one believes as true without the fear of persecution and punishment). Critics say that Sri Lanka has lost all these core values in its current university system.

Hence, Sri Lanka’s march toward becoming a knowledge hub requires the country to re-establish these core values as guiding principles of its university system. These core values have to be safeguarded by vice chancellors, councils, senates and faculties as sacred principles.

University dons’ salary issue

Today, the university system has been crippled by a confrontation between university dons and the administration regarding the revision of salaries.

University academics have demanded higher salaries and authorities too have accepted it as a reasonable demand. The only problem faced by authorities is that, as reported by the press, the Government’s cash flow does not permit it to grant the full amount of the demanded salary increase in a single increase. Hence, the Government, it appears, is trying to buy time by phasing out the payment of the increased salaries to university dons over a period of time.

This promise has not satisfied the agitating academics and they have resorted to trade union action short of a full-scale strike. As a result, both academic and administration work of universities has crippled beyond repair. The longer it may persist, the farther will be the goal of becoming a ‘Knowledge Hub’ by the country as envisioned in the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’.

Hence, without resorting to narrow and childish arguments, one should look at the core of the issue with a view to arriving at an amicable solution to the issue.

University dons are brain workers

University dons are ‘brain workers’ compared to manual workers who have to use little of brain and more of brawn and white collar workers who have to use little of  both  brain and brawn, but more of knowledge. Here I distinguish brain workers from knowledge workers: brain workers will create knowledge for use by both manual workers and knowledge workers and, therefore, stand very much above all others.

Hence, as an essential requirement of their occupation, university dons have to invest heavily and continuously, in the development of their brain power. It is this investment that will make them useful and respectable members of the society. Even in the ancient times, teachers or gurus occupied a very high position in the society and as Kautilya has remarked in ‘The Ethics of Chanakya,’ ‘one should not stay even for a single day where there is no scholar who can clarify confusion regarding what one should do and what one should not do.’

Scholars in Kautilya’s time were those sages who had been attached to institutions of learning like the University of Taxila or the University of Nalanda. Today, they are the academics attached to universities which are supposed to create knowledge for use by all of us for furthering our lives.

Continuous investment in brain power is a highly stressful activity and, therefore, a person, given the chance, would move out of it at the very first opportunity available. Hence, societies have incentivised scholarship by respecting scholars in the past and remunerating them appropriately in the present.

Following this principle, the salaries of university dons have been kept at the highest levels in developed countries. Even in Sri Lanka, till around 1970s, the salary levels of academics at universities were higher than the comparable positions in the government or banks.

The writer recalls that when he joined the Central Bank as a probationary staff officer in 1973, his salary at the bank was less by 110 rupees than the salary which his colleagues drew at the universities, a difference which was very much high in real terms at that time. For instance, it meant that an assistant lecturer at a university could have afforded 440 kg of rice or 10 bags of cement or 15 litres of petrol, to mention but a few items, more than what a Central Bank officer could have afforded at that time. This helped universities to get the best brains at that time.

The situation today appears to be pathetic. The salary differences are such that there is a wide gap between the salaries of university academics and those in the comparable services. As revealed by the Minister of Higher Education in Parliament, it appears that the salary of an entry grade lecturer at a university is shockingly less by some Rs. 45,000 than that of an entry grade staff officer in a State bank. At today’s prices, this means a loss of some 640 kg of rice or 65 bags of cement or 360 litres of petrol by a university academic compared to his counterparts in a State bank.

Consequences of poor salary payments

What was the reason for this step-motherly treatment of university academics? The general budgetary constraints faced by the Government in the wake of an expanding public sector of which some other sectors had priority allocation of funds.

The consequences of poor funding to universities in this manner was elucidated by the Central Bank in its Annual Report for 2002 as follows: ‘The consequence has been disastrous: a gradual deterioration in the educational standards compelling prospective employers to suspect whether to hire the throughput of the university system; continuous agitation by both students and staff for better facilities and failure to attract and retain quality staff to maintain the educational standards.’

Sri Lanka was not alone in failing to retain quality university staff on account of poor pay. In the 1960s and ’70s, the UK Government too had a policy of paying a low uniform salary to university dons irrespective of the differences in their individual talent base; the result was the attraction of its best brains by fast growing countries like USA and Canada that offered higher salaries to them. Many of them subsequently lauded with Nobel Prize for the work they had done in their respective fields while they were in the UK, but the credit went to the institutions they were subsequently attached.

In Sri Lanka, while many top academics chose to explore their fortunes in greener pastures in the developed world, those who remained behind simply chose to moonlight in private academic institutions and donor-sponsored research projects, thereby denying their full professional time and energy to the university system.

The result was the deterioration of teaching standards, absence of new research undertaken by the university dons and, above all, stagnation of the addition of new knowledge to the society.

Market wage determination vs. bureaucratic wage determination

In a free labour market, such anomalies in wage determination cannot occur and persist. If there is a shortage of a given talent, the wage levels applicable to that talent will increase inducing people to acquire it and raise its market availability. By the same token, if there is an oversupply, wages will fall making further investments in that human talent unattractive. Thus, the market will sort out all problems relating to wage anomalies and wage levels across different categories of talents.

However, in Sri Lanka’s university system, wages of academics are determined not by the market but by the bureaucrats. If the bureaucrats take the emerging market shortages and gluts into account when they decide the wages of different categories, then, there is still no problem about having an optimal wage level for university dons. However, bureaucrats are guided not by such market considerations, but by other factors which make their work more convenient.

Convenient factors used by bureaucrats

These convenient factors which bureaucrats use in determining wages are the affordability, equity and marketability. Affordability is determined by taking into account the overall size of the wage increase proposed and whether it can be accommodated in a given budget. If it is too much, an across the board reduction of all wages to remain within the available budgetary allocation is made.

Equity factor is observed by offering a uniform wage structure to all in a given grade without regard to the shortages or gluts in the talent pool. Consequently, even a don in a rare field like nano technology is paid the same wage as a don in a relatively abundant field like accountancy. But, the country’s legislature, judicial system and social ethos have endorsed such a policy on the ground of equity.

The marketability is the ability of the bureaucrats to make the proposed wage increase acceptable to those who agitate for wage increases. This is done by offering a certain percentage increase in the wages across the board which puts the wage demanders under a temporary wage illusion: the wage demander knows only his absolute wage increase and not his relative improvement vis-à-vis his colleagues or the compensation given to him in recognition of his special talents.

Since he falsely believes that his relative position has improved, he accepts the wage increase and the percentage increase in the wage levels is easily marketed by the bureaucrats.

Need for establishing meritocracy through differential wage levels

The levels of brain power possessed by different individuals vary from each other and therefore, a uniform compensation paid to everyone in the same grade does not appropriately remunerate the brain power development. It will not only retard the development of brain power but also result in many talented people leaving for greener pastures. This is what happened in the UK till the 1990s and what is happening in Sri Lanka today.

If the country is interested in establishing a viable knowledge hub and attracting and retaining the best talents, it is necessary to create discrimination in the pay system. This cannot be done by offering a uniform salary system to university dons.

Even Kautilya advocated, in ‘The Arthashastra,’ the maintenance of such a discriminatory remuneration system for promoting enterprise, skills and diligence.

In USA and Canada, salaries are personal to individual dons depending on the contributions they have made to the respective field through publication of research articles, new discoveries made and research programmes they have completed. Over the years, this policy has resulted in elevating the university systems in these two countries to the best in the world.

Such a pay policy also requires a free hiring and firing policy. Those dons who cannot maintain the minimum benchmark standards are required to leave the university system after they are given sufficient notice for improving their talent pool to an acceptable level.  It is necessary to establish such a meritocracy in the country’s university system if the country wants to outshine its neighbours in the field of knowledge management and brain power development.

The foundation for this could be laid by freeing salary determination of academics from the crutches of bureaucrats and allowing individual universities to determine differential salary levels personal to different dons based on the acquisition of talents by them. However, it is necessary to disclose the determining criteria clearly in advance in order to avoid abuse, personal favouritism and dissension by dons themselves.

In my view, the crisis in the university system should be resolved as quickly as possible without allowing it to fester and simmer for long.

(W.A Wijewardena could be reached at