Universities in crisis: Key learnings

Wednesday, 5 September 2012 00:03 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

All Sri Lankan universities except for the medical faculties have been closed down, but for most citizens, who have observed crisis after crisis in the education sector, this latest development is nothing new.

The big difference is currently it is the university teachers who are on strike, not the students. The teachers’ main demands are: 1. A salary increase 2. To increase Government funding of the education system to 6% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), 3. An end to political interference to education and 4. To establish autonomy of the universities.

University teachers also claim that the Minister gives undue prominence to private universities and that free education is under threat. What really is the crisis in university education, and are the demands of university teachers fair and reasonable? This article attempts to look into the problem and possible solutions.

Commencement of universities

Under British rule, Sir Ivor Jennings was entrusted with establishing universities in Ceylon based on the University of London. He became the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ceylon (1942-1955) and was responsible for the establishment of the Peradeniya University which opened in 1952. He later accepted the position of Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University (1961-1963). During this period degrees awarded by Sri Lankan Universities in Colombo and Peradeniya were accepted to be of world standard and the graduates were recognised world over.


The conversion of the medium of instruction in schools to Swabasha in the late 1950s affected the quality of students entering universities. Some senior professors refused to accept the change-over and found employment in other universities around the world. The exodus of highest calibre individuals continued, leaving the characters more adaptable to the changed environment. But the education standards plummeted and foreign universities refused acceptance of Sri Lankan qualifications.

This practically closed doors for our university lecturers to obtain further qualifications from the Western universities. Some teachers who got admission to Asian universities were turned away, when their inadequate proficiency of English made them unsuitable.

JVP insurrection late 1980s

The insurrection created by the JVP in the late 1980s led to universities being more closed than open for nearly three years. During this period too an exodus of senior professors took place. At the end of insurgency, the universities were saddled with a three to four year backlog of students, while the previously admitted students were not taught properly and have not completed their education. During the following years, the universities churned out students and cleared the backlog, but the quality of the graduates produced was questionable.

Employability of graduates

Every student entering the university wishes to enhance oneself with knowledge, with the ultimate aim of finding suitable employment. The employers looking at prospective employees seek for the ability to converse and express themselves in English, knowledge of IT, presentations, teamwork, the capacity to think and ability to adjust to situations. Unfortunately our current graduates possess only the book knowledge and are deficient in the aforementioned capabilities.

Students following professional courses of study as engineering, medicine, and dentistry are assured of ready employment, science students have some prospects and the arts graduates are forced to fight the Government for employment.

Autonomy of universities

University lecturers claim that there is undue interference from the politicians and the Minister for Higher Education is placing an unnecessary emphasis on English and IT for the university students.

For over a half-century after the departure of Sir Ivor Jennings, the university staff had the authority, autonomy, and full control of subjects and the curriculum without government interference.

The degradation of university standards was the result of inactivity and lethargy on the part of university lecturers who were expected to keep the courses of study on par with the market requirement. When the results of prolonged inactivity affected the student population, political pressure is inevitable. One wonders why politicians are so late in demanding action.

Free education

University staff claims that the free education in university is their domain, and the private sector should keep away. But the education in the fields of accountancy, management, quantity surveying, and Information Technology were initiated by the private sector and their graduates are accepted to be of world standard. The State universities entered into these fields very much later.

The private sector fulfilled the needs of the students and the employers, when the State universities failed in their obligations to the society, in spite of facilities and autonomy placed with them.

Post-graduate courses

Almost all our universities offer post-graduate diplomas and masters’ degrees in science and arts. In reputed universities abroad, masters’ degrees require two years of full time studies. Decades ago our universities, enrolment for a masters’ degree required a first or a second class degree.

Now the situation has changed, registration is possible with a basic degree and a willingness to pay the fees, costing around Rs. 200,000 with lecturers conducting classes receiving over 70% of fees. Most classes are scheduled for the weekend and are of two year duration. However, Kelaniya University conducts a master of arts course during weekends and of one-year duration. Now, who is selling degrees?

External and online degrees

For those who failed to enter the universities, external degrees are available and classes are conducted by various pirivenas as well as private organisations. The Government has accepted all degrees whether internal or external to be equal. It is well known that lecturers in most of the classes are the lecturers from the universities.

A couple of years ago, students of the Rajarata University, Mihintale campus, protested against their university conducting online degrees. They claimed when their university lacks even the basic infrastructure, how can the university be conducting classes online? They also demanded to know who was correcting the tutorials of online students.

Meanwhile, the number of unemployed graduates has reached 50,000, and many of them expect Government jobs. Most of these graduates hold external degrees.

Lecturers’ salaries

Are our university teachers underpaid? Normally payment of a salary to any employee depends on the work performed by the person, the educational requirement, training, working conditions, responsibilities, risks at work, hours of work, and special conditions.

The university teachers are recruited from the best performers in the year’s passing out students and are responsible for the grooming of future intellectual generations to meet the demands of the society, a very high responsibility indeed.

Therefore, under the above criteria, university teachers should be eligible for highest salaries. However, new recruits to the staff do not undergo any special training to improve their teaching skills, other than the post-graduate studies, which they become eligible after few years of service, and for which they are given paid leave.

Risks at work are minimal and most of them conduct lectures less than 10 hours a week. Fewer lecture hours are supposed to allow time to prepare for the lecture by reference works as well for carrying out research. Normally universities work three semesters of 10-week duration, which mean lecturers work 30 weeks a year.

It is common knowledge that most lecturers in local universities deliver the same notes, year after year, that they received while being students. Training the students to think has never been a part of the curriculum. Having a different opinion from the teacher is not tolerated, and class numbers are so large a discussion is not possible.

During the current university lecturers’ demands, a few academics accepted openly that some of their colleagues’ contribution is not satisfactory and needs improvement.

University rankings

World over the universities are judged by their ranking obtained and university rankings as indicated in ‘Top South Asian Rankings’ at webometrics.info are shown in the table. The ranking in the website ends at 7,431 for 2012 and 5,338 for 2011, indicating other Sri Lankan universities are positioned still lower.

The differences in rankings highlight the actual situation; even our best university has not reached the top 2,500. But lecturers claim our university education is the best in the world and look down on foreign universities, claiming their degrees can be purchased in the market.

Rankings of current vs. last year shows universities deteriorating fast, which means other universities are moving forward faster. While Moratuwa University has advanced, Peradeniya and Ruhuna have degraded, which agrees with common knowledge.

Evaluation of university rankings are carried out under: Research Quality, Graduate Employability, Teaching Quality, and International Outlook.

The failure of our universities is reflected in their inability to meet the above criteria. The Minister too wants the universities to improve, which is being disputed by the teaching staff, hence the problem. The problems of university students and their lecturers cannot be solved unless quality is improved to meet above criteria.

Proficiency in English

With the conversion of schools into Swabasha in the late 1950s, the standard of English suffered drastically. The writer had the opportunity of working with a number of engineering and science graduates who studied four year courses in English medium at local universities; their ability to express themselves written or spoken English was extremely poor.

Their lecturers claim that the correction of students’ English in tutorials is not their responsibility and marks are given solely for the facts presented. This raises the question of the English competency of the lecturers and the assistant lecturers who conduct tutorial classes.

In order to improve university education, it is essential to evaluate and improve the English proficiency levels of students at entry, their levels at the end of the course, as well as the competence of their teachers, so that everyone would endeavour to improve them.

Measure of English proficiency

There are two accepted methods of testing of English proficiency, developed for the assessments of prospective students who aspire to admit to US and other universities: TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language) for students wishing to enter universities in USA; and IELTS (International English Language Testing System) a test conducted by the University of Cambridge and demanded by most Commonwealth Universities.

Both are internet-based tests, and examine the English language ability of the person in reading, listening, speaking and writing.

Sri Lanka could introduce a similar testing system in three grades, designed for testing of the English knowledge of students 1. Prior to admission to the university, 2. At the third year of the university and 3. Of the university lecturers. IELTS gives grading from zero and nine and students would be required to attain a minimum grade depending on the course selected. They are expected to improve their knowledge during the university and the lecturers too, depending whether they conduct lectures in English, would be required to attain a specified grade.

The British Council is heavily involved in teaching English in Sri Lanka and if a request is made by the Government, the British Government would certainly consider such a proposal favourably.

In order to achieve a higher quality of education in universities, the English standard of the university teachers must be upgraded. Here too the university’s own English department and the British Council could help.

New courses of study

To improve the employability of the university graduates, the development of new courses of study that satisfy needs of the industry and commerce is a prerequisite. Identifying different courses of studies are not difficult. All high level universities publish the courses they offer and give a summary of the course contents on their websites.

If a lecturer were to spend few hours on the internet, solutions could be found. Whether our university professors are interested in developing new courses, study the required subject matter and prepare a new set of lecture notes for which they have already been allocated time and were supposed to carry out is to be seen.

If the university lecturers do so collectively, introduction new courses of study are possible, the students will have no problems of finding employment, university rankings will go up and foreign students would queue for admission.

The new courses of study should be for small classes, so that the supply will not exceed the demand. This was highlighted when a town and country planning course was introduced by the Moratuwa University. The first intake of students when graduated was all absorbed into the Government service. Due to the heavy demand the intake was increased, but when they passed out four years later, even the first class graduates could not get employment in the field.

Expenditure in education

The university teachers claim that Government expenditure is reducing and demand an increase in Government funding for education sector be increased to 6% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product). The teachers also claim that the universities face an exodus of good teachers due to poor salaries.

Sri Lanka’s GDP has been moving up during the past years, mostly due to the contribution from the private sector. If the rupee expenditure on education remains same, there would be a reduction as a percentage of GDP.

The expenditure in education includes schools as well as universities, and the quality of both has experienced a downward trend. Funding in both need improvement, but the increased funding should go hand-in-hand with an improvement in quality of education, which is the sole responsibility of university teachers and cannot be enacted by an act of Parliament.

If universities are to embark on new streams of courses with smaller classes, they will certainly need new facilities and extra funding and the Government cannot turn a blind eye to these requirements.

University teachers’ salaries too could be increased with their commitment to introduce new courses of study to suit employer demands, the teacher’s proficiency in English, and increase in university rankings.

Especially in the newly-established universities, the infrastructure is very poor and is being improved. But most projects are moving at a slow pace as sufficient funds are not released from the Budget.

The Government has employed tens of thousands of graduates to pacify their protests, which do not contribute to the development of the country, is costing billions of rupees which could have been used to improve the quality of education as well as increase the salaries of university teachers.

Way forward

The salaries of university lecturers and employability of graduates are two sides of the same coin. Addressing issues will require a coordinated effort from students, lecturers and the Government.

Students: Students are affected by the poor quality education offered by the universities, but escaping the current cycle will require commitment and hard work, but can be done by following

1.Improve English – writing, speaking, communication, and presentations

2.Acquire IT skills – ability to write letters, essays, and conduct research over the internet

3.They would be required to learn the revised course contents.

4.Change from current book learning system into research based knowledge which would keep them abreast of current developments.

All students including following courses conducted in Swabasha should be required follow at least one subject in English medium and new entrants to follow 50% in English medium. Which means a number of subjects currently taught in Swabasha will need to be taught in English medium.


1.Upgrading of course contents in subjects would be the responsibility of the lecturers.

2.Develop new courses of study to cater to changing needs of industry and society.

3.Some study courses conducted in Sinhala/Tamil may need to be taught in English.

4.University lecturers too will need to improve their English and IT skills

Salaries of lecturers: If the public are to expect an international grade education, the facilities and the salaries offered to lecturers too should be of same standard.

As such salaries of lecturers need to be revised. This improvement can be implemented in stages based on individual lecturer’s commitment and achievement as

1.Course content of education becomes on par with international standards.

2.New courses of study are introduced

3.Lecturer’s own capabilities in terms of English and IT improves

4.Improvement in the university ranking level.

Government: The Sri Lankan Government’s expenditure on education is low when compared to other nations. Changes proposed to raise levels of education in universities would involve improvements to infrastructure at higher costs. It will be the responsibility of the State to provide sufficient funding.

(The writer is a Chartered Civil Engineer who graduated from Peradeniya University and has been employed in Sri Lanka and abroad. He was General Manager of State Engineering Corporation of Sri Lanka and left the position in February 2010. He is presently employed at a Chinese construction organisation. He also ran a manufacturing and a sales organisation for over a decade.)

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