AFTER much bad news, the stalemate between the Government and university teachers seems to be easing off, with the latter ironing out practical challenges to implementing a new salary structure. Promoting the professional value of university dons is only one part of the challenge. Giving better salaries is important to protecting against the brain drain, but the buck does not stop there. Encouraging the university teachers to provide better standards in their teaching and introduce new knowledge into the subjects that they teach is also essential.
Since officially changing syllabi is a difficult and time-consuming process, the lecturers have to take the initiative to discuss and upgrade what they teach so that students can be aware of what is happening in the rest of the world. Giving this level of exposure will not only help the student but also allow the dons to gain better recognition for the services that they provide. These informal and internal upgrades, while not being the best choice, might be the best option under the circumstances and since the public will be footing the bill for any salary increase, it is only fair that higher standards of teaching are demanded in return.
Another interlinked issue is the Government’s decision to increase the quota of foreign students from 0.5% to 5%. According to the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF), this means that around 1,100 places are allocated to foreign students, positions that are denied to local students. They allege that the Government is depriving local students of the chance to gain a higher education by admitting foreigners in their stead.
Around 100,000 students are estimated to be denied entry to local universities each year because of lack of space despite having the minimum requirement to do so. The IUSF insists that these students be given priority over foreign students. Moreover, they have charged that around 2,000 places are vacant within the public university system at present and questioned as to why the Government is not filling these slots. Among some of the universities that have vacant positions for undergraduates are the Rajarata University (Agriculture Faculty – 170 positions), Ruhunu University (Science Faculty – 132 positions) and Peradeniya University (Allied Health Sciences Faculty – 114).
This has spawned a heated debate over whether or not the Government should keep the foreign quota of students. On the one hand the foreign students pay and help in maintaining the universities, but on the other, poorer students who have no money to apply abroad may be denied of a place in a local university.
The public seems to think that the local university students do not appreciate the free education provided to them. However, that conclusion cannot be arrived at by merely looking at the protesting students. There are thousands of students who are grateful for the chance to obtain a degree and put it to much good use. Universities like Moratuwa produce graduates who are in high demand. Even if they protest, the reason for their issues must be taken into account.
Opening the universities to foreign students can be a positive step if the Government takes steps to expand the number of students overall, and in this respect realistically consider allowing reputable private universities to operate. In this manner, a properly regulated environment can be created so that both private and public universities can grow to international standards.