This Fourth of July!

Thursday, 26 July 2012 01:15 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

This is a day quite dear to some 300 million plus people in United States of America. Irrespective of their land of origin, the day is celebrated as the day of independence commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and the Founding Fathers remembered.

The fourth of July this year is also important for us as the day the university academics of this country resorted to strike action or reinitiated the strike action that was suspended some time back. The strike has continued to this day.

Indeed, strikes in universities are not useful and society should feel a real loss when it is across the whole university system. I am not yet sure of the way the broader public values this institutional system though having served it since 1985 and I believe with sincerity too.

I see more outpouring of public views and ideas over a game of cricket than university education and this apathy in general has also contributed to the downgrading of the institutional image and as a result, its growth.

In celebration of the United States Day of Independence, newspapers in Sri Lanka too carry supplements with the support of many organisations which lined up to sponsor the supplement. It is instructive to read about the public university system of USA highlighted in the supplement. However, 4 February in Sri Lanka will not see our newspapers capturing our own public university system in any way.

In the US, with the absence of a central role in education with it being a delegated function to States, we hear the term state universities. States provide financial support and research money flow in through federal programs.

In the Global Education Index when education system is ranked globally, one will find Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, etc., on top. We claim that free education is unique to Sri Lanka but you will find these countries doing very well have free education as well.


Public education system and the way forward

In the West the public education system came into being with the process of industrialisation and the system grew with it with expressed intention of serving its growth. Taxes were utilised in providing education, which was essentially free at the point of delivery.

Today there are questions about the way forward in public education and reformist thinking abound. Entry of student loan schemes, etc., has also changed the concept of free education. It is all about fashioning the system to suit the new economy. In addition the challenge of keeping a cultural identity in the process of education too is posing challenges as globalisation presents a different paradigm.

While there are many discussions and actions, we also see the student population getting diagnosed with new types of disorders, an example being ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder). Interestingly, while some may give medication and push the students through the same system, some argue that the ADHD is really a result of the boring way the current teaching is going on compared to students’ needs.

A student’s inability to pay attention is attributed to his lack of interest on what is delivered and in particular to the way it is delivered. This implies that industrialisation-led development needs realignment to a system of education that suits a complex, dynamic, and collaborative environment that has evolved as a result of technical advances and of course globalisation.

Financial support is crucial in developing programs and infrastructure in universities and is also at the crux of today’s dissent. What we forget is how endowments are playing a major role in meeting such needs in universities of North America and Europe. All major universities and in case of some the entire university was initially an endowment! These positions of strength had come from such generous support.

In Sri Lanka we appear to pass the role of financing to the State, ADB or the World Bank! Forget individual donations, realising an endowment from a corporate is a luxury in our system. Today with the Government having given a strong tax relief for research endowments, the flow of money is not visible. Apparently the belief may be that those in universities cannot do anything for industry or the industry has no problems whatsoever. Both we know are not true.


We have failed to capitalise

Sir Ivor Jennings who went on to become the Vice Chancellor of University of Cambridge after serving as the Vice Chancellor of University of Peradeniya had much to say about the University of Peradeniya. He has been known to consider displaying emotion as a sin. Yet his words about University of Peradeniya had been: There is nothing like Peradeniya anywhere in the world, nothing so beautiful and so unique.

He was the one who gave shape and form to the University of Peradeniya and at the outset he spoke of the value of endowments too for the healthy growth of the university. He himself benefitted immensely from various endowments to the system that enabled him to enter Cambridge from a poor economic background. Having no emotional attachment to the country, he was expressing what he felt and observed.

We have failed to capitalise on this university as well as with others. The fault lies with not recognising the role that universities should play in society and also in the immediate locality. Universities are supposed to be planned for centuries ahead and not in line with political timescales.

There is no question that part of the blame for the growth debacle lies within too as successive internal leaderships have failed to deliver what was really required. I would however consider the role that needs to be played from outside as more important as universities too are part of the whole system and system dynamics affect the internal processes very much.

This is an action point under current Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) demands. We have to remember that the concept of academic freedom so important to the functioning of a university is more than 900 years old.


University system

Research has to come into serious prominence in our university system. The fact that a significant number of staff within the system has no post graduate qualifications is a serious data point. The number of senior professors within the system barely passes the 100 mark and highlighting their salary steps are a moot point when considering the development needs of the system from the academic entry level upwards. One can define another Z-score to identify the quality variations within the higher education system.

The changes that were made within the US universities with the Bayh-Dole act or the existing Professor’s Privilege in systems such as Sweden should be discussed more than how much more rupees are paid to a university lecturer for correcting an examination paper, which is too hollow a discussion point. The level of discussion should be at a different level totally.

Thanks to the prevailing tuition system (FUTA should make a statement about the significant negative contribution by way of this extended tuition system that prevails, making free education just a statement only), the marking of some papers are a breeze as not much is written anyway by the student as answers.

That innovative thinking and the spirit of learning is disappearing is a worrying observation we teachers have. The system has got stuck at a quite a petty level and thus the excitement university environs should provide is disappearing.

It is important that the centre understands the need for flexibility in decision making, especially in areas where you are supposed to be more knowledgeable. The university councils should understand well the expected role of university under them both in generic as well as in specific terms.

Consider creating a position of a professor of thinking within a university as is happening with many universities elsewhere. Creating a cadre position even of a known function is a long-drawn-out procedure and this should not be so.


Red tape

There is also the statement that allocations are not completely utilised within and that money gets returned to the Treasury. Simple examination of rules and regulations and the number of signatures and meetings necessary to move an idea into action can easily show where the causes lie.

At times we may not understand these regulations as supporting ‘Fawlty towers’ having being with us for so long – and some since the British. It is important to think together and reduce this red tape that promotes inefficiency. There is a need to allow used equipment to be purchased to resolve the crisis of capital. The ‘brand new only’ has led to many issues and waste of precious money.

If the country can bring in pieces of second hand auto parts and display them so proudly in expensive multi-storey structures, the university laboratories should be allowed to open source equipments and pilot plant equipment to support research and development programs.

The system cannot afford strikes or disruptions. Universities should be 24-hour functional educational eco-systems. They need to be proven pillars of economic contributors. There are issues inside and issues have accumulated as a result of years of neglect and due to different external stimuli. Those should not be reasons for taking the whole system down.

Pity the striker is not what one wants. Understand the situation and the opportunities we are missing as a nation due to the misunderstanding that is prevailing. Hope the current impasse will come to a satisfactory conclusion and hope too that this may be the last strike for many, many years. The action on our soil on this Fourth of July is becoming quite crucial for us as well!

(The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on

[email protected])