Why the Government should listen to the demands of university academics
Sri Lanka is experiencing the dividends of peace at the moment. The Sri Lankan economy has expanded by a healthy growth rate of 7.9 per cent during the first quarter of this year, from the same period a year earlier.
A Global Survey carried out by the ‘Equity and Bond Trading Institution’ has chosen Sri Lanka as the fourth rapidly developing economy in the third quarter last year. Sri Lanka logistics sector’s international ranking has improved from 137 to 81 in the World Bank Logistic Performance Index of 2012.
Even National Geographic Traveller magazine has named Sri Lanka among its top six destinations for world travellers in 2012, lauding the island nation’s heritage sites, wildlife, lush landscapes and pristine beaches.
This is a typical post war scenario and we have to understand the sustainability of this growth in the future. But on the other hand, the discipline of the country is deteriorating day by day. On the road you can observe both pedestrians and drivers violating the rules. Rarely do we see three-wheelers, bicycles and buses as well as other vehicles using signal lights. This is the same in every place.
There were a number of media announcements to save electricity but you can see lights on in the streets even in the daytime. Even if you visit many Government institutes to get your work done, they always like to take their own time. Sometimes you have to go to the same place a few times for the same purpose. So some people tend to bribe in order to make things happens quickly.
Most of the parents do not have any relationship with their children as they are used to dropping them to schools and going to offices and in the evening just trying to bring them back from school after tuition. There is an unnecessary “rat race” in the society and sometimes we witness suicide cases among young children as an outcome. Most parents want their son or daughter to become ‘dream stars’ and they are striving hard and sacrifice the most important time of their childhood.
On the other hand, people like to talk about Sri Lankan products but they are used to buying foreign brands. There is no ‘sense of belonging’ in the society. People like to talk about patriotism but they cannot implement it on their own. It is only like slogans.
Although the main leaders in different religious communities should be involved in the development of society, their roles are problematic as there is evidence of an increasing number of crimes instead.
Meanwhile, the rate of corruption has been increasing. Some even go further by arguing corruption is a ‘lubricant’ in the economic development of the country. Over the last few months it an escalating number of acts of violence can be observed by regional politicians, mostly those attached to the Government. But there is no strong message and this is also pushing others towards violence. It seems that a culture of ‘Julampitiye Amare’ is emerging.
There is also a tendency where people seem to be taking law and order into their hands, which can be considered really dangerous for the future. It is one indication that people have lost their faith in the establishments meant to ensure law and order in the country. The Government urgently needs to be conscious in this regard as well.
Education a focal point
If you really analyse this situation, there is a need for a better society with discipline. Education can be considered as a focal point in this regard. Still in Sri Lanka we have a type of education which has not been updated (curricula, quality, etc.) for years. This is common to school as well as university education.
There are some students in Grade 10 who cannot write or read properly. There is no sound assessment method in the system that takes into account these critical issues.
According to Examinations Department sources, around 270,032 school children had sat the GCE (O/L) examination in December 2011 and out of them 12,795 had failed in all nine subjects! Only 44.57% students had passed in the English Language paper and 55.3% passed in mathematics.
Then there’s the competitive university entrance examination: The GCE Advanced Level Examination. According to sources, out of the 239,624 students who sat for the Advanced Level examination, 142,000 are eligible to enter universities in 2011. But we have to understand that all those who are qualified for university entrance will not be absorbed by the national university system.
Every year the University Grants Commission (UGC) enrols 20,000 to 22,000 students. This is only around 15 per cent of the students who are qualified for university admission. The point we have to understand is that this is not the total number of students who sat for the examination. Out of 100, only 15 students can enter the university. This has been the (miserable) story for the last few decades.
For the last 15 years the UGC has enrolled around 20% of the students who satisfied the minimum requirements for admission; 142,000 students who gain admission will be over the moon to tell their parents, relatives and friends that they have qualified for university entrance. But that is short-lived ecstasy, for only 20,000-22,000 might be the actual number of those entering the varsity.
Unfortunately some students who got 3 As in the Science stream have to do the exams again to go to Medical College! What is the point of sitting for the exam again once you have got high grades for all three subjects?
It is the same story in Engineering and Management as well. This is really a shame for our education system. It is worthwhile to address the issue of the remaining 110,000-120,000 students who are eligible to enter the national universities, but do not get the chance to do so because of our scarce resources.
Some of them will sit for the exam again. Some are sitting for professional exams like Chartered Accountancy and CIMA and some will be in doubt about their future. And this is similar to the students who did not get the minimum requirement for university admission (239,624 -142,000 = 97,624) .Then what is the point of having this ‘minimum qualification’ if all are finally dropped into the same basket? Technically, in Sri Lanka only 10% will be absorbed by the State university system!
We have only State universities controlled by the central government (I am not dwelling on other sectors). But if you analyse other countries, they have regional universities, university colleges, etc. In Sri Lanka there should be a system like that (this is all about a sound educational policy). The Government should have a rigorous game plan to address this issue.
There should be many strategies. One strategy might be the University of Sri Jayewardenepura starting university colleges in other areas to absorb more students (with certain quality assurance levels). Those who are not admitted to the universities can either enter vocational technical schools or be employed in companies or in Government departments as apprentices or trainees.
That is why now we can see private educational institutes spending large sums of money on Sunday newspapers to attract these potential candidates. But there is a problem with the quality of the educational end products (degrees, diplomas even postgraduate degrees) offered by the private educational institutes.
On the other hand, the recent Z score fiasco also triggered this by placing the most important youth in trouble and this is the section easily can be considered as most influential vote base in the future. But it seems that the authorities are not learning from previous lessons.
This is clearly evident through the mistakes on exam papers of the A/L examination being held these days, which have been a common factor for many papers. The most interesting (sad or dangerous?) part of this is the people who are responsible are not willing to accept their weaknesses (there are many cases similar to this being reported as no one is willing to take responsibility). This may be due to the unlimited power, for which the opposition should also be held responsible.
Purpose of universities
In the university sector also we can see the same scenario. The authorities think of university as a machine that can produce people for the job market. This is the myth which leads them to make all the wrong decisions in the sector. University can be defined as “an educational institution designed for instruction, examination, or both, of students in many branches of advanced learning, conferring degrees in various faculties, and often embodying colleges and similar institutions” (Oxford Dictionary).
University should be the place where we architect the development of the country. It should be the place in which a country can learn the essence for existence from intellectuals. This can be seen in Canada, the UK and even India, South Korea and China, which have invested heavily in R&D, channelled through universities.
With respect to urban and rural development, universities are engaged in extension services, university-government linkage and university-industry linkage. As illustrated by the African Institute for Science and Technology (AIST), these linkages seek to develop a ‘push-pull relationship’ between the university and industry or government. But in Sri Lanka we have to travel a long distance.
Time for change
This is high time to change the education system in Sri Lanka in order to achieve sustainable development in the country. A proper education system will lead to proper discipline. The British-colonised type education system will always create problems and we have many examples in this regard.
Hence there is a need for intellectuals, administrators and experts in the industry as well as members in civil society to should work together to have a proper plan and come up with a ‘white paper’ on this.
There should be a debate in society, which can be considered important at this critical juncture. The Government should get the support of university academics on this. The time has come for the Government to change the attitude towards university academies. They are the ‘change agents’ in the system.
Especially to achieve the vision of becoming a ‘Wonder of Asia,’ getting the help of the university dons is a must. There is no country in the world which has developed without the support of intellectuals. This is the bitter truth the Government should understand urgently.
The demand of the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) for allocating 6% of GDP can be considered important as a start-up of this process. This 6% allocation originated at the Dakar Conference on Education for All in 2009, the Framework for Action which recommends that governments should ensure at least 7% of GDP for education within five years and 9% within 10 years.
Sri Lanka’s commitment to spending 6% of GDP on education was reiterated at the second Ministerial Meeting of South Asia Education for All Forum in 2009, where all the participating South Asian countries agreed to this benchmark. The diagram depicts the education expenditure for the country is decreasing.
It is clear that there is a need for more budgetary allocation for education. Education is an investment for the country. As reported last week, the Government has agreed to the demands of FUTA such as including the academics in a separate service as in the SLAS, as well as university autonomy. Even the salary structure of the system should be reviewed in order to attract as well as retain quality intellectuals in the system.
More importantly, there are many problems faced by the universities due to the bureaucratic nature of the system. Last year the University Grant Commission (UGC) has issued a circular which has prevented senior lectures who joined as direct recruits to go abroad for their PhDs on full pay study leave.
In Sri Lanka we are taking about partnerships with the private sectors. In universities, professionals from different disciplines can be absorbed to the national university system as senior lecturer (grade two).This is very important for the sustainability of the system and especially in business education, which can be considered dynamically important.
But now, if you are a person who was directly recruited after sacrificing your professional career, you can go abroad for your PhD on no-pay. This is not applied for others. How can the system attract professionals in this context? Then what about retention of qualified people?
After four years of special degree, two to three years of masters and three to five years of PhD, still you do not have a high enough salary. Does this mean there will be a problem in performance appraisal system of the institute or the person? There should be a mechanism to address those issues as well.
A specific framework and a roadmap can be proposed and this should be on top of the priority list of the Government. This is the best time to discuss and reform our education system. Because, as mentioned earlier, there is a strategic window which has opened avenues for the prosperity of the country.
However, keep in mind that strategic window means ‘temporary period of alignment or fit between the competitive capabilities of an organisation and the key requirements of the existing or new markets it intends to compete in’. It seems that this so-called ‘temporary period’ is going to expire as it is for a short-term. This is really a decisive moment for the Government.
On the other hand, this is the first time the intellectuals are talking about the value of education as a strong association and this is one of the indications that they are willing to help country on this and a clear demonstration of their commitment.
The Government should take this as a matter of top priority and initiate discussion with all stakeholders. Ignoring this golden opportunity will be real problem in the future and for the future generation of this beautiful nation because the country needs a proper education system (Sri Lankan’s model of education with the sense of our proud civilisation) which will lead to a well-disciplined country with sustainable development. As mentioned earlier, there is no country in the world which has developed without the help of intellectuals.
(The writer is a Senior Lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka.)