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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Some proposals for the expansion of higher education

Daily News: 26/05/2005" by Prof. S. P. Samarakoon, Faculty of Science, University of Ruhuna, Matara

Expansion of higher education should always focus on the causes of youth unemployment and employment. Sri Lanka's youth (both teenage and young adult) were roughly 20% (3.8 million) of the entire population in 1997.

A majority of them is in the rural sector (over 75% during the 1963-2000 period), while the Western Province, which as a whole now considered as almost urban and sub-urban, claimed to nearly a third of this population in 1995.

The spatial distribution of youth corresponds very closely to that of the population as a whole. Similarly the ethnic composition of the youth population corresponds closely to the ethnic composition of the total population. About 74% of the youth are Sinhalese, 12.7% are Sri Lankan Tamils, 5% are Indian Tamils and 7.4% are Muslims.

These factors should be focused as the solid foundation to the expansion areas of education in Sri Lanka. Wide gaps, inequalities, and disparities in education between cities and rural areas, and between rich and poor are considered as inherent characteristics of our education system and have been identified as issues of national interest.

Through higher education, the majority rural teenagers and young adults should be exposed to the modern life found not only in Colombo but also in other countries at least that of India. I expect by such methods they themselves would bring new science and technology necessary for the development of rural areas of this country, rather than hanging to their own areas listening to brain-washing ideologies of political day dreamers.

For better results such exposures should also be available for diverse ethnic, religious, political and other relevant communities including the university staff in less developed areas of the country. Certain amount of skills in advanced societies (e.g. communication skills, knowledge in English, Sinhalese, and Tamil languages) is essential to be delivered to rural and under-privileged classes and communities of Sri Lankan society.

During the last five decades after independence we totally depended on foreign technology and completely disregarded our own technologies evolved through several thousand years of our history, which we boast as, the longest continually written history in the world. Expansion of higher education should consider the scientific technologies behind,

a) How the giant "Ruwanweliseya" in Anuradhapura (3rd century B.C.), Jetawanaramaya and many other buildings were built?

b) How the sapling of the historic sacred Bo-sapling (Ficus religiosa) was brought, planted and maintained up to the present day?

c) How the giant reservoirs were built?

d) How "Sigiriya", the famous 8th wonder of the world was built?

e) How the best steel (suitable for making swords) of the world was made?

f) How our ancient doctors (Rishis) cured ailments of the people as well as of the animals such as the cobra?

g) How they cultivated their lands with minimal damage to the environment?

h) How they built their ships? ..... And so on.

Apart from the practice of Indigenous System of Medicine other ancient sciences and technologies are hardly used and hardly known. Our present knowledge on the ancient system of science and technology is apparently confined to the archaeological studies. The exposition of such knowledge and resources would certainly support not only Sri Lankan society, but the world at large. As such I propose to expand our university and higher education based on our ancient knowledge.

As we had long ago we need to allow re-establishment of "Kamhalas" (literally means a blacksmith's workshop, a place where all tools necessary for day-to-day life, agriculture, and war were manufactured and maintained by the well trained "Kammalkaraya" or blacksmith) in every village of the country. They made their own iron and steel from commonly found iron ore in many areas of the country (e.g., "Dela" area in Ratnapura District). Today we can make use of the modern science to enhance the knowledge of our ancient science and the ancient science for further enhancement of modern science.

As a solution to the inadequate medical personnel and the high demand for education it is very essential to gear the higher education to develop the indigenous system of medicine which still caters for nearly 80% of the population and becoming highly popular among the Westerners; we should not forget that at the time of the recent devastating tsunami an ex-chancellor of Germany was rescued when he was trapped in tsunami while he was taking Sinhalese medication at a hotel in Galle! Proper status must be given to this system of medication and popularized among the students opting for university education.

Today, the practitioners of the indigenous system of medicine are becoming richer and richer (good sign) and people all over the world are keeping more and more confidence on it. What may be expected from the World Bank is some support to organize and popularize it (How about an MOU between Sri Lanka and India for this important cause). Internationalization of such educational institutions is also important in addition to the expansion of higher education not only for the local people, it would also cater for the entire world and also earn valuable foreign exchange for the country.

Further expansion of Western medical system is also important in addressing the issues of insufficient doctors and paramedical personnel. It is necessary to establish institutions to produce degree level nurses, and medical technicians etc to cater to the needs of the country. In such educational institutions it is always beneficial to have international windows, cooperation, and student exchange programs.

Advanced scientific theoretical and practical education at the university level is basically taught in the engineering faculties. In a country where so more developments are yet to come, such as road, electricity, reservoir dams, and the production of vehicles and other machineries, skills in various fields of engineering are very essential.

As such it is essential to expand the engineering sector education at the level of higher education particularly in the universities. I am sure when real development programs commence we may have to hire engineers from other countries as what is happening in the Middle-East countries. Re-building of the tsunami affected areas would continue for at least 15-20 years; engineers must be employed in developmental projects associated with the tsunami. So far we have engineering faculties in three conventional universities (Peradeniya, Moratuwa, and Ruhuna). Engineering student numbers in these universities are limited and less than 1000 per year. It is important to find ways for employability of student numbers.

Sri Lanka has been an agricultural country since ancient time. We produce agricultural graduates from the Universities of Peradeniya, Jaffna, Ruhuna, Rajarata, Eastern, Sabaragamuwa and Wayamba. It is unfortunate to understand that certain agriculture graduates are not employed and majority of those engaged are employed in sectors other than agriculture.

Certainly there is a big problem here probably similar to the other sectors. I think the whole university education for agriculture must be revamped and modernized so as to cater for the needs of the country. During the past decade the cost of production and the market value of almost all agricultural produce are becoming unbearable to the farmers and the customers respectively. Reforms in the higher education in agriculture are heavily needed after analyzing the problems associated with the crisis.

Computer Science and technology is one of the fast developing fields in the world. During the last decade Sri Lanka also showed the popularity of this important field. Development occurred mainly in the low levels and our computer skills are limited to assembling computers and also to a certain extent the utilization of already available software.

Expansion of computer based studies at the university level and other further education institutes should focus on the production of computer accessories, robot industry and synthesis of pure silicon. Research and studies should commence with the assistance of similar organizations in India, Japan, Singapore, and the USA. Since this is a highly demanding international field both Sri Lankan and foreign students could be enrolled and further a program can be developed as a self sustainable discipline.

Higher education should also be expanded for sports such as cricket, foot ball, athletics, gymnastics etc. They must be taught as scientific disciplines in the universities and other similar institutions. Skills in sports plus basic qualifications applied to conventional universities could be used to select students to such university/ college.

Training in basic fundamental science is essential for all students following further and university courses. Most of the public, including many media personnel, are not even aware of the real scientists of the country. This is the real status of science in our country. Science is taught in our universities and schools to show the world that we also have science, we also use science, and we also have institutions to teach science.

To harvest the real power of science we have to reorganize our education system suitable to our national needs, for example, to solve our own problems rather than the problems of the funding countries. I am not blaming the funding countries; I really appreciate them, because since national authorities are generally failing in finding our own problems (national needs) and rather reluctant to request help from our own scientists for probable unknown reasons to find ways to solve the problems and pay them appropriately.

Under such circumstances our scientists find greener pastures in other countries while foreign experts suck what our country receive as developmental aid. Higher education must be expanded with the objective of popularizing and nationalizing modern science.

Many students should be absorbed and expansion of higher studies must be available in following new areas of study in the universities and other institutions.

a) Military studies: Military is one of our largest employers and expansion of this category is essential from the security point of view of the country, South Asian Region , as well as the whole world. Its services could be available for the world and the part of money generated could be used for the sustainability of the military system.

Advanced scientific knowledge and experience obtained in such studies would be appreciated by the international organizations such as the UN.

b) Although Sri Lanka is an island, and we have an ocean around it only the University of Ruhuna has a department for Fisheries Science.

It is apparent that the prominence given to this valuable field is grossly inadequate. Fisheries I suppose, can contribute vastly to the economy of the people and the country. Expansion of this sector of higher studies is very much needed and immediate action should be taken to expedite this process by increasing the student numbers, establishing separate institution such as faculties of fisheries, and improving the knowledge and quality of life of the stakeholder such as the fishermen.

c)Vastly relevant other areas of study include ship building, aircraft building, Oceanography, tourism/ Eco-tourism, Gemmology, Mineralogy, Wildlife, and Management of Natural disasters.

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