By Dr. C. S. Weeraratna,
It was reported in newspapers that the Ministry of Higher Education (MHE) is planning to bring five universities of Sri Lanka viz. Colombo, Kelaniya, Sri Jayewardenepura, Moratuwa and Peradeniya to international level. According to the Ministry of Higher Education, the academic courses in these five universities would be restructured and the teachers would be given further training. Dr. Jayaratna Pinikahana in his article on Universities in Sri Lanka and International Standards, published in The Island of Oct. 8 has indicated that Ruhuna University also should be brought to international level.
It is not clear what the standards of an International Level University are. Are they the buildings, infrastructure, research facilities, standards of the staff, number of students or what? It is possible to have standards for an item manufactured in a factory and put out for sale. Can the same thing be done for a university?. The Higher Education Ministry needs to indicate what the standards expected from a university of international level are and the basis for selecting the five universities indicated above.
The decision to increase the standards (it is not clear what these standards are) of five universities, ignoring the remaining ten universities, would create further problems to the already ailing university system. The 15 universities of Sri Lanka are with numerous problems. It is essential that the total student population passing out from the universities, not only of those at the 5 universities, be given good education / training. The regional universities mainly cater to the students from the rural areas. For example, a large percentage of students at Ruhuna University are from the rural areas in the Southern province. Similarly, the students in Rajarata, are mainly from the NCP. Hence, developing only five universities, of which four are in the capital, will create an imbalance and is extremely unfair by the students and staff of the other 10 universities.
The standard of a university depends on a number of factors and a university cannot be brought to a high standard overnight. It needs proper planning, and effective implementation.
The quality of education in a university depends to a considerable extent on the standard of the academic staff. Currently there are around 350 Professors, 750 Associate Professors and 2,000 Senior Lecturers in the university system. Most of them are in the older universities and are well qualified in their own fields and possess postgraduate qualifications with considerable local experience. The teaching staff of recently established universities consists mostly of recently passed out graduates.
Most of them are without any post-graduate qualifications and perhaps one or two senior lecturers and professors. There are some faculties, which do not have a single professor. Thus, the standard of the academic staff in some universities is considerably low. The students passing out from such universities also tend to be of lower quality, not because of the fault of the students. Having such universities is not going to be of benefit either to the country or to the students. Hence, the MHE needs to take a concerted effort to improve the standards of the academic staff of those universities, where there is such a need.
Most of the academic staff, especially those in the regional universities, have to work under very trying conditions. Some of the basic facilities necessary for the staff to carry out their work satisfactorily are not available to them. A large number of staff in regional universities do not have proper places to stay and they have to pay a considerable portion of their salaries on accommodation. Communication and transport facilities are limiting. I am aware that some university academic staff members, who have to start early morning, walk to the bus stand to travel hundreds of kilometers by bus to attend to various academic/professional meetings in Colombo or Peradeniya. This is when some ministers and the so called highly placed officials in ministries and other government organizations have a fleet of vehicles at their disposal not only for official work but even for their private work. When the staff member has to stay overnight in Colombo or Kandy, he/she has no place to stay and has to depend on a friend or a relation. Thus they have to face untold difficulties in attending to their professional work. The MHE needs to give consideration to this situation in their efforts to improve university standards.
The university academic staff is expected to do research and extension. Conducting research, especially laboratory/field research is a real challenge. Most of the basic requirements for research such as laboratory (equipment and chemicals) /communication/transport etc. are limiting. In spite of many difficulties, a large number of university academics conduct research. How have these research benefited the country? Ideally the UGC should have a programme to commercialize/make use of the research findings of the university staff. It is then only that the universities can have an impact on the socio-economic development of the country.
While there are university academic staff members who contribute immensely under trying conditions to the development of the institution/country, there are some who do not even come to the Faculty regularly. They hardly do any research and publish, not even in newspapers to educate the people, which is one of the important roles of university academics.
Some Universities in Sri Lanka, such as Wayamba University, have been established overnight without any proper plan. In universities such as Rajarata, Sabragamuwa and Wayamba, most of the students have to stay far away from their homes, and it is essential that students have reasonable accommodation. This is true even in the case of the universities in the capital. There are not many private houses for the students from these universities to stay. Universities rent out private houses for students to stay but, most of these houses do not have adequate basic facilities. In some of these ‘hostels’, which are suitable for around 10, about 30-40 students, or even more, are forced to stay. While millions are spent on numerous ceremonies, exhibitions etc. the university students, who are called the future leaders of the country, have to study under deplorable conditions.
Facilities such as library, laboratory, green-house and farm are also important in providing a university training to students. The recently established universities lack these facilities. In some universities libraries close at 5.00 p.m. In such situations how can students who have classes till 4.00 p.m use the library. The laboratory facilities in some universities also need to be improved.
Standard of English
There had been a considerable emphasis on teaching English in schools. However, a recent newspaper report indicates that nearly 70% of those who sat for G.C.E (ordinary level) English have failed. Most of the graduates who pass out from universities are not competent in English. Even many university academic staff including some Deans are not competent in English indicating that the endeavours to improve the standard of English has become an utter failure. It is not practicable to teach English to all the students in primary and secondary schools. It would be more effective and beneficial if at least the university under-graduates are given an opportunity to become fluent in English so that when they pass out they will be competent in this language.
The deficiency of English among the undergraduates can be corrected to a great extent by a programme such as the General English Language Training (GELT) programme , which was conducted by universities sometime ago. During the last few years this GELT programme appears to have been diluted considerably. A more effective GELT programme of longer duration, and getting the undergraduates to read, write and speak in English over the three-five year undergraduate period would improve their proficiency in this language to a great extent. In many overseas universities, such as those in Japan, France, etc. all foreign students are given an intensive training in the national language of the country However, the authorities have not been able to implement an effective programme to improve the standard of English among the university students.
It is more appropriate that the Higher Education Ministry take action to rectify the deplorable/unsatisfactory situation in the universities of Sri Lanka, than trying to raise the standards of just five universities to international level, which are relatively better than the other universities.
Dr. Weeraratna, the Foundation Professor of Agronomy at Ruhuna University and the Foundation Professor of Soils and Water Resources at Rajarata University, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org