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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. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Is Sri Lanka’s Higher Education in safe hands?

The Island, , A Notebook of a Nobody, By Shanie

Nicolo Machiavelli, the sixteenth century political philosopher, is notorious for his authorship of The Prince in which he advises rulers on how to be a successful leader. The Machiavellian analysis of leadership and power relationships are often clever and valid but where he fails is his cynical rejection of moral and ethical standards for rulers. His analysis of the different kinds of leaders and the need for them to select their advisers well, avoiding flatterers, is valid today, as it was then. Machiavelli went on state that advisers often had their own personal interests at heart and a wise ruler should be able to see through their ruses and keep them in check. Advisers will only be faithful and loyal as long as necessity makes them to be so. It is to be concluded, Machiavelli wrote, that good counsel, from whomever it comes, must be sparked by the wisdom of the ruler, not that the wisdom of the ruler be sparked by good counsel.

Our university system is facing a crisis. It has been facing a crisis over the past few years. For far too long, we have allowed politicians to ruin higher education in our country. In 1921, the University College was established. It functioned, to all intents and purposes, as an overseas college of the University of London. But it was not an autonomous body like the colleges of the University of London. The Principal reported to the colonial Governor through the Executive Committee on Education (after the State Council was established under the Donoughmore reforms). Ivor Jennings arrived in Ceylon in 1941 with the express purpose of converting the University College into an autonomous University of Ceylon. In his unpublished autobiography (quoted by Prof Kingsley de Silva), Jennings was to note: "To one bred in the English University tradition, where political control of university policy was one of the deadly sins, the arrangement (control of the University College by the Executive Committee on Education) seemed not merely odd but vicious."

Securing Autonomy

In 1929, a twenty-five member University Commission headed by Sir Walter Buchanan-Riddell, Chairman of the University Grants Commission UK, had made made landmark recommendation for the establishment of an autonomous residential national university. But it was left to Jennings, over thirteen years later, to oversee the setting up of the University of Ceylon. The cause of the delay was principally on account of the ‘battle of the sites (between the New Peradeniya Estate and the Dumbara Valley). Following the unanimous choice of the Peradeniya site, Jennings felt that his first step should be to secure autonomy. ‘Nobody who knew anything of university traditions could justify an organisation controlled by seven politicians; authority had to be transferred .....to a senate and a council. It seemed clear, therefore that the first step must be to create a university on the lines laid down by the University Commission.’

Accordingly, Jennings drafted the new University Ordinance based on the draft provided by the Buchanan-Riddell Commission. The University was founded in 1942 and Jennings was Vice-Chancellor from that year till 1955. He was succeeded by Sir Nicholas Attygalle who remained Vice-Chancellor till 1966. Kingsley de Silva writes: ‘Thanks to Jennings, the concept of an autonomous university found wide acceptance not only with the main officials of the government and economic figures of Sri Lankan society but also among all sections of political opinion in the country. ...Under Jennings’ leadership, the University of Ceylon had been securely established at Peradeniya....He had left his stamp on the academic content of the university’s life.’

The slide in the affairs began in the sixties - first, with the university losing control over admissions and then in 1966 with the enactment of the Higher Education Act under the UNP administration in which I M R A Iriyagolle served as Minister of Education. A slide, once begun, is difficult to halt unless there is a committed and strong political leadership. We have had a deficit of such leadership, including among academics in our Universities. It is fair to say that it has reached a peak in the last few years. It is common for the political and academic leadership to cover their shortcomings by laying the blame on student politics and now when the academic staff become involved with conspiracy theories. The simple fact is that the crisis in the university system today is caused not by politics in the student unions or by unidentified conspiracies among the academics but by bumbling politicians who have tragically politicised university administration.

State Control of University Administration

Professor Navaratna Bandara in a recent article in The Island has disclosed how in 1996, a similar dispute between the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) and the Government of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was resolved amicably through negotiations. The Government appointed a Ministerial sub-committee headed by Indika Gunawardena to negotiate with FUTA. The present Minister of Higher Education S B Dissanayake was a member of that sub-committee. That ministerial sub-committee took an enlightened and pragmatic view and Indika Gunawardena had said: "We can defeat the academics by manoeuvring our political and propaganda machinery...Some people in the government wanted to do it that way. But these people don’t know that if that happened the government would lose the academics and will jeopardise the higher education system."

But that is exactly what the present Government is doing. Obviously, they do not care if they jeopardise the higher education system. Unfortunately, President Rajapaksa seems to be surrounded by the flatterers and self-seeking advisors whom even Machiavelli warned against. Instead of meeting the FUTA and negotiating an amicable settlement, President Rajapaksa is apparently meeting next week a handful of university teachers who supported him by issuing a statement in favour of the 18th Amendment No doubt the media, and through them the public, will be told that the university teachers are not in favour of the FUTA demands. The government will only be deceiving itself if, instead of listening to the respected members of FUTA (people like Professor Sumanasiri Liyanage, Dr Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, Dr Mahim Mendis and others), they only listen to academic nobodies who represent no one but themselves. This, as Machiavelli said, can only lead to ruin.

We trust that it is not the Ministry of Higher Education that is influencing the University Grants Commission to issue circulars that are clearly in violation of the University Act and the Establishment Code. First, was a circular requiring Heads of department to give three months notice of resignation. The UGC surely knows that this is not an appointment made either by the Council or the UGC. It is understood that the UGC has now received legal notice regarding the lack of a lawful basis for their circular. Their second circular reportedly issued two days ago even more seriously lacks any legal basis. If the news reports are correct, the UGC has asked the Universities to withhold the payment of salaries to those academics who have resigned from their position as Heads of Department. These academics continue to do their teaching and research in terms of the letters of appointment issued by the University. The Universities will clearly be in breach of the agreement signed with the academics if their salaries are not paid; and the universities will be liable for heavy damages. Heads of Department receive a monthly allowance of Rs. 1000 (!!) and it is only that allowance which the academics who have resigned from that position have to forego.

No alternative to negotiation

Already, many of our academics have been absorbed into prestigious foreign universities. The present Minister of Higher Education plans to allow private Universities to be set up in our country. Even if these private Universities are of dubious quality, they will offer reasonable salaries to attract the best of the present teachers in our Universities. The private universities will undoubtedly have to charge high student fees so that the owners get a satisfactory return on their investment. The net result would be that our state universities, the only access to higher education for the not-so-wealthy student, would be run down to third class status. The country cannot allow that to happen. That is why it is necessary that this dispute is resolved by negotiation with FUTA, the only body that is representative of the academic community. Over the past three years, various sub-committees of the UGC and even of the President (in which his own Secretary served) have recommended and promised to the university teachers a substantial increase in salaries. But to no avail. Professor Navaratnea Bandara has shown that the net effect of the Government’s recent proposal is only a 1.25%. A conditional research allowance is not a salary increase. The Island also carried a well-argued statement by the Peradeniya Science Teachers Association comparing the salaries of university teachers with those of their counterparts in the Central Bank.

Since the sixties there has been a creeping compromise with the lofty traditions of academic freedom and university autonomy that our first Vice Chancellor, with the support of able Ministers of Education like Mr. C. W. W. Kannangara, laid down. Let not those traditions be erased completely by present-day politicians and their apologists. Let them ponder on and adopt the wise approach that Minister Indika Gunawardena and the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga Government took in 1996. Let us not lose our academics and jeopardise higher education by political manoeuvrings of the university administration and the shameless use of the state propaganda machinery.

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