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FeaturesNewsOur university system cannot make country the ‘Knowledge hub of Asia’ unless we recognize importance of intellectual freedom

Our university system cannot make country the ‘Knowledge hub of Asia’ unless we recognize importance of intellectual freedom


”Several generations of politicians destroyed much that was valued in the intellectual environment of our universities. Let us hope that politicians of today do not strangle the State university system in pursuit of their distorted vision of a knowledge based society and an Asian knowledge hub in Sri Lanka.
Savitri Goonasekere
The Minister of Higher Education and the Ministry have frequently reminded the public, in recent months, that the government’s policy on education seeks to create a “knowledge based” society, that will make Sri Lanka the “knowledge hub” of Asia. It is interesting to examine the various initiatives that have been taken in working to achieve this objective.

Privatisation of Education

Many Sri Lankan lives have been lost in the confrontation between governments and student groups on the issue of privatisation of education. Much of the violence can be traced to the deep insecurities felt by those who will perhaps not be able to access fee levying institutions, or fears that graduates from the State systems will have to compete for employment with peers who will have acquired superior skills in better resourced private institutions. Governments in the past, have either succumbed to these pressures or permitted indirect privatisation of education through various methods.

The present government is perhaps the first that has openly declared that their broad policy objective can only be achieved by permitting market forces to operate in the area of education, in harmony with an open rather than regulated economy.

Many educationists have for some time recognised that Sri Lanka does require a “public – private” mix of services in the area of education, in the same way that a public – private mix has been integrated into our health services. However they have also recognised the need to increase resources for the State education system, so as to retain the dimension of equity of access to educational opportunities that has been a treasured heritage of what is known as Sri Lanka’s “free education” project. They have repeatedly drawn attention to the need to ensure quality control in private education, so that areas of professional education in particular such as medicine, engineering and architecture will not suffer through the mushrooming of private institutions ill equipped to provide these services.

These points of view are reflected in the current opposition of professional medical associations to the proposed private medical school and the earlier trade union action of university academics. They have raised issues of access, upgrading of resources for State universities and quality control. These issues have also been raised by individuals. A contribution by Professor Sherifdeen, Emeritus Professor of Surgery, University of Colombo captures the essence of concerns regarding the need for quality assurance in medical education if this sector is to recognise private teaching institutions.

The Ministry of Higher Education however has not addressed these concerns or come up with proposals that answer the hard questions. Professor Sherifdeen has pointed out that quality medical education demands that clinical training is integrated into teaching from the very beginning. The “official response” to critics of the private medical college initiative is to say that a teaching hospital will be available sometime in the future for students who have already completed some of their training, and or that senior academics in the university system and the medical profession are willing to teach in this institution! What kind of “knowledge based” society do we expect to create through these unregulated private institutions that will provide the human resources for services that are key to our health services and development?

Faulty education policies of the sixties that imposed a monolingual education in Sinhala and Tamil denied many generations of bright Sri Lankan students the privilege of a quality education. Professor K N O Dharmadasa, Emeritus Professor of Sinhala in a recent contribution in the media has highlighted that Sri Lankan scholars from antiquity recognised the benefit of working on many languages, and were not confined to a monolingual tradition of teaching and learning.

Academics teaching in the fields of medicine, engineering and architecture as well as science faculties developed their own strategies to ensure that English was retained in higher education. Others, mainly faculties of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law who received a large cohort of students were compelled by our politicians to accept monolingual teaching and learning in Sinhala and Tamil, without even the basic literature required for an undergraduate education. Some academics like Professor Laksiri Jayasuriya tried to save the system and were articulate voices of dissent, at a time when dissent was still considered legitimate academic freedom in our universities. When they lost the battle they left the country with other colleagues in the system, depriving the Sri Lankan Universities of some of the best teachers and researchers in these disciplines.

Those who stayed, and others who joined them struggled to create good departments that have produced some of the best in the fields of law, social sciences and the humanities. University education in faculties such as medicine, engineering and architecture, retained their links to the professional associations and Colleges, and have ensured that professional standards have been maintained.

Rather than acknowledge these endeavours, the Ministry today dismisses all graduates and university departments in the national system, particularly in the fields of humanities and social sciences as failures. These graduates are seen as poor quality, socially alienated products of the national universities, who are parasites on society. This denigration of the State system appears to be a justification for denying adequate resources and moving towards privatisation.

Academics are blamed, and there is no accountability for a failed post independence policy that imposed a monolingual education and created under resourced faculties of humanities, law, and social sciences.

The Ministry of Higher Education has now decided to provide the “quick fix” of opening the market for IT and English education through privatisation, as a magic solution to decades of ill advised education policy. The State universities have also been caught up in this momentum, with the Ministry making decisions on recruiting English lecturers from overseas for the universities, and the World Bank reminding universities that the ‘market” only needs graduates who have IT and English language skills. We must assume that this does not refer to fields like medicine, engineering and architecture where something more than English and IT skills will be required in higher education, even in a market economy.

Institutional memory is often very short in this country. The emphasis on the need for IT, English language skills, curricula revision etc was also part of the education policies of the previous government, when the late Mr. Richard Pathirane was Minister, and Dr. Tara de Mel and Professor R P Jayewardene were the senior bureaucrats in the Ministry of Higher Education. State Universities at the time with the support of the World Bank were encouraged and resourced to strengthen their teaching / learning environment, and also provide students and staff access to IT facilities.

The World Bank sponsored IRQUE Project on “Improving the Relevance and Quality of Education” seems to have departed from its original moorings and focused on infrastructure development. The State universities have benefited, provided better physical environs, and acquired more capacity to provide IT facilities for their students. But the impact on the teaching and learning environment is not visible.

These resources and support for the university system could have impacted on quality and been developed further, if the core structures within which those changes were introduced had been retained and strengthened. The Ministry of Higher Education at the time of the previous government operated within the framework of the Universities Act. The University Grants Commission and University Senates and Councils exercised the powers given to them under the Act, and any proposals for change were introduced in an environment of maximum consultation with respect for viewpoint difference. The Ministry guided policy but was not in the driving seat.

It is in this context that the public has to reflect on whether a new scenario where the Minister and the Ministry of Education replace the UGC, and the University authorities in the Higher Education sector, can or will contribute to making Sri Lanka the knowledge hub of Asia. Will the ‘privatisation’ project of the Ministry delinked from the University system and quality assurance systems of depoliticised professional bodies like the SLMC, pose further risks to higher education? Will it only produce diploma holders and graduates with incapacity for creative thinking, and professional insights, rooted in the already familiar learning tradition that emphasises the need to pass exams, obtain certificates, and exit. The internet has become a fertile source of plagiarism today.

So this “borrowed” learning will be a passport to a certificate but not necessarily a path to quality education or the insights of creative thinking and wisdom required to meet the challenges of sustainable development in this country. The “privatisation” project runs the risk of producing professionals and graduates for the market who will be no better equipped than those who had to suffer the deprivation of a monolingual education. Hardly a resource to create a Sri Lankan “knowledge hub” in South Asia.

It is possible that despite the unregulated environment quality higher education will be delivered through private institutions set up as campuses of recognised universities from overseas. They will perhaps have a system of self regulation, and it is possible that there will be effective quality control. The degrees awarded by overseas universities through some private institutions already operating in the country conform to standards of those universities, ensuring quality control.

Sri Lanka would indeed be fortunate if universities with a recognised reputation operate within our country and conform to standards that they set for themselves in their own countries. Such institutions will inevitably charge the kind of fees that will make an education in those institutions accessible to a very small elite of wealth and social status.

How many of these products will contribute to Sri Lanka’s knowledge based society, and the vision of an Asian knowledge hub?

In this context we need to reflect on the impact of current education policy on the State system, for the majority of those who can and will be challenged to realise this dream of a knowledge hub and the realities of development will come from the State system.

The State University System

The trade union action of university teachers gave priority to anomalies in salary schemes for academic staff. However individual contributions to the press by many university teachers, particularly from the Peradeniya and Open Universities highlighted issues such as the politicisation of university administration, the failure of the University Grants Commission to perform its responsibilities as an independent regulatory authority, and the consequent erosion of university autonomy and academic freedom to make decisions regarding the teaching learning and research environment.

These contributions have drawn attention to the manner in which academic authorities have been sidelined, with the Ministry making decisions that should be made, according to the Universities Act, by university teachers, their Faculties and Senates. The UGC, the regulatory authority now seems to hand down Ministry decisions to universities for implementation. There have been many instances where procedures clearly stated in the Act have been violated.

During the recent trade union action, letters from the Chairman UGC on resignation of heads of departments, and the subsequent withdrawal of those letters after direct negotiations by academics with the Ministry rather than the UGC, indicated clearly that the Ministry is making decisions and issuing instructions in violation of the Act, which the UGC meekly follows.

A Dean of one Faculty holds office today, in direct violation of the provisions of the Universities Act on the age of retirement, and the provisions regulating this post. It is said that this was done on a cabinet decision communicated and acted upon directly by the Vice Chancellor overlooking the UGC, the authority that usually seeks cabinet approval for annual contract appointments of retired professors over 65 years.

The most recent erosion of academic freedom in the University system relates directly to the issue of the right to freedom of speech and expression in universities. Our Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of conscience, thought, speech and expression, and the protection of these rights has been recognised as fundamental values of university education in jurisprudence in our Supreme Court. And yet, the Vice Chancellor of a University has directed that a particular faculty should not employ a well known expert in the field as a visiting lecturer because in this administrator’s view, he is “an antigovernment” person.

Instructions have now apparently been issued requiring the appointment of all visiting lecturers to be “vetted” by the Vice Chancellor and the “Deans Committee” – an ad hoc body created for management purposes, which has no authority to take decisions on academic programmes without the approval of Faculty Boards and Senates – the bodies entrusted with academic matters.

The Dean, Professors and Heads of Department of this University followed and implemented the Vice Chancellor’s instructions. Sadly they are all experienced university dons who are well aware of the role and responsibility of Faculties and Senates and Constitutional provisions on fundamental rights. A Vice Chancellor in the past refused to allow a guest speaker to address students, and the Minister has justified this action in parliament on the basis that “permission was not obtained.”

Disciplinary action has been taken against two members of Staff who commented critically on university policy on research in emails. People who have written letters to the newspapers or participated in trade union action are being called personally and being “warned.” The erosion of core values on academic freedom has been incremental. Yet there is no individual or collective sense of accountability for destroying these values in universities that have produced some of the finest human rights judges and lawyers of this country.

The lack of protest against these intrusions in Faculty Boards and Senates has culminated in the recent action to politicise the teaching programme. The politicisation of university administrators through an appointment process in violation of the Universities Act has legitimised a practice by which perceptions on political affiliation will determine teaching appointments.

In the past, Councils consisted of eminent persons including lawyers who would have guided the university administration and prevented infringements of these basic values of academic freedom and university autonomy. Council members of today, even those who are respected professionals, accept these violations in silence. They are following our eminent academics in the Cabinet, who ignore what is happening in universities through Cabinet decisions that violate both academic autonomy and the regulatory framework of the Universities Act.

Can Vice Chancellors, Faculty Boards, Senates and Councils who ignore the core values of a university, Constitutional norms on freedom of thought, speech and expression, give leadership in creating the kind of vibrant intellectual community that is required if Sri Lanka is to become a “knowledge hub” in university education in Asia?

These erosions in academic freedom and autonomy which the majority in the academic community seem to treat as trivial infringements are especially worrying when they are combined with a subtle initiative to create a militarised environment that shows no regard for the right to intellectual freedom and viewpoint difference that should be respected in any university. The Friday Forum in its public statement analysed the documents in the much publicised leadership training programme for new students, highlighting the manner in which it deferred from non militarised university orientation programmes for freshmen and women in universities. We are now told that there is a proposal for the Ministry of Defence to integrate a “cadet programme” into English teacher training for schools that come under the Ministry of Education.

The most recent initiative of the Ministry of Higher Education has been to instruct the UGC to ensure that all universities employ a State Security firm established under the Companies Act, with a structure that leaves decision making with the Secretary of Defence and several tiers of personnel with a military background. The website of the Company indicates the manner in which a military ethos has been integrated into what is described as a private security firm.

By ensuring that such a firm takes over the security services in all State institutions and now, national universities, the State has successfully combined the work of law enforcement agencies with a ‘private’ law enforcement arm that can exercise their functions. In the process basic norms on legal protections and limitations on police powers within universities can be disregarded with impunity.

The ‘private security’ can behave like the “State police,” and also operate as an investigative agency that monitors what is perceived as “anti-government” subversion. Is this the type of security service that a university administration, if it had choice, would select for universities? The erosion of university autonomy in administration and the right to manage internal security arrangements in conformity with responsibilities placed under the Universities Act is as significant as the potential for misuse of the State private security service to further erode academic freedom in research and the teaching and learning environment.

Some 100 university teachers, many of them from the University of Peradeniya have put their signature to a written protest against the compulsory imposition of a State owned private security system on the universities. However most academics have been silent on the issue.

Drs. Dayan Jayatillake and Rajiva Wijesinha who were academics in the national universities have publicly supported the militarised leadership training programme. Dr. Jayatillake sees in the leadership programme an excellent model for creating what in effect will be a “para military” youth corp “trained in the use of weapons” that could “bleed to death with a thousand cuts” any outside force or puppet regime seeking to destabilise the country. [Island 31 August 2011.] Rajiva Wijeinha reinforces this view point, apparently for different reasons.

He sees the cadet corps proposal as a “heartening initiative” and the leadership programme as a successful “hearts and minds” effort where the military can contribute to “overcoming any sense of alienation” in these youth communities. He proposes similar leadership programmes by the military for ex combatants and also “youngsters (in the North and East?) who may not be qualified for government employment.” [Island – 29 September 2011]. There is no explanation as to why the military should undertake this work. Is this too a subtle endorsement to the creation of a para military force within universities and among youth groups?

Both Dayan and Rajiva have taught in the State universities. They could not have forgotten the violence on campuses unleashed when para military forces and politicised student groups battled with each other. Have they forgotten the torture of students, the spectacle of a Vice Chancellor untying those suspected to be State security agents from a lamp post on Peradeniya campus, the butchered heads of students of this university placed around the pond near Jayatilleke Hall on that campus? It is extraordinary that the conflict and violence unleashed on campuses because of the manipulation of students by politicians of the government and opposition has been forgotten by some teachers who now cheerfully advocate “military” incursions in the teaching and learning environment of universities and the higher education system.

The disregard of the regulatory system under which universities have functioned for many decades by the present Minister and Ministry officials and some administrators in the university system is symptomatic of the general disregard of law and legal procedures in other State institutions. Witness the current controversies in regard to the rape of Sinharaja and our valued eco systems in the name of development, with the complicity or lack of awareness of government agencies entrusted with the task of conservation. Government authorities are no longer accountable – their excuse is that they were unaware, or were ignored, or had no responsibility for the decision making process. The Minister of Higher Education stated in Parliament recently, on 2 July 2011 in answer to a question by Mr. Eran Wickremeratne, MP, that the President selects a Vice Chancellor from three names submitted by a University Council. Inevitably the UGC was silent on the violation of the procedures under the Universities Act which places upon them the responsibility for recommending the person for appointment to the post of Vice Chancellor, by the President.

Their excuse may be the same – “we were not consulted.” There is a popular perception that the President is not bound by any laws, and that Presidential powers or the powers of high officers of government are absolute. Everyone has forgotten that the President, and these officers take an oath of office, and undertake to uphold the laws and Constitution of this country.

We continue to accept, without protest, gross acts of lawlessness and illegality and legitimise them by our reaction of amusement or indifference. When Minister Mervyn Silva takes the law into his own hands and administers summary justice according to his own standards, it is a matter for laughter or positive approval.

As one writer to the Island said in a letter to the editor, when the law of the State fails, the law of the jungle must prevail. The recent local government elections were accompanied by the spectacle of important senior public servants campaigning openly for the government party candidates. This has become so acceptable and legitimate that no one even remembers the rules of the public service that do not give political rights to these persons. When a member of parliament and Presidential adviser and their supporters assault and murder each other, we do not question how special protection at State expense is given to the aggressor, or why there is no public statement on these incidents.

There is some hope in this dismal climate for university autonomy, in the university teachers who have had the courage to express their views, and challenge these irregularities. We Sri Lankans have in this post war period become very fond of distinguishing between so called “patriots and traitors and anti government saboteurs.” We encourage intolerance and exclusion in a triumphalist vision of patriotism, forgetting that the Dhammapada advises Buddhists that ‘victory breeds hatred, the defeated live in pain’ and they should reject the concepts of both victory and defeat. Let us remember that some of our great patriots like Keppetipola Dissawe were once described as traitors because they challenged the political power of the State and the establishment.

There may come a time when the few courageous academics of our national universities who fought for academic freedom and autonomy in the university system will be recognised as the true patriots of this country. If we lose this rich resource in the path to the Ministry’s vision of a knowledge based society, we may create a “knowledge hub” a ‘home grown’ system that is valued by no one else but our own politicians and presiding deities in the Ministry of Higher Education. Let us hope that sanity will prevail, and that these unsung heroes and heroines will not walk away from our national universities.

It is in the public interest that our policy makers understand that our university system cannot gain any kind of recognition that will make us the “knowledge hub of Asia,” unless we recognised the importance of intellectual freedom, thought and expression, and realise the promise of these Constitutional guarantees in our universities. Internalising the forgotten concept of “pragnna” or wisdom that scholars of many generations in this country have associated with the acquisition of knowledge and learning is surely the only path to achieving excellence in our higher educational institutions.

Several generations of politicians destroyed much that was valued in the intellectual environment of our universities. Let us hope that politicians of today do not strangle the State university system in pursuit of their distorted vision of a knowledge based society and an Asian knowledge hub in Sri Lanka.

The writer is a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Colombo

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