Sri Lankan higher education seems to be getting more and more into a mess. While the government is desperate to encourage private higher education and faltering badly in these efforts, it seems to be unable to deal with student protests and labour disputes in the Universities.
The student leadership which is not totally representative of the students and unable normally to mobilize student activism is being provided with rallying points by government action. To make matters worse we have had to face the imbroglio of the GCE A/L results this year.
Since higher education has been the main process which permitted children from Sri Lanka’s working and rural population to break through class barriers and socially advance, it is vital that this process be protected. But what is the government doing?
The GCE A/L fiasco has caused much heartburn among students and parents in this country. When the original results had very obvious errors, the credibility of the Examinations Department built up over several decades was lost. Nothing short of a complete re-examination of the entire process would satisfy students, parents and the general public and help rebuild confidence in the system. However the committee appointed to look into the problem claims that its mandate was restricted merely to the rankings of students. Rankings are themselves based on Z-scores and it is this which ultimately decides on who is admitted to the University. If Z-scores are wrong, even though rankings are revised to correspond to (the wrong) Z-scores, neither rankings nor Z-scores will provide a correct assessment of performance of the candidate. If the Z-scores were not to be scrutinized, there was no need for a high powered Committee.
Most statisticians agree that the method used to deal with the Z-scores of students who sat for different papers based on different syllabi has been wrong and that pooling would penalise students who sat the paper with the lower average mark. It is therefore imperative that the Z-scores be recalculated separately for the two papers and if the numbers of students taking the two papers are very different, it may even be necessary to determine different cut-off marks for the two syllabi which would ensure that the same percentage of students from both groups are selected for admission. The reluctance of the Government is incomprehensible, especially as there is no demand for re-correction of answer scripts.
In order to regain confidence in the Examinations Department, it may be necessary to conduct an audit of the marks to satisfy parents and students that marks have been entered correctly. The present attempt to insist on using the flawed Z-scores will not merely result in injustice to many students. It would further erode what little confidence they have in the Departments and its examinations.
The Bill claimed to promote Private education has been withdrawn. It was never made available for public comment and all information is from leaked copies. The Bill aimed to establish a super Quality Assurance and Accreditation Board appointed by the Minister with powers over both the University Grants Commission (appointed by the President) and a newly appointed Council for Non-State Higher Education Institutions regarding courses conducted in both state and non-state universities. The problem with much of today’s legislation including the withdrawn Bill is that no attempt is made to discuss them with stakeholders or put them up for public comments. At a time when backdoor privatisation of higher education is claimed to be part of government agenda, any surreptitious attempt at legislating on education will be looked at with suspicion. If a Bill aimed solely at ensuring quality standards in non-state Universities was presented in a transparent manner, it may have seen less opposition from University academics.
Although the position of the JVP student leadership is that any encouragement of private education will damage free education, this is not a position widely accepted by the general public. Many question how free “free education” is in a school system when bribes or donations are routinely paid to ensure admission, regular charges are made for University activities and highly priced tuition is encouraged even by schools from the early years of primary education. Almost all the students in the University system who are screaming their heads off on the need to protect free education have spent at least Rs. 1,500 per month on tuition while preparing for the GCE (A/L) examination.
Our output of graduates which is just a little over 14,000 per year is far too small for the country and is one reason why we cannot attract investment or improve our industrial output. If we are to match India’s output of 0.2% of its population as graduates each year, we should be producing thrice our present output. India has been able to do this because it spends 0.7% of its GDP on public sector higher education, which too has been criticized as being too low as it is much less than that of the advanced countries who spend more than 1%. Sri Lanka meanwhile spends a mere 0.25% of its GDP on public sector higher education. It is only fair to require the government to at least double this expenditure and provide places for all students qualifying at the GCE (A/L) examination before it tries to encourage private education. Sri Lanka’s expenditure of 1.9% of GDP on education today is less than that of most of the world including least developed countries like Bangladesh and much of sub-Saharan Africa. Further it is only half the 3.8% of GDP spent by Sri Lanka in 1998, thirteen years ago.
Students therefore have genuine issues and like students everywhere are eager to voice their opinions through demonstrations and other actions of solidarity. The government’s reaction appears to be one of repression by frightening students and parents through student arrests, home visits by security forces but so far fortunately – but for how long ? – no disappearances. We all know the inevitable consequence of the use of the security forces to quell civilian protests.
Strong arm actions against ragging, which Universities have tried for several years to stop but failed, would have been popular with the general public. But having been ineffectual on the ragging issue, the use of such actions against legitimate student protest could have unforeseeable repercussions. A student leadership forced by the repressive environment to work underground will inevitably seek to build up an alternate student movement which through sabotage, collective action and even armed struggle will attempt to disrupt the Universities.
Unfortunately the JVP leadership in the Universities is unwilling to test its strength at University elections relying instead on ragging to ensure that elections are uncontested and the process works in their favour. Strongly contested elections which were a feature of student politics until 1990 should be reinstated to ensure that the student leadership is representative and responsive to students and this will not take place under the candidate list system. A change to first past the post to at least the important positions will encourage contest and gradually break the hold that the unrepresentative leadership has on the students. (The writer is Emeritus Professor of Organic Chemistry, University of Peradeniya.)