The demand made by the FUTA for increased allocation of annual government expenditure on education has now emerged as a national policy slogan, with many sectors of society adopting it as their own demand. This is a key achievement made by the FUTA in its three-month long struggle’
Some, even those in the government, are now asking how this 6% of GDP allocation should be spent. Understandably, government ministers in charge of the subject of education and even some Vice-Chancellors seem to be rather confused about how such an allocation could conceivably be spent.
This is where all those who back the 6% demand now have to propose to the government how the increased public money on education should not be wasted and actually be productively utilized for the benefit of our country’s education.
This opens up an unprecedented opportunity for the stakeholders of education in Sri Lanka to further deepen the public debate by focusing on what concrete steps should be taken to improve all aspects of education – quality and standards of teaching, learning and evaluation; infrastructure that includes buildings, class rooms, laboratories, libraries, and even cafeteria; development of academic as well as non-academic human resources; capacity building in administration and management; student and staff welfare, bursaries and scholarships; text books; research and publication. It should encompass school, technical, and university education that come under the Ministry of Education as well as Higher Education.
One possible reason why the minister and his officials seem to be perplexed by the FUTA demand for higher allocation of government expenditure in the university system is that they are not adequately familiar with the problems and needs in the higher education sector.
Their limited vision for higher education does not seem to go beyond the task of maintaining the institutional status quo. Actually, to maintain the present status quo in the universities, with annual allocations for usual recurrent expenditure and limited amount of capital expenditure, substantially higher allocations for universities will not be required at all. New funds are needed to change the status quo, and to raise the quality and standards of Sri Lanka’s higher education. That is the goal for which FUTA is campaigning.
Meanwhile, educational policy-makers of our country also seem to share a rather limited understanding of university problems, which is skewed towards issues such as student indiscipline, ragging, and student violence. It is really doubtful whether Vice-Chancellors, or other university officials, have the practice of briefing the Ministers or the President about problems and needs that require greater monetary allocation.
The only problem in the universities they seem to be aware of is student politics, ragging and violence, and trade union agitations by FUTA. The rather expensive leadership training programme is their ill-conceived response to this problem.
Interestingly, the government seems to be committed to the goal of making Sri Lanka an internationally competitive center of learning. If the government is serious about involving the universities to play an active and dynamic role in the knowledge hub project, there is an urgent need to make a massive capital investment to improve, upgrade, and modernize and then maintain with sustainability the entire university system in all its aspects.
Years of neglect by governments as well as university administrations has led the university system into a deep crisis characterized by demoralization among students, as well as the academic and non-academic staff, backward and decaying infrastructure, stagnation of universities as mere undergraduate colleges, excessive reliance on political patronage by university administrations, and now a mutually-hurting breakdown of communication between the Ministry of Higher Education and the UGC on one side, and academics, students and non-academic staff on the other side.
How should the 6% of the GDP be spent? As the cliché goes, it is the million -dollar question, literally as well as metaphorically. The answer is linked to the ways out from the accumulated crisis from which the entire university system suffers. It is obviously not up to the FUTA to propose unilaterally how much capital is required for investment in different areas of the entire educational sector.
That should be a consultative exercise of planning for short-term, medium-term and long-term university development to be undertaken by the Ministry of Higher Education, in consultation not only with the UGC and university bureaucracies, but also with teachers and students who have firsthand knowledge of many things that the VCs and the UGC ignore, or take for granted, in accordance with their professional culture of being committed to maintaining the institutional status quo. The FUTA has raised the issue as an important public policy matter. To take the policy debate to a higher level, stakeholders can now ideally identify and propose priority areas into which public funds should move.
Let us identify some critical areas that require urgent attention for improvement in our universities.
Almost all the universities in Sri Lanka, including the relatively new ones, have an outdated, inadequate, and aging system of physical infrastructure, that includes buildings, class – rooms, lecture halls, laboratories, libraries, not to mention the toilets and cafeteria with appallingly unhygienic conditions. Peradeniya may be considered an exception. Even the massive buildings that have been constructed relatively recently, like the Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Law buildings at the University of Colombo, are crumbling due to premature aging, precipitated by low-quality construction, bad designing, and massive pressure emanating from the ever increasing student population who use them.
Classrooms, lecture halls and even the university libraries, as a general practice, are both primitive in terms of facilities they offer.
The elementary nature of the infrastructure in our universities stands out in comparison with the universities in other Asian countries of comparable economic status, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. Only a handful of classrooms in our universities have audio-visual facilities, a must in modern methodology of teaching.
Even they are of exceedingly low quality. Furniture in classrooms in general is of poor quality and inadequate to cater to increasing numbers of students. Almost as a rule, classrooms, lecture halls, teachers’ office rooms, and libraries continue to remain without air-conditioning facilities, compelling students and teacher to sweat it out throughout the day, even all these buildings, as the case of Colombo University vividly illustrates, have been designed and built for air-conditioning.
The reason offered by the university authorities for not having air conditioning for classrooms, lecture halls and libraries is the lack of financial allocations. The same explanation is offered to the perpetuation of ever deteriorating hygienic and public health facilities in the universities, which are used by thousands of students, teachers, non-academic staff and visitors, day in day out.
The lack of adequate housing and residential facilities for students is one of the most glaring dimensions in the infrastructure crisis in our universities. Teachers don’t have housing facilities either, except the limited residential facilities available at Peradeniya University. Good universities all over the world provide subsidized housing for its students, teachers and non-academic staff, but not in Sri Lanka.
The private houses leased in by universities as student hostels, even those provided for student monks, are veritable “hell-halls” – dirty, unhygienic, over-crowded, and liberally populated by rats, cockroaches and mosquitoes. They are simply unfit for human habitation. Vice-Chancellors, UGC members, Ministry Secretaries and Ministers are either unaware of these sub-human conditions under which our university students live, or they are professionally insensitive to these realities.
An example to illustrate this insensitivity, when a group of female undergraduate students complained to a VC that the showers of their bathrooms did not have water for a few days, the VC shot back asking whether these young women had bath showers in their village. One student with a sense of humour humbly suggested to the VC to build a Weva (irrigation tank) near their hostel!
Our university libraries need a rapid increase in financial allocations, several times more than what they get at present, to build and maintain their resources, facilities and services. Except the library of University of Peradeniya with some past glory, all other university libraries, including that of Colombo, do not actually qualify to be university libraries.
The libraries of the universities of Kelaniya, Jayewardenepura, Ruhuna, Sabaragamuwa, Batticaloa, Jaffna and Oluvil, not to mention others, are so poor in their stocks of books and academic journals that one wonders why they are called university libraries, to begin with. In the absence of a proper accreditation system to maintain standards of our universities, libraries have become the first to suffer fund cuts among all the units of the universities.
For the past several decades, the university libraries have not got enough annual grants to buy new books, and renew their subscriptions to academic periodicals. Even the access to electronic databases, in this age of cyber learning, is quite limited. As the library of university Colombo amply testifies, without air conditioning or access to methods to preserve documents which are rather expensive, valuable collections of old books are left to rot and decay.
When asked about this depressingly poor conditions of the library of a university which claims to be the premier university in Sri Lanka, the answer one gets is quite simple: “no money.” Sadly, library development, that requires new financial resources, has not been for decades among the priorities of the VCs or the UGC.
It is no exaggeration to say that the physical quality and the conditions of life shared by students, teachers and non-academics within the premises of the Sri Lankan universities is appallingly low. Actually, our universities are institutionalized microcosms of generalized conditions of poverty, misery and squalor that continue to haunt some segments of our society.
No wonder that there are only a very few foreign students volunteered to accept scholarships offered by the Ministry of Higher Education to study in our universities. If the Minister of Higher Education seriously expects foreign students to join universities, he needs to improve the quality of physical and infrastructure conditions of all universities. The reason is simple.
Students of any country who usually go abroad for university education, even on partial scholarships that the Minister has generally offered, are from middle-class backgrounds, who have expectations of the quality of life as students that are far ahead what our universities can offer at present.
Academic Standards and Teaching Programmes
One area where new injection of capital of substantial proportions is urgently required is to start full-time postgraduate programmes as an integral part of the university system in Sri Lanka. None of our university faculties offer full-time Masters or Doctoral causes as a component of their regular teaching programmes.
Our universities are actually not full universities; they are mere undergraduate colleges. Limited numbers of post-graduate programmes are conducted by Faculties of Graduate studies on the fee-levying basis with evening or weekend classes. Many of them are not up to international standards and in fact poor in quality. Their low quality is primarily due to the fact that they are part time courses.
Their participants are part-time students who have little or no time for rigorous post-graduate learning or research.
The absence of regular and full-time post-graduate courses has other negative consequences for the entire intellectual culture of the universities. Teachers who engage only or mainly in undergraduate teaching are hardly compelled to excel themselves as teachers or researchers. Undergraduate students do not have the benefit of interacting with Master’s or Doctoral students for intellectual stimulation. There is no stable or sustainable culture of research and knowledge production built into the university system either.
The prevailing emphasis, as its has evolved since the 1940s, has been on the dissemination, not production, of knowledge through undergraduate teaching. Research and publication has a low priority, because teachers, even professors, spend most of their time and energy on conducting undergraduate programmes. The UGC and the Universities do not have research funds, except occasional allocations of small size.
In the absence of a vibrant research culture, there are hardly any applicants for even those funds from Faculties other than Medical where research is built into the professional careers of academics as medical practitioners. There is no adequate financial support for regular research conferences or for publication of research papers in the form of journals, books and edited anthologies. There is absolutely no money available in the universities to publish post-graduate dissertations.
Those teachers with a commitment to research and publication are forced to seek funding from non-university sources, or do their research in collaboration with non-university research centres.
Similarly, our universities do not have a culture of assisting, through travel grants, teachers or research students in their participation in international conferences or research symposia.
‘No money” is once again the ready-made answer available to those who make inquiries regarding such assistance.
What should the UGC and the Ministry of Higher education do to change this situation? One policy option is to re-orient the existing system so that our universities will become universities in the fullest sense of the concept, with fulltime and regular Masters and Doctoral programmes and post-graduate research, paralleled with undergraduate degree courses.
This requires allocation of quite a large amount of financial resources to recruit new staff with doctoral qualifications, expansion of libraries and laboratories with adequate facilities, setting up of research centres, offering research fellowships to academics at home and abroad, facilitating conferences and publications, provision of scholarships and research grants to teachers as well as students, and finally, facilities for publishing academic journals and books. These are minimally necessary pre-requisites to make Sri Lankan universities internationally recognized centres of excellence.
Human Resource Development
One major dimension of the university crisis in Sri Lanka is the progressively decaying human resource base in both academic and administrative spheres. Policy-makers seem to be totally insensitive to this aspect of the crisis.
Protests against the low levels of salaries of the academic and non-academic staff are just one manifestation of this crisis. The government’s ‘solution’ of promising and not delivering pay hikes has not worked and it is unlikely to work in the future either.
As the FUTA has repeatedly pointed out, lack of academic cadre provisions for departments as well as the inability to fill even the limited numbers of existing vacancies for academic positions have created a serious erosion of the academic human resource base in all of our universities.
The inadequacy of cadre provisions for academic departments is particularly felt in new universities such as Ruhuna, Sabaragamuwa, Rajarata, East and South- East, which were established with minimum cadre facilities. Some departments function with the help of temporary teachers and visiting lecturers.
The Medical Faculty of the Rajarata University is a well-known case in point. With the expansion of student population, the cadre base of the Faculties and Departments needs to be expanded even in older universities such as Peradeniya and Colombo. This is a point made in department, faculty and institutional evaluations conducted a few years ago under the auspices of the IRQUE Project.
Repeated requests made by Departments and Faculties through VCs for more cadres have only been rejected by the UGC on the excuse that the Treasury approval has not been granted. Even the UGC decisions made a few years ago to create new cadre provisions have been rejected by the Treasury. The explanation there too has been a simple one: “no money.”
The inability of the universities to fill even the limited available vacancies, particularly at lower and middle levels, is an issue highlighted by the FUTA. This is where the need for immediate and substantial salary increases becomes crucial.
Why is a substantial expansion of the academic cadre base of the universities needed? The simple answer is that Sri Lanka needs a substantial increase in the opportunities to enter universities, available to children who pass the A/L examination. The university entrance, as the cliché goes, is the most serious bottleneck in the system of education available to Sri Lankan children.
Democratization of opportunities for university education is a long-felt social need in Sri Lanka. The best option available is to expand the existing universities, rather than setting up new ones. To prevent further deterioration of the quality and standards at the universities, an increase in the university academic cadre, with a commitment to recruiting the best, is quite crucial.
Post-graduate training for junior academics is an issue which the universities and other higher education authorities have not been able to address effectively, once again for the simple reason of lack of financial resources. With the expansion of the numbers of universities, numbers of academic staff have also been increased with the result that in their employment pyramid, our universities have a somewhat wider base level, consisting of relatively young academics.
Although the vast majority of them need post-graduate qualifications, many of them find it extremely difficult to obtain overseas scholarships. Unlike it was the case a few decades ago, foreign scholarships do not easily come by now. Those who complete their local Masters degrees at local universities, for the confirmation in the post and to satisfy the minimum requirements for promotions, need doctoral training abroad.
The Ministry of Higher Education or the UGC do not have a mechanism to send these teachers abroad on scholarship for doctoral training. The limited facility that has been made available under the National Center for Advanced Studies need to be improved and expanded substantially to address the urgent needs of the academic human resource development.
Sri Lanka can learn from the example of the countries such as Indonesia and South Korea which during their economic take off period sent their young university academics to the best universities in America, Europe, Australia and Japan on full government scholarships for post-graduate training. Such a scheme does require new allocations to the Ministry of Higher Education and the Universities.
One of the most neglected areas of university development is the capacity building among the non-academic and administrative staff. If our universities are to receive substantially high levels of new funding, human resource development in the administrative and managerial spheres should be a priority area of policy attention.
Without managerial skills development of the administrative staff, coupled with attractive salary packages, the universities will continue to lag behind the private sector in the domain of institutional management. Officials at various levels, — registrars, deputy and assistant registrars, bursars, deputy bursars, technical officers, the clerical and other support staff – require greater professional training, other than the skills development in the art of being subservient servants of the VCs and Registrars.
Large numbers of unskilled young men and women recruited on contract basis for clerical and office work with no job security or in-service training can hardly constitute the back bone of university administrative staff. The point then is simple. Without a strong administrative and managerial cadre base at all levels, and their skills development through training and re-training, any greater allocation of funds to universities is not likely to make a change.
Welfare is another area for improvement in the university life of our country. This includes subsidized housing and residential facilities, health insurance, subsidized transport, culture and recreation facilities for students. The facilities available to students at present are quite meagre. Welfare facilities available to teachers and non-academic staff are no better.
It is quite astounding that the University of Colombo which claims an elite status, does not have a single bus to provide transport, subsidized or not, to students, staff and teachers to travel to the university, a facility available, for example, in Bangladesh. This is the case with our other universities as well.
Although the IMF might object to it, a substantial increase in the student bursaries is a long overdue need. The mahapola scholarship offers each recipient only a miserly sum of Rs. 2, 500 a month, which is hardly adequate for a student to pay for meals even for a weak, despite minister Bandula Gunawardena’s economic theory of stone-age survival.
Increased student bursaries at all levels of education, from school to undergraduate education, are a social need in Sri Lanka, because education still functions as the most important means to upward social mobility for the poor and the low-income families, who constitute the majority of the country’s population. The reasoning here is that the economic cost of increased student bursaries will pay in the long-run, economically as well as socially.
The lack of text books in Sinhalese and Tamil, and in English appropriate to Sri Lankan/South Asian contexts, is a key drawback in higher education in Sri Lanka. Private publishers are reluctant to print university level textbooks because of the limited scope of the market and the high cost involved in translations and writing.
The programme to publish translations of textbooks in natural, social and human sciences implemented by the Education Publications Department in the 1960s and 1970s for the benefit of A/L and university students is a model worth revisiting now.
A systematic textbook translation and writing programme, to be initiated on an urgent basis, would require skills training in translating academic work, editing, and printing, as well writing new text books in English, Tamil and Sinhalese. If university students are to be oriented towards learning in English, writing textbooks in English by local university teachers, rather than using texts books published in the US and England, is the most appropriate option.
Since there is a significant expansion in the scope of courses offered in different faculties in our universities, a separate unit for textbooks can even be established at the UGC with the participation of universities. At present, our university students do not have the habit of buying textbooks for two other reasons than the non-availability of books.
The non-inclusion in undergraduate curricula the requirement of consulting textbooks as compulsory, which is an extension of the non-availability of text books in vernacular languages and in accessible English, is one. The other is the financial hardships most undergraduate students encounter.
These problems can also be overcome through two steps: revising undergraduate programmes that makes buying text books a compulsory component of learning, and increasing student bursaries in the form a book allowance.
The above are some thoughts for how to make use of additional funding to improve the university education. The requirements in the school and technical education sectors would be far greater than these, requiring much more public funding. Now is the moment for broadening the public discourse on state spending on education.
Eventually, inputs from society, particularly from stakeholder communities, will enrich the debate and hopefully the government’s agenda for strengthening Sri Lanka’s education sector as well.
(Jayadeva Uyangoda is a Member, Arts Faculty Teachers’ Union- Colombo)