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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Demands of University Dons: Who’s gone Cuckoo?

By Amal S. Kumarage

President Rajapaksa conferred
with honorary Doctorate by
University of Moscow in Russia,

One can only thank Mr. C.A.Chandraprema for choosing an apt title ‘University Dons in Cuckoo land’ for his article published in the Sunday Divaina and Sunday Island of 4th August.

There is no disagreement that is exactly where university dons have been for the last several years.

The difference now is that finally they have realized how ‘cuckoo’ they have been to believe that Sri Lanka is marching towards a Knowledge Hub when over the last 6 years the reality is that funding per university student has been gradually reduced;

students per staff ratio increased; attempts to use university positions for political purposes has increased and above all the university community is kept out of discussions of urgently needed reforms in the education sector.
The Difficulty of Finding Academics

From last year, dons who up to then had agitated only when their salary levels fell below embarrassment (as in 1996 and 2011) have realized that inadequate salaries are only the tip of the iceberg of problems facing them. The bigger problem is what lies below the surface. That is what the academia has been struggling to bring to the notice of the Government and also the public. The spending on education which was 5.2% of GDP in 1971 has now reduced to 1.9%. The admission rate of students qualifying at the GCE AL exam to proceed to university has remained at 15% for the last two decades.

More than 1/3rd of the academic cadre posts in universities are vacant at this time for want of suitable applicants. Of the people who have filled theses posts, over 50% have just first degrees at present and yet to qualify to teach. The percentage of funds allocated for research in most universities cannot be even calculated as there are none!

Even in the Government budget only 0.05% percent of GDP was allocated in 2012 for all research and development when global knowledge hubs exceed 2 and sometimes 3 percent! So it is true that university dons have been in cuckoo land all this while, expecting the political promises of the transformation of universities to centres of excellence and to global knowledge hubs when we have in fact being taken in the opposite direction.

Loosing Accreditation
It is a fact that Sri Lanka continues to lose its gifted academics to foreign universities and now even to local industry. The core issues as Mr. Chandraprema and also the government tries to portray as the salary issue, is not the core problem. It is what lies beneath the salary issue, particularly the danger facing university programs in Sri Lanka most of which have for many years maintained international accreditation by institutions such as the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

Our universities will lose accreditation when staffing levels fall below acceptable levels, when research dries up and our facilities such as labs become outdated. Then the degrees which are currently recognized and highly valued globally will require ‘added qualifications’. Sadly this has already happened to some of our programs.

The Cost of University Education in Sri Lanka
Mr. Chandraprema could have done better justice to his article if he had mentioned how much is spent on a graduate in a State university today. To produce an engineering graduate whose four year degree is accredited by all leading international accreditation bodies, the universities manage with a meager USD 6,000 (2010 prices) for all four years of study. This is approximately 1/10th the cost of a similar internationally accredited engineering degree from abroad. At a time when anything international, be it a highway or a meal at an international hotel chain cost as much in Sri Lanka as in a developed country, this achievement cannot be taken lightly.

In fact I would contend it to be a miracle- perhaps the only one we have seen so far in education. A 3- year Arts degrees cost the government less than 2,000 USD. Is this adequate value addition for local graduates to compete in today’s competitive markets alongside graduates from foreign universities whose resource inputs may have topped USD 50,000?

To make matters worse, it is these same Arts graduates who are picked to teach in our schools, thus passing down the consequences of the deficiency in higher education to school level and to successive generations. Hence this trade union action is not about salaries of dons. In fact it is not about universities either. It is about the downward spiral of education in Sri Lanka. It is also about the consequences of the impact on education on future society.

How much salary should a Professor forego?
But let’s do take the issue of salary- as that too is very important. The Government keeps insisting that academics are well paid. We do realize that in the midst of the hardships faced by many Sri Lankans, that luxurious salaries are not warranted. Neither will we compare the lack of any other benefits for university academics to the luxuries provided to holders of public office that political leaders have provided for themselves. But let us take market values.

A recent survey done by Prof Sohan Wijesekera has found that at recruitment, a lecturer with a 1st Class in engineering has to forgo around 20% of the total benefits his colleague having an ordinary pass would receive from being employed in industry. The survey also shows that once he obtains PhD qualification, to decide to continue in university service he must forgo 2/3rd of the potential benefits he would get if he joins local industry. It is clear that no one today joins the universities to get rich!

The gifted, the progressive, the ambitious all leave for different pastures local or abroad. The salary in Sri Lanka compared to developed countries to which they turn for jobs is around 1/10th. Even India and neighbouring countries pay their academics much better. So I can only agree that only those whom the modern world will term ‘cuckoo’ will opt to stay in universities and teach. Thus the pertinent question that society should ask is not how much a professor should be paid, but how much he or she should have to forego in order to remain in our universities.

‘Tuition Culture’ in Higher Education
Mr. Chandraprema observes that unlike officers at the Central Bank, university academics can supplement their incomes from consulting work. This is precisely the problem we face and not a solution he suggests it should be. Universities lose potential high caliber staff at graduation and then again become unsuccessful in retaining those they recruit after they qualify further.

Then the few that survive are distracted with heavy consulting, teaching at other universities and even responsibilities of Government posts. No leading international university encourages such activities. They would pay the professors adequate to get their best outputs in research and teaching which is what they are trained for leaving no reason to seek outside work other than for purely professional pursuit. Hence encouraging consulting and external work can be counter-productive.

However, what Mr. Chandraprema is suggesting is an interesting concept. It is exactly the course of action that led to the collapse of our school education and the formation of the Tuition Class Culture. When school systems were deprived of adequate resources and teachers were denied a respectable wage, then the school education standards dropped.

This began in the 1970s. With the supply for universities spaces also not expanding fast enough, the competition among students for qualifying with high grades at the GCE AL increased. Then some of the gifted teachers in schools found and exploited the ready-made tuition class market which has now become the dominant and determining market to compete for gaining university entry.

This is exactly what is being prescribed for universities also. If the current issues of the universities are not addressed, then staff in these established universities will be preoccupied with consultancies and led to work part time in the many mushrooming ‘universities’.

Six Percent
The problem of the 6% of GDP for education would not seem so ridiculous if Government had not allowed its spending to drop to as low as 1.9%. It was 5.2% in 1971 and 2.9% just as recent as 2005. It is correct to note that very few countries have achieved this 6%. Even fewer countries have sustained 6%. But every country that has achieved any form of status as a knowledge hub or centre of education provision has spent 6% of GDP at some point. Besides, none of them have fallen below 4 percent after that. If we search for a global percentage to set as a benchmark, the only figure we find is the UNESCO target of 6 percent.

What would be the case if academics asked for 4 percent? Would not Mr. Chandraprema accuse dons of short changing our potential of achieving the much acclaimed knowledge hub? Take the case of India, which invested only 2 percent on education in the 1970s when Sri Lanka invested 5.2%. But then while Sri Lanka has steadily neglected education spending, India kept raising it until they reached 4% in year 2000. Thereafter when Indian Government started neglecting it, civil society opposed and protested. In 2005, the governing UPA proclaimed the Common Minimum Program where they reversed the trend and are currently working towards a target of 6 percent.

Graduates and their Rate of Return
Unfortunately it seems that raising concern, dissent and protest on continuing cuts in education has been left to the university academics. Civil Society as well as the opposition political parties have been slow to take an initiative. The media has remained silent too. This is why the current trade union action may seem so ‘bizarre’ to Mr. Chandraprema. For once, academics are asking for something not just for themselves. The Government must not see this as an ‘opposition’ to its development program or its right to govern, but as strengthening of its hand to spend on education.

In an increasingly materialistic world, most Sri Lankans seem to think that carpeting a road brings better benefits than spending on universities. Especially since the media has successfully portrayed the universities as trouble spots and a waste of public spending. It may be revealing for the reader that research shows that an engineering graduate from the University of Moratuwa pays back the cost her university education in less than 3 years.
No other investment in Sri Lanka has such high rate of returns. It is not just engineering. I suspect many degree programs and even the often much aligned Arts degree would have similar returns, especially considering the minimal investment that is made.

Foreign Graduates
It was evident to all academics last year that the program hastily arranged by the Ministry of Higher Education to attract foreign students would surely fail. To begin with, there was no consultation with the respective Faculties or Senates. Three foreign students from the Middle East and Africa were admitted to the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Moratuwa by the UGC. After the first year exams they are currently placed 848th, 849th and 850th respectively in the batch of 850 students.

What standard was used for their admission by the Ministry and UGC is still not known to the Faculty. It is true that the local degree programs have the potential of attracting foreign students, but we would insist that such students should be at least as good as local students that enter. Many countries provide scholarships to attract top students to raise standards.

The Government has lost nearly USD 12,000 for each of these students in terms of the Rs 30,000 monthly allowance each is paid, full exemption of tuition and other fees applicable to foreign students (USD 8,000), free medical cover, hostel etc to fund students who have made it to the bottom of the batch.

To attract good students it is necessary to invest in the development of potential programs and then to market them accordingly. Mr. Chandraprema would have done himself a favour if he had investigated the status of the foreign students that have been admitted before praising the initiative of the Ministry. What is worse is that the Ministry seems to refuse to learn from its mistakes and has advertised again this year but imposing a restriction that a student who does not perform would lose the scholarship.
Such is the confidence that the Ministry has on the selection criteria it has developed to admit foreign students.

This is a perfect example of trial and error policies of education the universities and education in Sri Lanka are subjected to.

Dons as Destroyers
Dons have always eschewed violence and should not be termed as ‘destroyers’. But there are many myths and misconceptions about universities that do indeed need to be destroyed. First of these is that our universities produce only unemployable graduates. The so called unemployed graduates are mostly those who were employed at some stage and then opted to obtain external degrees and then begin to desire executive type jobs.

Second is the belief that universities are violent, disruptive and a student takes years to graduate from them. It is the government policy and planning or more precisely the lack of it that delays students entering universities.
Take for example the Z score crisis today. When students are sent to our universities by the UGC they are mostly 22 to 24 years of age. In most foreign countries they enter at 18 years and graduate by 21 or 22 years. In Sri Lanka the best years of a student are wasted between government exams and awaiting results and in repeating exams competing for limited spaces in universities.

These are matters of education policy and outside the influence of university academics. Students who enter universities are actually adults whose attitudes and behavior is already formed by the schools and society in general. It is often too late for universities to contribute towards their character formation. The violence students demonstrate at times is a reflection of what is happening in wider society.

The current situation the Police are faced with in maintaining law and order even in rural areas is ample illustration that this is not just a university issue but a wider social and governance issue.

Third, that the university academics are a self serving lot. It is correct that perhaps for too long that is what they have been. We academics should regret that we have allowed undelivered promises to keep us in cuckoo land for too long. But give the academics a little credit this time! They run the risk of not being paid during this time of trade union action. But every lecture they have refused to deliver during this period will be delivered and every exam will be held. Every student who is affected will graduate.

Academics usually forego their vacations, attending conferences, and even research just to ensure that the student loss is minimized. No academic would want to delay a student’s graduation even by a single day. However the question of protecting education as a whole seems to have now fallen on the shoulders of the academic community since the Government appears to be unconcerned.

A lesson from Margret Thatcher!
It is interesting that Mr. Chandraprema should refer to Margret Thatcher in his article. From what is known, her first job as a Minister was in Education where she cut many unproductive spending programs- famous among them was abolishing the milk program for older children that earned her the title ‘Margret Thatcher-Milk Snatcher’!

But despite her tough spending cuts, she maintained education spending at above 6 percent during her term from 1970 to 1974. Even during her period as UKs longest serving Prime Minister up to 1999, education spending never dropped below 5 percent of GDP. In fact Mr. Chandraprema may well draw the attention of the Government to learn from Ms Thatcher on how much she protected the future of UK by ensuring that its education and higher education system remained world class through the process of privatization she introduced.

Higher Education should be reformed
It is obvious that reforms in higher education are urgently required. Such reforms must be centered on ensuring that both State and private sector can compete, complement and develop holistically in providing quality programs for more students.

The current plan of the Government, if it has one to show, seems to be ill founded. It only reminds us of the botched effort during the late 1980s and in the 1990s of solving the transport problem by introducing private buses. The Government at that time blindly following some of Thatcher’s initiatives in the UK began dismantling the State bus system by allowing a poorly regulated private sector to enter the market.

Today neither of the two provides a quality service. It clearly illustrates that when reforms are short sighted and built on improper policies, the damage cannot be put right for generations.

While creating more places for students must be commended and encouraged, as a country we need to keep out institutions that are bent on giving just a degree instead of an education. Today there is much emphasis on language and IT skills. These are just the icing of university education.

Developing an appreciation for society and culture, rationality and argument, literature review and research, team work and leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship are core components that need to be inculcated in the future generation. How much these programs will be regulated towards this end remains to be seen.
Academics are Allies not Enemies

The Government must consider the university dons to be their allies and not their enemies. It must stop portraying all academics as being politically motivated or as Mr. Chandraprema attempts to portray as being stupid and intent on destruction! Even if the Government cannot agree to 6 percent, all it should do as a first step is to agree that 6 percent is a desirable target and make a commitment towards it.

After all, India and many other countries have done so. When we who have always congratulated ourselves as having the best levels of literacy and education among our South Asian neighbors, ask for 6 percent, we are told that it is the ‘call of the cuckoo’.

It is acknowledged that it is the Government’s prerogative to develop the economy as it seems best as those elected for that purpose. Hence its decision of spending more on highways or tourism or on industry may not be questioned by academics. However, academics can observe many instances of waste that arises in government programs which can be curbed with better fiscal discipline. Education which is a long term investment should not be the sector that has to suffer the cuts in this process.

Take for example, the current fall out of the hedging deal! The amount of USD 162 million which the CPC is being asked to pay, could have produced 27,000 engineers!! This is just one instance of incompetency and misguided priorities.

Salaries- just the tip of the Iceberg
 In the trade union action of academics, salaries are only the top of the iceberg of demands. The demands raise underfunding, loss of autonomy and depleting human resources as major issues facing education in Sri Lanka. I do not recommend for the Government to follow Mr. Chandraprema’s advise that the President should ‘smash up’ trade unions as Ms Thatcher or the Iron lady did in UK. Protest has a reason. Government should not believe that smashing up dissent would make the problems go away.

This would be like the Government taking on the attitude of the captain of the RMS Titanic who believed it could smash up each and every iceberg. Worse still is for it to entrust education to personalities similar to Captain Edward Smith of whom it is reported that ‘as the scale of the impending disaster dawned on Smith, he became paralyzed by indecision. He did not issue a general order for evacuation, gave contradictory orders, and failed to inform senior officers of the ship’s perilous condition. He also did not supervise the evacuation or tell the officers that there were not enough lifeboats to save everyone aboard.
(Amal S. Kumarage is Senior Professor, Faculty of Engineering, University of Moratuwa)


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