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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

University education: Victim of the dysfunctional political system

Shamala Kumar
Reliable information suggests that the University of Peradeniya will receive a 30% cut in recurrent expenditure this year. Neither the promise to change salaries to those negotiated by FUTA last year nor the promises to include the academic community in forums that make policy decisions on higher education have materialized.
Instead, only 1.19% of GDP has been allocated for education; a paltry amount compared to the 6% of GDP recommended by FUTA upon analysis of allocations in other countries.

Along with cuts in resources, the ability of universities to make their own decisions is stifled. Funds for staff development that were previously disbursed by universities will now be held at the Ministry. The most recent version of the draft bill on higher education, which was temporarily shelves but likely to resurface in revised form in the future, moves authority away from academic bodies to entities that are heavily stacked with appointees of the Minister. These moves diminish further the constitutionally guaranteed autonomy of universities by diminishing the academic community’s role in decisions made in universities.

It is in this context that we must consider where resources are being placed. For instance, Rs 200 million is allocated for the army camp based ‘leadership’ programmes for incoming students and the few millions to be spent through the Higher Education for the Twenty First Century project (HETC, funded through World Bank loans) for English, ICT, soft skills and ethnic cohesion. Most recently the Ministry signed a legally questionable MoU with CIMA to provide supplementary training to university students within university premises. Although students will enjoy a discounted price from CIMA, the resource-starved universities will subsidize CIMA with free space and other infrastructure facilities. Inexplicably, CIMA will be further supported by government funds through HETC!

These recent events suggest the Ministry of Higher Education and Universities have misconceived notions of their mandates – mandates that go far beyond that of finishing schools or locations for supplementary training. They have also forgotten what higher education is about. No longer is higher education seen as a system that strengthens democracy, justice and opportunity, but as merely a means for national development or as something belonging solely to individuals. From the perspective of national development, education is viewed narrowly as no more than a commodity, similar to tea. Just as ‘value is added’ to tea, education ‘adds value’ to human resources.

At the individual level, education is relegated to our personal spheres, where the attainment of education is a matter of personal choice and innate ability. Those receiving education are seen as commendable and those who are not are blamed for either having misplaced priorities or being incapable. In other words, the individual’s relationship with education is seen independent of his or her context. The lack of resources, disparities in political and financial power and structural inequalities are ignored and the fault of a lack of education is made that of the individual not that of the State and society. This manner of conceiving education neither help deal with the serious limitations of access to education in the current system nor the manner in which the current system actually inhibits the freedom of the students and the staff in the State universities. Instead it perpetuates the myth that education is a private good for which the State’s only stake is utilitarian.

These perceptions are not restricted to the Ministry of Higher Education, but are found across the globe. However, unlike in the era of the Kannangara reforms when Sri Lanka had the strength to push for a visionary educational system, the State is today blindly embracing these unnecessarily narrow ideas of education. This is evident even in a public statement made by a particular teachers’ union. Why, they ask, do we resist these changes, when these policies are no different to those of other countries? It was not such shallow thinking that created the system of education in Sri Lanka, which, although with problems, is an international success story. It is certainly not what contributed to the national indicators of ‘development’ similar to those of wealthier nations. Our present system gives unprecedented access to education to women and other disadvantaged groups and resulted in populations with literacy levels far higher than those of most South Asian countries. Universities support more than the students and employees of universities. They provide expertise to virtually every sector in Sri Lanka from agriculture to health care, from the performing arts to industry. Therefore, this system needs to be strengthened, not just preserved, if Sri Lanka is committed to developing into a healthy, vibrant society.

The recent changes in policies and procedures on higher education will also tighten the Minister’s grip over universities and make the University system weaker through further cuts to funding and restrictions on the universities’ capacity to make autonomous decisions. As universities lose their autonomy, political appointees, who are sometimes academics, have taken on these decision making roles. Handing over these tasks to such compromised individuals, who have little opportunity for independent decisions, is already proving to be disastrous. Even today the Councils of universities, the highest university-level bodies, lack the capacity to make decisions based solely for the interests of universities and the general public because they are heavily stacked with ‘connections’ to the Government. Vice Chancellors do not seem to survive unless they become political stooges. Their appointments are political games in which their abilities are less relevant than who they are friends with. Those Vice Chancellors who show independent thinking are dealt with swiftly. Through changes to the University Act affected through the draft higher education bill and through changes to procedures that override the legislated rights of universities, the assault on universities will continue further.

It is easy to prescribe blame on what is happening to the Minister. Visions form in my mind of The Embodiment of Evil (conjure a villain of some sort, now transpose The Minister) clasping his hands and sinisterly laughing asking himself, “What horror shall I invoke next?”. Such visions, however, are both dangerous and unfair. They are dangerous because they label those we disagree with as evil – or as villains or even terrorists for that matter, and prevent further analysis. Labels avert examinations of how or why the Minister benefits, or how the social, political, and economic context facilitates his actions, or how we, as academics, are to blame for allowing his actions. These images are also unfair because the Minister is himself simply part of a larger worldview that prescribes this particular narrow conception of education; one which restricts it to a private good and limits its national implications to its contribution to national development. He is also part of a largely dysfunctional political system. What is happening in higher education is no different to what is happening or has already happened in other sectors in Sri Lanka. It is perhaps for this reason that we should care most for what is going on.

Last year an individual high up in the ranks of the administrative system of universities described universities as the ‘last uncleared areas’. He meant the non-democratic process of engagement by the student body in general and the student unions specifically that results in ragging and intimidation of other students. These problems clearly need to be addressed and the fact that they continue unchanged is an indictment of us all. However, equally dangerous are assertions that these ‘uncleared areas’ should be cleared using intimidation by the State – the entity responsible for protecting everyone’s democratic rights, even those of undemocratic students. Perhaps universities are uncleared also because they are the remnants of a disappearing tradition, disappearing from universities as well, of engagement in the democratic process and of belief in the public’s right to resist and to have their voices heard. Keeping universities uncleared, in this latter sense, and strong and independent may be an alternative and better route to the reconstruction that the government is working towards. It is a means through which successive governments can continue to boast of the quality of life of the Sri Lankan public, much as the present government does today.

Shamala Kumar is attached to the Department of Agricultural Economics and Business Management, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya.



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