A must-read for our readers keen on seeing the country develop sans politicisation and a corrupt system, is the feature on this page on universities by a retired public servant. Consider his point: “Sri Lanka has failed to keep pace with global trends and challenges, and be responsive to local needs. The nation has invested [...]


The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Universities, research and public good


A must-read for our readers keen on seeing the country develop sans politicisation and a corrupt system, is the feature on this page on universities by a retired public servant.

Consider his point:

“Sri Lanka has failed to keep pace with global trends and challenges, and be responsive to local needs. The nation has invested heavily and pinned high hopes on education, especially at the university level. The dream of many children and parents irrespective of their social class, economic profile and location is the “University”. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Higher Education is not happy; the University Grants Commission is not happy; University staff, both academic and non-academic, are not happy; Industry is not happy; Parents are not happy; Under-graduates are not happy; and Graduates are not happy. There is hardly anyone who is happy about the outcome of the university education system.”

His entire analysis is based on the fact that the university system has the cream of Sri Lankan brains, innovations and ideas but we are not using it productively. Either the universities are reluctant to share their data and research with the public or Government institutions are clueless about what research is vitally important for public good on a commercial scale or otherwise. Public institutions, on the other hand, he says, are guilty of not tapping universities for research that may provide the next biggest breakthrough to develop the country further on its own steam, rather than on borrowed, foreign ideas.

The writer, Chandrasena Maliyadde is a typical village boy who entered university, joined the public service (the choice of the day), and in his retirement has taken up writing on a prolific scale to bring home ideas for the country’s development that need support, engagement and debate. His analysis of the university system, the failure to resort to high-level research and even if they do, not share it with the public, is an eye-opener to the entire Sri Lanka society and one hopes it would stimulate debate. His email address is given or you could write to the Business Editor – bt@sundaytimes.wnl.lk. The Business Times/Research Consultancy Bureau’s joint public polls on various issues also deals with some of these topics of a rich Sri Lankan nation, bursting with ideas, innovation and creation but lacking in the final stage of transforming that to a real product. Very much like the Sri Lankan cricket team now popularly referred to as ‘chokers’ which means that they reach finals on a regular basis at key tournaments but fail to win or get ‘choked’ with emotion, excitement and anxiety, and, at the end throw away their wickets, bowl too many wides or drop the silliest of catches! Let’s see them proving us wrong today (Sunday) at the ICC final!

On the positive side, there is another story featured on Page 4 where a breakthrough by the Institute of Fundamental Studies (IFS) in soil conservation has transformed to a successful commercial product. This is where linkages between universities, research agencies, the private sector and the public can help for public good.

As Maliyadde says “universities should conduct practical research which addresses the societal/industry needs; and advice and express critical, professional unbiased views on national issues”.

Unbiased views may not be possible in the context of a recent, controversial proposal where Government funding has increased for research allowances in universities but with a stipulated non-negotiable condition: that such research should be in line with the Government’s development policies! The proposed new rule, exclusively reported in the Business Times, two weeks back, takes away the independence of universities (not that the universities are independent anymore with vice chancellors dancing to the tune of the regime), which has been enshrined during British colonial times. Take that ‘complete’ independence away and you are looking at a system that will produce a set of robots (with military-disciplined, pre-entry training) and no creativity.

Universities and research institutions, as Maliyadde points out, provides the cream of the country’s talent to come up with ideas, creativity and innovation to make this country a model in Asia. While the 30-year conflict (since 1983) ruined the chances of the country becoming Asia’s next financial hub (former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel’s dream project) and devastated any future, the one single advantage Sri Lanka, with new technology, has is the luxury to leapfrog the technological developments over the past three decades, some which succeeded and some which failed, into a new era of learning from other countries’ failures, particularly on environmentally-friendly development, climate-change concerns and a corrupt-less regime (the failure of many societies). One example; moving away from mass-market tourism to niche, environmentally friendly, boutique or small hotels in which ecology plays a key role.

Universities and research agencies must also share the blame for a research-less, based development structure. Sri Lankan scientists have a weakness in that they undertake research (often valuable and problem-solving) for a PhD programme or a class exercise and the results often end up in a computer data base, or many years ago, in a file in a cupboard. Chandrika Kumaratunga, when she was the Chief Minister of the Western Province, once wrote to the CISIR (now ITI) and wanted details and studies of research that have been done. There was either no reply or she didn’t get what she wanted, eventually pointing out at a public ceremony where awards were being granted for creative and innovative products, that the country’s entire solutions might be lying in a cupboard full of research that has not been disseminated!

In this context, the efforts of Deepal Sooriyarachchi, Commissioner at the Sri Lanka Inventors Commission must be highly commended for his progressive work in bridging the gap between young inventors/creators, and the private sector to providing funding to further enhance the creation to a commercial product, or invest in the product itself for public good. These men of standing and forward-thinking are the visionaries of today that need the highest level of state recognition.

Finally, based on Maliyadde’s detailed analysis, one striking suggestion emerges: the need to set up a think-tank and bring together all these universities, research agencies (even the Tea Research Institute and the Coconut Research Institute), public institutions, and also the chambers as a coordinating body. Such an institution, that should operate as an independent body (with little or no Government interference except to create the space and clear bureaucratic hurdles) can bring the research together, suggest new areas of research and create a vibrant and rich discourse on research that will be transformed for the benefit of society. It’s doable!

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