Business Times

India setting up 1,500 universities, China creates one every week

By Quintus Perera

University dons are concerned that some business people (members of trade chambers) who do not have any academic background are part of the decision-making process on higher education reforms.
Prof S. Sandarasegaram, Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Colombo who is expected to retire this week after more than three decades as an educationist expressed these thoughts while analysing the presentation made by Dr Harsha Athurupana, Lead Education Specialist,World Bank Human Development Network to discuss opportunities and challenges facing Sri Lanka.

The presentation and discussion on “Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century (HETC): Assisting Sri Lanka to Meet Global Challenges, organized by the World Bank in collaboration with Marga Institute, took place last week at the BMICH with Nimal Gunatilleke, Marga Institute as moderator and several academia and civil society groups participating.

The World Bank is supporting Sri Lanka through a US$ 40 million project HETC to enhance the capacity of the higher education system, institutions and human resources to deliver quality higher education services in line with the economic and social development needs of Sri Lanka.

Prof Sandarasegaram participating in the discussion that came more or less as remarks indicated that in educational reforms forums he comes across smartly dressed personalities but when inquired about their professions he has found that they lacked any academic background that is essential to discuss higher educational reforms.

He said that the reason for this new phenomena could be attributed to the fact that the private sector provides 35% employment whereas only 15% is provided by the public sector. Thus he said their comments too may be needed.

World Bank in its ‘Towers of Learning in Sri Lanka’ details the recommendations and approach to further improve higher education to produce world class graduates in Sri Lanka and indicated that the higher education system should inspire the country’s values, ethics and social institutions so that Sri Lanka becomes celebrated as an enlightened and peaceful multi-ethnic,multi-religious and multi-cultural society.

The WB assessment indicated that Sri Lanka's future in the global knowledge economy of the 21st century depends critically on the country's intellectual and human capital - to think and act creatively, work industriously and productively, and innovate and adapt available technologies to strengthen economic activities is cardinally important in the modern world.

It recommends international comparison in the higher education enrollment and the pool of secondary education graduates. The overall gross enrollment rate (GER) in higher education of about 21 % of the relevant age group puts Sri Lanka ahead of the South Asia region.

The WB assessment indicated that the quality of higher education is perceived to be unsatisfactory in the public discourse and the media. International experience suggests that all rapidly increasing systems of higher education do lose their initial level of quality, which they tend to recover once the system stabilizes and Sri Lanka is at the transition stage.

It indicated that Sri Lanka has recently produced several important policy documents that should influence the future direction of the higher education sector: such as increasing access by enabling more choices in courses and modes of learning for all prospective students; enhancing quality and upgrade standards with emphasis on employability and to cope with national developmental needs and global competitiveness; fostering a culture of scholarship and research; and ensuring accountability, sound performance and financial sustainability. It indicated that in terms of demographic profile, Sri Lanka is still a relatively young country with over 43 percent of the population below 25 years and is conducive to rapid economic development, if socio-economic policies are in place.

Dr Athurupana in his analytical approach discussed the challenges and diversification of provision to improve quality, enhance economic and social relevance and strengthening governance and service delivery.

In institutionalizing norms for higher education he indicated that human resources development of academic and managerial staff of the higher education institutions is important. Quality of teaching and learning should be promoted to strengthen the alternative higher education sector. Prof Sandarasegaram dwelling upon the discussion praised Dr Athurupana for identifying the challenges and the interest shown by the World Bank in the annals of developing and improving higher education in Sri Lanka.

He said that there is an increasing realization of development of higher education emerging in a knowledge economy and industrial and agricultural economy. He said that though Sri Lanka has the other resources like labour, land and entrepreneurship, the other most important factor of high quality higher education is somewhat lacking.

He was critical of the quality of the academia and said that out of 4,000 academic staff in universities only 35% are lecturers. He said that transformation of these staff to high quality is the most important priority and drawing inferences from China and India – neighbours of Sri Lanka - noted that they are going very far to establish world-class universities and are offering incentives where their nationals working abroad come back. He said that India is to set up 1,500 universities and China is to establish one university every week.

He said that the salary structure and other perks are very poor for university academic staff in Sri Lanka that would not attract even locals. He said the salary of Sri Lankan academia is between US $ 300 to 600.

He said that to enhance the quality of the academic staff they should be encouraged to obtain PhDs and said that in 1960s with their salary of one month they could study and obtain a PhD and said that in this instance Dr Athurupana’s suggestions are timely. He said that reference was made to assist the deprived regions like North and East, Central regions and Estate Sector where there are gaps in higher education.

He was one of the very few who came from the Estate Sector and said that the higher education sphere is appalling where out of 70,000 students only 300 had gained university entrance and only three professors out of which he is one of them and they are all retiring reaching the age limit. The discussion was live and some of the university dons cast serious concern that the university education is somewhat losing its spirit. It reflected the agitation and despair that universities are losing democratization in to an emerging politicization.

Dr Ms Deepika Udagama, a top law teacher, making some comments said that the WB project is a very important catalyst. She said that the project is more to raise infrastructure and equipment and better library resources. The other is the quality assurance and accreditation process which is extremely useful’
She said to get university lecturers sabbatical leave approval to do their PhDs abroad by the Prime Minister is nothing but ‘idiotic’ and is absurd that they have to wait for months to obtain this approval. She said that in this process one lecturer lost his job.

She said that academic freedom is eclipsing out of the university system. She said that vice chancellors are appointed on political recommendations and in fact some of the vice chancellors indicated that they are executing political decisions as they are political appointees.

She said that there should some legal framework to appoint vice chancellors to the universities. She said that certain academic staff move out of the universities for a lesser salary, those who value their independence. Some 80% of their value time goes with the bureaucracy and they have to be at the mercy of the bureaucracy.

Prof L. Ratnayake from the Moratuwa University suggested a differentiation of salary system for university academic staff as equal salaries are obtained by all in their respective grades irrespective of their academic qualifications.

He said that Moratuwa University and Uva Wellassa University wished to obtain their funds directly from the Treasury rather than through the University Grants Commission.

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