Whither universities?

A Rs. 100 million fraud is reported from universities. According to the Auditor General’s reports, some unscrupulous university administrators, including dons, have helped themselves to public funds to the tune of this amount, which would otherwise have gone for student/teacher welfare and better educational facilities.

Of these frauds, a spokesman for the Ministry of Higher Education has said (The Island of June 8): "There has been no proper financial control in the system during the last few years and political appointees to the system had been allowed to swindle public funds at their will."

The universities are obviously over-politicised. They are sadly split along petty political lines. Political leanings have oftentimes been the criteria used in making appointments to high posts in universities. There has also been a glaring lack of financial control as well as accountability on the part of bigwigs at the seats of higher learning. As for the dons who are at fault, education has failed to have a restraining grip on their greed.

Although the frauds at issue should not be used to tarnish the image of universities and university teachers with a broad brush, it is ironical that these frauds have occurred under the nose of those who ride the moral high horse and pontificate to politicians on accountability, integrity etc.

How funds have been swindled on campuses is astonishing. Minister Kabeer Hashim quoted in our report has said that President Kumaratunga herself had once remarked at a meeting with vice chancellors that the financial [mis?]management in the universities during the last few years was ‘horrendous.’ If so, the question is why no special investigation was ordered into the matter previously.

The universities have come under twin threats. On the one hand, undergraduates are disrupting them with their frequent protests and clashes. And on the other, university administrators are lining their pockets. It is also said that many a don is preoccupied with private research and consultancies at the expense of work at universities.

While there are some innovative university dons trying to keep pace with the changing world by introducing new courses of study, encouraging research, updating teaching material and exposing students to new knowledge, they are in the minority. Their good work is getting mired in lethargy, indifference and mediocrity of others who control the destiny of universities.

The Minister has blamed the errant administrators for the on-going rumpus against fund cuts. These students, he has said, are being manipulated by those politically connected with the PA and the JVP to counter the efforts of the government to eliminate corruption in universities.

However, it is learnt that the government initially pruned the recurrent expenditure of universities by 25 per cent. And in response to resistance from various quarters, including students, a decision has now been taken to do away with the cut. Therefore it is difficult to reduce the on-going student protests to a mere campaign to help the corrupt administrators save their skin.

Similarly, while stern action against the corrupt officials is called for, the fact that universities are plagued with corruption should not be used to justify slapping fund cuts on them or a witch-hunt to remove from responsible positions all dons/administrators who have leanings with rival political parties so as replace them with those sympathetic to the ruling party.

Aid donors have been stepping up pressure on successive governments to introduce reforms to the university system.

A World Bank report (Report No. 17748 - CE), which reviews inter alia Sri Lanka’s higher education has chosen to call the country’s university system ‘restricted and weak.’ The report finds the university education ‘unresponsive to the needs of society and is critical of the selection for university admission. [This has been changed.] The report finds the system ‘inefficient in resource allocation...’ and says, "...university education is inefficiently financed as all admitted students receive free higher education irrespective of:

(1) Their financial need or willingness to pay

(2) The unit costs of the programme in which they are enrolled or

(3) Their need for subsidised residential accommodation.

The World Bank is of the view that ‘Most of these problems stem from the public sector monopoly over educational opportunity as well as centralised control over admissions and budgetary allocation irrespective of demand..."

The plans that the lending agencies have for Sri Lanka’s university system are clear from these concerns. The frauds in universities being exposed, the unruly behaviour of students, the lackadaisical attitude of teachers and the like only strengthen the position of those to whom free education is anathema.

Hence the need for the university teachers, students and all those concerned with the well-being of the university system to make a concerted effort to at least make universities free of corruption and disruption.

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