|Universities - the Pet Subject
By a special correspondent
One day towards the end of May, 2002 witnessed the President summoning a meeting of those responsible for running our one dozen universities, the senior academics who are the Vice Chancellors and Deans of these institutions of higher learning, to convey to them an important message. The message contained such observations as: "Sri Lanka is twenty years behind in matters of higher education"; "The methods adopted in managing education and delivering education are not up to standard"; "There is much wastage and better monitoring is necessary".
The adjective "horrendous" was used to typify the situation in these institutions. The universities were asked to get down to the task of preparing "corporate plans", each university doing its own and the President herself would come and assist in the process. As an immediate necessity the universities were asked to get together and set up a "Publications Bureau" and "I shall provide the money" was the promise.
We can be certain that some of those present were highly impressed and went back happy with the words of wisdom thus proffered along with the rosy picture of a future University Publications Bureau which will come into being the moment they prepare a blue-print and present it at the gates of the presidential palace.
Be that as it may, anyone who has been conversant with the university system in this country during the last 15 - 20 years cannot but treat this whole episode with amusement if not cynicism. First of all, what was this same president doing with this "pet subject" (to quote her own words) during the last seven years, when she had all legislative and executive powers at her command, to update the university system lagging behind 20 years? What was the special reason to wait till the government changed to utter these words of wisdom and to make these rosy promises? Furthermore, hasnt the university system been run all this time with her own appointees in the UGC, and still being run by them?
Those in the university circles know that the "corporate plans" the president has been talking about have already been prepared, and that as early as the year 2000 with regard to universities like Peradeniya. What a lot of people dont know is that the epithet "corporate plan" refers to a lot of humbug. A great deal of time, energy and money is spent, for work-shops, committee meetings, etc. etc. by some people for whom this has become a means of justifying their existence in high posts without accomplishing anything concrete, and a document is prepared with great fanfare and is forgotten soon after. The "planners" then take up some other issue and go through the same process of talking and filling papers.
Now, as for the so called corporate plans prepared some time back, the same people will have a field day once again because the great lady has given them the mandate to have another go! We can be certain that her appointees at the UGC and the Universities will have a wonderful time during the next few months drawing up a fresh set of "corporate plans".
As for the promise to provide monies for the setting up of a University Press let us for the moment keep our fingers crossed. This is a president who promised for the Peradeniya University a brand new Conference Hall way back in 1999, even going to the extent of including it in the Budget Speech, which our good Professor G. L. Pieris (as Deputy Minister) read out in Parliament and got printed in the Hansard as well. Not a red cent has been provided so far and those in Peradeniya, among whom no doubt were many, including Professor B. R. R. N. Mendis, then Dean/ Dental Faculty and now the UGC Chairman, and Professor Leslie Gunawardene, the then Vice Chancellor who later became an Appointed MP and Cabinet Minister of the PA government, who wholeheartedly believed that the money was forthcoming.
Like the proverbial Nariyas walking with great expectations behind the well- built ox with large assets they were to be utterly disillusioned in the end. Now the lady is no longer the Finance Minister everybody better forget about the Conference Hall. That is why I say that many of us remain sceptical if not cynical about these pontifications and promises on "the pet-subject".
A week or so after the great meeting with the University Dons, the President writes, of course with copies to the newspapers, to the New Minister of Finance, asking him to give increased grants to the Universities. This is no doubt a laudable step and if increased funding is forthcoming all concerned about higher education will welcome it with open arms. But let us take stock of what has been happening in the universities as far as financial management is concerned. I mentioned earlier how the President promised some 50 Million Rupees for a Conference Hall in Peradeniya University and the money never came. The fall out of this "false promise" was not innocuous as some would imagine. Going on the promise the University authorities, led by the then Vice Chancellor (who later became a PA cabinet member), proceeded to have grandiose plans drawn up for the new building complex.
A planning committee chaired by the Vice Chancellor went into action and enlisted the services of a firm of architects in Colombo. Meeting after meeting were held, sometimes the architects bringing with them High Tec computer equipment, projecting the envisaged creation onto screens, much to the glee of the dreaming audience of gullible dons. The end result of this venture into the unreal was the university being made to cough up half a million rupees as preliminary expenses. An expensive dream indeed and all thanks to the promises of a budgetary allocation!
The newspapers carried recently information about the spending spree indulged in by a certain minister of the PA government in re-furbishing his office.
The irony is that the common man is duped to believe that these are the champions of the working class as against the capitalists in the UNP. As one cynic has stated those who come to the capitalist dining table with "socialist" labels in their coat lapels would prove themselves to be the greediest of the lot. This lavishness with other peoples (the tax payers) money is obviously an endemic feature of some PA types.
Take for example what happened at Peradeniya in the refurbishing of the Senate Room under the Vice Chancellor who was subsequently rewarded by the PA by being appointed a Cabinet Minister. The Senate Building at Peradeniya was a special creation of the great architect Shirley De Alwis who planned, as is widely acclaimed, the most beautiful university campus in the whole world. Right in the center of this long building, raised on stone pillars, reminiscent of the classical architecture of
Anuradhapura, is the Senate Room. On the East are the Hantana mountains and on the West flows the River Mahaveli, the whole building, placed diagonally between the hills and the river, contains large five foot high windows, the windows occupying nearly 80 per cent of the wall space so that the cool breezes of the great valley of Gannoruva, Meevatura and Payingomuva would waft through. What happened in the "refurbishment" under the PA Vice Chancellor was a complete negation of those aesthetic concepts and the utilization of natures assets. Under his direction the Senate Room was converted into a dark room sans fresh air, with the windows made air-tight and draped with thick curtains Fresh air and the whole of the beautiful scenery were shut out for those sitting inside. It needed electric lighting at all times of the day and, to cool up the newly-created furnace, air-conditioning apparatus costing millions were installed. The solid oak, teak and satinwood furniture which was part and parcel of the history of this oldest of our universities was replaced by chairs and tables of cheap wood ( but of much expense) which very soon started cracking and crumbling.
Also, a new sound system was installed, for which, it was said, double expenses were incurred due to bad planning. The whole bill came to nearly rupees seven million. (As is common knowledge, new building and new apparatus mean "commissions" which go into someones pockets) In the Senate Room refurbishment, apart from the loss of history, which any university should try to preserve, there were other more concrete losses, such as, the loss of good timber, all imported Burma Teak and the removal of the beautifully carved doorways which adorned the old entrances to the adjoining rooms. The funny thing is that no notice was taken by the governing body, the University Council, even when a couple of academics protested about this wanton waste and destruction of a national treasure.
As an aside it needs be said that the Minister of Tertiary Education was very correct in dissolving this Council, packed as it was by people who even acquiesced in the Vice Chancellors attempts to bring disciplinary action against who used their democratic right of protest against misuse of public funds. (That did not take place, obviously for fear of drawing public attention to what was happening.) How can we be talking of "civil society" whereby democracy and peoples rights are to be preserved and this happens in a hallowed seat of higher learning, full of "educated" people, and nobody is held responsible?.
To come back to the matter at hand, what needs emphasis is that the universities should be asked to account for some of the unnecessary expenses they have incurred before fresh funds are allocated to them. More specifically, the Minister of Finance should institute an inquiry into the financial management of the universities, especially Peradeniya, during the last seven years before he decides on the Presidents directive.
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