Personal Perspective
Reinventing Wheels

by Rajiva Wijesinha
Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and he bears a laden breast, Full of sad experience, moving towards the stillness of his rest (Tennyson)

The University Grants Commission conducted a workshop a few weeks back to introduce to universities the new aid programme it had arranged with the World Bank. About $ 40 million will be available during the next few years for what is termed Improvement of the Relevance and Quality of Undergraduate Education (IRQUE).

Some of the ideas underlying the Project are quite good and, after the absurdities the UGC had engaged in during the Project preparation period, I was pleased to find that management of the project had been entrusted to much more sensible outsiders. The lead role seemed to have been given to Yuvi Thangarajah, formerly Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the Eastern University. He had been a contemporary of the Minister at Peradeniya, and I believe he is both honest and efficient.

There were however a few problems about the Project which makes me feel that, despite young Yuvi’s idealism, this Project too will be a waste of money, just as the funds for project preparation were. Unfortunately, contrary to what members of the UGC seem to believe, these funds are not a grant but a loan, which future generations will have to repay.

Senaka Bandaranayake for instance, whose Standing Committee on Humanities was extremely critical recently of the protracted inaction of the UGC with regard to several of its initiatives, was encouraging us some months back to purchase the Linguaphone package to help with English teaching. He accepted that it was extremely expensive, but said that World Bank funds were available. When it was pointed out that the World Bank just loaned money that had to be repaid, he insisted that this particular aid programme was in the form of a grant. Now Senaka is of course one of the more innocent members of the UGC, so I presume this was a genuine mistake, but it was symptomatic of the lack of precision of those now responsible for university education.

And I fear that, unless he is firm, Yuvi too will seem to be a proponent of this pitiful culture. One of the most worrying aspects of the project for instance was that, in order to assess the quality of English teaching at universities, the benchmark should be the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

This is an American examination that is extremely expensive. Yuvi realized that the argument that project funds would be available to pay for this was not good enough, but he indicated he was helpless since this condition had been written into the project. Whether he will be strong enough to get it changed is a moot point, given that he will get no support from the bigwigs who have negotiated the deal.

Underlying this foolish commitment is, apart from general callousness, tremendous ignorance. I have realized in the last few months that one of the greatest problems in Sri Lanka is that every generation of authorities wants to reinvent the wheel, perhaps so they can gain credit for it. This means they fail to build on previous achievements.

With regard to English, under the previous UGC and Prof. Lalitha Mendis’ chairing of the English Language Standing Committee, a University Test of English was devised, with different inputs from different universities, that was intended to serve as a standard test for the whole system on TOEFL lines. Unfortunately, when the UGC was changed and the late Prof. Arulpragasam took over the English Committee, this was played down. And clearly it never occurred to him to find out, while IRQUE was being negotiated, what the Sri Lankan university system could offer. Instead he and his peers swallowed, hook, line and sinker, a provision that will ensure that lots of funds from the Project will go straight back to America. In the process an opportunity too to build capacity in Sri Lanka, by developing and administering a high level test, is squandered. And what should be a cardinal principal of projects now, that the funds should be recycled by being spent insofar as possible on local inputs, is quite forgotten.

Another sad example of ignoring the past could be seen in the suggestion, in the project documents distributed to us, that there had been no adequate analysis previously of unemployment amongst graduates. Now it could be argued that much more can be done on this, but it was misleading to ignore the many studies that have already been done. Recently for instance the former Statistician at the UGC, Dr. Kottachchi (unfortunately out of favour now perhaps because in her time the Universities Handbook also monitored Aid programmes, whereas there is now no transparency whatsoever about these) published an article in the Labour Gazette that looked at employment statistics of students from three faculties in four universities. While of course this was not comprehensive, it was very illuminating, while also providing a model for the logistics of at least some future studies. It also raised interesting issues about extra-academic reasons for student performance, which could be addressed if education were tackled comprehensively, rather than in the piecemeal fashion the present Project seemed to envisage.

That the UGC should ignore all this is typical. After all, if you begin from scratch, you can engage in all sorts of Study Tours to find out how to do what your predecessors had already started. Yuvi indeed mentioned study tours, and the document prepared by the Finance Ministry that records the Project Preparation Facilities for which expenditure has already been incurred makes prominent mention of the Study Tours. In a context in which university activities are to be closely monitored to ensure value for money one would have hoped that these Study Tours would also have been subject to similar scrutiny - but I somehow doubt it.

This point is relevant too to perhaps the most outrageous component of the Project thus far, namely the activity recorded by the Finance Ministry as ‘To promote comprehensive public awareness programme using Professional Firms’. This involved a contract given to a local television network. In fact I recall being approached, at extremely short notice, with regard to filming on our campus. What the focus of the programme was however did not seem clear to the young lady who approached me.

Yuvi indeed skated over the awareness raising aspect of the project, which is supposed to continue. Unfortunately there seems to have been no assessment of the impact of this programme, and certainly there was no transparency about the award of the contract or the guidelines on which the programme should have proceeded. I got the impression from him however that the same organization would get the next contract too.

Apart from all this being intrinsically wrong, it also sends out the wrong message. It is no wonder that the university community at large has no confidence in the present UGC or the Ministry. Unfortunately one of the few able civil servants with experience of the subject has now moved to another Ministry as its Secretary, which immeasurably lowers the professional awareness of those who are responsible for advising the Minister. Getting Yuvi to his side was obviously a step in the right direction, but there is a critical mass that has to be achieved before positive results will be possible. With the old guard still firmly in the saddle, I fear that Dr. Thangaraja, able and dedicated though he is, will not achieve very much.