Midweek Review

The end of university education
The following is the convocation address by Nimal Sanderatne, Chancellor of the University of Wayamba held at the university recently.

I wish to share with you some of my ideas on university education. What is the end of university education? What are the objectives and purposes of university education? I do not intend to answer this question in the mould of classical or traditional concepts that viewed university education as an end in itself and as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. However noble and lofty those ideas were in the past they are not altogether tenable in the modern world and particularly in a poor society as ours.

Nonetheless one cannot discard those ideas totally. There is a need to adapt and transform the traditional ideas of university education to be relevant and practicable in the socio-economic environment of the country and the world one lives in. The lofty ideas must be merged with ground realities. We must imbibe the best of the classical concepts of university education and fuse these with the economic and social realities of our time and place.

Classical concepts of university education

The classical vision of university education has a permanent value and relevance for us. It was based on the notion that knowledge should be pursued for its own sake. Cardinal Newman was perhaps the best exponent of these concepts. In his well known treatise The Idea of a University, he said:

"I am asked what is the end of University Education, and of the Liberal or Philosophical Knowledge which I conceive it to impart: …I answer… that Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward.… an object, in its own nature so really and undeniably good, as to be the compensation of a great deal of thought in the compassing, and a great deal of trouble in the attaining."

Newman argued that Knowledge is "not merely a means to something beyond it, or the preliminary of certain arts into which it naturally resolves, but an end sufficient to rest in and to pursue for its own sake…." Newman grants that knowledge may have its other uses, but the cardinal point he makes is that it has a value of its own.

The other important idea of his that has been at the foundation of university education is that all branches of knowledge are interconnected and useful and that the greater exposure to the various branches of knowledge is useful. He points out that:

"It is a great point then to enlarge the range of studies which a University professes, even for the sake of the students; and, though they cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be the gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle. This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called "Liberal". A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.

There are three fundamental concepts of university education espoused by Newman that have been the foundation of university education. They are the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the need for universities to capture the multi-disciplinary character of knowledge and that universities are a congregation of learned men interacting with each other.

A contemporary view

In my view a university education must equip a student in three fundamental ways. First, a university graduate must have an in-depth knowledge in the fields of study he or she opts to follow. The degree diploma that you carry home today is a certification that you have a good knowledge in a special field or areas of study. If you do not have that then a primary function of your university education has not been achieved. The outside world will not only be surprised about your state of knowledge, but it would also bring discredit to this university as a seat of learning.

A second and broader objective that you should have achieved is a quality of mind that approaches the world and what you see in a scientific manner. You should have developed a capacity to analyse problems and explain things in a systematic way. A spirit of enquiry, an attitude of questioning and a thirst for knowledge should have been generated by and through your university education. Your intellectual capacities should not be confined to your particular fields of study but be of broader interests and applicability. That is the stamp of a good university education.

Third, the acquisition of knowledge should have humbled you for you should know that you have only drunk shallow draughts in an endless and ever increasing fountain of knowledge. This in turn should lead you to be greedy for more knowledge and continue to pursue knowledge in various fields. Your abilities should have been enhanced, your qualities of leadership developed, your capacity to work in a team enhanced and your desire to improve the society you live in kindled. Your university education should have developed your personality to the fullest extent. Besides the knowledge you have imbibed you should have developed a rounded personality and human characteristics that make you especially useful members of society. Honesty and integrity, so lacking in our society, should be fundamental principles guiding your life and work.

These attributes have been very effectively captured by Prof. Senake Bandaranayke in his book The University of the Future and the Culture of Learning. He says:

"The principal objectives of university education should be to develop the intellectual personality of the student while also, at the same time, equipping him or her with professional and academic skills. Analytical and creative ability, the free flow of ideas, adaptability, the ability to work in teams – these are the modern qualities that we must nurture.

At the heart of our cultural traditions, both in the past and today is ‘a thirst for knowledge’ and ‘a respect for learning’. These are extremely important values, which we must nurture, but we also need to push them forward. Knowledge is not just the gathering of information, the accumulation of data – it is the analytical and creative deployment of well-informed minds. Our graduates must be critical and compassionate thinkers, with sound social values, adaptability, professionalism, specialised skills, managerial and leadership capabilities. You should be able to understand and interpret for yourselves what this means and whether you can measure up to this.

While the free flow of ideas and the freedom of the mind are essential prerequisites of productive intellectual effort, discipline, order, organisation and professionalism, are also vital components of the intellectual process."

Only some of these objectives of a university education can be achieved by formal lectures, tests and examinations. Sometimes these requirements that students must fulfil may be counter productive towards achieving the broader goals of a university education. These goals have to be achieved through other activities. Faculty-student interactions, student-student interactions, student activities, exposure to plays, films, outside speakers and sports are some activities that could go a long way to achieve these broader objectives.

There is a well-known phrase that when you pass through the corridors of a university you imbibe an education. The cultural milieu that a university possesses should have a lasting impact on you. This same concept is captured in B.F. Skinner’s definition that "education is what survives when what you have learnt has been forgotten."

Limitations and constraints

Do our universities have a sufficient mass of such activity to provide such an education? Are most students confined to their classrooms, lectures and examinations? Unfortunately I have grave doubts that our universities, even the older ones, have succeeded in developing a hospitable environment to provide an all-inclusive education. Even our older universities appear to have slipped from their earlier attainments of such a broad education.

There are many explanations that have been offered for this. The excessive preoccupation with narrow examination preparation that begins in early school education; the intensive systems of learning that universities have adopted through the semester system and continuous evaluation; the preoccupation with employability that makes many students follow professional courses while at university; student unrest and frequent closure of universities; poor living conditions and inadequate facilities in universities are among the reasons adduced. There is much truth in each of these assertions. We must strive to remove these constraints.

Several constraints appear to stultify the attainments of these goals. We often excuse ourselves for our not attaining the desired goals in terms of resource constraints. There can be no doubt that university education in Sri Lanka faces considerable constraints of resources—financial and human. Being a poor society we will continue to face these. The challenge before us is to accept the limitation in the resources we have and utilise what we have in the most effective manner.

Many of the constraints are created by us: they are sociological and cultural. University teachers, the university administration and students are responsible for these. The attainments of these goals require the concerted action of the faculty, the university administration and of students.

The creation of an intellectual and cultural environment in a university requires quality members on the faculty who themselves possesses the attributes that I have mentioned earlier. They have to be committed and devoted to the tasks before them to mould the generations to follow. Teachers must get their satisfaction from success in their teaching, from the achievements of their research and from their continuous search after knowledge. The need for continuous research was succinctly captured centuries ago by Kalidasa, the classical Indian poet:

If a professor thinks what matters most

Is to have gained an academic post

Where he can earn a livelihood,

And then neglect research,

Let controversy rest,

He’s but a petty tradesman at best,

Selling retail the work of other men.

It is also essential that we teachers abandon what I call the Brahamanic tradition of thinking that the teacher knows all and therefore the students must listen and reproduce what they have heard. This is a deadening approach to education; a stultification of the spirit of enquiry; the very anti-thesis of what university education must be.

An example from the early days at the University of Ceylon illustrates the idea of intellectual free thinking. At that time tutorials were an important component of university education. Professor Marrs, a British political scientist, would say of a certain student’s tutorial: "I disagree with every word you have written, but I give you an A plus plus". The student was Lakshman Wickremasinghe, who gained a first class in Economics and later became the Bishop of Kurunegala.

We teachers must not only teach but learn from students. We must encourage them to ask questions and challenge what we say. A bad question is worth a hundred good ones for they test your ability to justify the conventional wisdom and sometimes to change the paradigm.

Prof. E. F. C. Ludowyk, the first Sri Lankan Professor of English at the University of Ceylon, dedicated his book Understanding Shakespeare, published by the Cambridge University Press, to the students of the University of Peradeniya who helped him to understand Shakespeare better. He said, "I am conscious of all I learnt from classes in Ceylon in the twenty-five years of trying to understand Shakespeare there."

The search after truth is an endless journey. It is by the constant winnowing and sifting of ideas that we can further our journey to arrive at the truth. Teachers and students have an interactive role to play in this. Jacob Newsner, an American educationalist, speaking at the commencement (the American word for convocation) of a university, invoked students to "Demand of your teachers and yourself not merely information but a way of learning that you can use everyday for the rest of your life."

Our university education has addressed the need for multi-disciplinary approaches inadequately. There has been some progress in introducing additional skills such as information technology, communication methods and similar ancillary capabilities. Nevertheless, we continue to have a university education that is compartmentalised and specialised with little exposure to other fields of study than one’s own. This weakness has been highlighted by Prof. Senaka Bandaranayake, a former Vice-Chancellor of the Kelaniya University, in his book the University of the Future and the Culture of Learning in these compelling words:

"In practice in our university system there is little recognition of the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge, or of the importance of marginality and hybridity. We ignore the fact that creative originality always lies on the borders rather than in the centre of a subject. In our attempt to ensure transparency and equality in our recruiting system, and in the insistence on the relatively closed nature of curriculum divisions and the rigid application of the concept of specialization, we have inhibited the development of creative originality and perhaps positively encouraged the levelling trowel of ‘adequate mediocrity’ in the pursuit of knowledge."

The students in a university have many roles to play to further their education, I can only mention some. I have already alluded to their task of questioning their teachers. This is not all, for it is by their own activities of interaction with their fellow students, the organisation of lectures from both within and outside the university in various fields of human activity, debates and seminars, films of value, drama and music as well as sports that transforms a university from the status of a tutory to a full fledged university so that the student personality could be developed to the fullest.

There is a fear psychosis in some of our universities that prevents the blossoming of free student activity. The violence that encompasses our university environments and obstructs many formal as well as social and cultural activities is unacceptable. Unless these outbursts of violence are eliminated the development of student activities that contribute to the broader concepts of university education will continue to be stifled.

The administration of a university plays an important part in the proper functioning of a university. One of the tenacious links in our university system is their weak administration. There appears to be an unnecessary divide between the academic staff and the administrative staff, the latter misunderstanding the much different tasks of the faculty and the manner in which they fulfil these. I may not be incorrect in saying that the non-academic staff has an inferiority complex for which the academic staff may be partly responsible. The methods of recruitment, promotion and management efficiencies require to be reformed, if the objectives and aims of university education are to be fulfilled. An efficient university administration is essential for ensuring a good university education.

There is a fear of reform in the country, not confined to university education alone, that manifests as protests of all sorts. It pervades all areas of economic and social activity. The end result of this is to make us a society left behind in a rapidly changing world. Nevertheless, despite this unfavourable climate, much progress has been made in the field of university education by the actions of the University Grants Commission and by the efforts of faculties of universities. Had the mindset on reform been different, the achievements in transforming and improving university education would have been greater.

Concluding observations

In the context of what I have said it is pertinent to observe that the recent expansion of university education, particularly in the regions, has raised eyebrows among some. One is reminded of the observation of the British Governor West Ridgeway in 1903 with respect to the establishment of a university in Ceylon. He said: "The country cannot afford to have a good university and we are better off without an indifferent one." This same sentiment prevails now as then.

I would not deny that there are reasons for such scepticism about expanding university education. There are financial constraints, difficulties in obtaining and retaining a good faculty and there is the overriding concern about finding employment for the passing out graduates. All these are real concerns and yet, it must be remembered that the country has one of the lowest proportions of university students in the world. And that too in a country that has over 90 percent adult literacy.

When designing the courses of the Wyamba University, employability was given a high priority. We tried to design courses of study that were akin to those of professional bodies within the framework of an academic programme that did not compromise on the broader objectives of a university education. I think we succeeded in the design of the courses, but did not realise the impracticability of implementing these as there were shortages of persons suitably qualified to teach such courses. University salaries and lecture fees for visiting faculty, rules and regulations of the university system and the location of the university were not propitious for finding the correct teachers to implement the new courses of study. Nevertheless I am told that some progress has been made in several faculties of the university.

Let me ask the young men and women who are graduating today and entering the wide world armed with their degrees: Are you going forth into the world with confidence and courage that the education you have received at this university has equipped you to face the world? Are you diffident to enter the world of employment? Has your university education been useful and is it adaptable to the varied conditions you will encounter? After all the end of education is to prepare you for life. Much of the answer to these questions would depend on what the university has taught you, not merely in the courses you followed, but also in the intellectual and academic environment that you had at this university.

Let me conclude with the inspiring words of John Masefield that I hope all of you graduates will concur with, cherish and remember.

"There are few things more beautiful than a University.

It is a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know,

where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see,

where seekers and learners alike, (are) banded together in the search for knowledge.

There are few things more enduring than a University.

Religions may split into sect or heresy,

dynasties may perish or be supplanted,

but for century after century,

the University will continue,

….and the thinker and the seeker will be bound together

in the undying cause of bringing thought to the world.

To be a member of one of these great societies must ever be a glad distinction…"


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