Importance of quality assurance
in the universities
The text of a speech delivered by Minister of Higher Education Prof. Wiswa Warnapala at the launching of the ‘Quality Assurance Toolkit’ prepared jointly by the UNESCO and the Commonwealth Learning; at the Sri Lanka Foundation on 22nd June, 2009
Tertiary education, in the rapidly changing global context, has become an important pillar of human development, and Distance Education, as the most novel mode of education, provides not only the high level skills necessary for the growing labour market but also the training essential for all kinds of professions in modern society. It is through such a team of trained personnel and professionals, despite the areas in which they specialize, who develop the capacity and analytical skills necessary to accelerate social and economic development. In my view, Sri Lanka, though completed a period of half a century after the attainment of political independence, has failed in the construction of a network of tertiary educational institutions capable of pushing the country in the direction of development. I am sure that you, as intellectuals, who are alive to the burning issues of the day, are certain to say that there were major constraints which prevented the emergence of tertiary institutions as agents of change and development in the country. Universities in Sri Lanka, though began in the forties and expanded in the sixties and seventies, still remain the key part of the tertiary system, and their learning culture does not show that they are capable of reaching the level of global excellence. Neither the academic community in the Universities nor the undergraduate community, one segment of which is highly politically-motivated and highly politicized, show any concern as to the need to establish higher educational institutions of global excellence. Our tertiary institutions need to be converted into effective centres of learning if we are to move forward along with the declared objectives of a knowledge economy. It has been mentioned that the establishment of higher educational institutions of global excellence is a priority of the developing countries. In addition to the Universities, there is a diverse and growing network of public and private institutions in Sri Lanka that support the production of the capacity necessary for development. Though the question of access has been addressed through this kind of diversification of the tertiary institutions in the country, no appropriate mechanism for quality assurance was created in the last decade or two. The expansion of the system afforded more opportunities to those students who, through a good secondary education, aspired to get into the system which, today, has nearly 72,000 students. In addition, there are non-University tertiary institutions, both in the public and private sector, which caters to nearly 50,000 students.
Education, as you all know, is a mirror of social change and contemporary culture, and the University curriculum, therefore, must reflect the intellectual and social pre-dispositions of the period. Since 1921, Sri Lanka has been making adjustments in the University curricula with a view to helping the development of the country, still the traditional disciplines, which we enthusiastically enthroned within the system to promote an indigenous culture which subsequently gave birth to forms of cultural nationalism, dominate the intellectual culture and the system of scholastic education in the Universities which, with no attachment to innovation, still remain isolated as far as the global changes are concerned. A modern University needs a modern curriculum to enthuse the students to study subjects that are immediately relevant to the needs of the labour market. This kind of prescription, however, does not mean that the traditional disciplines, which became prominent at the very initial phase of University development, should be totally discarded. My own argument is that our Universities should not place over-emphasis on them as the experience shows that the country has been producing an army of graduates, educated in those subjects, who cannot find employment in a competitive labour market. This, again, was integrally related to the issue of the expansion of the access, which, in terms of the results of the A/L examination, remains limited. All students who qualify at the A/L examination cannot be given admission to the Universities, and those who compel to use the Distance Mode, the cost of which is less, are those students who number nearly 100,000 ; the number sat the examination last year was 293,819, out of which nearly 131,000 reach the standard required to enter a University. Such a large number of students, the majority of whom are in the Arts stream, need to be provided with alternative avenues of higher education, and they, through the Open University and its facilities, find access to higher educational opportunities. In my view, because of the varied constraints within the system of the Universities, this group of students deserved to be provided with higher educational opportunities through the employment of modern technologies as the world is now engaged in the construction of a learning society; all opportunities for learning could empower human development globally and ultimately help the world to move closer to the ideals of human rights, peace, stability, freedom and social justice. The Distance Education Modernization programme has taken several important steps to promote access, equity, quality and relevance and 37 programmes are being developed on the basis of On Line facility with 24 partner institutions. This, in addition to the access provided to various categories of students, would ensure quality programmes which are of international standard.
The intellectual potentiality of this group of students need to be used for the development of the country. The Government of Sri Lanka took the right decision to plan a modern On-Line higher education system through the Asian Development Bank funded Distance Education Modernization Project (DEMP) to address such issues as access, equity and quality in higher education. This is a pioneering contribution to the modernization of higher educational institutions, and this facility, if efficiently administered, is certain to expand the opportunities for higher education; it, above all, help the Government to tackle the issue of access, which, in fact, is the major problem within the system of higher education in Sri Lanka. As I have been emphasizing in the last few months, quality cannot be compromised in the name of expanded access; with unplanned expansion quality is certain to decline and therefore realistic and relevant measures are necessary to arrest the decline. It is unfortunate that the new Universities, though they have diversified their curricula with the introduction of new courses, have not been successful in maintaining quality, and this, needs to be treated as an urgent problem. Quality and access should go together, and the mere expansion of access without quality is certain to have a debilitating effect on the learning culture of the Universities. We do not want the public to perceive certain institutions as second-rate, and this could be overcome by making undergraduate and professional programmes more relevant. What is needed is to ensure that enrollment policies and curricula reflect the local skills requirements. Heavy weightage in favour of Social Sciences, Humanities, Commerce and Management must undergo a change, and one way of overcoming this is to develop more and more professional programmes. Any attempt to promote this concept, as we experienced in the case of the Allied Health Sciences, is certain to meet with stiff resistance from organizations like the GMOA which does not seem to accept the need for diversification in the higher education sector. The traditional academic criteria should not determine the nature and content of the new courses; in my view, the duration of a professional programme of study, something similar to what we tried to promote through the Allied Health Sciences Programme, needs to be tied to the requirements of the work place. A variety of short programmes running to 1-2 years and 3 to 4 years, can rightly respond to rapidly changing needs for different types of skills. The country, at this stage of her development based on stability, unity and harmony, needs more and more skills-oriented programmes of study, and the Universities, as they are still embedded in the traditions which they inherited from British times, do not indulge in innovative thinking relating to specialization and more flexibility in the courses of study. The failure to modernize the curricula results in intellectual retardation, a feature which is endemic in the system. The lack of a robust intellectual culture, which must include both creativity and standard research, has led to the deterioration of learning among the undergraduates who, on certain occasions, indulge in violence without an objective. Kelaniya University incident last week was one such example, and it, more than anything, showed the lack of a commitment on the part of the undergraduate community to establish a vibrant intellectual culture in their own Universities. Student activists, who provide leadership to student struggles of the undergraduates, are drop-outs-who continuously failed the examinations in order to remain within the University, and they are there to promote political interests of a group of students working according to a narrow political agenda. It is this trend which needs to be immediately arrested in order to restore the learning environment of the Universities. In such an environment, the academic community, as the intellectual peers in the place, has a major responsibility to be discharged as Sir Eric Ashby, in his Masters and Scholars highlighted. Sir Eric Ashby, writing immediately after the 1968 student unrest at the London School of Economics (LSE), stated that "administration, faculty and students: these are the components of the modern University. In theory all three components work towards the same end. We talk of the University as a community dedicated to the preservation, advancement and transmission of knowledge". The country needs disciplined men and women as intellectuals - or as members of the educated work force - but the product whom we produce through a totally State-funded University system, is not a person with all qualities of good citizenship. It needs to be emphasized that education and life long learning are about improving knowledge and skills; they are at the heart of personal and social development. One aspect of personality development is the building of relations between peoples, groups and communities, and therefore, education, at whatever level it is given, fosters a deeper and more harmonious form of human development. What I am trying to stress is the pivotal role of secondary education in the learning process of young people and in social development. Tertiary institutions should be centres of knowledge and professional training. In the Sri Lankan context, what requires is a fresh approach to the learning process, based on a flexible system of education in which educational opportunities could be enhanced. This cannot be achieved without a comprehensive change in the learning environment of the secondary schools, whose products come via a tution industry which has created a tution culture in the country. Tution industry in Sri Lanka is a big business and its annual turnover runs to millions, and the type of learning culture, which it fosters among the children of secondary schools, is not at all in the interest of the intellectual development of the University undergraduates. The criticism is that the system does not create opportunities for the development of the personality with a broad vision. A good basic education should be combined with out of school approaches that help people to experience the three dimensions of education - ethical and cultural, scientific and technological, and economic and social - to learn about themselves, develop interpersonal skills and acquire basic knowledge.
In order to highlight the importance of the school - here in this context I refer to the public school - in the development of the personality and intellectual attainments, I would like to quote Sir Ralph Furse, who was the Recruiting Officer for the British Civil Service in Africa in Colonies of the period. "As to the public schools, wrote Sir Ralph Furse, " they are vital: We could not have run the show without them. In England, Universities train the mind; the public schools train character and teach leadership’. I do not think for a moment that we should emulate the system which was totally class and elite oriented but the point which I am emphasizing is the need to train the character and leadership of the student through the secondary school, from which the undergraduate enters the University.