A mission and a vision for universities of Sri Lanka


by Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana

Even as an old academic who left the Sri Lankan Universities many years ago, I have been following the university teachers’ confrontations with Minster of education S. B. Dissanayake. The minister was one of my old student leaders with whom I had many a confrontation as well as a good understanding. The articles in the newspapers, as well as private conversations with Lankan colleagues suggest that once again a great opportunity may be lost.

The Problem

There has been a great mismatch between our educational system and the needs of the nation. This has been known for many decades. The Dudley Seers Commission of the 1970s, issued in the aftermath of the first JVP uprising explicitly named this mismatch as a fundamental factor to be overcome. However, the universities still works in the same old mould. The dons have become more byzantine, putting on academic dress at the drop of a pin, and looking like the prelates of ancient Alexandria. However, this kind of pomp and pageantry should be seen as an attempt to protect itself from the continuing attacks on academic dignity. That we have many very intelligent, capable, well trained academics in Sri Lanka cannot be doubted.  The problem is their disfunctionality, given a moribund university structure based purely on poor state funding.

The thirty years’ war and politics have done little to uplift the universities. They mainly give undergraduate degrees, but even the undergraduate teaching is limited to a tiny fraction of the population. Given a grosso modo intake of some 20,000 students per year, for a nation of 20 million, the intake is 0.1% of the population. Given a population growth rate of 1-2% per year, less than one tenths of our new born get to a university. Our society is geared to pushing their children into this 0.1% via the draconian tuition machinery, stunning the children long before entering university.

We have an elitist, dysfunctional, small university system. A rapid expansion by building more institutions with no overall vision would create "cattle sheds" rather than universities.  The mindset of the academic community is also outdated, deeply bogged down in ideas of "autonomy", "academic independence" and "academic excellence" borrowed from wealthy Western Universities with private financial endowments that guarantee their "autonomy".

The University trade union has busied itself with the poor salaries of the teachers. It has not pronounced on the larger problem of a vision for the universities of Sri Lanka.  Culture and learning have been pushed to the back burner everywhere even in the west.  So the miracle is that the universities of a country which had been at war for three decades have emerged intact albeit severely undernourished.

The minister’s idea of introducing a  pre-university break-in for freshmen, using the facilities available at army camps, has been termed "militarisation", or a threat to academic autonomy. Such remarks show that a certain segment of the society remains divorced and unconvinced of the war effort, and even today refuses to admit that many in the military are just our own children who did not have the privilege of going to university. The military is viewed with suspicion. But now the tables have been reversed, and the minister has decided to send the university to the military, even for three weeks! I personally support this.

Comprehensive academic vision needed

In the long run, the nature of the salaries and benefits to academics and other staff of the universities should be planned within an over-all vision of what the universities should be. The rapidly changing technological frontier has made the old model of universities, their purpose and scope, as well as methods of research totally obsolete.

The capacity to select and formulate one’s own teaching programs, research programmes etc has receded way into the past. Today research, especially in the sciences is extremely expensive and the leading academic researchers are found to work in tandem with corporate giants like IBM, Sony, Microsoft or Google. Even the wealthiest universities have recognised that ‘autonomy’ has to

be earned. Otherwise, he who pays the piper will call the tune.  Besides, traditional lectures, lecturers, libraries and universities have become irrelevant as students can access the material in the Internet.

 Sri Lanka should profit from the fact that traditional universities and methods of learning have become obsolete, and create a new league of universities, building on e-learning and ‘Naenasaela’ approaches that have already been launched at a lower level. The job of the ministry is to vastly expand the higher education sector so that, instead of providing university education to a tiny fraction of the population, ALL young students who finish the high school system, as well as adults who wish to re-train, should be

automatically admitted if they wish to study further. There should be no entrance examination!

That will also break the private tuition racket that has drained the life of the young

and enslaved the parent.

If we don’t need traditional lecturers and their lectures, how does a university work? The staff of the university merely helps students to learn themselves, via projects and tutorials. Laboratories and manu-factories, and not lecture halls, will be the theatre where teaching is done. This will free up a vast number of the current faculty (academic staff) who can now process many more students in new university centres, all connected by local or national area networks. Clearly, the teachers themselves have to be retrained.

But Sri Lanka’s intelligent and accomplished academics will pick up the methodology very rapidly, if they would only embrace the new vision. 

Students trained in such a setting are natural innovators. Intellectual leaders in a class would move up to teaching assistant positions even while they are undergraduates. Professors working in such a setting are natural entrepreneurs. The University of British Columbia recently moved into such a programme for teaching physics, and the visionary behind the programme is a Nobel laureate who showed that this type of teaching is far more effective than the traditional approach.

How to fund it?

The university administrators (i. e. Vice chancellors, Deans, Senates, etc) have to ask how to make the university pay itself, so that it becomes effectively independent of the Ministry of Education. If it could even make 50% of its total expense out of its own programs and enterprises, then the minister has no need to interfere.

Is this highly impracticable pie-in-the-sky stuff? Far from it! The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and many other universities

function within such a picture, to various degrees. The famous economists Leontief and Samuelson first made their economic models for MIT which spawned many firms in the Boston area. Young university professors have new innovative ideas which they are encouraged to commercialise. The students work

with the professor and learn the subject as well as the innovative business model. Of course, this is possible only if the young academic-turned CEO has the start-up funds and business infrastructure to start a new firm, or work in collaboration with an existing firm to develop an idea. This is where the

university steps in, by providing him a business loan from a bank owned or controlled by the university.  The ministry of education, or the universities, must set up their own banks, ready with venture capital. The university must provide ‘incubation’ facilities for the new project that is being tried out by the academic entrepreneur. Of course, only one idea out of ten may work out. But usually, just one or two good ideas are enough to pay for the failed ideas as well. The University of Sherbrooke in Canada gets most of its earnings from just one single patent in having commercialised a cell-phone chip.

Is this model applicable only to science, medicine, engineering etc? This is a total misconception. Subjects like history or literature are great money spinners as they are of basic importance to tourism, movies, entertainment and every other aspect of a people. There is no reason why professors of history

should get all their salary from the state. The same is true for sports, sociology, political science etc. Recently, Sri Lankan cricket has realised that it is a mega money-spinner. All subjects, be it urban development or astronomy, can be made to largely pay for themselves. 

Although Sri Lanka is so strongly influenced by India, there are virtually no ‘Indian studies’ in our universities! Of course, some political scientists have learned how to get funds by working for foreign subversive organisations, and even formed lucrative NGOs! Hence, some types of earnings have to be controlled by the Senates of universities.  That is the true meaning of ‘autonomy’. Autonomy

is tied in with self-regulation, financial self-sufficiency, and social responsibility.

This vision of universities would generate a set of institutions, polytechnics etc which earn their own keep. A very few would continue in the old mould, with scholars devoted to disinterested learning, and accepting the poverty and asceticism that go with it.

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