A-Level fiasco and private universities Bill

Pressure mounts on the government


Kumar David

It is no coincidence that in the face of the storm created by the A-Level results fiasco the government hastily withdrew the Bill to permit private universities. Indeed the regime has been frying on several fronts and is beating a hasty retreat on most. The most serious of the current crises is the A-Level fiasco and public anger will not subside despite the analgesic of a Presidential Committee that fudged the conundrum. Anti-government sections will exploit it and President Rajapaksa, Higher Education Minister SB and Education Minister Bandula are in for a torrid time when university admission lists are finalised. The New-JVP is sure to lead a campaign that will attract public support.

Though no supporter of the UPFA or the Rajapaksa brothers, I had thought that thanks to war victory and the sweep of chauvinism through the Sinhalese community, this government would be stable for most of its full term of office following the 2010 election cycle. I am not so sure anymore; already 2012 is emerging as a year of uncertainty on this and many more issues.


The A-Level fiasco

The best available information is that the cock-up in the A-Level results happened for a simple reason; candidates who sat the examination under the Old Syllabus (OS) and under the New Syllabus (NS) were treated as a single ‘population’ (a statistical term) in the calculation of z-scores. Bear with me and let me explain what z-scores are; it is useful for everybody to get a handle since it has become a hot topic.

Obviously, scoring patterns (raw marks) in say mathematics (several candidates may score 100%) and in say literature are quite different. So how do we compare subjects with wide divergences in raw marks? The method is to bring the means (subject averages) of all subjects to a common point; statistically, that’s easy enough. Then comparison is possible by examining how far above or below the mean a candidate’s attainment is in any subject.

But there is a second problem; the natural spread of raw marks is different in different subjects. In some subjects the raw marks may naturally spread all the way from say 100 to nearly zero, while in others marks may be bunched around the average. How to compare subjects with divergent spreads? This is done by scaling in such a way that, after processing, the marks in all subjects have the same pattern of spread, that is, distributions are made similar. Statistically speaking, all marks have been processed so as to have the same variance (or standard deviation).

A candidate’s z-score is his/her mark, in each subject, after both mean and variance in each subject, has been aligned in the aforesaid manner. Now one can compare the z-score of one candidate in mathematics and another in literature without being in a situation of comparing apples and oranges. A statistician would say that different subjects are being handled as distinct ‘populations’ and scores aligned to a consistent pattern.

Candidates who sit for different examination papers in similar subjects, say physics old syllabus (POS) and physics new syllabus (PNS), should similarly be treated as different ‘populations’. For example, say the average mark in POS is 50 and the average mark in PNS is 60. Then can you really say that a candidate who scores 62 in PNS is better than one who scores 61 in POS? Of course not; OS and NS candidates in similar subjects should be treated like candidates who take different subjects. That is to say their z-scores should be processed as distinct ‘populations’. From all reports the fiasco has arisen because OS and NS scores were not processed as separate ‘populations’ in z-score calculations. When this is not done the final z-scores are a jumbled mess from pooling two distinct ‘populations’, say POS and PNS, into one. Different z-scores within the jumble cannot be meaningfully compared; they are indeed apples and oranges shoved into one basket.

The examination authorities and ministry had two years lead time to think, design and disclose to the public how it intended to handle this apparent conflict of interest between OS and NS. The authorities failed to do so and have infuriated the public. The President has taken a goodly share of the anger upon himself by rushing the authorities to release examination results prematurely.

There have been errors in the finalisation of district lists but these are errors pure and simple, not matters of methodological significance. We are assured that they have been rectified and I am prepared to accept the assurance. The problem lies elsewhere. If the z-scores are recomputed as suggested above, rankings will change and some candidates who are currently ineligible for university admission will become eligible, pushing out others who are currently ‘eligible’. If the scores are not recomputed all those currently excluded will argue that they have been unfairly excluded. There is no respite; the government has caught a tiger by the tail! I do not see how not just Bandula, but even Rajapaksa is going to extricate himself from this hole. Bandula must take formal responsibility and resign; did I hear you say "Fat hopes"?

The private universities debate

A Bill to allow private universities – invariably in partnership with established overseas institutions – was drafted in secrecy and was to be rushed through parliament. It masquerades under the wolf in sheep’s clothing pseudonym ‘Quality Assurance, Accreditation and Qualification Frame Bill’. The university teachers’ federation publicised a leaked copy and it is a hair raising document that tramples academic independence underfoot. Power would be centralised and the minister would decide what is to be taught and who would teach, and much else.

The ever pliant Supreme Court would have certified it as an urgent Bill as it did with the foul 18th Amendment and the Act nationalising 35 enterprises. Apart from strangulation and burial of the public university system this mode of enactment is an affront to democratic rights of citizens in a matter of utmost public importance. In the 1940s the Act to establish the University of Ceylon went through protracted public consultation and refinement by more than one committee of local and international experts. Colonial liberalism was more open, transparent and democratic than the Rajapaksa regime!

JVP led student bodies, are on the boil; protest marches are breaking out and SB, whose penchant for strong-arm stuff is known, is threatening hell and fury. The case of the student bodies and the majority of the academic community is that the government is attempting to scuttle Lanka’s university free education system. This reading is made against the background a sharp pro-business rightward turn in economic policy concocted in cahoots with the IMF.

In my view the suspicion that the government is bent on undermining the university system, now all public but for the contested Malabe medical school, is justified. The fear is substantiated by the treatment successive governments have meted out to the universities for decades. While neighbours like India, Singapore and Malaysia are proud of their public universities and venture to grow their best into centres of international excellence, Sri Lanka has simply starved its universities of: (i) funds (library, laboratory and lodgings), (ii) a research ethos and opportunities, (iii) national recognition, and (iv) international connections. For an account of how public universities are being run to the ground see Ranga Jayasuriya’s piece on page 5 of LakbimaNews, 15 January.

The government wants a by now problematic and potentially expensive public university system off its hands; it would like to delegate high-flyer slots to new fee levying private universities. Thereafter a second class rump public university system will be retained for the yako classes. Lanka is the lowest spender on education in South Asia as a percentage of GDP (2%) and a percentage of the budget (7.5%).

Yes, having fee-levying private universities is good; it expands opportunity for those who can afford to pay. However, remember that the worlds finest, Harvard, Princeton, MIT etc, are private but not-for-profit schools. Actually they use the income from their huge endowment funds to provide scholarships for outstanding financially strapped applicants from the US and anywhere in the world. The fundamental thing is that these are universities, centres of academic excellence, not business ventures. Their raison d’etre is different from institutions outreaching, mainly out of the UK and Australia (no offence meant), to earn profit overseas due to funding difficulties at home. The latter are primarily business ventures, they subscribe to the philosophy of education as a marketed commodity; often they are degree factories with lax standards where one can buy Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, even PhDs. OK this is an overstatement, but you get the gist of what I am saying, and I speak from knowledge of such outreach ventures in Hong Kong.

Private universities are fine in principle but if they are to be built over the dead body of the public university system by a government with deeply step-motherly motives, well that’s another matter. Oxford and Cambridge take no notice of private colleges on the banks of the Thames; the latter offer no competition. But when public universities are being run to the ground instead of being nurtured as centres of excellence, then privatisation is an entirely different story.

In this context the GCE(A/L) examination mess is seen by most as a deliberate conspiracy by the government and the Ministries of Education and Higher Education to turn the public against the free education system and rush through an iniquitous Bill. Though I find this conspiracy theory far fetched it has taken a grip on the public mind. Swathes of public opinion buy it; parent’s associations, teacher’s unions and grass roots bodies are mobilising for a showdown. The standoff between government and student-teacher-parent combine may turn out to be a more serious conflict than just A-Level results. SB must take responsibility and resign; but did I hear you say "Fat hopes" again!

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