An open letter to Vice Chancellors of Sri Lankan universities


By Mahesan Niranjan

I write, similar to what I wrote just over a year ago (Resolve the university dons’ pay dispute, The Island, 19 June 2011), as someone who benefitted enormously from excellent free education in Sri Lanka. I had good reason to run away in 1983 without taking up the offer of an assistant lecturer position in one of the world’s most beautiful universities, swearing never to set foot in my country again. The guilt of not paying back the debt I owe Sri Lanka is an immense burden which I will take to my grave.

Vice Chancellors, you, on the other hand, stayed back in Sri Lanka or returned home after overseas post graduate training. You could most probably have sought more lucrative careers, which you chose not to. You have served the country through very difficult periods, in some cases running entire academic departments single-handedly for several years, and in others living right in the middle of a deadly war. I know first-hand from your past students the excellent commitment you showed in in those early stages of your careers. This, I envy and salute.

Since the end of the war in 2009, I have made ten visits to Sri Lanka, and have been setting up small scale research collaborations with colleagues in your universities. On these visits, I get to meet bright and energetic young people, both among students and junior academics. Interactions with them convince me that government’s stated aspiration of developing Sri Lanka rapidly into a knowledge hub, which I know you would subscribe to, is a realistic prospect, at least in theory.

But, such ambition cannot be realized by waving a magic wand. There needs to be the right level of investment to create the environment in which the best in these bright people can be brought out. Such an environment is not one in which the universities remain closed for over two months, several of the young academics seek employment overseas and the brightest graduates opt to seek employment in the industry rather than take up academic positions in the universities.

The Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA), leading the current industrial dispute, has demands that I find eminently sensible. They have put these to the University Grants Commission over a long period of time before embarking on this drastic strike action. I understand they have three demands: (a) a much larger proportion of national spending be directed towards education; (b) significant reduction in political interference in the working of universities; and (c) a decent salary.

It is easy to see that the first of these is a sensible demand, given that we are now in a post-war Sri Lanka. You are well aware that during the war the government would have spent vast sums of money on guns, ammunition, aviation fuel and coffins. Would you not join me in asking why a fraction of such expenditure should not be directed towards educating the next generation?

Secondly, you all, as heads of universities, must know that the purpose of a university – that of creating and disseminating knowledge — is best achieved in an environment of minimal political interference. Just look at how universities in more successful environments operate and compare it to your own. In my own institution, for example, my Vice Chancellor represents our views to the government. These views, expressed in our Senate, are sometimes sharply critical of government policy. And he can do it in public, too. Why should you not enjoy that luxury?

And, thirdly, it is a no brainer that a decent wage compatible with the qualifications and skills your junior colleagues have acquired is a basic necessity if you want to recruit and retain the most talented. On this point, I was most disappointed to see much misinformation being fed to the public. You must have noticed that large increases were awarded to a few at the very top of the scale, while the vast majority lower down the hierarchy got very small percentage increases. It is incorrect, if not profoundly dishonest, for the UGC to dupe the public into thinking that significant pay hikes across the board were implemented last year.

Given all that, please ask yourselves what exactly your role is. Is it not time to make it clear that you do not enjoy being heads of institutions that are not functioning? Is it not time to ask if you should be leading your younger colleagues, several of them your former students, who are now entering their third month without pay? Is it not time to intervene and help resolve this dispute? Is it not time to ask whose interests you really ought to be serving – that of the next generation of our youth, or that of your political masters?

Since the end of the war, I have observed developments in Sri Lanka’s higher education sector very closely. It seems to me that at this juncture, the position you take, collectively as heads of these institutions, will have a serious long term impact on the future of our young people.

You are free to dismiss this plea, as you will most likely do. After all, I am one who ran away from the country shortly after enjoying the very best it had to offer, while you stayed back and made substantive contributions. What right do I have to lecture you?

But, as you throw the letter in the bin, please take a look in the mirror.

(The writer is Professor of Electronics and Computer Science at The University of Southampton, UK)

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