Thursday, May 26, 2011

Minister SB and His Kaalakanni: A Case of the Runaway Tongue?

The Island, 26/05/2011, by Carmen Wickramagamage,
University of Peradeniya

Minister of Higher Education S B Dissanayake is a man in a hurry and a man with a mission. He says his mission is to put the universities in order, which he claims no one dared do until he arrived on the scene. He is in a hurry because he wants to do it right now. But one’s not always sure whether his intention is to make the universities or to break them. One cannot be blamed if one begins to suspect [and one hopes all other men and women of discernment in this country will do the same] whether he is more bent on the latter than on the former. Why does one say this? Because in the recent past, he has been making pronouncements about the state universities that can only tarnish their reputations and set in motion the beginning of the end of the state university system as we know it—that is, as the proud flag-bearers of public higher education in Sri Lanka whose contribution to creating a meritocracy of sorts in this country is beyond measure. I will focus in this piece on just one of his pronouncements, to me, the most damaging and dangerous that he has made so far. In an interview [aired over many TV channels the past few days], he claims that the state universities produce what he calls "Kaala Kanni." The bright young students who, according to him, constitute the crème de la crème [except he did not quite use the French term] of our education system, come out Kaala Kanni after four years at university! And who, may one know, is responsible for this terrible metamorphosis in the best and the brightest? The university dons of course, who else??? In his haste to act the lone ranger of the Wild West shooting from the hip [one can only hope it will not be a case of him shooting himself in the foot] he has even forgotten, for once, to include in his diatribe the JVP, his most favourite fall-guy!

But, what, someone might ask, does Kaala Kanni mean? It means, literally, "kaalaya kanno," or those who waste time. But as all users of the Sinhala language know, its semantic resonances are much wider than that, which is why it remains such a popular swear word among us Sinhala users. On this occasion, we will assume that Minister SB meant it both literally and metaphorically. Literally, what he means to say perhaps is that the years [the number is not always four] that students spend at state universities is a total waste of time. This, in turn, would take away the rationale for state universities and, by implication, for public higher education, which in my opinion is one of the few things that our esteemed political leadership got right in post-independence Sri Lanka! If we were to read even further into this literal meaning of Kaala Kanni, a not-so subtle implication of the statement is that there is no need to pay higher salaries [or any salaries for that matter] to university academics because they not only waste their time but donate to society [which pays for it] wastrels who are more a liability than an asset. In fact, on another occasion, he called them ganja kaarayo or cannabis addicts! If so, the thinking goes, why spend scarce state resources on such a white elephant, which according to neo-liberal thinking and IMF advice, can be better spent elsewhere??? But, at a figurative level, Kaala Kanni carries wider implications. According to the Sarasavi Sinhala-Sinhala Dictionary, synonyms for Kaala Kanni translate into "unfortunate, unlucky, sinful." If one were to look around for a suitable gloss for this word, Kaala Kanni, in English, a somewhat imperfect gloss would be "wretched" or "accursed." Are the products of the state university then the wretched? A sobering thought considering that, to this date, the only established and reputed institutions for higher education provision in this country are these very same state universities. And, mind you, Minister SB has put no date to the start of this production of kaala kanni at state universities. In turn, this leaves us with just one conclusion: that all graduates of state universities, from the inception of the state university concept in this country, have produced nothing but kaala kanni!

One could respond to his statement, delivered with the Minister’s characteristic aplomb, in one of two ways. One could ask, for instance, if the Minister is finally revealing the truth about the state universities—a terrible truth shrouded in secrecy up to now. In which case, he has to be applauded for his act of bravery, his local John Wayne act. But the revelation is both devastating and damning for a country and its tax-payers that not only pays for that education but depends on the recipients of that education to give leadership to the country on many fronts. Take the health sector for instance. In a country, where the population is so heavily dependent on our state-funded health care system [in the absence of credible and affordable private equivalents], the discovery that the doctors [over 90% of whom are products of state universities] might be kaala kanni is disturbing to say the least. Take the educators, administrators, journalists, members of the electronic media, policy planners, engineers, architects and scientists in turn. Or even members of the legal fraternity and the judiciary. What percentage of these sectors has been educated at our state universities? Isn’t the newly sworn-in Chief Justice a graduate from a state university? If they are all Kaala Kanni, are we wise to depend on them to steer this country into that oh-so-tantalizing future as the Miracle of Asia or the much-vaunted Knowledge Hub? Will they lead us instead into a Kaala Kanni or wretched future? And then there is the group who give leadership to us on the political front. Though perhaps fewer in number, there are some among them too who are graduates of the state university system. Isn’t the Minister of External Affairs one of them or the Minister of Power and Energy? I don’t think I need even mention the Minister of Higher Education. There is a saying in Sinhala quite apt then to describe the Minister’s pronouncement: uda balaagena kela gahanavaa [spitting with your face upturned]. I do not think I need elaborate more.

There is another way to interpret Minister SB’s statement regarding the products of our universities. Perhaps he is resorting to hyperbole but highlighting in his own way the ever deepening malaise in our state university system: that is, the decline in academic standards and the quality of the education delivered to students. But if there has been such a decline in standards, who is responsible? Surely, that is not the exclusive responsibility of the academics! Who draws up the Budget, who decides on appropriations for education and higher education? Neither the academics, nor the ordinary citizens of this country whose tax money funds public goods like education and health. Who decides on the start of a new university, sometimes to please one’s voter base and electorate? Who assumes that the same budgetary appropriation can be miraculously multiplied and stretched to support an ever-increasing number of students and universities? Not the academics, not the students, not the general public.

Minister SB has described state universities as non-profit-making institutions—the implication being that those who work in such institutions therefore cannot ask for high salaries. He has in fact gone on record as saying that universities must earn money if university academics want higher salaries, a form of "self-privatization" as someone has called it. Those who make this claim forget that universities enjoy no autonomy when it comes to student admissions or fee-levying programmes—all such activities centrally controlled by the University Grants Commission. Hence, in the recent past, while financial allocations to state universities have declined [in proportion to the number of students], the number admitted each year [announced every year on the media with much fanfare] has increased. For the university administrators, it has been a case of packing more and more sardines into the same-sized cans. Cuts in spending have eaten into the availability of resources such as state-of-the-art teaching aids, smaller class sizes, tutors, library acquisitions, etc., that is a pre-requisite for quality higher education. Undoubtedly, university academics are highly trained in their subjects. But they are neither wizards nor conjurers able to produce something out of nothing. The low salaries don’t help matters. Not only has it led to a mass exodus of academics elsewhere, it has forced those who remain to focus more on making ends meet, not exactly a conducive environment in places devoted to the noble pursuit of knowledge-generation! But the universities are still not bereft of dedicated academics who return from their postgraduate training abroad eager to serve this country. I met one of them, a young newly returned PhD in Engineering from Purdue University, USA, and a graduate of Peradeniya University, last week and I asked him why on earth he had decided to return. He said that he wanted to serve his country. Surely, Minister SB wouldn’t want to label such people Kaala Kanni! But, of course, in the recent past, political interference into the recruitment of academic staff and purely politically motivated appointments into the highest positions in university administration have only accelerated the decline. So, the Minister of Higher Education is right if he is alluding to this decline in the quality of our higher education system. But he has to ask himself who is to blame for this state of affairs.

But the question still remains. Has the decline led to universities becoming the breeding ground of Kaala Kanni or the Wretched? If they are the breeding ground of Kaala Kanni or Ganja Kaarayo [cannabis addicts], are they places that the tax-paying citizens of this country would want to fund or send their children to? And is that why he has decided to send the students selected to university to military camps, before they arrive at university, where they will learn to say, as in that memorable Munchee biscuit ad, if nothing else "athi vishishtai, Sir!" [everything’s perfect, Sir]. I began by wondering if there was more to Minister SB’s statement than a run-away tongue. Perhaps there is an insidious agenda behind his concerted attempts to paint the state university system black. Perhaps the Minister of Higher Education sees himself as the presiding augur of doom for public higher education, which perhaps does not fit the agenda of the new economic and political vision for the country. To break the backs of university academics is to break the backs of the state universities as we know them—one of the last bastions of free-thinking [or one would like to think so]. It is then time for all graduates from the state university system holding high positions in the many spheres of society, public and private, to speak up for the system that made it possible for them to be where they are today. We should not allow Minister SB to "cut his nose off to spite his face"!

Prof. Wickramagamage teaches at the Department of English, University of Peradeniya