Thursday, May 5, 2011

Is degrading Academia way to make SL a knowledge hub?

The Island, March 13, 2011, 12:00 pm, By Prof. Sumanasiri Liyanage.

The behaviour of the present government, the statements by its ministers and the actions by its bureaucracy have compelled me to portray this government as the worst government in post-colonial Sri Lanka as far as its treatment of academia is concerned. Although Minister of Higher Education S. B. Dissanayake has been active on many fronts and appears really keen to effect some changes—let me make it clear that I wholeheartedly support his goal of eliminating ragging from higher educational institutions—it is sad that the Ministry of Higher Education has failed so far miserably to develop a comprehensive higher education plan and strategy.Moreover, I also argue that the policies of the government as a whole will not assist in any manner in achieving its objective of making Sri Lanka a knowledge hub in the region.

Addressing public meetings during the last presidential election in many parts of the country, I highlighted the wisdom behind this proposal. I must confess that after 27 months, I am totally disappointed over the record of the present government on this and many other issues. I feel that it is my social responsibility and duty as a university teacher not only to express my dismay and disappointment, but also to suggest corrective measures even those suggestions are not taken into consideration. So one may easily understand why the university academic community pressed its union leaders to take strong community actions against the way in which the government and its bureaucracy, especially, its Secretary to the Treasury treat university academia and the university system. As one young lecturer puts it, "it is not the rupees and cents that are at stake, it is the dignity of our profession". Why has the government fallen into this sad state? There are multiple reasons all of which I do not intend to analyse here. Suffice it to say that the government has a list of lofty goals, but it does not have a comprehensive plan to achieve them. The same goes for higher education.

The government says it is working towards making Sri Lanka a knowledge hub! What does it mean? It means the country should achieve one or more of the following three things. First, Sri Lanka can be made a regional centre of knowledge-based industries. Secondly, the country can focus on knowledge creation through research and development. Thirdly, it can be made a regional centre of training and dissemination of knowledge. Although conclusive evidence on the presence of a positive correlation between educational level and economic development cannot be established, all three definitions above stress the fact that Sri Lanka cannot be made a regional knowledge hub without paying due to attention to higher education and research.

Instead of exploring how the available academic resources can be used and improved and how new resources could be created, the government has, in the past one year or so, degraded, devalued and humiliated the Sri Lankan academia. Let me begin with the statement by the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education. He has recently invited Sri Lankan academics living abroad to come back to Sri Lanka and serve the country. He has also stressed that a mechanism can be worked out to ease the burden in the case of the violation of bonds. It is commendable, but it is an incorrect starting point. In order to lure expatriates into coming back, an environment should be created for the academics to return and live with dignity with adequate facilities to continue their work. Does such environment exist in Sri Lanka? What has been done during the last three years by the government to create such an environment? How much money has been allocated to research and development from the last three budgets? It would be a gross mistake to assume that setting up of private universities in Sri Lanka would resolve these issues and change the whole academic environment in Sri Lanka. I am not against private universities as these institutions would broaden and expand higher education in Sri Lanka. Moreover, they would even assist the third dimension of the knowledge hub strategy.However, the private universities would not turn out to be institutions that carry on research and knowledge creation. In Sri Lanka it is the state and state universities that could promote and advance knowledge creation at least in the short and medium run.

How does the government treat university academia? I will cite two very recent examples. Let me avoid at this stage talking about broken promises. In the Budget Speech the President made in Parliament on Nov. 22, 2010, the government has promised that the 25% research grant will be given to researchers. The Secretary to the Treasury failed to issue the relevant circular until the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) had announced that it would resort to trade union action. Is it inefficiency or negligence or a deliberate move against the academia?It has been generally accepted that the benefits offered to senior public servants should be also given to university academia. Concessionary vehicle permit is one of such benefits. Since 1994, concessionary permits have been given to government officers with minimum five year service and the same rule has hitherto been applied to university academics. For some reason that may be known only to the Secretary to Treasury, the time period has been amended with regard to university teachers making it 12 years! This is disgraceful, to say the least. Is this the way the government is going to create environment for expatriate Sri Lankan academics to return?

Is degrading, devaluing and humiliating academia part of a wider project that the government has in mind? Although I may not in a position to say something conclusive in this regard, certain surmises can be made on the basis of past experience. When governments want to privatise public sector institutions, governments oftentimes deliberately make them ineffective and weak in order to justify privatization. If one looks aback what successive governments have done, one will see that the expenditure for state universities has not been adequately increased. Research grants were curtailed and training for university teacher was neglected. Minister of Higher Education got it right, when he told the public sometime back that a substantial number of university dons did not have Ph. Ds. However, the Minister and the ministry also have a responsibility to see how and why such a situation has arisen. State universities have been neglected for many years although new state universities were set up. The working conditions of the university academics are substantially lower than their counterparts in India and Pakistan and those in other research organizations in the country, like the Central Bank and the TRI. As my colleague from the University of Moratuwa revealed a couple weeks ago, a fresh graduate from the UOM receives higher pay than his senior professors! The private universities are not substitute for state universities. They may be glorified colleges that train people for market-oriented activities. If the government thinks that the goal of education is to create ‘commodified hands’ for the job market, the consequences of such policies would be detrimental to the country in the long run. My second surmise is that the government may be treating the weakening of state university system as part of a deliberate policy of balancing fiscal deficit. The World Bank and neo liberal economists in the Treasury may be following such a policy even it is not consistent with the policies of the government. Finally, under the present system, Humphreys decide behind the scene.

It is in this context that the university teachers and their union, Federation of University Teachers’ Association, have resolved to engage actively in the process of policy making in the education and higher education sector even using its collective force. The demand of the FUTA that the state allocation for education and higher education be increased at least to six per cent of the GDP should be viewed in this light. When private sector comes in, there is a possibility that the level would even reach 8 per cent of the GDP. We should not forget the contribution of the parents is also should be taken into account. Times Higher Education has released first best universities in the world. There are some Asian institutions including Indian Institute of Science in the list. I am sure, if the government adopts correct policies, Sri Lanka will be able to add some of its institutions to the list. However, creating a knowledge hub without academia would end up as daydream.

The writer teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya and is an executive committee member of the Peradeniya Arts Faculty Teachers’ Association.