Wednesday, May 25, 2011

An Open Letter to the VCs of our Universities

The Island, 24/05/2011, by Fr. Mervyn Fernando, Founder-President, Subodhi Institute, Piliyandala

As a person who has the well-being of Education very much at heart, and who had been earlier a Chaplain to the University of Colombo and Warden of the then Catholic University hostel, Aquinas Hall at Thummulla, Bambalapitiya, and currently with connections to university education at the University of Moratuwa and the University of Kelaniya, I have been reading with great interest and concern ideas and opinions appearing in the press on the proposed orientation programme for new entrants to the universities to be held at army camps. But I am surprised that none of the Vice-Chancellors has expressed his/her views on this matter (unless I missed reading any) which in my view should be of direct concern to them. I believe that once a student has been admitted to a university all matters pertaining to his/her educational regime, from initial orientation to the awarding of degree, comes under the purview of the Vice-Chancellor. Hence I am very anxious to know:

(a) whether you have been consulted by the Ministry of Education and the UGC about the raison d’etre of this programme, its contents, its methodology and very importantly the location, namely an Army Camp. Since this orientation should have a meaningful connection with the education which will follow at the University you are the most qualified to determine what is acceptable or not with regard to all of those elements.

(b) If you have been consulted, have you given approval to this proposal? If yes, may I know the reasons for same. If no, again what are the reasons for your disapproval?

(c) I am also curious to know whether you are aware of the genesis of this idea which is so strange (not the orientation itself, but that it will be conducted in army camps in collaboration with the Ministry of Defense); did it come from the Minister of Higher Education, the UGC or the Defence Ministry? This bit of information could be very revealing.

I do not have to tell you that an orientation programme for new entrants is vitally important. Its goal should be to familiarize students with the world of university education, very different from GCE A-level studies, and to equip them with skills for social relationships and leadership in a University milieu. It is only too obvious that this should be organized and conducted by those actually involved in University education – you, the lecturers, and supporting Staff – and on site, namely, in the respective campuses. How could it be otherwise? Moreover, such programmes, of varying duration have been conducted by you in all your Universities over the years, very effectively. I can vouch for this from my personal involvement (and of our Institute), in the orientation programmes of the University of Moratuwa, sometime back. Are you aware why it is going to be different this year? Is it because this new programme will be a significant improvement on what you have been doing up to now? That would be the only justification for change. If this initiative has been formulated, without the involvement of your knowledge and experience, I cannot imagine how it could be better than the earlier ones; more likely it could be worse, a backward step and a damaging one.

If the impact of the envisaged orientation programme is to last, without wearing off with the passage of time, there should be follow-up review sessions at regular time intervals, say once in three or four months. They could be of short duration, of three to four hours each. This would be possible only if the orientation programme was held at the University itself, conducted by its Staff, who then would be in a position to organize follow-up sessions meaningfully and monitor outcomes. The outcome of a one-shot orientation, however well-organized, without follow-up review sessions is likely to be very disappointing.

You have in your hands the young intelligentsia of the country; many of them will become key figures and decision makers in all spheres of public life– politics, economics, education, banking, administration etc. in the future. In politics, for example, we have hordes of politicians but hardly any statesmen – people of high human stature. What you do today with your students could and should make a difference for the over-all well-being of the country. For that reason it is vital that Universities should enjoy the degree of freedom required not only with regard to academic work but also in respect of programmes formative of the minds and hearts of the students. I am convinced that you are doing your best amidst serious problems and difficulties – shortage of Staff (brain drain?), poor facilities, inadequate finances, poor remuneration, unreasonable workloads etc.; but given the necessary resources you could do so much more. Still believe the country appreciates your inestimable contribution to national development in the way that only Universities can do.

With regard to this "military camp orientation programmme", I hope sanity will prevail and it will be given back to the universities where it belongs.