Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Producing ‘global graduates’

The Island, 24/05/2011, Editorial

The government has launched its much advertised leadership programme for university entrants amidst vehement protests from some quarters. Its opponents have invoked the jurisdiction of the apex court and therefore we refrain from commenting on the issue. However, some of the promises Minister of Higher Education S. B. Dissanayake made at the inauguration of the programme at Temple Trees on Monday are of interest.

Minister Dissanayake promised to eliminate university ragging, root and branch. He said anyone found guilty of ragging would be expelled forthwith. His vow must have warmed the cockles of many a heart. Politically motivated sinister elements in the garb of undergraduates have turned universities into torture chambers through their brutal violence camouflaged as ragging. Several students have so far lost their lives or suffered grievous––in some cases permanent––injury at the hands of these psychos.

The back of the problem of ragging has apparently been broken thanks to the government's tough action. Minister Dissanayake is very likely to accomplish his task before long. All signs are that he will also succeed in liberating the universities from the clutches of the JVP––something long overdue! However, this should not be done with a view to creating a political vacuum in universities for the ruling SLFP to fill. It is being alleged by the critics of the leadership programme at issue that the government is trying to catch undergrads 'fresh' and render them pliable and conformist on the pretext of imparting leadership skills to them at military camps.

However, it is nothing but wishful thinking that after ragging is rooted out and the JVP activists are kept at bay, hey presto, everything will be hunky dory in universities and the process of producing 'global graduates' will become a reality overnight. Universities are plagued with many other problems which the government does not seem to be in a position to tackle. Instead of trying to find solutions, it is busy flexing muscles and tilting at windmills. While universities are experiencing a severe dearth of qualified tutorial staff with lecturers voting with their feet, the government is trying to drive away the existing dons by refusing to heed their demand for better remuneration and by unleashing its propaganda hounds on them. Financial constraints have also had a debilitating impact on universities as evident from a chronic lack of facilities students are complaining about.

Raising the standards of universities requires a huge investment in human and physical resource development. At present only 44 per cent of the students who apply for university education get enrolled for want of facilities. This situation has caused immense frustration and unrest among the educated youth, some of whom fall prey to ultra radical political groups. At present, only 2 per cent of GDP is spent on higher education and this amount will have to increase to, at least, 5 per cent if universities are to be developed and more students enrolled. But, the question is whether the government is prepared to allocate more funds for universities. Higher education does not seem to be on its list of priorities. It is preoccupied with mega construction projects of Ozymandian proportions like a second international airport in a faraway place.

The need for ridding universities of violence and disruptive elements cannot be overemphasised. Everything possible must be done to make them safe places for students. That is the first step towards developing universities. But, the government should take cognisance of the fact that undergraduates cannot be turned into leaders without quality teachers and universities will never attain international standards unless their development is considered a national priority and enough funds are set aside for that purpose.