Sunday, July 3, 2011

Making Sri Lanka the knowledge hub in Asia: The myth and the reality

By Chandika Gunasinghe, Lecturer in Economics, Department of Economics, University of Ruhuna

At the outset, it is pertinent to clarify on what ground, I choose to write on this topic. It was during the last presidential election campaign in 2010 that I observed that it was hard to see one was strongly arguing against the claim of the Opposition Alliance that Sri Lankan economy has fallen down, which was one of the main disadvantages for President Mahinda Rajapaksha’s election campaign. Then, I thought to correct this misleading argument of the Opposition Alliance by publishing two articles in Divaina Sunday’s editions on 17th January and 31st January 2010 under the heading of “Sri Lankan economy is strong”. As a sensitive academic, my main goal was to support President Mahinda Rajapaksha in his election campaign for his political leadership given to liberate our country from 30 year brutal war. My intervention was without any personal or political relationship with the regime. I wanted to keep President Mahinda Rajapaksha unbeaten in that election as we never wanted to be labeled as an ungrateful nation in the world. However, it does not mean that I underrated the contribution made especially by Gen. Sarath Fonseka to defeat the terrorism.

In those articles I highlighted very important steps to be taken by the government to utilize the golden opportunity opened ahead of the country after 30 years of war to become a developed nation in the world map.  Among many of the issues I have brought out I paid especial attention to the importance of the political leadership to hear the voices of ‘constructive consents’ and ‘constructive dissents’ to reach the nation’s ambition of becoming the Asia’s miracle. I also insisted in the article that Mahinda Chinthana Policy would lead our country towards a developed nation in South Asia in the future. Furthermore, I emphasized in the article that the government should involve national university system to achieve the nation’s development goals. Keeping my intervention in mind at that crucial movement, after political victories at presidential and general elections for the government, I wrote to the Ministry of Economic Development indicating that I would be happy to handover findings of my Master of Science thesis, on bona fide faith, to the ministry as those findings would be very useful in the poverty alleviation efforts in Sri Lanka. My thesis was about an assessment of the ongoing Samurdhi development programme. Sadly, I never received even a response from the ministry. That is one among thousands of examples for how the knowledge produced in universities is being ignored in this country by our policy planners.   

I have highlighted above ground realities that it is of my responsibility to convince the general public that I never supported the government to act irresponsibly and unwisely. Unfortunately, due to the irresponsibility and ignorance on the part of the government, the path of the government so far has been problematic in many crucial directions to achieve national development goals as defined in the Mahinda Chinthana Policy. Nevertheless, I could convincingly note that the government is not still late to explore “where and what went wrong” and to examine corrective policy measures.

Such a self evaluation is essential for the government to change its current stand on the higher education system of Sri Lanka specifically. One can observe that there is an enormous contradiction between what is stated in the higher education policy and what is being implemented.  For example, the government has planned to make Sri Lanka “the knowledge hub in Asia” as one frontier of her development strategy.  No doubt this is a plausible policy selection on the part of the government. However, the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Ministry of Higher Education seem to be quiet unaware of what is in the Mahinda Chinthana Policy.  This unawareness have become crystal clear by the irresponsible manner they have responded to the academic community on their demands to make Sri Lanka the knowledge hub in Asia. It seems that the government does not possess a workable plan to achieve that invaluable vision in the Mahinda Chinthana Policy. It is almost like a situation of dreaming to feet on the moon without planning how to travel. This implies that the government has been unable to find answers to the severe problems faced by university education system in Sri Lanka. This also leads to question the feasibility of making Sri Lanka the knowledge hub in Asia without a proper course of actions.

Let us discuss those major problems one by one:

  1. High level of brain drain 
A recent UGC report has confirmed that there were 552 academics who went abroad to complete their postgraduate studies have not returned to Sri Lanka. Furthermore, Sri Lanka has the highest rate of brain drain (about 28%) in South Asia. It means that 28 persons from every hundred intellectuals traveling abroad per year never return to Sri Lanka. The rate of brain drain in other neighboring countries in South Asia has been below 5% except in Pakistan where it has been around 9%. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to stop this brain drain in order to assure and sustain the quality of university education, which in turn helps to produce high quality graduates who are going to form the backbone of the future development of our nation.  Although, all the previous successive governments must be more or less responsible to this problem, the time has come to take concrete actions to stop brain drain. Therefore, the present government must understand this problem and gets involved as soon as possible to identify roots of the problem and come up with suitable solutions to stop brain drain. As the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) has clearly indicated, one of the main root causes of this problem has been poor salary given for university academics in Sri Lanka.   

Therefore, it is the responsibility of the government to hear the FUTA and provide them with reasonable solutions to those problems. If the government fails to stop brain drain it will be an invaluable cost on the nation and will be a national catastrophe in the long run. In such a case, those who became experts in different disciplines such as medicine, engineering, science and technology, management and economics, and social sciences thanks to the free education will serve for the betterment of other nations of the world.  However, one can argue that there is nothing wrong that the world gets benefits from such intellectuals. But as long as we are incapable to find concrete solutions to stop brain drain, it will be a major stumbling block in Sri Lanka’s expectation to become a high income country in the future and as a result our country will definitely be in a low position in the development ladder. This is mainly because that the human capital of a country is the bedrock of its economy that determines skill-intensive and innovation-led growth. In economics terms, if a large number of highly educated people leave the country, investment in education may not lead to faster economic growth as any efforts to be taken to improve skills and talents of the labor force through improved educational avenues become largely futile. This in turn affects negatively on the overall factor productivity in the long run by decreasing the capacity of human capital to innovate and adopt modern technologies.

  1. Insufficient allocation of public funds on education
The percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) allocated to education (school and university education) in Sri Lanka has been below 3% while the average percentage of GDP allocated to education of other countries in South Asia has been over 5%. Furthermore, the world average percentage of GDP allocated to education has been around 5% as well. In such a situation, it is futile to believe the possibility of Sri Lanka emerging the knowledge hub in Asia. During the war period, many people did not oppose with the government to allocate a high percentage of GDP (more that 5% of GDP) to defense sector of our country as it was the first and foremost priority at that time. However, after the war, the first and foremost priority has become to develop our country. To achieve this goal it is imperative to invest in education to develop human capital of our nation. That is it is vital to allocate more than 5% of GDP to education sector if we really want to become the knowledge hub in Asia. However, one can argue that the most important thing is the efficient and effective use of resources than the percentage of GDP allocations. But it is very clear that to make Sri Lanka the knowledge hub in Asia it needs a huge leap from the current state to a new knowledge era where the human capital would be the driving force of development. Hence, to make it a reality, it should be the topmost priority item in the policy agenda in allocating public resources to develop human and physical capacity of both school and university education in Sri Lanka.

However, it is sad to say that the government’s stand on education does not support to make a huge leap from the existing situation. Both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education should be able to increase the percentage of GDP allocated to education in order to make Sri Lanka the knowledge hub in Asia. Unfortunately, instead, both ministries try their best to evade severe problems and give utterly futile and unwise solutions for many problems in the education sector. For example, the Ministry of Education has recently took a decision to downgrade ordinary level (O/L) pass marks in some subjects so that students who weakly performed in O/L exam could proceed to advanced level studies. Is this the way chosen by the Ministry of Education to make Sri Lanka the knowledge hub in Asia? Instead, what they should have done was to have a deep evaluation about where and why such a large number of students have failed in the O/L exams and come up with appropriate solutions for identified problems.  It will help to stop that kind of grave situation in the future. We know that many schools in our country do not have sufficient human (trained and skilled teachers etc) and physical resources (laboratories, libraries, modern teaching and learning equipments etc) that support students to perform well in their studies. However, few schools located in major cities have those facilities and hence students who were fortunate to attend these schools show highest performances. If the government is really fair and egalitarian and want to make Sri Lanka the knowledge hub in Asia, it should strengthen the human and physical capacity of schools located in the peripheries.  To achieve this goal a considerable percentage of GDP should be allocated to education.

Similarly, the Ministry of Higher Education too acts irresponsibly and unwisely in dealing with some problems that are very crucial to the sustainability of a high quality university education. Instead of taking actions to increase the percentage of GDP to higher education, the Ministry of Higher Education tries its best to oppress the university teachers who are struggling to assure a quality university education and the nations’ expectation to become the knowledge hub in Asia. It implies that the government itself counteracts the way to its own target. Therefore, it further means that those who try to oppress the university teachers labeling them as an anti-government movement working to make a “regime change” in the country are actually working towards such a regime change in the future. This is mainly because that, university teachers’ demands are absolutely for a decided journey towards the nation’s ambition to become the knowledge hub in Asia by ensuring a high quality and a sustained university education. Hence, if any one does not agree with this genuine effort of university teachers, it implies that he or she is working against the nation’s ambition to become the knowledge hub in Asia and contributes intentionally or unintentionally to deteriorate the popularity of the government leading to a possible “regime change” in the future. In the leadership theory, these persons are considered ‘yes people’ who always provide “destructive consents” for leaders. A leader who was keen to hear the voices of those kinds of misleading followers (such as ministers, secretaries, chairmans, directors, and so called advisers etc) might finally understand that he or she has come in a wrong way. But when the leader understands the situation, nothing will remain with him or her to do.

      3. Public university system is at stake

Many academics believe that the public university system of Sri Lanka is at stake today. There are significant reasons to make such a forecasting. We have already discussed two such reasons; high level of brain drain and insufficient allocation of public funds on education. One major reason for such a belief is that universities have a big challenge to recruit outstanding academics (and high performed students) into their staffs.  Salary scales of university academics are poor compared to the other professions that require the same or less qualifications. As a result, those who recorded the highest performance in their disciplines such as engineering, medicine, science and technology etc unfortunately refuse to join the academic staff of universities. On the other hand, universities also have a big challenge to retain the existing staffs by leaving to other professions (a kind of internal brain drain) where they can earn high salaries. This situation will be further deteriorated with the government’s intension to establish private universities in the country, which would attract highly qualified academics from ill-treated public universities. Even though the government guarantees that this movement can be prevented by enforcing law, the real solution should be upgrading the status of the public universities. Considering all these facts, it is very fair for one to believe that Sri Lankan public universities are reluctantly compelled to deviate from its fundamental role to produce quality graduates and hence making a negative impression of the public towards the university system. This in turn is used as a justification for not to hear the voice of academics and to bring in private universities considering it as the only panacea that is available for all these problems.

Before I conclude the discussion it is important to remind a statement made by Sir Ivor Jennings, the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya, about the goal of modern university education;

"The fundamental task of a university is to produce men and women who are capable of fulfilling any function in the world that may fall to their lot, citizens of high intelligence, complete moral integrity and possessing energy, initiative, judgment, tact, and qualities of leadership”

The problem is how a university can produce such an ideal graduate without taking efforts to attract brilliant intellectuals into the staff and to retain the existing qualified academics in the staff. As long as the government is not taking genuine efforts to find concrete solutions to those problems, our dream to become the knowledge hub in Asia will never come true.