Friday, September 23, 2011

Academics’ income, universities and economics: unraveling the word play

Panduka Karunanayake

Allow me to respond to the article “Sustainable solution for academic income issue: an economic perspective” by Luxman Siriwardena and Chanuka Wattegama (LS/CW) in The Island of 8 June 2011.  The article is somewhat complicated and convoluted, as the whole issue itself is, but its essence is not difficult to capture: the long-term, sustainable solution to the problem of increasing the academics’ income – not salaries – is to promote the private university sector and outside “assignments.”  Then, the income levels of state university academics, as well as the quality of university education, will rise – as has happened in the case of banking and telecommunications.  (The quality rise is implied by LS/CW, since their main grouse with state academics is low quality.)


I am not opposed to promoting private sector university education (and neither are the academics in general, although some of them hold different personal views, which they are entitled to do).  Even before the government openly came out supporting this and before the word ‘privatization’ became attached to universities with such openness and confidence, I supported it, albeit with some provisos (see “An indigenous model of university privatization” in The Nation, 28 June 2009, under Letters).

I also have no argument with the position that, if privatization succeeded, the state academics’ income will increase.  This has happened in the banking and telecommunications sectors, as LS/CW point out, where quality too has increased in both state and private sectors following privatization.  But the outcome was different with the medical and teaching professions; while the income increased following privatization, quality in the state sector dropped.  So the proposed strategy of increasing the income-plus-quality through the single measure of privatization is not a simple, straightforward case.  Apparently some forms of privatization increase both and some forms increase only income.  What is important is not merely to privatize – but to determine what form such privatization should take.

Income and quality

In fact, what the academics too wish to do is not merely have their income increased, but to do this in a manner that also increases quality.  They believe that an increase in salaries and budgetary allocation to universities will help to do both.

The position maintained by LS/CW and others who promote unqualified privatization, on the other hand, is that neither income nor quality can be improved in a sustainable way without privatization.  They may, of course, be right here, but in that case they must realize that the form that privatization takes is crucial – the university sector should replicate the banking/telecommunications rather than the medical/teaching experience.  I do realize that it is impossible to deal with everything in one article, but I am disappointed that LS/CW conveniently ignored this important aspect altogether, if they had thought of it at all in the first place.  After all, the main thrust of their article is on promoting university privatization (to them, the academics’ salary issue is only a point of entrance to this) and it is therefore incumbent on them to do so.

They also imply that the academics are already receiving an undeservedly high salary.  Let us examine this more closely, because it directly impinges on my position that the academics wish to improve quality, which carries the implication that they have the capacity for it.

Secular trends
Anyone who wishes to analyze the problems of higher education in post-Independence Sri Lanka honestly and fruitfully must necessarily recognize three important secular trends: the population expansion, the increasing democratization of society, and the progressive failure of the national economy.

Population expansion is beyond doubt.  We can argue on the nature of our ‘democratization’ – it may be closer to Franklin’s description (‘democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting to decide what to have for lunch’) than to Lincoln’s (‘democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people’).  But it is undeniable that it happened; public spending has increasingly come to reflect the people’s will (however unwise) since the introduction of universal adult franchise.  And, although these two trends may have been unfavorable, we could still have offset their ill effects if we were able to achieve adequate economic growth – but we were not able to.

It is on the backdrop of these three secular trends that we should study the development of any post-Independence social problem, including that of our universities.

Graduate unemployment

Seen on this backdrop, the failure of our education system is easy to understand (or rather, less easy to misunderstand).  With expanding population, we needed to have expanding employment opportunities, whether in labor-intensive agriculture or in industries, merely to maintain the same employment (or unemployment) rates.  But agriculture failed to sustain the livelihoods of the farmers and became a poverty trap to them, and industrialization never took off.  At the same time, democratization widened the access to education, including university education.

When the proportion of the workforce that has an educational qualification increases faster than the availability of employment opportunities for it, ‘qualification inflation’ occurs – one needs a higher qualification to obtain the same job, and a higher proportion of those with the given qualification fail to secure a job (or become underemployed), even while an increasing proportion of youth from below clamor to get the same qualification.  In this scenario, no amount of ‘graduate quality’ will achieve full graduate employment.

In Sri Lanka, increasing numbers of people sought a degree exactly because of qualification inflation (the AL results no longer sufficed for jobs that previously needed only the ALs), and democratization enabled them to get it.  There was no industry waiting for them.  Graduate unemployment was the inevitable result, irrespective of whether quality went up or down.
Not surprisingly, it was more acute for external graduates than internal graduates, because the qualification underwent inflation within graduates too, from ‘any degree’ to ‘an internal degree.’  It is also easy to see why, as LS/CW point out, engineering and IT graduates have “high demand” (local and overseas industries have expanded in these fields) and politicos give wasteful public sector employment to the surplus graduates that the industries cannot mop up (democratization).

We must, of course, teach our graduates the skills that employers expect.  But this backdrop shows that this is not enough.  If the industries do not take off, the graduates replete with such skills will be told that they now need a new, additional skill or qualification to have the job (i.e., qualification inflation) and the universities will be blamed for not providing them with this.  LS/CW will continue to interview our graduates and find that “…their years in the university have not trained them to face the challenges in the private sector” and later in the evening produce more yarns over a shot of whiskey.

To ignore this backdrop and simplistically claim that graduate unemployment is the result of poor degree quality, even if the degree quality has indeed deteriorated, is to be either tunnel-visioned or deceitful.

But while this backdrop might help us see things better, it should not blind us to the fact that degree quality has indeed deteriorated or that soft skills, etc are absolutely essential for the graduate.  My point is only that quality deterioration and graduate unemployment are two issues with only limited association, and that correcting the former will not automatically (or even appreciably) correct the latter.


And now, to quality.  First, some more perspective.  Let me commence with a commentary on a 1985 survey of “…literacy levels among a large national sample of twenty-one- to twenty-five-year olds”:

“It was found that roughly half of the young adults surveyed who had graduated…with bachelor’s degrees could not perform such simple intellectual tasks as summarizing the contents of a newspaper article, calculating a 10 per cent tip for lunch, or interpreting a bus schedule…The…findings were not exceptional.  On the contrary, they were consistent with almost every recent attempt [up to 1996] before and since to inventory the intellectual performance levels…across the country.  Time and again, it is revealed that a certain number of today’s graduates are not much more than minimally literate to all intents and purposes.”

Sounds familiar?  The reader will be amused to know that this nation/country is not ours, and these graduates not from our state universities.  They are from the United States of America – where, presumably, Milton Friedman is well known and where the free market, privatization and efficient money spending have helped ensure that graduate quality has been levitated to dizzying heights.  We do know, thanks to LS/CW, that academics’ income there has indeed levitated to such heights: at or above US$ 6,000 per month, in the highest category in the world and, obviously, very deservedly too!  I was quoting from Crisis in the Academy: Rethinking Higher Education in America by Christopher J. Lucas (St. Martin’s Press; 1996: pages 203-204).

Let it not be thought that the Americans have bad degrees, their academics have been negative-incentivized, or even that privatization is abhorrent – for to do so would be either tunnel-visioned or deceitful.  Let me suggest only one thing: the issue of graduate quality, much like the issue of graduate unemployment or the issue of graduate quality in the US itself, is a complicated issue, not amenable to simplistic quantitative gymnastics. 
The three secular trends explain much of the quality deterioration.  The number of students has increased beyond what governments could provide for (but this is still good, because it has given a life chance to many more than before).  Democratization has necessarily meant that the educationally mediocre, rather than only the educationally excellent, has entered universities (this too is good, because educational attainment is much, much more a socially constructed attribute than a biological attribute).  It also meant that we had to switch to swabhasha and concomitantly miss out on the advantages of English literacy (no good there, I am afraid).  The faltering economy has reduced resources, leading to poor infrastructure, low pay for workers, brain drain, poor staff development, etc.  If quality has not deteriorated on this backdrop, then there must be something wrong with the statistics!

Quality has indeed deteriorated and this is indeed a problem, but there are ways to correct it and, as far as possible within the current constraints, the state academics are trying to do that.  Change is slow and painstaking (and sometimes the slowness is an advantage, as when we happened to take a wrong turn).  The academics are keen about quality and are serious about its importance – that is exactly why they are trying to increase both quality and income, rather than the latter alone.

The nature of the slide
If we asked any social intellectual about the main reason behind the deterioration in standards in any sphere in our country, the chances are that the answer will be ‘politicization.’  There must be some reason behind collective wisdom.

To my mind, the two most important root causes leading to the crisis in our universities are increased student intake and shift in medium of instruction to swabhasha.  As I have already implied, these are both good and bad things, occasioned by democratization.  We could still have pulled it off if we were able to give the universities the necessary funds, but that too became impossible with a poorly performing post-Independence economy.

But my point is this: it is interesting that both these causes were imposed by the legislature and the executive upon the universities, commencing from the 1960s onwards, rather than being actions taken by the universities themselves – it was a homicide, not a suicide.  These signified the beginning of the slide: the first erosion of the institutional autonomy of universities.

This erosion of autonomy took a legislative form then, but other forms of erosion have been added since.  The interference in administrative matters in universities in the 1960s and 1970s led to the entry of party politics into the university academia.  The decrease in resources and infrastructure led to dependence on non-statutory ‘funding sources’ and intellectual impoverishment.  The deterioration in relative income and living standards led academics to look for other sources of income.  More recently, politicization has taken up more brazenly open forms, and now affects virtually every sphere of a university’s life.

Why is all this important to bear in mind?  Because it shows that, since the fundamental problem is the loss of institutional autonomy in its different forms, the solution must be its restoration – not its further erosion.
And this restoration must not only take the form of legislation, although that does form the bedrock for everything else.  It must recognize the other forms and correct these too.  This means that academics must be at least reasonably independent financially, and moneys must be spent on university infrastructure at least to a minimum acceptable level.  Hence, the demand for a salary increase and for more budgetary allocation to universities.

The crossroads

We have now come to the important crossroads.  Proponents of unqualified privatization and shrinkage of the state (such as LS, CW and R.M.B. Senanayake) will point out that it is impossible to achieve full restoration of institutional autonomy in state universities: the only solution is to have a free market and private universities, and nothing is lost when there are no state universities.  After all, if politicization of the state is the problem, is not privatization, which creates universities that escape government control, the solution?  Others will continue to believe that restoration of autonomy is possible, and that it is the desirable long-term solution from the viewpoint of the wider society.  After all, with the profit motive, can private universities in our small market deliver the wider society what it needs, rather than merely delivering it what it wants?

I belong to the latter category, while I support privatization with provisos.  Let us say we were somehow able to create excellent private universities that trained good quality, industry-employable graduates.  Let us say that we were also able to create excellent, industry-sponsored research centers that gave the industries all the answers they needed to improve their profits and help the economy grow.  Let us say that, thereafter, we closed down all our state universities, sold their property and invested the money in a grand bursary scheme to support poor students who could not afford private university fees.  We will then have all the graduate training, research output and egalitarian access to education we ever wanted, along with profitable industries and economic development.  Will we then miss our universities?

It is crucial that we do not lose sight of what exactly a university should give its wider society.  Is it only graduates and research publications?  If so, why did universities – such expensive institutions! – exist for thousands of years, much before industrialization?

I will not even start to answer these questions here (even if I thought I can).  I will humbly suggest only this: we must discuss these questions before we can decide on the form our university system ought to take, in both its state and private sectors, or before we decide that we do not need state universities.  (For the interested reader, may I suggest my article “The university and society: to tango or not?” in The Island Midweek Review, August 8 and 15, 2007.)

The academics’ dilemma
This is the problem that vexes the academia today.  It was not a post-Nandikadal loss of income (as LS/CW insinuate) or a sudden rise in the cost of living that prompted the academics to go on the trade union action.  It was a gradual, painful realization that the current generation of academics is, in the natural course of events, the last that will enjoy an appreciable degree of institutional autonomy and academic freedom in our nation – they feel like how the Mutazilites at the end of the Golden Age of Islam must have felt, painfully watching reason evaporating all around them.

Soon, state universities will never be the same again.  They will be unrecognizable to us one day – not like how state banks or the telecommunications sector today are unrecognizable to previous generations, but like how state hospitals or state schools today are to them.

Word play unraveled
It should now be clear why LS/CW are keen that academics ‘lose.’  A salary hike and more budgetary allocation are necessary for the survival and improvement of state universities.  But such universities are a thorn in the flesh for LS/CW, because these stand in the way of promoting unqualified privatization and state shrinkage.

For LS/CW, academics are bad boys, because they did not unreservedly support privatization or economic reforms.  Academics’ work output and degree quality are equated to graduate employment, because that creates a situation unwinnable to the academics due to external reasons that are conveniently overlooked.  They suggest that academics should engage in “more assignment (short term)” to boost their income, because this erodes institutional autonomy and draws academics away from work in universities, right into the mousetrap.  All this leads to the shrinking of the space for free thinking, and sabbatical leave – the last statutory bastion of free thinking – is ridiculed by LS/CW.  This is what they want: when there is no thinking space, there is less hindrance to “economic reforms.”

The cat slips out when LS/CW say “…state bodies like Central Bank of Sri Lanka and Ceylon Electricity Board…make substantial contribution to the economy unlike non-profit making state universities maintained by tax payer’s money.”  To them, the arbiter of the usefulness of universities is how much profit they make in comparison to the Central Bank, CEB etc!  To me, the very fact that such state institutions are making a profit in today’s political milieu says what I want to hear about the universities that produced the graduates who run them.

The strategy used by LS/CW is to extricate selected relationships out of a complex subject, and portray them as the whole reality.  When we use such simplistic quantitative ‘reasoning’ and ignore the big picture, especially the important, unquantifiable elements within it, all roads lead to Washington.

Privatization is an essential component to our university system today, but it must be done in a form that helps us to meet our objectives and not ‘globalization’ objectives.  State universities must be strengthened, because they have roles important to the wider society that only they can be reasonably expected to play.  It is this robust, effective diversity of institutions, state and private, which will help us advance in the twenty-first century (as it did the USA, notwithstanding inadequacy of graduate literacy there).

At the very least, people who promote privatization on the basis that it increases much-needed diversity should realize that an effective state sector too is part of such diversity.  Investing on strengthening the state sector cannot then be any more egregious than investing on infrastructure to promote the private sector.  Only “independent” colored glasses can make you see otherwise.

The writer teaches medicine at the University of Colombo.

No comments: