Sunday, September 25, 2011

The private university debate misses the point


Much heat is vented on the private medical college debate most of which, apart from being verbose and repetitive, misses the real point. On September 19 alone, as I write, two full page articles appeared (YW Abeywichrama in Island Financial Review and Shenali Waduge in Daily Mirror Business); full page but the meat could have been compressed into one-third as many column inches. The argument in the English press, all in favour of the private medical college, makes reasonable points, despite a deluge of words, that is if you ignore the bigger picture. The perimeter of their narrow focus is about opportunity for more students and foreign exchange saving. On the dispute of whether Malabe college degrees will be up to standard, they don’t know how to make their point. Let 18-5me do that for them; if quality is not up to scratch it can be fixed, hence this is not an argument against private degrees, medical or otherwise, in principle. Enough of all this, let’s get to reality.

Running national universities into the mud

Do you think that if someone wants to open a private university on the South Bank of the Thames there will be howls from Oxford and Cambridge? Would Harvard and Princeton throw a fit if SB launched a martial arts college in the Bronx, would the Sorbonne and the Ecole Polytechnique scream “Merde!” if Playboy started a Fashion College in Montmartre? If prestigious national universities in a country have been elevated to peerless status and repute, then neither staff, nor students, nor professional bodies will stop even to give the time of day to some new arrival. When on the other hand, over decades the national universities have been run to the ground by successive governments, fear and insecurity take possession of stakeholder’s minds. 
The amount the government spends per university student per year, student loans and accommodation, the state of research and research funding, the professorial and qualified component in the staff especially in some medical schools, library and laboratory facilities, and crucially the English language incompetence of the university community, all of this I do not need to detail here; readers are sufficiently aware of the dire state of affairs. The protest against private universities is a reflex reaction to this sorry state. 
If a commitment and a serious programme to revitalise the national universities is initiated, and if it is sincerely implemented over a ten year span, this spat about private degree factories melts away. While private universities will help absorb some students and contribute at the margin, they can never become large enough players to meet the broader needs of tertiary education, course diversification and vocational training. Some 200,000 sit the A-levels each year and the national universities enrol 20,000; only the state can address the immense problem of the future of post A-level youth.

The rudiments of a programme

Though I have no confidence in the prospect of the present government initiating a programme of the nature I have adverted to, it is still incumbent upon us to get on with some outline thinking and suggesting a preliminary draft to be fleshed out by others.
1. The state must make a commitment of about $3 to $5 million a year over a period of about 10 years to upgrade existing universities to a moderate level of international ranking excellence over the period. If I recall correctly, not a single of our universities is ranked within the first 1000 (or maybe 2000) in the world by any of the established university ranking bodies.
2.  Clear benchmarks of expected attainment and time frames must be laid out for all existing universities. For example (and only an example for illustrating my concept of benchmarking), Peradeniya could be targeted to rise to a position in the first 200 to 300 rank, say within five years. Similar benchmarks should be set up for all national universities, bearing in mind their current strengths and weaknesses, within a time frame of say 10 years.
3.  Some universities, such as Peradeniya, can be identified as comprehensive (humanities, social sciences, engineering, medicine, science, law, business and management) while others can be specialized to focus on a more limited scope.
4. Staffing stands at the apogee of quality. Scholars of international repute must be attracted to the professoriate and all academic staff must possess internationally recognized qualifications. Salaries are not the only carrot, research opportunities (local research students are cheap), encouragement of a culture of scholarship, conducting and participating in conferences, international interaction and travel, and an environment of political non-interference and academic freedom, indeed it is all of this which goes to make a university and attract quality academics.
5. The UGC, vice chancellors and councils must be drawn from fearless people who possess high respect in the community, and their decisions must rule. Presidents, ministers and politicians must get out of the way and stay out of the way.
6. The diversification of tertiary education must be given careful consideration. There must a liberal educational input into all curricula (we want human beings, not zombies) but equally important, the target domains must include employment relevant courses. The aforementioned diversification of institutions (3 above) can be used to address these needs. Private educational institutions can be encouraged to fill these niche slots on a broader basis. Only the rich are likely to benefit from expensive private medical and engineering courses; how about private colleges awarding diplomas in nursing or vocational certificates in carpentry and plumbing - trades in acute shortage?
7. The vocational is no less important than the formal tertiary level. Diploma and higher diploma courses of one and two year durations should be incorporated in the structure of degree awarding institutions. Class barriers can be torn down and students in vocational and formal academic programmes encouraged to mix. Some staff will specialize in degree or vocational programmes, some will teach across courses. 
8. English is a matter of the utmost importance. No student must be allowed to graduate with a degree or a vocational diploma unless he/she can read, write and converse in basic English. Do we want the knowledge based world, whose international medium is English, to pass us by? I weep for so many bright young fellows I see around me who cannot surf the web, consult a manual, install software, read the English newspapers, or communicate across the Sinhala-Tamil boundary. There is zero incentive for Sinhalese to learn Tamil and not much more vice versa. Everybody wants English; cash in on it!

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