Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Potential Threat to Sinharaja World Heritage Site; Green Gold Rush in the 21st Century:

By Nimal Gunatilleke

Sinharaja, the jewel in the crown of Sri Lanka’s natural forests, was once rescued from the jaws of destruction by a highly controversial selective logging project implemented in the 1970s primarily for the manufacture of plywood to make tea chests and furniture. At that time, this epic feat was achieved thanks to a collective effort by a cohort of dedicated environmentalists, religious leaders and scientists, both local and overseas, who were able to convince the then government that the long-term benefits by conserving this magnificent forest far outweighs the short-term foreign-exchange saving/earning project, whose sustainability was questionable. Looking back over 34 years, this decision to save Sinharaja from selective logging at the scale it was planned had not only been a visionary accomplishment, but was also a forerunner to several land-mark decisions taken by the successive governments towards conservation and sustainable development of our natural heritage for the benefit of current populace without compromising the survival of the future generations.

The second threat to the survival of Sri Lankan forests, even more serious than the first, came as a contentious Forestry Master Plan in 1983. It proposed the creaming off of all the remaining natural forests under the guise of sustainable timber management. It was, in a way, a multiplied version of what was proposed for Sinharaja in the 1960s and implemented in the 1970s. Thanks once again to the conservation-minded public opinion that prevailed at the time, the original master plan had to be withdrawn amidst strong public voice against it. Instead, a natural forest conservation plan was prepared by the very same consultants, which was later approved by the government. The public opinion both local and international, against the original master plan was so strong and convincing that the revised master plan recommended a moratorium on selective logging of all natural forests, which is even valid to date. Another conservation friendly outcome of this revised plan was that the Forest Department of Sri Lanka established a separate unit known as the Environmental Management Division, mainly to address the issues of conservation of natural forests like Sinharaja.

As a result of all this, Sinharaja and most other conservation forests received much public attention. In particular, their biological value was disseminated far and wide, both nationally and internationally. Sinharaja became a house-hold name in Sri Lanka. Its biodiversity and conservation value has been included in educational curricula at the school level and other higher educational levels, and even in some international institutions. Consequently, its conservation value has well and truly permeated the society, in general.

The most recent reports on income generated from tourist visits for education and recreation to our protected area system as a whole has shown impressive economic gains. However, the real value of its services to Sri Lankans as a prime Natural Wilderness Area and to the world at large, as a World Heritage, is still very much under-valued, but just beginning to emerge. Continued studies, discoveries and research in Sinharaja over the past decades have increased our knowledge on its biological wealth, to some degree. A lot more remains yet to be revealed, particularly from little explored eastern Sinharaja.

Declaration of Sinharaja as a National Wilderness Heritage Area and its subsequent listing as a World Heritage Site under the UNESCO WHS Criteria xi and x of 2005 is now glorified history on which we are still basking. The darker yet unseen side of the story is that threats of encroachment primarily for tea and cardamom cultivation, construction of dwellings, illegal removal of plants and animals, pollution of waterways in the immediate surroundings from agrochemicals are ‘worming in’ at an accelerated pace from all sides of Sinharaja forest. The earlier threats to conservation of natural forests came as major internationally funded projects at a national level. The current threats to Sinharaja and other forests in the region are at the local level, unknown to the rest of the world, unless one is a frequent traveler to these areas or proficient in browsing the web and comparing recent satellite images with those of the 1990s taken by the forest mapping project under the British ODA (now DFID) project.

All these are happening while impressive progress has been made on paper on the implementation of recommendations of the Forestry Master Plan through a series of internationally funded projects. In comparison, in the field however, there is little evidence that forests like Sinharaja are effectively protected, in accordance with the recommendations in the Revised Forestry Master Plan. On the positive side, it is a fact that visitor facilities have been improved in the major forest areas like Sinharaja, KDN and Knuckles. Yet, the protection and restoration/rehabilitation aspects, in my opinion, have not kept pace with similar impetus. It looks as though much of the efforts of the Forest Department in recent times had been channeled to cope with the ever increasing influx of tourist traffic at the expense of protecting the forests from unauthorized activities.

This brings us to the main topic of this article. There have been a number of newspaper articles, editorials, press statements and the like recently on a new road being cut on the eastern sector of the Sinharaja range from Illimbekanda to Sooriyakanda to join the villages in Kalawana PS with that of Kolonne. Unlike the western sector of Sinharaja, its eastern counterpart with all its aesthetic beauty and charm has been a neglected area for a long time by the conservation agencies as well as scientists, although the biodiversity of this area could be as rich as that of the lowland western sector, based on recent studies particularly of amphibians, reptiles etc. For a long while, since the 1980s, we have been campaigning to annex the remaining forested areas of the eastern sector of Sinharaja range to the National Wilderness Heritage area of Sinharaja, at every workshop that we attended, almost every publication we wrote on this subject and also in local newspapers and other media based on field visits to most areas in this Rakwana Hill range, at every opportunity we got.

The current situation with respect to the general area through which the proposed road is to be made, as I understand, is as follows: Based on a presidential directive issued on 10 August 2001, all state forests bordering Sinharaja, Knuckles, Sri Pada Range and Kanneliya-Nakiyadeniya-Dediyagala (KDN) have apparently been vested with the Forest Department. These may be the forests that were formerly administered by the Provincial/District Councils in Ratnapura, Galle, Matara, Kandy and Matale (aka GAs’ Lands) and located in close proximity to the above protected areas. Another presidential directive, based on a report by a cabinet appointed committee to look in to the lands released between 2002.01.01 to 2004.03.01 by the Land Reform Commission, had been made to the then cabinet in July 2004 to acquire a list of 16 forested properties totaling 2,488 ha in Ratnapura, Galle and Matara districts. Among these that are of immediate relevance to this ‘road issue’ in eastern Sinharaja range are Illimbekanda (567 ha), Morningside (55ha) Aberfoil Estate (191 ha), Hayes Estate (137 ha) and Gongala area (138 ha), a total of 1,088 ha. A further cabinet decision for the same purpose has evidently been made on 22 July 2009.

Since then the relevant government agencies, mainly the Land Reform Commission (LRC) and the Forest Department, have been engaged in negotiations on the most parsimonious mechanism and the terms of transfer of these lands through physical boundary surveys and meeting the legal requirements of the transfer process. It is learnt that the Chairman of the LRC, in a more recent letter to the Forest Department, had informed that he has been receiving numerous complains about illegal activities and encroachments in LRC lands located near the perimeters of the Sinharaja World Heritage Site. As such, the LRC chairman has apparently requested that the Forest Department take necessary steps to acquire these lands for conservation of Sinharaja for its national heritage value. The LRC would subsequently be making claims for compensation. The lands listed in the LRC chairman’s letter include 12 parcels of land in Ratnapura district and four in Matara district. On the part of the Forest Department, we understand that the physical surveys have now been almost completed and tracings of final village plans (FVPs) have been prepared. Apparently, what remains to be done now is to legally acquire these lands under section 38(a) of the Forest Ordinance with the concurrence of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.

In spite of two presidential directives, a prime minister’s directive and at least two cabinet decisions to acquire these lands vested with the LRC, all these governmental level administrative procedures have been going on for well over a decade or so. Regrettably, this process is still far from complete. In the mean time, land clearance for tea cultivation (Green Gold for these cultivators) is going on at an alarming rate all round Sinharaja, while forest understory clearance is expanding in eastern Sinharaja for cardamom cultivation. An excellent yet depressing account of the illegal activities going on in and around two selected villages - Kudawa (NW Sinharaja) and Warukandeniya (Southern Sinharaja) is given in a post-graduate thesis later published as a book in Sinhala titled "Sinharajaya Sanrakshanaya" by Mr. Harsha Perera, a dedicated conservationist and an attorney at law. His account was based on authentic quantitative information gathered himself between 2002 and 2003. Based on my own experience similar, if not much more, harm to the forest goes on all round Sinharaja, particularly because of the craving for land primarily to grow green gold -TEA.

Returning to the eastern Sinharaja road issue, a few weeks ago in the company of a small but very knowledgeable group of local explorer-scientists, I walked from the Sooriyakanda end of this proposed road trace along its entire length (about 3-4 km) to Illimbekanda and back. At the Suriyakanda end, the road trace starts as a motorable gravel/grass road, at first through a mature forest area under-planted with cardamom, which carried sign posts on either side of the road in Sinhala warning that the land is managed by Sinharaja Organic Farming Company and that trespassers to the land would be prosecuted. Beyond this point, the road continued through a former estate road with several still functional culverts over meandering forest streams. The road from here continues as a well-traversed foot path, through a mosaic of primary and regenerating secondary forest in different phases of growth after the tea cultivation had been abandoned decades ago. It reminded me of an abandoned logging road [skid trail] in western Sinharaja. Under the shade of the primary forest fragments, luscious cardamom cultivation is again visible. Between these forest fragments are pathana grasslands on either side of the footpath that are subject to periodic fires. At the Illimbekanda end of the trace too, it runs through a mosaic of primary and regenerating forest with good canopy cover. This entire path has been laid through one of the most beautiful valleys with breath-taking views of the verdant eastern-Sinharaja range on one side and the equally green towering Beralagala - Handapanella range on the other. The whole region is the headwaters of Delgoda River which eventually feeds the Kukule Ganga with a nationally important hydro-power facility downstream.

This landscape, with a mosaic of mature and regenerating forests interspersed with grasslands, encompass about 1000 ha of LRC land in this area. The area serves as an important corridor facilitating movement of animals between the two parallel mountain ranges viz. Eastern Sinharaja and Beralagala-Handapanella. This cloud forest area is the only home in the world for at least 12 Endangered and Critically Endangered animal species. It also provides critical habitats for a total of 30 animal species deemed to be threatened with extinction by the IUCN Red List. A large number of plant species endemic to Sri Lanka are also found in this area. If the proposed road becomes a reality, the small-holder tea cultivation and cardamom cultivation under the forest canopies will expand at a rapid rate from its current level. We noticed recently constructed cardamom curing facilities at the Suriyakanda end of the road trace. There is also a possibility of unplanned ecotourism development in this aesthetically beautiful area with panoramic views.

Surprisingly however, we are not aware that any Initial Environmental Examination or a full scale Environmental Impact Assessment has been made to assess the possible impacts of road construction in close proximity to a World Heritage Site taking the above environmental factors and biological features into consideration. Furthermore, as per the World Heritage Convention Guidelines, the state parties are expected to notify the World Heritage Centre of any developments taking place in, around and adjacent to the reserve, before any new development activities are to take place. If we take these issues lightly and ignore them, there is a possibility that Sinharaja would be placed in what is called the ‘danger list’ of World Heritage Sites. World Heritage Convention defines dangers as those that can be ‘ascertained’, referring to specific and proven imminent threats, or ‘potential’, when a property is faced with threats which could have negative effects on its World Heritage values. Unless the agencies concerned take timely corrective action, Sinharaja could fall into the ignominious ‘danger category’ as a result of the potential threats from green-gold prospectors. This could negate its heritage values under which Sinharaja was first listed as a World Heritage Site in 1988 which are the following:

i) be an outstanding example representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals (criterion ix) and,

ii) contain the most important significant habitats for in situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation (criterion x).

In this international year of forests declared by the United Nations, one of the main objectives, among others, is to increase the global extent of forest cover from todays13% to 20%. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, we are laying a foundation to go in the opposite direction in the name of accelerated but unsustainable development.

It was only last year that Sri Lanka managed to get the Central Highlands, viz., Peak Wilderness-Horton Plans-Knuckles complex, listed as the second Natural World Heritage Site, conditional upon submission of a co-ordinated management plan to UNESCO within a specific period of time. Evidently, tea, vegetable and cardamom cultivation within this Central Highlands protected area and in its buffer zone will be discouraged in this proposed management plan. While such a management plan is being prepared for the listing of one World Heritage Site, it is indeed ironical that the more established sister site is potentially being threatened due to protracted bureaucratic procedural delays resulting in inaction at the field level in countering the green-gold prospecting and other such detrimental land uses.

Timely intervention of the conservation minded public, not once but twice, saved Sinharaja and other such forests, (i) harbouring rich and unique biodiversity, (ii) providing intangible but invaluable service functions of soil and water conservation and environmental amelioration, and also (iii) earning much foreign exchange by way of attracting overseas visitors, from the chainsaws of the loggers. The difference on this occasion however, is that it is not an internationally funded project that threatens the very existence of Sinharaja and other forests of similar nature. It is the slow but steady encroachment of cultivators of green-gold who are inadvertently doing the damage. The gravity of this can be seen if one cares to look at the more recent satellite pictures on Google Earth of Panilkanda/Aningkanda range and Nildeniya in Deniyaya area and Pidurutalagala, Kandapola-Seetha-Eliya and Meepilimana forest reserves in the central mountains. Similar fate will befall Sinharaja and other forests unless the highest authorities of the country can make a visionary move to safeguard these valuable natural assets, not only for our own survival but also that of future generations.

The need of the moment is to expedite all the procedures to transfer the designated forest areas in eastern Sinharaja without any further delay to the Forest Department by the Ministry of Environment. The potential adversity resulting from inordinate delays in implementing presidential directives and cabinet decisions on time should be turned to an opportunity in this instance in expediting the legal process and meet the obligations already set by the highest authorities of the land.

The Forest Department in turn, could take swift measures to establish a Range Forest Office in a suitable location in Suriyakanda area in close proximity to the forest reserve with several beats to look after the entire eastern sector including these new acquisitions. Once these administrative procedures are completed, the entire area could be annexed to the existing Sinharaja National Wilderness Heritage area and strengthen the protective functions all round the reserve. This is probably the only way out to save Sinharaja at this critical juncture. Done properly, it will once again be seen as a model World Heritage Site for Sri Lanka.

Would our temptation for green-gold in the short-term, lead to the destruction of the crown jewel and eventually kill the goose that lays golden eggs? It is the bounden duty of all conservation-minded people, local and overseas, to rally round to protect Sinharaja from a third assault on her life during our lifetime.

As conservation scientists, we have collectively done so far what we could to highlight the conservation values of this unique forest and the threats to its existence. The legendary British Prime Minister Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill had said that the scientists should be on tap and not on top. I wonder who should then be on top on this issue of unsustainable management of our natural resources – politicians, bureaucrats, social scientists or economists or all of them together. If so, it is over to them to take a visionary decision once more at this crucial juncture when not only the fate of Sinharaja but that of the other forests too, is hanging in the balance.

The writer is the Professor of Botany at University of Peradeniya.

SL has lowest education investment in middle income countries: WB

DailyFT, 26/09/2011,

New report shows that funding must increase, legal issues ironed out and institutions streamlined before country can become education hub
By Cheranka Mendis
Sri Lanka needs to allocate more funds to develop its education, the latest report from the World Bank states, pointing out that currently it stands at only 1.9% of GDP, making it one of the lowest in the region.
The bank’s latest publication on the country’s education sector, titled ‘Transforming School Education in Sri Lanka:  From Cut Stones to Polished Jewels,’ which presents an in-depth analysis of the sector, points out that the Government’s contribution to the field is well below the share of investment for middle income countries as a whole.
Education Specialist Dr. Harsha Aturupane speaking at a World Bank-organised discussion on general education sector for a knowledge hub yesterday stated that middle income countries on average spend 4.6% of national income on education, whereas Sri Lanka falls to the lowest.
“Even from among countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, Sri Lanka’s investment is the lowest.”
The low investment, especially relative to other countries, prevents the Sri Lankan general education system from growing to its full potential.
“Whether Sri Lanka is investing enough is a key issue raised by the public; the answer is that the investment is extremely little. The education bodies must discuss this with the Ministry of Finance before the situation worsens.”
He added that private sector investment in education is also at low numbers as the State limits such investments. “The country officially limits investment in private sector. It is controversial but a lot of the local private investment happens in the black market as the system is not an open one,” Aturupane said.
In the wake of the new transformations that have taken place within the country, with rankings being moved from a low income country to a middle income country and from a country of war to a country with lasting peace, education pays a vital role in moving forward.
Sri Lanka is also set to get a new education curriculum in 2014/2015. The consultation and the ground work have started now, he said. The new curriculum will explore the kind of skills demanded by the labour market, particularly those known as ‘soft skills,’ which includes characteristics such as entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, in addition to hard work.
The key dimensions of education should include the learning of English language, bilingual education, high quality mathematics and science education and a new school based technical development programme.
Vice Chancellor of the Ruhuna University Prof. Susirith Mendis also speaking at the event stated that the report, made available to the public since Saturday, takes on important pillars of education in Sri Lanka.
“There are two dimensions of quality that are needed to become a knowledge hub, as the Government targets. Measures must be taken to ensure that the plans are met with additional force and adequate resources,” Mendis said.
He added that in a consultation meeting in Parliament last week, the possibility of bringing back science and mathematics education in a reorientation process, going back to olden-day methods, were discussed.
“In other words, it was about going back to basics and separating students into science and arts streams from grade eight, as was done some 45 years back.” The proposal was objected to by the majority, he said.
Mendis went on to contradict the strap line of the publication, ‘From Cut Stones to Polished Jewels,’ saying that in the local universities, the students were more rough stones than cut stones.
“We must get the university students up to mark and that should start at school level.
The value of a graduate is being questioned now. This must change. The school education system must be transformed so that good graduates will be created who will help the country move forward as expected.”

Monday, September 26, 2011

WB report on Sri Lanka's Education


Sunday, September 25, 2011


lmd.lk, Contemporary Perspectives

Anoma Pieris assesses the impact of the media revolution’s offspring
and asks whether the books we know so well will eventually perish.

With the final film of the Harry Potter series released earlier this year, the phenomenon that changed a generation drew to a close. Voldemort is dead, author J. K. Rowling has made her millions and a cult equivalent to those that follow Star Trek or Star Wars is being studied by theorists and analysts. More significantly, at a time when e-books and websites are swallowing up conservative publishers, the book in hardcopy form made a comeback, provoking a resurgence in reading. But many of us ask, for how long?
The closure of Borders and its local partner Angus & Robertson in Australia provoked much discussion on this subject in a country that is known for its large number of independent booksellers. There are those who celebrated the departure of big bookstores that pushed out many small businesses with their lifestyle marketing concept; but at the same time, e-books will be the way of the future. University libraries, international journals and some international publishers have already made the shift.
Personally, I bemoan the loss of the hard copy. Although the only luggage I ever lugged around the world in the past two decades were book boxes; and they usually accumulate over time and are heavy to carry, but I must profess my true love of books. I love the smell of new books and the feel of old books. I buy most of my books second-hand.
Will these wonderful artefacts go the way of architectural drawing-boards and T-squares? It will depend on Generation Y.
The generation that grew up with Harry Potter is now in its 20s, entering universities or making inroads into the workplace, both environments increasingly dominated by digital media. In universities, courses are largely web-dependent with readings, lectures, assignments and submissions occurring through websites. Classes for 300 students, for example, can depend on the timely dissemination of material to individual students via the web.
As universities and even schools depend on students having laptop computers, education is far more structured and consequently more democratic in its reach. As China and India produce a large and education-hungry middle class, the demand for local universities will grow along with the technologies that will make the education of large numbers feasible.
These are the children of the media revolution.
Educating Gen Y has provoked the complete transformation of institutional culture. A generation ago, a lecturer could walk into a theatre and deliver a lecture based on prepared notes. He or she might put together a couple of slides or rely on diagrams presented on an overhead projector, which were prepared the previous night. Today, all my course material has to be uploaded two weeks before class begins. Students enrol and choose their tutorial groups online.
All my lectures are pre-prepared as digital presentations, with copyrights indicated on every slide – and they are recorded as I speak. Online discussion groups linked to my subjects makes learning simultaneously distant and intimate. The pressure to design, structure and deliver comprehensive learning material is tremendous. Indeed, the work that an average academic puts into teaching has grown exponentially, as have the numbers of students and their demands.
The media used in teaching has also changed significantly in the past 10 years. In school and in university, we used blackboards and coloured chalk. Today, we use Smart Boards which are connected to computers and allow us to project and draw on images. We depend increasingly on film clips, web links and online data which broaden the scope and delivery of subject material. The speed at which these media change is also quite staggering.
Twenty years ago, we used clumsy computer programmes, while today we work magic with the touch of a button. In architecture, the area in which I predominantly teach, advanced versions of digital modelling software are released almost annually, making 3-D modelling, laser cutting of physical models and publisher-ready layouts everyday student practices. The demand to teach these skills is overwhelming, and universities find it hard to deliver digital-skills training while providing intellectual stimulation.
Certainly, digital education has its shortfalls. Firstly, it means that your children spend a lot more time in front of a computer and are far less streetwise or hands on than children of previous generations. They are intellectually more literate and have access to more information internationally; but while this gives them breadth, they may be shallower learners. They may, for example, depend on sites like Wikipedia or worse still, blogs and news media for their knowledge of the world. They may find it harder to tell truth from fiction.
Certainly, this internet age is rife with plagiarism, and even as the speed at which work can be copied increases, the liabilities attached to plagiarism intensify. To elaborate, copying, quoting without attributing or citations or reproductions of any creative work without permission is illegal in a world where blogs, websites and even online publications freely reproduce both fact and fiction across the public domain. Reliable sources of information are hard to come by.
Generation Y is certainly more needy. Frequently being single or one of two children, and used to being the focus of the family environment, they are more demanding with greater self-confidence but display high levels of anxiety.
These are children who, lacking in siblings and growing up in a less-secure environment, were chaperoned from one scheduled activity to another. They are the product of super-parenting – comparatively older parents who have exerted all their energy on producing ambitious versions of themselves.
And yet, Generation Y, sitting in front of their computers, are disconnected from family life and plugged into the rest of the world. While you sit watching TV, your adolescent or teenager may be exposed to any number of people or sources of information you wouldn’t approve of. Recent incidents of cyber-bullying, group suicide and abductions related to chat groups point to the risks your child could encounter while at home – and your inability to protect them against such intrusions.
Educating Gen Y is difficult because of the competing sources of information that flood their everyday existence. Whereas we learned from school books and curricula, from parental advice and the instructions of teachers, this is a generation educated by a range of electronic devices that stimulate all their senses. The Gen Y child at homework can be likened to an earphone-wearing octopus, body swaying to and fro to music from an iPod while typing out an essay and clicking on and off a chat group with a wandering mouse. Or worse still – your Gen Y child maybe an Avatar on an ongoing virtual game site, battling avatars from other parts of the world. These Gen Y children have to be taken out of their bedrooms as a form of punishment!
Aye, there’s the rub! For even as exposure to Harry Potter and the wonderful world of Hogwarts may have created a generation of child-bookworms, it has also taken those children into a reality divorced from the real world. The cultural imagination that came to us incrementally over the centuries through oral traditions, mural paintings and epic works of literature is being reproduced and multiplied rapidly and artificially in a media-hungry world.
It gives us instant gratification, and makes avatars of us all, as we consume not just the story but its past, its consumer-driven future, its artefacts and its media hype – the virtual reality of the Potter phenomenon.
What this means for the education of Gen Y and those that follow is that we deal with a generation that is far more visually cognisant than any other before them; and depend on their eyes above all other senses for education, information and stimulation. They are a generation that are far more sedentary, since the use of the eyes requires no physical movement whatsoever. They are a generation who will need fewer bookcases and more power-outlets – in cafés, in libraries, in classrooms and in lecture theatres. They will socialise predominantly online and store their travels, their music, their homework and their lives in high-storage capacity external hard-drives – instead of scrapbooks and photo albums.
Share this:

Academics On The War Path

The Sunsay Leader, 25/06/2011,

  • Oppose placing university security under Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd.
  • Concerns over the role of military establishments in academic spheres of universities
Several University academics have strongly opposed moves to hand over the security of all state universities to a company which operates under the Defence Ministry.
The Sunday Leader, two weeks ago, quoted Higher Education Ministry Secretary Dr. Sunil Jayantha Nawaratne as saying that the security of all state universities has been handed over to Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd. and another company.
Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd, according to its website, is headed by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Following The Sunday Leader report, several university academics, have in a petition, said the move to hand over the security of all state universities to Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd is in complete contravention of the norms and conventions by which universities are expected to function.
“The letter issued by the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education seeks to bypass standard procedures that are followed in the university system in the hiring and outsourcing of services. That process requires tenders to be called for and for a suitable company to be selected in a transparent and independent manner. The Secretary’s instruction therefore is in violation of established processes and is contrary to the underpinning principles of governance and the autonomy of academic institutions,” the university academics said.
The academics said that Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd is held out to be a government owned commercial security venture and has been set up under the Ministry of Defence, under the direct supervision of the Secretary to that Ministry.
The website of Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd states that only ex-servicemen are hired by the company. The website also provides a list of other state owned departments that have hired the services of Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd.
“Internationally, privatisation of security has been debated on intensely owing to the sensitive nature of what is termed as “security” and how such “security” is maintained. Experiences in other parts of the world suggest that accountability should be increased in the maintenance of security, not decreased. In that light, the directive by the ministry that all security in all state universities should be handed over to one commercial enterprise owned by the state, coming under the supervision of one public officer, becomes problematic. Holding such an entity accountable to the university authorities could, predictably, become difficult,” the university academics said.
The university academics said that it is important that universities retain their independence in matters of hiring and recruiting, tailored to suit the individual needs of each university.
They also expressed concerns over the role the military establishment is increasingly playing in the administrative and academic spheres of the universities, which are a place of free exchange of ideas, critical thinking and innovation. “We of course have in mind the leadership training programme conducted by the Military to university entrants, which, arbitrarily imposed on all concerned, reduced the authority of the academic community within its own area of purview. This last development of encroachment via hiring procedure by the Ministry of Defence is seen as a further elaboration of this trend of increasing militarisation of the universities,” the university academics said.
48 University Academics who signed the letter sent to the Education Ministry opposing moves to hand over the security of all State Universities to Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd.
·    Ranil Abayasekara, University of Peradeniya
·    Harini Amarasooriya, Open University of Sri Lanka
·    Suresh de Mel, University of Peradeniya
·    Sampath Deegalla, University of Peradeniya
·    Noel Dias, University of Colombo
·    Priyan Dias, University of Moratuwa
·    Lesly Ekanayake, University of Moratuwa
·    Primal Fernando, University of Peradeniya
·    Lakshman Galagedara, University of Peradeniya
·    Ranil D. Guneratne, University of Colombo
·    Camena Guneratne, Open University of Sri Lanka
·    Dileni Gunewardena, University of Peradeniya
·    K. R. B. Herath, University of Peradeniya
·    S. R. Herath, University of Peradeniya
·    Rohini Hewamanna, University of Colombo
·    M. I. M. Ishak, University of Peradeniya
·    Janaki Jayawardena, University of Colombo
·    Romaine Jayewardene, University of Colombo
·    Danesh Karunanayake, University of Peradeniya
·    Parakrama Karunaratne, University of Peradeniya
·    Dulakshi Karunasinghe, University of Peradeniya
·    Gamini Keerawella, University of Peradeniya
·      Manikya Kodithuwakku, Open University of Sri Lanka
·    L. C. Kurukulasuriya, University of Peradeniya
·    Amal Kumarage, University of Moratuwa
·    Shamala Kumar, University of Peradeniya
·    Darshana Liyanage, University of Ruhuna
·    Sanjeeva Maithripala, University of Peradeniya
·    K. P. P. Pathirana, University of Peradeniya
·    A. L. M. Mauroof, University of Peradeniya
·    R. Meegaskubura, University of Peradeniya
·    Nilhan Niles, University of Moratuwa
·    Rathnamali Palamakumbura, University of Peradeniya
·    Susantha Pathirana, University of Peradeniya
·    Asoka Perera, University of Moratuwa
·    Nimal Ratnayake, University of Peradeniya
·    Rohan Ratnayake, Open University of Sri Lanka
·    Asanga Ratnaweera, University of Peradeniya
·    Dinesha Samararatne, University of Colombo
·    Gameela Samarasinghe, University of Colombo
·    I. M. S. Sathyaprasad, University of Peradeniya
·    Kalinga Tudor Silva, University of Peradeniya
·    M. Sitralega, Eastern University
·    Upul Sonnadara, University of Colombo
·    Sumathy Sivamohan, University of Peradeniya
·    Ruvan Weerasinghe, University of Colombo
·    Carmen Wickramagamage, University of Peradeniya
·    B. Dileepa Witharana, Open University of Sri Lanka

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!

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.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Developing world: Educating India


Published online 6 April 2011 | Nature 472, 24-26 (2011) | doi:10.1038/472024a

News Feature

The country's vast, education-hungry population could supply the next generation of the world's scientists — but only if it can teach them.

Subha Chakraborty has hardly left the lab in three months. His master's research in micro-scale systems is running into the early hours almost every morning, and "that is not the right time to go back to your room and sleep", he says. So he bunks on a makeshift bed under his computer and cooks on a toaster in the corner of the lab's common room.
Chakraborty isn't alone: most of the lab's ten postgraduate students follow a similar schedule. "There's some kind of charm here," says one of them, Anindya Roy, who has decided to officially surrender his dormitory room.
These students at the banyan-tree-lined campus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kharagpur are among India's luckiest and best: once they have completed their degrees, they will end up working at top universities and private research hubs in India and around the world. But the optimism and drive are ubiquitous. "When you go to the rural parts of the country you meet extraordinarily bright kids who just have to be given the opportunity," says Chintamani Rao, chief scientific adviser to India's prime minister. There are a lot of them — around 90 million between the college-going ages of 17 and 21, rising to an estimated 150 million by 2025. And they are hungry, starving even, for an education (see'Technology levels the educational playing field'.

Brain drain

Click for larger image
But can India feed that hunger? The government has pledged to make it a priority, but faces tremendous obstacles. Most of the elite science and engineering graduates opt for high-paying jobs in industry rather than independent research. Other students far too often end up in high-priced commercial diploma-mills that deliver little real education. Many, many more young Indians don't even get that far: the country's 500 universities and 26,000 colleges have space for only about 12% of its eligible youth. And the population is growing by 1.34% a year, more than twice the rate of growth in China (see 'A double explosion').
But if India cannot meet this challenge, it could miss out on becoming one of the world's great innovation hubs, says Rao. "There is a very large population out there that is extremely qualified and they end up in second or third-rate institutions," agrees Pradeep Khosla, dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a graduate of IIT Kharagpur. "A lot of talent gets wasted."
On the surface, India seems to be in the middle of an educational renaissance, thanks largely to its booming economy. After decades of economic stagnation under the socialist policies that followed the country's independence in 1947, Indians enthusiastically embraced a series of business-friendly reforms that began in the early 1990s. The result has been economic growth that currently averages more than 8% a year, with only a slight and temporary slowdown during the global financial crisis that began in 2008. That growth, in turn, has created a flourishing market for qualified graduates in everything from construction to information technology and health care.
"There are a lot of stories of successes — from rags to riches — of Indians who made it just on the basis of good education," says Pawan Agarwal, author of Indian Higher Education: Envisioning the Future (Sage; 2009). "This is creating high aspirations among Indians about higher education."
Those ambitions, along with the population growth, have fuelled an eight-fold increase in science and engineering enrolment at India's colleges and universities over the past decade, with most of the growth occurring in engineering and technology — fields in which jobs are especially plentiful. The low cost of doing business in India and the large crop of English-speaking graduates has made it a global hot spot for investment in research and development (R&D).
"In 2003, 100 foreign companies had established R&D facilities in India," says Thirumalachari Ramasami, head of the government's Department of Science and Technology. "By 2009, the number had grown to 750." Those companies include technology and communications firms such as IBM, General Electric, Cisco, Motorola, Oracle and Hewlett-Packard, all eager to get a foothold in the fast-growing information-technology hub around Bangalore.
Click for larger image
Small wonder, then, that the 15 IIT campuses nationwide have roughly 300,000 applicants every year, or that the students who make it in are very, very good: IIT acceptance rates are about 2% (see 'Only the best'), compared with around 7% at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an emblem of US elitism. "Statistically, out of a billion people there must be a Michael Faraday," says Rao. "There must be a number of talented people."
Look closer, however, and it becomes apparent that there are serious cracks in the system. For example, the vast majority of India's science and technology graduates immediately head for high-paying jobs in industry. Only about 1% of them go on to get PhDs, compared with about 8% in the United States. "Internally the brain drain is quite high," says Rao. "All the talent goes into sectors that make money but produce very little in terms of creative things for the country."
What makes this problematic, adds Rao, is that the country's rising economic tide is largely the result of its myriad outsourcing centres and the computer industry. If India cannot broaden its economy — and make better use of its brightest scientific minds — it will have little chance of solving its challenges in areas such as poverty, food, energy and water security.
"Everyone's just making computers faster, and our computers are pretty fast already," agrees Manu Prakash, who graduated from the IIT in Kanpur — and who, like many Indians with academic ambitions, elected to pursue his education elsewhere. He earned his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and now runs his own biophysics lab at Stanford University in California.
Prakash says that although the IIT system does attract superb students, it is institutionally broken because it doesn't value creativity. "You have a brilliant mathematician coming into an engineering course and then taking a nine-to-five job with a company," he says. "There is something wrong there."

Quantity versus quality

Whatever its flaws, the IITs remain out of reach for millions of eager, ambitious Indian students. The higher-education system is expanding pell-mell to accommodate them — with the burgeoning private sector filling around 90% of the demand. "We will need another 800–900 universities and 40,000–45,000 colleges within the next 10 years," says Kapil Sibal, India's minister of human resources and development. "And that's not something the government can do on its own."
For-profit colleges and universities are popping up around the country by the day — nearly 4,000 of them in 2010 alone. The road leading out of Chennai in southern India, like many around the country, is crammed with hundreds of private engineering colleges. The government has struggled to maintain any kind of standard. "The big challenge is that when you move to grant more access [to education], that the access must come with quality," says Sibal.
“We are spoon-fed. The teachers dictate and the students write down what they say.”
Many private institutions have only a few hundred students each and offer little in the way of laboratory or practical training, because labs are expensive. Curricula are outdated and there are crippling shortages of teaching staff, thanks to the allure of higher-paying industry jobs. "The younger generation is completely disillusioned with pursuing higher education with the intention of going into teaching," says Agarwal. Sibal estimates that at least 25% of academic posts are vacant and more than half of professors lack a postgraduate education.
Rahul, who prefers that his real name not be used, studies information technology at a private college an hour outside Delhi. "We are spoon-fed," he says. "The teachers dictate and the students literally write down what they say."
Rahul's parents paid hundreds of thousands of rupees up front to get him into the institute after he scored poorly on entrance exams. He says that about 30% of his peers entered in the same way, and at other colleges the informal 'management quota' can be as high as 40–50%.
This year, tuition at the institute cost 85,000 rupees (US$1,900): more than three times that charged by the IIT system. And the payments at many private colleges don't stop there, says Rahul. "A few days before [exams] you can pay 1,000 rupees for a copy of the paper, and you can pay another couple of thousand rupees if you didn't get the right marks," he says. "Then, if you don't attend classes or labs, you can pay 5,000 rupees to fulfil your attendance quota. Education here is based entirely on money. And to think, my institute is one of the best in the area."
There are more than 600 colleges affiliated with one university in his province alone, and every college has 5–6 branches, with 60–120 students each. "That's lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of students passing out of these colleges per year," says Rahul.
Moreover, many of the students are graduating with abysmal literacy and numeracy skills. Employers' surveys suggest that up to 75% are unemployable.
"You can pay to get in, you can pay to get good marks and you can pay for your attendance, but you can't pay to get into a good company," says Rahul. "There are people at my college who don't even know how to say 'how are you?' in English" — the working language of most companies.
Rahul's experience is not unusual. Geeta Kingdon, who studies education, economics and international development at the University of London's Institute of Education, points to allegations of widespread corruption in how Indian institutes and universities are accredited. "Even those who have got the relevant accreditation only got it because they paid the relevant bribe," she says. Many don't bother. A government crackdown on unaccredited institutions in 2010 left more than 40 universities and thousands of colleges in court.
Corruption has even reached the august halls of IIT Kharagpur. Last October, a handful of the institute's top engineering professors were accused of running a fake college called the Institution of Electrical Engineers (India) from the campus. The scheme allegedly involved the use of forged documents bearing the IIT logo to lure in students, who were charged 27,000 rupees for admission, roughly what the IITs charge per year. The IIT Kharagpur has launched an inquiry into the incident. "But there will always be another scandal down the road," says Srinivasan Ramanujam, a mechanical engineer at the institute. "Students are desperate to get into a college and people exploit this mentality."
With all these desperate but half-baked graduates, India's hopes of becoming a global centre of innovation are being compromised. Too often, the corporate R&D model sweeping through India treats science graduates more as grunt workers than true innovators, says Ramasami. "Just availability of scientifically talented people does not provide scientific breakthroughs. For the discovery process you need ambience and creative people."
India's government is working hard to change the trend. In January 2010, for example, it pledged to ramp its investment in R&D up from the current 1% of the gross domestic product to 2%, but this will happen very slowly, says Rao. The government's budget for 2011–12 included a one-third increase in its annual higher-education investment, to a total of 130 billion rupees. And it has approved a new funding agency, the National Science and Engineering Research Board, which is expected to become operational this year, and will have an initial budget of around US$120 million, says Rao.
By 2014, says Ramasami, the hope is that such measures will raise the number of science and technology PhDs awarded each year from the current 8,900 — less than one-third that of the United States or China — to at least 10,000. By the end of the decade, he says, the target is 20,000 PhDs a year.

Overseas input

The government is also counting on an injection of money and expertise from foreign academic institutions. With enrolment rates waning abroad, many universities are looking to India as a new academic market — including US institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon University.
US President Barack Obama's trip to India last November highlighted the growing interest: included in his delegation were three presidents of US universities and senior representatives of several more. During the trip, Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that they would hold a US–India summit on higher education this year to help encourage collaborations.
So far, Indian law has restricted foreign universities to forming partnerships with Indian institutions, says Sibal. But a Foreign Educational Institutions Bill being considered in India's parliament would allow them to build full-blown campuses of their own. Sibal takes it as a sign of what India could become. "Top-quality institutions of the United States and around the world are actually knocking at our door," he says. "The India of tomorrow will be an India that provides solutions not just for itself, but also for the rest of the world."
But that is only if India's rising youthful generation can break out of its current job-based mentality — not easy in a developing country.
One evening late last year, Shirsesh Bhaduri, a fourth-year biotechnology student at IIT Kharagpur, visited Tikka — a makeshift café in the shade of a banyan tree, where students and faculty members catch up over cups of 3-rupee tea and samosas. But just over the campus's whitewashed walls is the reality of West Bengal state and most of India: unruly fields, shanty villages, water buffalo and jungle.
"In other countries, people may choose their career according to their interests," says Bhaduri, who has just been to an interview with London-based bank Barclays. "But here the industries that pay the maximum attract the maximum applications. Most people do a master's in business administration after the IIT — and that is the aim of most people out here. Everything is money-oriented." 
Anjali Nayar is a freelance writer based in Nairobi.