Monday, January 9, 2012

Are Public Universities in Sri Lanka fulfilling their mandate?

This was presented by Dr. Harini Amarasuriya of Open University of Sri Lanaka at the seminar held on the 7th Jan. 2012 on the Future of Higehr Education in Sri Lanka.

Download the google doc document at.
By Harini Amarasuriya, Camena Gunaratne, Deepika Udugama and Priyan Dias

In the debate that is raging regarding higher education in Sri Lanka today among the many issues being discussed, a crucial one is that of the quality of the national, public funded universities.  Public universities are accused of not fulfilling their role effectively; academics have been charged with producing ‘unemployable’ graduates, of failing as teachers and researchers and also for being removed and uninvolved in issues affecting the larger community. University academics have also been accused of shirking their responsibilities and of exploiting academic freedom by simply not even turning up for work. 

Academics in turn have pointed out that resources for higher education have been steadily dwindling and that salaries for university staff are far from adequate.  This they have pointed out leads to difficulties in recruiting and retaining the best academics in state universities.  Many with post-graduate qualifications obtained abroad from public funds do not return to Sri Lanka creating many unfilled vacancies in universities.  All this paints a woeful picture of public universities in Sri Lanka as uninspiring, poor quality institutions that are failing miserably in fulfilling its mission.  This picture is usually one of the arguments that is presented to justify the alternative of private universities.   

While public universities are being lambasted for failing to fulfil their mandate on the one side, initiatives to establish mechanisms for ‘Quality Assurance’ in the universities are underway.  Already, a Quality Assurance and Accreditation Council has been established by the UGC.  This Council has developed Codes of Practices for teaching, learning, assessment, staff development etc and carries out institutional and subject reviews regularly.  The CVCD, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Directors have been closely involved in developing these Codes of Practices and QAA frameworks. The proposed highly secretive bill to establish private universities also includes the establishment of a Quality Assurance and Accreditation Council with wide ranging powers over both public and private universities and the composition of this council as well as its mandate is highly problematic.

What is missing however, is a discussion on how we define and more importantly measure quality in higher education.    While all of us, reluctantly or not are increasingly involved in the quality assurance process, what we are not doing is engaging in a process of critical reflection  on whether public universities are fulfilling its mandate, indeed what the mandate of universities should be, and if there should be public accountability in universities and if so to whom and how we should be accountable.  Our absence from these discussions have meant that this space has been occupied by those who are determining for us what higher education means, how we should be held accountable and to whom.  In the process, the whole idea of higher education itself is being transformed.

Ideally, the quality of higher education needs to be considered in terms of two important areas:  the quality of the educational process experienced by students and the quality of the contribution that the university community makes in terms of producing knowledge. In our own system, we are supposed to be assessed on our contribution to teaching, research and national development. The latter can also be linked to the relevance of the university community for society at large.  Traditionally, universities were expected to be self-regulatory; quality control was the responsibility of academics of each discipline. University autonomy and self-determination were fiercely guarded as part of this process of self-regulation.  These were considered key characteristics of university culture.

On the other hand, the new quality assurance mechanisms and regulatory frameworks have been critiqued by academics worldwide for bringing in an ‘audit culture’ (Shore and Wright 1999; Apple 2005) that undermines university autonomy and academic professionalism.  These new mechanisms have been critiqued as part of a larger movement changing the very nature of universities within a new market logic and governance structure.  Consequently, what becomes important is only what can be measured; we are assessed on how many graduates we produce, how many of these graduates gain employment, how many research papers we write, how many conferences we attend and how many patents we obtain.  There is no critical reflection on what any of these measurements actually mean.  Instead, these measurements have become so much a part of our everyday thinking that we do not stop to think whether the way higher education is being transformed by these measurements is acceptable or even appropriate.

In Sri Lanka this transformation can be seen in the increasing pressure to ensure the employability of graduates, to design courses that are demanded by the industry and to introduce courses that teach students ‘soft skills’, IT and English to graduates.  There is also huge pressure on courses especially in the humanities that are seen as not labour market worthy.  This is based on the assumption that the current university experience is producing graduates who are unemployable, that courses being offered are out of step with labour market needs and that lack of employability is linked to specific skills which are not linked to subject knowledge.  But more importantly, it defines the  mandate of universities and the objective of higher education in a very particular manner. 

Since the issue of the employability of graduates is a central preoccupation in universities today, this issue needs to be considered carefully.    Is the role of university education to be measured solely on the basis of the employment rate of its graduates?  For instance, when discussing the issue of employability, is it also not necessary to talk about the quality of secondary education?  The issue of employability is not unimportant; of course we want our graduates to be gainfully employed.  Whether simply adjusting higher education to meet industry needs is an adequate response to the employment problems of graduates is questionable.

Defining employability simply in terms of meeting market or industry needs is extremely restricting.  For one thing, market and industry needs are only defined by the current context; it does not take into consideration what a future market may look like. It also has an extremely limited notion of what skills are required in the real world.  In fact, while it is most certainly true that employment does not depend solely on the degree of subject knowledge, but also on the an employee’s ability to think critically, logically and being able to understand the social context in which they operate these are not skills that can be nurtured through restricting the scope of higher education or by introducing leadership training or soft skills courses.  Moreover, not all societal needs are determined by the market nor can they be valued by market logic.  For instance, society needs artists, philosophers, human rights activists, politicians, teachers, spiritual leaders whose value cannot be determined by the vagaries of the share market.  What is alarming about the transformation that is taking place in higher education today is that it restricts our understanding of what a quality higher education actually means. 

Furthermore, the issue of the quality of higher education cannot be separated from the dwindling resources within the university system.  Sri Lanka spends less than 2% of its GDP on education in its entirety. Of this, what higher education receives is woefully inadequate.  Paltry salaries for university staff is a serious issue:  how the best people can be recruited and retained within a system that fails to adequately compensate them for their services is a serious question.  Coupled with severe shortages in resources for research and teaching, universities are fighting to attract those who have serious academic ambitions.  Also, over the years, the space for universities to engage in nationally relevant work has been restricted.  The politicisation of policy development process, the lack of state patronage for research and development has meant that universities are being sidelined from society.    What all this means is that when we talk about the crisis in higher education there are many issues that need to be considered.

The questions we have about how our work is being assessed, the decreasing investment in higher education and the growing interference with the autonomy of universities does not however mean that there is no need for a vigorous discussion on the quality of higher education in this country and the need for public universities to be accountable. Sri Lankan universities have continued to serve the country despite huge resource and administrative deficiencies; we have produced high quality graduates and there are hardworking, talented, widely respected academics serving in our institutions.  But, it is also true that many students have serious complaints about the quality of their educational experience and that some of us are not fulfilling either our teaching or research responsibilities let alone contributing to national development.   

Many of us turn to an idealised past, a so called ‘golden era’ of higher education in Sri Lanka when confronted with the challenges we are facing today.  But lamenting an idealised past is not sufficient.  It is also important that we examine existing practices within our universities critically. We also need to face the fact that higher education today is facing complex challenges that require creative and innovative solutions as well as better management and administrative structures which we lack in our institutions. We also need to reflect critically on the kind of university culture that exists in our universities. For instance, the insidious guru-gola relationships that permeate our university culture stifle independent and critical thinking.  Some of our colleagues do not fulfil their responsibilities as teachers and researchers but they are not held accountable.  Promotions have become highly politicised often encouraging academics to simply toe the line in order to advance their careers.  Academics who are not the favourites of the administration are often persecuted.  Let us also not forget that universities can be and indeed are sites of serious conflicts which are often resolved, with our complicity in very undemocratic ways.  Our universities also have been sites where minority views and opinions have been suppressed, where gender stereotypes are reinforced and cultural diversity is frowned upon.  As academics we have either remained silent and uninvolved on many issues of national importance or simply sided with ruling regimes often for personal benefit. 

Critically reflecting on the mandate and state of public universities and higher education is important for two very important reasons:  firstly, it will help us identify what it is we want to defend in our system and also will ensure that the space for improving quality is not occupied by those who are only preoccupied with ensuring that higher education is turned into a commodity for sale in the market or in introducing a form of managerialism and audit culture that stifles and restricts university education and culture.  Let us also not make the mistake of simply blaming politicians for this situation.  Many of those who are defending the new discourse of privatisation and an audit culture are from within our own ranks.  We need to analyse how it is that we have allowed ourselves to be persuaded so easily about things that are essentially contradictory to our own long term interest and certainly to fulfilling our social responsibility.  

Thus, while there can be no disagreement about the need for quality and accountability within the university system, what is urgently needed is a discussion on how these are defined. What are the problems that need to be addressed and how best can they be addressed?  Are the current quality assurance mechanisms encouraging this kind of discussion or simply transforming universities in completely new directions?  Are those directions acceptable?  Are those directions appropriate for the Sri Lankan context?  What alternatives can the academic community propose?

Further, if universities are to be accountable, to whom should they be accountable and for what should they be accountable?  The current audit culture has been critiqued as part of the process in which academic institutions are being reinvented as financial bodies.  Processes that were traditionally used to audit financial institutions are being used for universities and this has become normalised to such a degree that it is no longer even questioned.  Furthermore, although conceptually it is argued that universities need to be accountable to the public and students in particular, the current process of accountability is in reality to the UGC and the Ministry (or more recently, simply to the Minister) of Higher Education.  Whether this process ensures that universities address the problems they are currently facing is debatable. 

What is clear is that instead of acquiescing to the external imposition of standards and meanings of quality and accountability in public universities and in higher education, we too need to be actively involved in finding some of these answers.  We must demand and get from the higher authorities  the space to do so; or if not create our own spaces to enter into a meaningful dialogue in an open and transparent environment.

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