Friday, January 13, 2012

The crisis in university education

The Island, 09/01/2012,


Undergraduates protest outside the Sri Jayewardenepura University on Sunday against the temporary closure of the university following a recent bomb attack on a statue and subsequent student demonstrations. (Pic Gamini Munasinghe)

I am writing this as a sequel to an article I wrote in June last year, with a very heavy heart, at a time when the whole system of higher education in Sri Lanka is in a continuous state of crisis, with no one in authority giving any serious thought to the nature of the crisis. It is no wonder that reforms do not emanate from within the Universities themselves, with all but a few of the Vice Chancellors being political appointees and the academics lacking a legitimate forum within the system to discuss and air their ideas. It is indeed a far cry from the concept of a free University that was intended by the founders of the old University of Ceylon.

The latest crisis has been sparked off by the proposed introduction of a new bill in parliament to establish ‘mechanism for the accreditation of non-state institutions of higher education’ (according to the minister) and ‘private universities’ according to its critics. It is very unfortunate that, whatever it is, such a far reaching piece of legislation is to be introduced without adequate public debate. The normal democratic practice, even in Sri Lanka, has been to introduce a white paper, or even a green paper (as precursor to a white paper) on the subject before the introduction of legislation. Unfortunately, recent practice has been very different, and important legislation has been presented to parliament as ‘urgent bills’, and passed without debate even in the parliament itself.

This is an issue that impinges on the lives of most ordinary people, and as such, it needs to be widely discussed. The request for a white paper (or even a green paper) is one that has to be made by all citizens from the minister, before he contemplates legislation.

If the objective is merely to establish a mechanism for accreditation as indicated by the short title, the minister must be made aware that such a mechanism already exists within the Higher Education Act of 1978. The UGC has on a number of occasions, through specially appointed competent committees, inspected and examined private institutions to determine whether they meet the minimum criterion to allow them to grant degrees. If and when allowed to grant academic degrees, they may make use of the UGC’s existing accreditation board for continuous evaluation. It is very difficult for a profit making institution to meet even the very slack standards of the state universities.

The prestigious ‘private’ universities abroad, especially those in the USA, are not profit making institutions. So, were the many ‘private’ schools such as the schools run by the Buddhist Theosophical Society and the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, up to 1960. It would be good if the present so-called ‘international’ schools are also required to be run as not-for-profit institutions under academic supervision, as an outcome of this discussion on private Universities.

I am keeping this communication very short as it is merely to request for an open discussion on the many issues involved. The minister must also be made aware of the very open public discussions that took place before the establishment of the University of Ceylon in the 1940s, even though we were then not a ‘free’ people. A similar public discussion preceded the enactment of the Higher Education Act of 1978.

H. Sriyananda

No comments: