Saturday, January 28, 2012

A-Level fiasco and private universities Bill - Pressure mounts on the government

Island, January 21, 2012, 3:51 pm

Kumar David

It is no coincidence that in the face of the storm created by  the A-Level results fiasco the government hastily withdrew the Bill to permit  private universities. Indeed the regime has been frying on several fronts and is  beating a hasty retreat on most. The most serious of the current crises is the  A-Level fiasco and public anger will not subside despite the analgesic of a  Presidential Committee that fudged the conundrum. Anti-government sections will  exploit it and President Rajapaksa, Higher Education Minister SB and Education  Minister Bandula are in for a torrid time when university admission lists are  finalised. The New-JVP is sure to lead a campaign that will attract public  support.

Though no supporter of the UPFA or the Rajapaksa brothers, I had  thought that thanks to war victory and the sweep of chauvinism through the  Sinhalese community, this government would be stable for most of its full term  of office following the 2010 election cycle. I am not so sure anymore; already  2012 is emerging as a year of uncertainty on this and many more issues.

The A-Level fiasco

The best available information is that the cock-up in the  A-Level results happened for a simple reason; candidates who sat the examination  under the Old Syllabus (OS) and under the New Syllabus (NS) were treated as a  single ‘population’ (a statistical term) in the calculation of z-scores. Bear  with me and let me explain what z-scores are; it is useful for everybody to get  a handle since it has become a hot topic.

Obviously, scoring patterns (raw marks) in say mathematics  (several candidates may score 100%) and in say literature are quite different.  So how do we compare subjects with wide divergences in raw marks? The method is  to bring the means (subject averages) of all subjects to a common point;  statistically, that’s easy enough. Then comparison is possible by examining how  far above or below the mean a candidate’s attainment is in any subject.

But there is a second problem; the natural spread of raw marks  is different in different subjects. In some subjects the raw marks may naturally  spread all the way from say 100 to nearly zero, while in others marks may be  bunched around the average. How to compare subjects with divergent spreads? This  is done by scaling in such a way that, after processing, the marks in all  subjects have the same pattern of spread, that is, distributions are made  similar. Statistically speaking, all marks have been processed so as to have the  same variance (or standard deviation).

A candidate’s z-score is his/her mark, in each subject, after  both mean and variance in each subject, has been aligned in the aforesaid  manner. Now one can compare the z-score of one candidate in mathematics and  another in literature without being in a situation of comparing apples and  oranges. A statistician would say that different subjects are being handled as  distinct ‘populations’ and scores aligned to a consistent pattern.

Candidates who sit for different examination papers in similar  subjects, say physics old syllabus (POS) and physics new syllabus (PNS), should  similarly be treated as different ‘populations’. For example, say the average  mark in POS is 50 and the average mark in PNS is 60. Then can you really say  that a candidate who scores 62 in PNS is better than one who scores 61 in POS?  Of course not; OS and NS candidates in similar subjects should be treated like  candidates who take different subjects. That is to say their z-scores should be  processed as distinct ‘populations’. From all reports the fiasco has arisen  because OS and NS scores were not processed as separate ‘populations’ in z-score  calculations. When this is not done the final z-scores are a jumbled mess from  pooling two distinct ‘populations’, say POS and PNS, into one. Different  z-scores within the jumble cannot be meaningfully compared; they are indeed  apples and oranges shoved into one basket.

The examination authorities and ministry had two years lead time  to think, design and disclose to the public how it intended to handle this  apparent conflict of interest between OS and NS. The authorities failed to do so  and have infuriated the public. The President has taken a goodly share of the  anger upon himself by rushing the authorities to release examination results  prematurely.

There have been errors in the finalisation of district lists but  these are errors pure and simple, not matters of methodological significance. We  are assured that they have been rectified and I am prepared to accept the  assurance. The problem lies elsewhere. If the z-scores are recomputed as  suggested above, rankings will change and some candidates who are currently  ineligible for university admission will become eligible, pushing out others who  are currently ‘eligible’. If the scores are not recomputed all those currently  excluded will argue that they have been unfairly excluded. There is no respite;  the government has caught a tiger by the tail! I do not see how not just Bandula,  but even Rajapaksa is going to extricate himself from this hole. Bandula must  take formal responsibility and resign; did I hear you say "Fat hopes"?

The private universities debate

A Bill to allow private universities – invariably in partnership  with established overseas institutions – was drafted in secrecy and was to be  rushed through parliament. It masquerades under the wolf in sheep’s clothing  pseudonym ‘Quality Assurance, Accreditation and Qualification Frame Bill’. The  university teachers’ federation publicised a leaked copy and it is a hair  raising document that tramples academic independence underfoot. Power would be  centralised and the minister would decide what is to be taught and who would  teach, and much else.

The ever pliant Supreme Court would have certified it as an  urgent Bill as it did with the foul 18th Amendment and the Act nationalising 35  enterprises. Apart from strangulation and burial of the public university system  this mode of enactment is an affront to democratic rights of citizens in a  matter of utmost public importance. In the 1940s the Act to establish the  University of Ceylon went through protracted public consultation and refinement  by more than one committee of local and international experts. Colonial  liberalism was more open, transparent and democratic than the Rajapaksa regime!

JVP led student bodies, are on the boil; protest marches are  breaking out and SB, whose penchant for strong-arm stuff is known, is  threatening hell and fury. The case of the student bodies and the majority of  the academic community is that the government is attempting to scuttle Lanka’s  university free education system. This reading is made against the background a  sharp pro-business rightward turn in economic policy concocted in cahoots with  the IMF.

In my view the suspicion that the government is bent on  undermining the university system, now all public but for the contested Malabe  medical school, is justified. The fear is substantiated by the treatment  successive governments have meted out to the universities for decades. While  neighbours like India, Singapore and Malaysia are proud of their public  universities and venture to grow their best into centres of international  excellence, Sri Lanka has simply starved its universities of: (i) funds  (library, laboratory and lodgings), (ii) a research ethos and opportunities,  (iii) national recognition, and (iv) international connections. For an account  of how public universities are being run to the ground see Ranga Jayasuriya’s  piece on page 5 of LakbimaNews, 15 January.

The government wants a by now problematic and potentially  expensive public university system off its hands; it would like to delegate  high-flyer slots to new fee levying private universities. Thereafter a second  class rump public university system will be retained for the yako classes. Lanka  is the lowest spender on education in South Asia as a percentage of GDP (2%) and  a percentage of the budget (7.5%).

Yes, having fee-levying private universities is good; it expands  opportunity for those who can afford to pay. However, remember that the worlds  finest, Harvard, Princeton, MIT etc, are private but not-for-profit schools.  Actually they use the income from their huge endowment funds to provide  scholarships for outstanding financially strapped applicants from the US and  anywhere in the world. The fundamental thing is that these are universities,  centres of academic excellence, not business ventures. Their raison d’etre is  different from institutions outreaching, mainly out of the UK and Australia (no  offence meant), to earn profit overseas due to funding difficulties at home. The  latter are primarily business ventures, they subscribe to the philosophy of  education as a marketed commodity; often they are degree factories with lax  standards where one can buy Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, even PhDs. OK this  is an overstatement, but you get the gist of what I am saying, and I speak from  knowledge of such outreach ventures in Hong Kong.

Private universities are fine in principle but if they are to be  built over the dead body of the public university system by a government with  deeply step-motherly motives, well that’s another matter. Oxford and Cambridge  take no notice of private colleges on the banks of the Thames; the latter offer  no competition. But when public universities are being run to the ground instead  of being nurtured as centres of excellence, then privatisation is an entirely  different story.

In this context the GCE(A/L) examination mess is seen by most as  a deliberate conspiracy by the government and the Ministries of Education and  Higher Education to turn the public against the free education system and rush  through an iniquitous Bill. Though I find this conspiracy theory far fetched it  has taken a grip on the public mind. Swathes of public opinion buy it; parent’s  associations, teacher’s unions and grass roots bodies are mobilising for a  showdown. The standoff between government and student-teacher-parent combine may  turn out to be a more serious conflict than just A-Level results. SB must take  responsibility and resign; but did I hear you say "Fat hopes" again!

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