Sunday, January 15, 2012

Quality of University Education


Prof. S. Amaratunga

There had been several letters in The Island on the subject of university education written by erudite scholars. In this brief note I would attempt to present another aspect of this problem. There was a time when the objective of university education was to train a person for life. Now the aim of university education it seems is to train a person for a job. In fact the employability of the product appears to be the main criterion for assessment of the quality of university education. Times have changed it appears and perhaps everybody is enslaved in the struggle for achieving the dubious goal of economic development. The important question is, caught as we are in that predicament, could anybody or any university pursue a different path and have a different goal. Could university education while improving the employability of its product also instill the good human qualities that equip a person for life? Or is the world so degenerate that these two goals are incompatible?

University education may have several important objectives and the following three may be more important in the context of the need to improve employability while enhancing the human qualities; (1) improve the problem solving ability of the graduate, (2) improve the creative ability of the graduate and (3) enhance the sensitivity of the graduate, which could be defined as heightened awareness of oneself and others within the context of personal and social relationships. Obviously good human qualities would stand in good stead in the procurement of employment as well and thus there is no need for these two goals to be incompatible. The above three objectives if realised would significantly enable a person not only to find a job but also to lead a harmonious life.

A university graduate has to be of a higher caliber and must posses the intellect and the capacity to solve the problems that afflict the individual, the community or the environment as the case may be depending on the work he or she is engaged in. Whether the graduate is a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, a scientist, a bank manager, an economist, an agriculturist or a factory manager what he or she would be called upon to do very often is problem solving. If this person has not been adequately trained in the methods of problem solving he would not make a good doctor, an engineer, a scientist etc. The concept of problem based learning which has been incorporated in the curricula of some universities has arisen out of the need for the above mentioned competency. The employability of a graduate and also the prospects of keeping a job and gaining promotion would very much depend on his or her problem solving ability. Problems arise not only in employment but abundantly in life too. A person who has a developed ability to solve problems would be well equipped to face life. Unfortunately the curricula and particularly the learning methods adopted by most of the Sri Lankan universities do not focus adequately on this aspect of education.

Creativity is an inherent human characteristic and its manifestation is variable among human beings. When creativity is nurtured to its optimum capacity the chances of producing great poets, musicians, novelists, scientists, engineers, physicians etc. are enhanced. Else those who have the potential, if denied of the environment and the opportunities, may never develop to their full capacity. Unfortunately in the universities creativity appears to be considered less important except perhaps in the area of fine arts. Even in the areas like literature and architecture, weightage given for creativity and the facilitation provided for its growth are inadequate. This is understandable given the present need to train people to perform stereotyped functions like machines in order to be able to contribute to the economic development. However this need not be so. Space for creativity could be provided to advantage in any curriculum at the required level whether in humanities, science, medicine, agriculture, engineering or any other. Further creativity and problem solving ability are complementary characteristics. A creative doctor would be a better doctor and so it is with other professions and jobs. A creative person is better equipped to solve life’s problems including personal problems.

Universities in the larger context have an obligation to make their products more sensitive to the needs and attitudes of their fellow beings. They should be able to appreciate human weaknesses and strengths and respond in a positive manner. They should be able to accommodate different points of view. If this characteristic is lacking maximum use of the other two abilities, problem solving and creativity, cannot be satisfactorily achieved. Sensitivity is one of the natural good human qualities which everybody posses in varying degree and which could be developed to a desirable level by means of education and exposure to humanizing experiences. Learning subjects like humanities and exposure to good literature, drama, music and art is one way of achieving this objective. Studies carried out in the medical faculties in the USA have found that introduction of humanities in small modules into the medical curriculum could result in making the doctors more sensitive to their patients’ needs. It was found that such a measure could positively reduce the brutalisation that may result from following an isolated, compartmentalised curriculum that focuses on human morbidity.

University student violence in general and "ragging" in particular could be a phenomenon that has its origins in the insensitivity that prevails among the present younger generation. Brutalising nature of the whole education system must take the blame for this sad state of affairs. True, there is a political element in the causation of student violence but it is the insensitive mind set that makes the individual student vulnerable to the political manipulations and the consequent conviction that violence is the means that could bring about change. They are insensitive to the agony that the victim of their ragging undergoes or the damage they cause to state property or the indignity they cause to the university dons.

University curricula in Sri Lanka at present are compartmentalised and fragmented into areas called science, arts, commerce and so on. One has to fit into one of these water tight compartments irrespective of ones talents and desires. If one has an interest for instance in both science and arts, or say geography and mathematics, history and music or any other selection of subjects one should be able to expect the university to provide facilities to pursue such an interest as far as possible. But in our system this is not possible. One should be able to read for a degree in say mathematics and literature. The fostering of such a combination of talents by the university may result in the birth of a mathematician with deep sensitivity and creativity. Even the professional courses such as medicine and engineering could have modules in humanities, music, literature, drama etc. which would help in making the student appreciative of the wider world and better trained for life. Moreover it would remove to a great extent the dehumanizing factor that could lurk in a narrow based education.

The malady however does not lie entirely within the university system. The school education must take its share of the blame. After all the raw material for university education is produced in the schools. Fragmentation and compartmentalization start in the schools. Separation into science, arts and commerce streams which starts at Advanced Level continues into the university and other higher education systems. The rot sets in even before that. From year one in school a child should be given the freedom, the encouragement and the facilities for the development of his or her inherent talents, natural thirst for knowledge, inborn creativity, flair and imagination. Instead the child is burdened with an excessive quantity of "learning" which blunts the more desirable inborn qualities such as self learning ability, creativity etc. The child does not enjoy his or her childhood but is forced to learn things he may not like. At the fifth year in school the child is induced to take a highly competitive examination that has a vast syllabus. Tuition classes start very early in the child’s life and this goes on until the A Level exam is taken. If the child survives the ordeal without damage to his or her mental state he may enter the university but is he prepared for a university education in the true sense of the word. This young person has very little thirst for learning which he considers to be a burden, his creative talents are blunted, he has inadequate problem solving ability and he may not be very sensitive of the feelings of his fellow beings. What is worse he may be selfish, aggressive, and competitive to an extreme degree. School education seems to be designed to facilitate the development of undesirable human qualities.

Thus the young person who enters the university expects everything to be taught to him. His horizon is very narrow and his interests are also limited. He is not looking for opportunities to express his creativity, or practice his problem solving ability for they are not adequately developed. I suppose a university can do nothing more than what it does given the material it has to deal with.

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