Friday, February 3, 2012

Governance of our universities


by Dr. Janaka Ratnasiri

Before I address the issue of governance of universities, let me make a few general remarks on the governance of the country’s public sector organisations. Sri Lanka has two systems of public sector organisations other than ministries – one referred to as departments and the other the so-called semi-government organisations. In the case of a government department, its administration rests solely on a single person serving as the Head of the Department who is also its Chief Executive Officer (CEO). He is referred to by many names such as the Director General or Commissioner General or Conservator General etc. In his decision making, he is strictly governed by the government’s administrative regulations (AR) and financial regulations (FR) as well as on many financial and administrative circulars issued from time to time by the Treasury and the Public Administration (PA) Ministry, respectively. He has little discretion of his own and whatever discretion he has, he is not in a position to use it the way he wants as he is closely watched by trade unions. Generally, in most departments, the head is appointed from the ranks based on seniority unless there is compelling evidence against such an appointment.

In the case of semi-government organisations referred to generally as statutory boards and specifically as Authorities, Boards, Commissions, Corporations etc., the CEO is not the sole authority responsible for the administration of the organisation. Almost all these organisations have been established under a separate Act of Parliament which describes their mandates and objectives. The Act also provides for the appointment of a governing body responsible for its general governance and financial control. The governing body, referred to by different names such as Board of Directors, Governing Board, Management Board, Council etc., is chaired by a person specifically nominated by the Minister in charge. The attributes of the board members are also spelt out in the Act. Most of these statutory boards were established in the sixties and seventies to introduce some flexibility to the administration of government bodies with a view to improve their efficiencies without being stifled by ARs and FRs.

The appointment of the CEO is in the hands of the Minister and may or may not be appointed out of the ranks. The CEO is only a member of the board and has no powers to make decisions which is done collectively by the Board and of course guided by the Chairman. Though the Act gives the boards the necessary powers to act independently, it is customary today to seek the approval of the Ministry and even the Treasury before any decision is implemented. The smooth operation of the organisation lies to a great extent on the relationship between the Chairman and the CEO. The CEO cannot act unilaterally on any issue as he is answerable to the Board. In general, this collective decision making is a better system than what is found in departments where only a single person does all the decision making.

In universities, on the other hand, the prevailing system is quite different. Universities do have boards of management called the Councils responsible for overall administration, and another called the Senate responsible for decision making on academic matters. However, the Chairman of the Council and the CEO are one and the same person - the Vice Chancellor (VC) - a feature not found in any other organisation. The universities do have another person above the VC, that is the Chancellor, but currently his functions are limited to chairing the Annual Convocations where he gives away the degree certificates to the newly passing out graduates and garlanding them. He does not play any role in any decision making activity, not even in any advisory capacity. Thus, the VC has the total control of all university affairs including those of the students. By any standard, this system cannot be accepted as satisfactory and it should be rectified by bringing the decision making process in universities to fall in line with that of the other public sector organisations. It is not difficult to do this change even now as the universities already have the Chancellor and this change could be done simply by making the Chancellor the Chairman of the Council. If any amendments to the Act or regulations need to be done to effect such a change, I believe there should be no barrier for that. Such a change could bring about a more balanced decision making process acceptable to everybody concerned, minimising conflict situations in our universities. In the future, cognizance may be made on this new role of a Chancellor when appointing them.

According to recent media reports, there have been student agitations in several universities on a wide range of issues. In some of these, students have taken to the road voicing their protests against the VCs. At least in one university, the VC has been debarred from taking any policy decision for which a separate committee has been appointed by higher authorities. It is obvious that there has been a breakdown of the trust placed by students on the VC and it is important that this should be restored to ensure smooth operation of universities. Many of the ills prevailing in universities could be avoided by separating out the VC’s functions as the CEO of the university and his decision making function as the Council Chairman. Student protests against the university system including VCs are of course not something new, and these used to come up from time to time even from the time of the first Sri Lankan VC – Sir Nicholas Attygalle. Incidentally, he too was known to govern the University with an iron fist.

In addition to the above anomaly, there is another serious matter that could cause the prevailing loss of trust in the VCs; that is the current procedure adopted for the appointment of a VC. Out of the candidates nominated or who submit applications for the post of a VC when it falls vacant and advertised, the Council selects three persons suitable for the post and forwards their names to higher authorities for the final selection. While there are strict guidelines laid out for the initial selection, there are no such guidelines prescribed for the final selection. A question that would come up in the minds of any right thinking person is what justification is there to depend on a political authority to do the final selection of a VC. Why cannot the Council itself do the final selection based solely on the merits of the candidate – both academic and humane - rather on extraneous factors?

I am sure if the person appointed as VC is someone whom the students could look up to, many of the problems that plague our universities would not come up. However, even if the best person is appointed in the manner adopted at present, he or she has little acceptance as the best person, particularly by students who will see the new VC as a political appointee rather than as a respected academic. Such a perception of a VC does not do any good to the system or to the person himself. It only undermines the credibility of the person however good the person is. In the event of a crisis, everyone concerned – academics, non-academics, students and others – will certainly listen to a person who could stand on his own feet rather than to a person who has received state patronage.

Currently, Sri Lanka is at the receiving end of international criticism in many fronts ranging from alleged war crimes to suppression of media freedom. To those elements who wish to damage the image of Sri Lanka, any interference in the appointment of a VC by the Head of State may also appear as suppression of academic freedom, and they will not hesitate to add this to the list of alleged crimes against the society. I believe anywhere in the democratic world, the selection of a person for appointment as the VC is a task carried out solely by the university and nowhere by a head of state as done here. Hence, sooner this procedure is done away with the better it is for the system and for the country.

Let the Council alone decide the most suitable person for appointment as the VC, judging solely on the merits. Such a VC appointed through accepted procedure could then earn the respect from all quarters – academics (both local and international), non-academics, students and the community. It is the only way the government could restore the dignity of the VC’s position. A VC held in high esteem will certainly be able to avoid any conflict situation in universities which has been a bane in the country erupting from time to time in recent times. The government, too, should have faith in such a system and I am sure that any person so selected as the VC will serve the university, community and the country with equal loyalty to the government as one appointed under the current system.

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