Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Policy and Structural Change in Education for a Better Tomorrow

Sri Lanka Guardian, 31/07/2012

INSIDE STORY: National Education

| by Professor N.T.S. Wijesekera

( July 30, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) This article is a summary of the key points delivered at the public seminar on the theme “National Education Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”, conducted by the University of Moratuwa Teachers’ Association (UMTA) at S De S Jayasinghe Hall, Dehiwala on 18th July 2012 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Seminar of the University of 
Moratuwa Teachers Association at Dehiwala
Every ‘Nation’s Dream’ is to achieve the status of a ‘Great Nation’ that can stand on its own. In the quest for a great nation, a sustainable education system is indispensable. It is more so for our nation because we do not possess the commonly known valuable resources of the world except the invaluable human resource with a very high literacy rate. A sustainable education system would pave the way to produce responsible citizens, ensure ample support for the development and hence to build a strong economy. Further, a sustainable education system will positively contribute to make prudent decisions that will ensure the sustainable wellbeing of the global ecosystem at large.

Presently the University Academics are requesting the government to provide a compatible remuneration to attract the best that are moving to the industry, plus a substantial commitment from the government to enhance the status of their working facilities and upgrading the status of the students presently filtered through the primary and secondary education systems. This has been put forth as a request for the promised salary increase and for a commitment to enhance the public expenditure on education to a level of 6% of GDP. In this instance, the GDP is taken as a unit of measurement keeping to international standards. Therefore it is important not to be mistaken as 6% from GDP.

Many can raise a reasonable question as to why the University academics in this country up to now were not concerned about the sustainability of the entire education system of the country. Answer though implicit, leads to the point that at this juncture, the university academics have realised it is high time for the Sri Lankan academia to come forward and start a constructive dialogue about the core issues of the education system and appeal the nation to take a serious note of this major crisis that causes catastrophic consequences for the forthcoming generations.

Role of the University

In order to rationalise a sustainable education system, first of all, it is necessary to identify the role of a university. In the literature, a university is defined as an entity to ensure that every student, no matter the wealth of parents, has a chance to enjoy the ‘Nation's Dream’; educate the leaders in a democratic system; provide advanced learning and knowledge through faculty research and giving students the opportunity to broaden their minds even when learning does not seem immediately relevant to their careers; teach students to interact with people and appreciate the differences and diversity; and help students to find a passion and even a purpose in life. Universities of a great nation produce good workers who would earn foreign exchange with their products and services. They would also produce good graduates and leaders who would directly attract foreign exchange of international markets to provide cutting edge services and products.

Due to these characteristics, Universities in general are considered as the Backbone of a Country. In very simple terms the universities produce citizens who can exercise influence on behalf of Humanity and Civilisation.

It is no secret that for universities to thrive, academics and students who work together to achieve the aforementioned objectives are a clear necessity. Thus, a university should ideally be composed of good academics, good students, good facilities and possess a conducive-environment for education. In the remaining part of the article, aspects of academics and students who shoulder the pillars of a good higher education system are in focus.


A good university system needs to look after its academics by providing good salaries and a good supportive environment, which includes good infrastructure and good support staff. A survey carried out in July 2012 at University of Moratuwa revealed that at the present salary scales of an academic (academic positions are filled by the cream of a batch of students) who had obtained a PhD degree would get only 31% of what his or her counterpart who opted not to pursue studies, but to join and work in industry. A Senior Professor who is an Icon of Wisdom would get only 27% of what is earned by an industry parallel (Figure 2). This pathetic situation has discouraged the best graduates joining the academia. A reversing of this trend which is to attract the best graduates to join the academia is an absolute necessity. Other than this it is also necessary to incorporate measures to retain the attracted staff for the purpose of ensuring a sustainable university system contributing to the delivery of a Nation's expectations.

Figure 2: University - Industry Salary Comparison Deteriorates with Time and Experience

A comparison of international value of a university academic, from the information of the book "Paying the Professoriate" (Figure 3) indicated that the most opted greener pastures across the oceans provide much greater remuneration packages. The review of this book on the web presents a good salary comparison utilising a common indicator.

Therefore it is important that the university academics are at least given a salary compatible with the local market.

Figure 3: A Recent Book on Salary
University Facilities
When one considers the university facilities, it is evident that the infrastructure status is very poor and rapidly deteriorating. The research support is nonexistent, laboratories lack new equipment, lecture room space is inadequate and student accommodation needs refurbishment. The current financial figures from state universities reveal that per student expenditure is reducing at an alarming rate simply because the state is increasing the student numbers without increasing the commitment for infrastructure (Figure 4).

This situation creates a serious constraint in effective teaching and research delivery by a university academic when attempting to fulfil the expectations of a nation. This leads to displeasure and frustration among the academic community. Even though the salary of an academic reaches the world standards, this issue remains a great factor contributing to an Academic leaving the system. Such departures would certainly jeopardise the sustainability of the system and the dreams of a Nation.

Figure 4: Comparative Statistics Reflecting the Deterioration of Student Facility Availability

University Students

Looking at the situation with respect to the status of students; they are recruited from the list prepared from the results of the GCE Advanced Level examination and the Z-Scores. Only 15-17% of those who sit for the examination get qualified for university education. Many can raise the question, Aren't they the best out of the group?, Aren't they adequate to produce good graduates?

Surveys carried out among the university academics expressing their level of satisfaction on the students presently admitted as university entrants, revealed a major flaw in the attempt to achieve sustainability of the higher education and the education system as a whole. In this survey, several factors from the view point of academic staff were qualitative evaluated. The factors used in the opinion survey were: Willingness to study/learn; Students not exhausted; Conceptually sound (Knowledge of subject basics); Experienced in group work and Honestly indicating the member contributions; Good speaking and writing in university media of instructions; Experienced in using basic office-software; Good in speed reading; Having good social values; Trained in timely submission of outputs; and Having a good vocabulary. The study of a staff member sample of 45 at the University of Moratuwa revealed that while the first factor just exceeded the 50% satisfaction level of the academics, the rest were between 25% and 50%. The speed reading capability (Figure 5) has been at the lowest of expectation level. The same survey carried out with a sample of 75 staff members from the University of Sri Jayawardenapura revealed similar results.

In order to capture how the students felt about themselves nicely fitting the aspirations of the university academics, the same survey was carried out using a sample of 90 students of university of Moratuwa and the results are shown in the Figure 5. The averages of the results provide a good indicator that reflects a compromise between high staff aspirations and student psychology overvaluing the true position. These results indicate that at best the students would be reaching the 50% level of expectations and hence the primary and secondary education systems require a take a look at its roots without further delay.

Figure 5: The Status of University Entrants

Primary and Secondary Education

Considering the primary and secondary education system, some issues that reflect badly on the sustainability of a nation and its aspiration to become the ‘Knowledge Hub of Asia’ are; the number of teachers, teacher training, school buildings, school facilities and low staff salaries. In this connection the following factors also have been evidenced, researched and some are published in Journals.

After passing GCE Ordinary Level, typically a student takes a minimum of 4 years to enter the university. This is a time loss at prime age. At the Advanced Level, the way IT and English are taught, examined, and results are delivered to the students, reflect the care and interest taken to familiarise these two subjects. Further, more than 50% of students do not experience the grip of science as they get the knowledge without a practical exposure. In most education and administrative forums, Advanced Level subjects are recommended to be geared towards employment, without even considering the real objectives of primary and secondary education. The present Advanced Level and Ordinary Level Syllabi are attempting to cater to those who fail the examination and not for those who aspire success and further. The chaos of IT education is well reflected in a research which identified that in a survey of schools, the principals say that student computer usage is 20hrs/week while IT instructors of the same school say it is 6-10 hrs/week: Research pertaining to primary and secondary education system has also recognised that unmanageable student numbers in each class, poor management of class rooms and problems with increased subject contents are critical issues. The dependency on tuition, lack of faith in regular school teachers, negative attitudes of the parents and students on school teachers is a serious negative phenomenon that characterises the plight of the present education system. Research also has indicated that there is deterioration of math knowledge in the university entrants and this can be attributed to the reliance on private tuition system. Lack of student centred activities such as project explanations, field work, opportunity for creative work, and team work make a serious impact on the expected potential of a student reaching the university system.

A recent survey of a student's lifetime in the Ordinary Level Classes revealed that 37.5% of time is spent for system survival (such as eating and sleeping) and 55.2% is spent on education, tuition and transport for education. A similar survey indicated that Advanced Level students use 29.3% for system survival while 66.7% of time is spent for studying for examinations and travelling for education.

Only icing, no cake?

The universities are presently adjusting their curricula and coaching classes to address the issues or deficiencies that are arising from the primary and secondary education systems. In addition, the universities are also adding cosmetic programs to satisfy the industry requirement of "A readymade practitioner". However, what is important to note is that the duration of a university's academic program remains unchanged at either 3 or 4 years. Therefore it is inevitable that the University's core curricular needs to be curtailed or by this sandwich effect. Therefore it is obvious that the graduates do not obtain an education they or the country deserve. Figure 6 is an attempt to illustrate these concerns.

Figure 6: Accommodation of Deficiencies is a Threat to Quality

This creates two problems. The straightforward one is that the country does not get the desired outputs because the subject contents tend to reach below par.

The other is that the university academics find the students would require postgraduate education to carry out the kind of research required for world class competition. 

Figure 7: High Disparity between the Outputs

Since the government presently does not support postgraduate education, the most likely result would be the frustration of academic staff which inturn affect the sustenance of Higher Education System. These factors are presently in existence.

There is a huge disparity in the state expenditure for various undergraduate study programmes (Figure 7). This disparity among various programs cannot be noted in developed countries. Therefore it is important to revisit these curricula and facilities and then upgrade them to such levels that would ensure quality outputs that can match the knowledge-hub aspirations. It is good to take a close look at the foundation qualifications of administrators and planners who are yet to understand the present plight of the education system in the country. It may be prudent to provide an improved status to relevant degree programmes hoping that the outputs from such degree programs would provide a better service to the education system in the future.

There is a big problem at hand. As academics, it is time to come forward to speak out in order to save the nation and strengthen the on-going efforts by pointing out the planning and implementation deficiencies. The University academics are undoubtedly the best brains in the country that can provide the leadership to the betterment of the country's education system.

Booster Dose is a Must

The foregoing discussion clearly points to the fact that in order to ensure best academics in the national university system, it is necessary that not only the salaries are comparable but also the entire education system is revitalised.

A look at the historical public expenditure figures on education pertaining to those nearby nations and the nations that have achieved developed status revealed that such countries had gradually increased the public expenditure on education to reach a point 6% of GDP or more (Figure 8).

It is evident that our nation also requires such a system-boost to clear this big hurdle. In most countries public investment appears to decay after a peak, but this is guessed as the stepping in of private sector collaborations once the system is in place. Thus, it is quite clear that we need a booster dose in education expenditure and when the system has reached sustainability, it is possible to fearlessly open the system to private collaborative opportunities.

In conclusion, the academics and the public in general have a noble task to carryout in order to secure a sustainable education system. It is not an easy one. It is necessary to congratulate the wisdom of Sri Lankan academic community for stepping out of traditional trade union framework to provide leadership to a visionary struggle targeting the country to become a better place to live and also to become the ‘Knowledge Hub of Asia’.

Figure 8: Comparison of Input to Education as a Percentage of GDP - The System Booster

Professor Sohan Wijesekera, Senior Professor,at the Department ofDept of Civil Engineering,University of Moratuwa

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