Sunday, August 26, 2012

‘All pervasive: Politicization in our universities,’ says former UGC chairman

By Namini Wijedasa

05-2The Friday Forum, a group of concerned citizens comprising some of Sri Lanka's most distinguished professionals, recently issued a strong statement decrying the deterioration of the education sector. One of its most active members, Prof. Arjuna Aluwihare last week warned that the politicization of universities had reached unacceptable levels. A former chairman of the University Grants Commission, Aluwihare also supported the demand of the Federation of University Teachers' Associations for increased government spending on education. Excerpts from the interview:

When do you think the deterioration of the university system started, and how?
Some faculties show less decline; for instance the medical, dental, veterinary and engineering faculties. Elsewhere, the decline is related to numbers of students going up, less resources being put in, salaries being relatively less and also, maybe, increasing politicization. The decline started to happen in the mid 1990s. The number of universities also increased without a corresponding increase in resources. Meanwhile, the importance of English, of independent reading and information technology has not been emphasized in keeping with the changing situation in the world at large. There is increasing isolation of especially the arts and maybe and management and general science faculties from related activity in the country and the world. It is very important to have industrial or equivalent placement in all disciplines, even in related, relatively menial tasks, to inculcate work discipline and ethic, and an understanding of how what is taught relates to the outside world

How would you describe the quality of our university education before the decline?
It was fairly good in the ‘practical faculties’– medical, dental, veterinary, engineering, law, special science and some arts. 

So how would you summarize the main problems facing our university system of education?
University education is seen and felt to be politicized more than ever before. Resources are short. When you take the quality of teaching, too much of it is ‘rote’ with not enough world-at-large input. There is insufficient industry placement. The output is not enough, given the A/Level pass numbers. Employability is poor of science, arts and management students. This could be related to not having enough English language or IT skills, of being isolated from the world, and of not having the right work ethic. 

How would you assess the role and performance of the University Grants Commission today?
There are a lot of good people in it, but it is too far removed from university dons and senates and too close to the government. 

The Friday Forum is backing the strike of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA). Which of their demands does FF endorse?
We support, in particular, their call for increased GDP allocation for education, for an end to politicization, for priority to be given to consultative planning, and for an end to militarization of campuses. 

Do you think it’s realistic to expect an increase in government spending on education to 6 per cent of GDP? Some ministers have already said that money is being disbursed for education also through other line and provincial ministries.
Educated youth who can get jobs are our biggest resource and this is still underutilized. There is a big discrepancy between A/Level passes and university places as well as other tertiary education opportunities. For youth and families, education is also the best method of social advancement and this, in turn, is insurance against instability and revolution. A rise in the percentage of educated youth is also prerequisite for national development. We are amongst the worst in the world in terms of how much of our GDP is deployed towards education. We have to talk about the government sector, not private. In medical faculties, equal numbers come from social classes 1 to 5, unlike in the UK and US. We have to preserve this situation. Consequently, state education has to be the major provider where quality and quantity are concerned. There is huge wastage of public money on showy trips and other activities, huge wastage for MP and other permit vehicles which get sold (or used as tour buses), and there seems to be huge wastage through the practice of commissions and corruption. Given the prevailing political, law and order, and waste and corruption situations, it is difficult to believe many things the government says. All this is not unique to this government, but they are much worse. Here I must emphasize that I’m not anti-government. I’m merely pro-Sri Lanka. The government has done some excellent things such as bringing an end to the LTTE, and carrying out infrastructure development, including in the north and east (although questions arise about commissions in the award of tenders). Sri Lanka cannot become an education hub without excellent staff and state institutions; without minimal corruption and politicization; without good national governance; and without a good law and order situation.

How pervasive is politicization in the university system now?
All pervasive! You get chits and MPs lists for almost everything. You get ministers’ favourites or ministers’ men appointed. There is a fear of loss of job or promotion if you offend the ‘powers that be.’ There are possibly also illegal orders – such as stopping aptitude tests for architecture and performing arts, military training for freshmen and instructions to employ a security firm owned and staffed by ex-forces personnel at defence ministry bidding – possibly at nearly three times the previous cost.

Which aspects of politicization do you find most dangerous?
The breakdown of law and order, the politicization of university appointments and corruption. 

The Friday Forum has called on the government to make education policy in consultation with those involved in the education sector. Why have you made this specific call? 
This is common sense. You must also add employers and development officials to the equation; that is, those who employ and develop the country.

Do you think FUTA are taking their strike too far, thereby delaying large numbers of students? 
Yes, in a way. But it’s a pity – FUTA, senates and councils (who should be concerned with salaries as it affects academics quality and retention), vice chancellors, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Directors, the University Grants Commission, the minister and secretary should all be in the same camp versus the Treasury and so on. They all seem to be separate, not even meeting privately for a chat or drink in the evenings and developing strategy. Actually, all these should be in the same camp in the national interest without any pro or anti-government, narrow political agenda.

Do you think it is fair for a trade union like FUTA to try and enforce policy changes by disrupting universities and holding the government to ransom? 
Yes and No! No, as the pressure on students and research demands are huge as it is. Yes, because if all else has failed then it is in the students’ short and long-term interest that their universities become amongst the best in the world. And that they become more likely to end up contributing to their own and family, and state income rather than being dependants

What is the Friday Forum’s position on the Private Universities Bill? 
Not sure; I agree with it and with private medical colleges. The problem is that politicians cannot be trusted not to manipulate something, for example aspects of the current medical college. I am sure that if all parties put their cards on the table, admit and correct mistakes, get politicians out of the equation, and all academia and doctors then cooperate, we can have legitimate, clean and quality private medical colleges and universities. I hope organizations like the GMOA insist that all Sri Lankan medical graduates (private and public) are seen to have spent part of their clinical years in government hospitals under state appointed and accredited consultants. This kind of cooperation and clean cohabitation would be a win-win situation for all.

What is your position on ‘leadership training’ for freshmen by the army? The government has said this will not stop because it has been praised by students and parents alike. 
It is not army business unless university senates ask the army for help. 

What is objectionable in the Defence Ministry’s security firm providing security to universities? It’s a business, after all. 
The way it was done is quite wrong. Similarly, if MPs law firms, and any other kind of firm with political connections, muscles its way into national affairs, especially government affairs, it is not correct. Part of the poor law and order situation is a result of political henchmen getting away with anything without getting kicked out. It is ridiculous that the Kelaniya MP and minister, the one involved in the Borella shooting, the Tangalle murder and rape suspects and others in similar incidents are not expelled from party and posts pending decisions. They should be reinstated only if found innocent. The president is dirtying his hands and those of his brothers and son, and many other relatives, by not being firm about all this. He is also eroding the credibility of all the good the government does. How can good security firms come out of this background?

How would you assess the state of schools’ education? 
Free education remains vital but resources are needed while politics must be taken out of appointments and promotions. Where the Z-score fiasco is concerned, take all students that would have got into university by any calculation. There can be doubling up and the distance mode can be used where possible. Recognition must be given on a pragmatic basis for non-formal learning experiences. Staff cooperation is important. Lectures and laboratories must be used maximally. We did this when especially the medical intake increased in 1990-91 and the new medical faculty was started – double batches were taken because it was better than having suicides!

Sri Lanka no longer seems able to set an exam paper without messing it up. Can it get any worse? 
Obviously, yes. But discipline those who made the mistakes and pay properly for setting papers. Then mistakes will reduce.

Now there are reports that the government wants to give military ranks to school principals. How do you analyse the thinking of this regime? 
This and the military type pre-university training are examples of forceful nondemocratic thinking. This is similar to the breakdowns in discipline and law and order done by those with political connections.

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