Wednesday, August 1, 2012

In defense of university autonomy and academic freedom


By Prof. Wiswa Warnapala

At the beginning, university education in Sri Lanka began as a middle class preserve, as it, in the very initial period, catered to the demand of the students from a select number of public schools in the country. university education, in the early period, was built on a theory of elites, which, in turn, represented certain aspects of the then existing class structure. The objectives of both secondary and higher education were colonial, and this structure underwent a change during the first phase of the post-colonial state. university education, which began in 1921, and later evolved into a full-fledged unitary university, made a major impact upon the social and economic life of the country, and nothing could illustrate this better than to compare it with the production of an elite, which went to the university and formed into a clan of intellectuals and professionals destined to influence the society in Sri Lanka in a variety of ways. University, therefore, from its very inception, was regarded as a special institution which conferred a high social status to the university educated, and this, as anticipated, had a social significance in a society which, traditionally, was used to status and influence. Those distinguished members of the Ceylon University Movement, who advocated the establishment of an independent unitary university, were a set of visionaries who envisioned that the production of knowledge gave a nation a special kind of power.

Aftermath of independence

In the aftermath of independence, the aspirations of the State came to be heightened, and it came to be acknowledged that the universities or the demand for university education would grow in the future; the introduction of the free education scheme and the recognition of Sinhala and Tamil as languages of instruction naturally increased the demand for university education, for which the country was not ready. Hence, there were a number of ad hoc adjustments and changes, without a proper plan for the increase of higher educational opportunities in the country. Several commissions examined the issue but their main emphasis was on the change within the existing structure. There was not attempt to estimate the country’s needs in the sphere of higher education.

There were many influences at work which led to important changes in the sixties; the sociologists and educationists who ably exposed the inadequacies of the existing system, for which there was not enough support from the politicians, and nationalists and language enthusiasts who wanted university education to be expanded more in the form of a part of an emerging nationalist enterprise. It was thought that there was considerable waste of talent after the completion of the secondary school career, and it was this waste which needed to be arrested by opening the doors of the university. By the early sixties, the ideological battle for the expansion of higher educational opportunities had been won, which incidently coincided with the Robbins Report in the United Kingdom, which, as in Sri Lanka, advocated a considerable expansion of higher educational opportunities. Sri Lanka, at this stage of her development, wanted to turn its back on elitism, which the University of Ceylon nurtured, and, the narrow intellectualism in higher education.

In the context of this change, and amidst considerable expansion which the system experienced in the two decades that followed the sixties, the universities remained an autonomous sphere of education sacrosanct from undue governmental interference. In other words, both academic freedom and university autonomy were made inviolable. The experience indicated that the expansion of higher education was guided primarily by the need to provide places for those secondary school leavers, and hardly anyone had given thought to this expansion based entirely on a kind of social need; this, of course, was a complicated issue; both reformers and decision-makers fixed their minds on the question of the expansion of access for higher education without a comprehensive reform of the curricula, which, in fact, was the guide for the immediate future. The decision-makers of this period were obsessed with the need to expand access, which, in the past, was restricted, and it needed to be expanded on the basis of a comprehensive reform, for which some ground work was done with the assistance of the World Bank. The need was to work out a new pattern, knowing well that the number of students aspiring to enter higher education was continually increasing, as the higher education sector, as in other countries, has not been sufficiently diversified to attract a good number of students who, otherwise, would prefer to go inside a university. An attempt has been made in the last few years to construct a development-oriented higher education policy, the main thrust of which was to recognize the impact of the global changes in the sphere of higher education, and this has now been converted into a centralized interventionist policy, where the priorities are more administrative-oriented than innovative policy-based. However, its main casualties have been the concepts of academic freedom and university autonomy.

Crisis in Higher education

Today the system of higher education is in a major crisis, the magnitude of it as bad as that of the late eighties where the universities remained closed for years and the impact of this major crisis persists in certain areas of the life of universities in Sri Lanka. Again, the crisis in the late eighties was largely due to the inability of the administrators to gauge certain aspects of university life and its over-reaction to certain developments, which as today, was overtly interventionist and aggressive, for which they paid a heavy price. It was again a powerful regime with a five sixth majority in Parliament and the administrators of the period, who often took refuge in their political strength to hit back at the academic and student community. A bit of Macarthism haunted the period. History has repeated itself and another powerful regime, reminding us of the late eighties, more in the nature of frightened administrators, have strived hard to plug an interventionist policy. Over-display of political arrogance has its own dysfunctional consequences; the academic community of a country cannot be converted into an appendage of a fist of political power.

Of course, financial constraints within the system need to be recognized. The call to treat all universities- fifteen in number- equally, and this demand of egalitarianism has created a fresh set of problems as the treasury does not want to allocate larger capital grants for university buildings. In this country, all development projects have a constituency-orientation as politicians are likely to make use of them for their political advantage. Unfortunately for them, the capital expenditure for university buildings does not accrue constituency benefits in terms of more votes at an election. University expenditure is often cut back in order to divert it to primary and secondary education. Expenditure is often compared by the Treasury by institutions and activities. At one stage, in order to discourage this call for equality of status for all universities, it was decided to treat all universities equally in order t reduce the attractiveness of the established universities but the student and popular perception was entirely different. It was manifestly impossible to give all the fifteen universities equal status as the investment involved was heavy, and the increase in the investment, though a fundamental requirement for the system to develop into a major network, was to be on a staggered basis. It was thought that the universities would eventually move towards such a system where the respective universities would not differ enormously in their standards and aims as centers of intellectual activity. The realization of this objective depended, to a larger extent, on a calculated program of development, which, with political transformations, would not be disturbed. Given the nature of competitive party politics of the country, one could not envision such a programme of development but the maturity of the intellectual and professional community is such that it could be successfully handled.

More opportunities for education

It is universally acknowledged that education is the fundamental mechanism for social inclusion through the creation of more opportunities for education, and it is necessary to ensure that no student is denied the opportunity for higher education due to financial constraints. This, in fact, is the crux of the issue today. All governments have recognized the need to give higher priority to education as the major instrument for achieving rapid economic growth with emphasis on such issues as the expansion of access, and excellence and equity. The academic community is guided by these considerations and they rightly demand an increase allocation for the development of universities. Higher education can definitely transform the economy and society, and the point argued is that the expansion and improvement of quality in higher education is not possible without enhanced funding. In a country, where State funding is the cornerstone of the system, the increase of funding is always subject to controversy. This, of course, is the problem faced by all governments, the priorities of which are different as some of the priorities are guided by both parochial and political considerations.

Modern day Universities are not monastic establishments; they are knowledge institutions capable of responding to social needs. Over- emphasis on undergraduate education has, unfortunately, developed a different perception of the universities in the public mind and this has had a major effect on the process of policy-making; for instance, some tend to adopt a negative attitude to higher education. This, perhaps, was due to the lack of social responsiveness and a case has to be made for the recognition of universities as knowledge-producing institutions.

Transforming society into a knowledge hub

Sri Lanka needs, at this moment, a plan to develop and enhance the potential of its excellent human resource base to transform the society into a knowledge hub as advertised by the Government in power. A knowledge intensive environment would surely accelerate the process of economic and social development in the country. Therefore, Universities, as in India, could be converted into active engines in this process of social transformation, as the Sri Lankan university system, since 1921 and 1942, made a tremendous contribution to the development through the production of a variety of talent required for the advancement of the country. This contribution has been made in the context of a University tradition, which came to be built around both University autonomy and academic freedom; both these concepts were part and parcel of the Sri Lankan university tradition and it cannot be destroyed by a Sri Lankan variant of Macarthism.

It was both university autonomy and academic freedom which helped universities world over to conquer new frontiers of knowledge. In the experience of all universities, the assault on academic freedom comes via political interference, and often the attention of the public is turned towards the social sciences. The professions which have a long tradition and emphasize scientific and technological knowledge such as medicine and natural sciences become more difficult to be interfered with. The rise of universities and the social sciences as one of the main disciplines of the university, rather paradoxically, was considered the reason for both expansion and the problem of the modern university. This was very much true in the Sri Lankan context, and the growing dominance of the humanities and social sciences irked the policy- makers and all kinds of inroads were made into both university autonomy and academic freedom. Many theoreticians such as Harold Laski, Jennings, G.D. H.Cole, Ernest Barker, R.H. Tawney, Bernard Crick and Ralph Miliband were of the opinion that such subjects made a profound influence on the political wisdom and the political destinies of the country. In 1968, the most students who revolted against the State in France came from sociology and Cohen Bendit himself was a Sociology major.

Universities: Vehicles of indoctrination?

Therefore, universities cannot become vehicles of indoctrination, promoting a particular political ideology or a religious point of view. As Max Weber rightly pointed out, "Universities are not institutions for inculcation of absolute or ultimate moral values". They teach the select facts, their conditions, laws and their inter-relations, with a view to "sharpen the student’s capacity to understand the actual conditions" and "discover the truth on his own and in accordance with his own conscience". A university needs to give recognition to pluralism of methodological and theoretical approaches in the search for knowledge. Surely any university will always be plural, by which we mean the existence of different ideas. Harold Laski was of the opinion that it was a place for both assent and dissent. As such, one cannot convert the university to toe the political line of the party in power. Today, the distrust of universities has become a distressing subject; for some strange reason, the part of the Government establishment has begun to distrust the universities and this has inhibited the universities of this country. University, which represents the great tradition of freedom from State interference, offers a platform for the discussion of the major issues affecting a country. Yet, universities supported by the state have seen a threat to their academic freedom. But one must be reminded that the state, whatever its power and resources, cannot kill and destroy academic freedom, which, in reality, is the life-blood of a university. Political interference becomes disastrous, and when universities are weakened, its effect on both society and the State is more. Universities cannot be asked to betray their great tradition, which Cardinal Newman enshrined in his work, the Idea of a University (1852), which laid a solid foundation for intellectual freedom.

Continued tomorrow

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