Sunday, September 2, 2012

Solution to the University Crisis: A View from an Academic


Amal S. Kumarage
Senior Professor, Faculty of Engineering
University of Moratuwa

Mr CA Chandraprema in his article published in the Sunday Island of 19th August has dedicated two paragraphs to my detailed response to his previous criticism of the current trade union action of academics. Even though he states that his faith in academia has been restored after reading my article, I find that his faith is still wavering as it has not stopped his dismissal of the key issues and usual endorsement of Government view. I was however encouraged enough to write a further article to address the concern he has raised why ‘senior academics’ were not involved in negotiations and in drafting the FUTA demands.

Missing the Issue by asking ‘Who’ instead of ‘What"

Sri Lankan society has steadily been conditioned to filter any information based on who says it rather than what is said. From branding all dissent as ‘unpatriotic’, all criticism as ‘politically intent’ and even opinion as ‘unnecessary’, society has been conditioned to listen to and believe in a single source as opposed to appreciating different views. This sadly, in spite of our long legacy of education, reflects the lack of a truly educated populace. In the context of the current trade union action, the attempts at dismissing FUTA as extreme and painting all universities and academics as clowns in a circus are attempts at yet again distancing the populace from one of the last bastions of resistance to popular political ideology that seems bent on making people accept explanation without inquiry and leadership without accountability. Many responses to my earlier article called it ‘realistic’ and ‘moderate’. Thus I stand on that confirmation to propose the following as a direction towards solving the university crisis.

Slipping and Sliding: Irresponsible Stewardship

The Table 1 shows funding for full time undergraduate courses for the last three years where detailed figures are available.

Accordingly, the Faculty cost which is the academic input costs plus cost of libraries etc, are highest in Medicine at Rs 170,657 per student per year, while Commerce and Management records the lowest at Rs 44,470 per student per year. The university overhead per student which comprises mostly of other (administrative and non-academic) staff costs amounts to Rs 59,057 per student. Sadly this means that in some of our faculties the cost of non-academic staff inputs is higher than academic staff inputs! Adding all other cost components, the total average (weighted) cost across all the faculties’ amounts to around Rs 200,000 per undergraduate per year. This table shows how the average total cost per student has reduced by over 20% in the last three years, mostly due to reducing capital allocation. Even recurrent spending can be considered to have reduced when adjusted for inflation. This is the alarm that academics are raising for society to be mindful of the irresponsible handling of higher education.

It is seen from the table, that fund allocation per student has gone down over the last few years. Budgets for each university are not computed according to student numbers. Each year the budget is increased by a nominal margin and thereafter the Government usually requests for more students to be taken. These are not joint decisions. That is why Ministers prefer Vice chancellors and Deans who will readily oblige. This process lacks basic management safeguards of ensuring quality is maintained. A good example of this is the current request made by the UGC from the universities to admit some 6,300 extra students (an increase of around 30% on usual intake) due to the Z-score blunder without any additional resources. The mistake and responsibility of one institution is now conveniently passed on to all the universities. A few years ago, a similar problem with the Chemistry paper saw pressure put on the University of Moratuwa to increase the number admitted to a new program from 50 to 106, which led to over 40 students being unable to find employment on graduation. The Rajarata Medical Faculty came to being for the same reason. In many new programs, promised facilities are provided many years after such programs start leading to student protests and constraints on the proper development of such programs. These examples show how little understanding the Government displays on essentials of university education. It cannot be likened to a production line that can be increased or reduced by working overtime or operating an extra shift depending on a sudden ‘order’.

Make Financial Allocation Student based

The above costs for a degree by any standard are very low. Given the quality of some of the programs that produce graduates holding internationally accredited degrees this is indeed very cost-effective higher education. There is no comparison I am aware of in the world, where medical or engineering graduates who have an international recognition are produced at such cost. But could this cost be squeezed further? In fact this is the crux of the protest! Academics say that it can’t be done- not without a drop in quality. Having studied amount of fees charged by private institutions and costs of public universities from across several countries, it is apparent that further reduction in cost is not possible when it is currently only around 1/10th of that of leading universities. As such my proposal is for Government to start providing universities a per student financial allocation from 2013 onwards. I suggest that average spending should be raised by around 50%, to say Rs 300,000/- per student per year. The different programs may be provided adjusted amounts to compensate for current under spending and to match international norms. As such I believe that the Engineering Faculty should receive around Rs 360,000/- per student in 2012. This should be adjusted for inflation every subsequent year. Further adjustment to reflect the increasing GDP to reach targeted level may fine tune these allocations this further. The increased allocation can be only for new students starting from 2012/13 intake. It will then take around four years till the total funding increase is completed. This will give universities more time to adjust and use the increased funds more efficiently.

The analysis indicates that the capital required to start new programs or to increase of student numbers to existing programs should be calculated separately. At the University of Moratuwa, it costs around Rs 2 to 3 million per new student to provide additional classrooms, labs, staff rooms, other student facilities and equipment. This cost will be different for students in other programs. Thus if the UGC wishes to increase student numbers they should provide the additional capital expenditure in the said format. In this context if the UGC wishes to increase the admissions due to the Z score blunder, it will be easier to calculate the actual cost of its mistake. If as reported in some media, an additional 6,300 students are to be admitted, then this additional financial commitment would be around Rs 18 billion over four years, computed at Rs 300,000 recurrent cost per year per student and capital costs at say, Rs 1.5 million (being adjusted to account for less resource intense programs) per student for creating new capacity. As it may not be possible for a university to increase building space etc in just one year, capital funds may in consultation with the respective university and faculty, be also spread over four years or so making the cost burden Rs 4.5 billion per year. This for anyone who wishes to complain is currently what is spent to build just one km of elevated expressway!

The positive aspect of this funding approach is that the Z-score blunder can be transformed to a constructive feature by initiating a permanent capacity expansion. I believe this may be the solution that HE the President was expecting by saying that solutions must be ‘win-win’ for both sides. Temporary ‘fixes’ such as a one-off additional intake as has been suggested should be rejected outright, as they deteriorate standards for such an intake, which once lowered stay there permanently. According to the above formula and as shown in Table 2, the government will need to only marginally increase its total expenditure on universities in 2013 and will by 2015 achieve 0.48% of GDP, an increase from 0.21% in 2010. It should be noted that the calculations in the tables are approximate and based on assumed student figures and a growth of GDP of 6%.


Is Funding the Only Issue?

Additional funding is essential to improve and maintain quality. But that alone will not be adequate to bring about all the desired changes in university education. There are three major areas needing urgent reform that I will elaborate on in this article:

Financial autonomy: At present only the Vice-chancellor, Deputy VC, Deans, Registrar and the Bursar at the University of Moratuwa can approve any voucher or invoice of over Rs 5,000/-. Not even a Head of Department or Senior Professor can approve anything above this paltry amount. Much time of academics is spent on filling forms, following up payment vouchers, collecting cash from the Bursar, getting three, now increased to five quotations for getting simple supplies needed for doing anything out of the mundane. The Finance Ministry can intervene to ensure that financial autonomy is fully vested with the University and that the respective university council encouraged delegating authority so that the core competency in the university which is its academia and their energy and time can be released to pursue academic and research work. Councils must also be given greater flexibility to device incentives schemes as well as means of generating income to universities by providing research and marketable educational products. They must also be given greater discretion in utilizing earned incomes. It is grossly unfair to criticize universities when it is the Government AR and FR that are used to deflate the energy of the presently limited number of academics from doing anything innovative or entrepreneurial.

Recruitment autonomy: It is common knowledge that except for academic posts, applicants to all other posts in universities have to be selected from a list sent by the Ministry. The basis of inclusion in this list is a letter from a ruling party politician. Sadly most government institutions and now universities are being treated as the dumping ground of political supporters and their kith and kin. We know what happened to the CTB and the Railways which were in the 1960s, institutions of national pride. Our State universities are being dragged (currently kicking and screaming) along the same route to ridicule and destruction.

Parliament, the Auditor General and all other watch dogs of public interest have failed to stop such violations of autonomy, transparency and abuse of power. Unless universities are provided the functional autonomy to do their own recruitment to suit the requirements of running an educational institute, public should be made aware that universities cannot be held responsible for delivery or more precisely the lack of it. Thus the most pressing closure we require from the Hon Minister is the closure to political interference. The University Act must be amended accordingly and until then a circular issued to this effect.

Procedural Autonomy: Many readers of my previous article published in the Colombo Telegraph criticized the lack of research publications by Sri Lankan academics. As one of the species who has supervised several PhD candidates, scores of Masters Students and Research Assistants over 20 years, it should be said that State universities have in general no allocation earmarked for research (except the dubious ‘Research Allowance’ that was given in lieu of a salary increase last year). Currently the National Science Foundation (NSF) provides research funding for which it has a 26 page application form. The monthly allowance payable to a full time Research Scientist (one with post graduate qualifications) is only Rs 40,000/- and less for full time MSc and PhD students. I simply cannot find qualified, capable and experienced researchers at such allowances! In the universities abroad that we are often compared with, the research output of professors is almost entirely dependent on the availability of quality post graduate students and assistants they are able to hire. Moreover, even if one finds funding for a research project in Sri Lanka, funds to travel and present research papers at an international forum or for publication is often more challenging that the research itself. Furthermore, if and when you actually get the funds, it is possible that you could have missed the deadline for applying for overseas leave from the university which must be done 24-days before travel! Such are the unsupportive and archaic regulations within which research is expected to be carried out in Sri Lankan universities. If you add the constant chaos due to power cuts, flux in university calendars, and unavailability of suitable support staff, getting even the smallest research output is an effort. A Research Fund to provide regular funds for competitive proposals with simplified disbursement formats, higher remuneration of researchers together with stringent output requirements could be set up in each university to solve this problem.

The Issue of Retaining Academics

Much has been written on the inability of the current university salaries and work conditions to attract or retain quality academic staff in State universities. I wish to say no more. The higher student fees I propose could be used by the universities to overcome some of these problems. For example, I propose the creation of a Research Fund in each university equal to 1/10th of the total salary bill of academic staff to spend entirely on research activities of such academics supervising post graduate students, research fellows and for publications and travel for presentations of papers at conferences. A comprehensive family medical cover and insurance is another requirement as currently there is none and a source of stress for many. It can also provide a fund for assisting young recruits to lecturer grade to pursue higher qualifications, as scholarships are increasingly difficult to obtain. It would also be adequate to provide a ‘re-settlement’ package for those returning from PhD studies overseas to assist them to purchase a house and vehicle if they so desire of course, plus some entitlement for school admissions as these are some of the major concerns for someone returning from abroad with young children.

As per my calculation, if the Faculty of Engineering at University of Moratuwa is provided per student funding of Rs 350,000/-, the recurrent income to the university would increase by around Rs 100 million per year. This will be adequate to provide all the above proposals for the faculty plus leave enough for the 20% salary increase that is demanded at this stage plus hiring staff required for the additional students. The proposed tie to inflation and GDP will also enable universities to pay market rates to their staff without creating salary gaps and ensuing strikes!

Conclusion: More Money for Universities should ensure more Students will access Quality Education

Currently State universities admit just 15 percent of those qualifying to enter university while Private Higher Educational Institutes admit around 8 percent with an equal number seeking admission to foreign universities. The relative costs for providing such education are in the approximate ratio of 1 (State): 2-3 (Private): 5-10 (Foreign). There should be a plan to increase the overall access to universities for at least 50 percent of those qualified. Since State universities offer the lowest cost of higher education they should be nurtured and capacity further developed to become the primary provider. However quality should not be compromised by attempts to reduce cost further.

This article gives clear and practical steps the Government could take to resolve the crisis in the universities. It calls for a committed plan of increasing expenditure on State universities from 0.21 to 0.48 percent of GDP over 4 years. This cannot be a Herculean task for a government embarking on many ambitious and expensive development projects. It is the investment in higher education that will ensure that such projects are properly planned and implemented. Thus higher education is basic condition of sustainability in development efforts. A similar per student funding scheme may be developed for school education with an enhanced remuneration package and in-service training for teachers, for providing resources for student-based learning facilities. These too could be introduced in a stage-wise manner to make it practical and affordable. It is even possible that such strategic interventions can in fact enable quality of university and school education to be restored even without spending all of the 6% of GDP that is being demanded.

The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the University of Moratuwa Teachers’ Association (UMTA) for the data mining and analytical work for this article and in particular the contributions from Dr Himan Punchihewa, Dr T. Sivakumar, Mr Ranil Sugathadasa and Ms Baudhi Abeysekera.

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