Saturday, May 18, 2013

Blundering politicians continue their assault on Higher Education



Beside yon straggling fence that skirts the way
With blossom'd furze unprofitably gay,
There, in his noisy mansion, skill'd to rule,
The village master taught his little school;
A man severe he was, and stern to view,
I knew him well, and every truant knew;
Well had the boding tremblers learn'd to trace
The days disasters in his morning face;
Full well they laugh'd with counterfeited glee,
At all his jokes, for many a joke had he:
Full well the busy whisper, circling round,
Convey'd the dismal tidings when he frown'd:

Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774)
in The Deserted Village

It is said that in this poem Goldsmiith was referring to his own tutor in the village in which he grew up and where his father was the Anglican parish priest. Goldsmith apparently had a very high regard and respect for this village schoolmaster; but the schoolchildren, as kids everywhere, were quick to recognise their teacher’s varying moods and kept him in good humour and avoided inviting his wrath, It appears that our university administrators today are following what schoolchildren have been doing, before and after Goldsmith’s time. They seem to think, rightly or wrongly, that they owe their positions to politicians and bend over backwards to show their loyalty to the politicians who have placed them in the positions they hold. Sadly this malaise has even spread to members of the University Councils who also think that they must do the bidding of the politicians who have placed then in their positions. Their decision making is therefore warped by this mind-set.

In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which included the right to education. Primary education was to be compulsory and free while higher education was to be accessible to all on the basis of merit. The same Article 26 in the Declaration of Hunan Rights further states: "Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace."

Sri Lanka has had a long tradition of learning. The village Buddhist and Hindu temples produced scholars in all disciplines of study including science and medicine, but particularly in the fields of art, literature and religion. But some years before the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.. Sri Lanka had introduced free education not just for the primary stages but right up to university level. Compulsory education was also introduced at the same time but it took a while to be implemented because of inadequate facilities. But following the Kannangara reforms, there was a surge in the provision of well-staffed quality schools in all parts of the country. The same held for university education. Access was on merit but not available to all. owing of inadequate material resources There was then only one University of Ceylon. Even wIth many more now, we are still not able to meet the demands for higher education. There is also a wide disparity between the universities in the quality of education each of them provide.

Issues facing higher education

These are the deficiencies and issues that the Ministry of Higher Education should be addressing. Free education needs to be strengthened; the Universities should be provided with adequate material and physical resources to meet the demand for higher education. The autonomy of the Universities should safeguarded and the Vice Chancellors and academic staff should be selected on merit and research encouraged.

It was not very long nago that we had a prolonged and unprecedented trade union action by the university academics. It was resolved only when the university authorities and the Ministry of Higher Education agreed to implement the major demands of the striking academics. But none of the major demands of FUTA appear to have been have been conceded and the Ministry seems intent on gearing up for another confrontation with the University teachers.

It is now generally accepted that the recommendation of the UNESCO that member countries of the United Nations should aim at allocating 6% of the GDP for education to ensure that that the minimum standards in education are met. But to our shame, the present allocation in Sri Lanka is only 1.9%. Politicians are fond of saying that Sri Lanka will become the educational hub of Asia. This is pure rhetoric. In fact the Budget, instead of increasing the allocation for education, actually reduced it, presumably to provide for the huge increase in allocation for the Ministry of Defence. If Sri Lanka is to move forward to becoming an educational hub of Asia, there must be definite commitment by the government towards the end of allocating of GDP for education. This cannot be achieved by the Ministry issuing diktats on political bases. The Kannangara reforms came into being after considerable public discussion through the media and through direct consultations with academics. No such discussions take place now. The Ministry must give up its ‘take it or leave it’ attitude, that only it knows what is best. All stakeholders, including the academics and parents, need to be drawn into the decision making process. This will make for healthy democratic governance not only in education but in all areas involving people’s lives.

The introduction of compulsory training in military camps for new University entrants was also an unacceptable unilateral decision. This was perhaps not a brainchild of the Ministry of Higher Education but a decision forced on it by the ideologists of the Ministry of Defence. It appears that the curriculum is more an exercise in indoctrination, in disregarding our pluralist past and highlighting our narrow present. Obviously those who formulated the curriculum did not think in terms of the LLRC recommendation that we should be fostering reconciliation.

But it is the Ministry of Higher Education that is solely responsible for the politicisation of our Universities. The University administrators and the University Councils have also to take their share of the blame for not resisting the naked politicisation of our Universities The appointment of a new Vice Chancellor for the University of Colombo has been embroiled in controversy. Attempts are being made to appoint the spouse of the former Vice Chancellor who is now the Chairperson of the University Grants Commission, when among the short-listed candidates is a senior academic with unmatched academic qualifications. But the spouse of the favourite candidate has been a loyal political favourite and was herself rewarded by being appointed to the Chair of the UGC.

The crisis at Peradeniya

The appointment of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya has also been mired in controversy. The person chosen was the least qualified among the short-listed applicants the appointment was obviously a clear political decision. So also was the Vice Chancellor’s choice of a Deputy. These are leading to a real crisis situation in the University system.

In a hard-hitting statement, the FUTA has written: "Having minions of unscrupulous politicians at key positions in administration is now taking its toll of the entire Sri Lankan University system as Vice Chancellors are appointed not on academic merit but solely on political connections. These institutions are now depicted in the public's eye in negative hues due to unprecedented politicization and deterioration of autonomy. This is despite the efforts of FUTA and its sister unions to enlighten the public and exert relentless pressure on the administrators and the government to realise and respect the importance of university autonomy and academic freedom.

When the last TUA action of FUTA ended, it was agreed to have senate meetings at each university on autonomy, academic freedom and politicization. Despite this, the government continues to attempt to violate the autonomy of our universities taking political interference to an unprecedented level.....

The University of Peradeniya is one of the oldest and most prestigious of Sri Lankan universities has also not been spared. The government appointed the least qualified candidate as Vice Chancellor highlighting bad governance and vested interests. In an attempt to exert pressure on the VC to comply with existing procedures, the Federation of Peradeniya University Teachers’ Associations (FPUTA) officially met the newly appointed VC and communicated the importance of winning the trust of the academic community he was appointed to lead. But this was not to be: the Deputy Vice Chancellor appointment at the University of Peradeniya which followed also reflected the will of government-backed administrators rather than that of the academic community. The person appointed had antagonistic relations with both academics and students due to high handed and unethical behaviour and no right-thinking administration would have selected such an individual to a position of great responsibility. In protest, the Peradeniya Academic community through the Union submitted a petition signed by members of all faculties, requesting the Vice Chancellor to replace the Deputy Vice Chancellor. This was ignored. To stall these unprecedented breaches on autonomy, the Peradeniya University Community through FPUTA staged a one day token strike. As there was no positive response from the administration, the members withdrew from all the voluntary positions that directly dealt with the Deputy Vice Chancellor. FPUTA also resolved that its members will resort to agitations at crucial events/junctures, as deemed necessary by the academic community to protest the deterioration of university autonomy and academic freedom. The academic community is also considering boycotting the convocation procession and the dinner this year. This is a final resort since the academic community is fully aware and sensitive of the importance of this occasion for students. This step is being considered reluctantly to protest against the deplorable lack of sensitivity towards the will of the entire academic community of University of Peradeniya by the politicized administrators."

Lowering academic standards

Also at Peradeniya recently, there were surreptitious moves to admit ten students to the Medical Faculty without going through the competitive GCE Advanced Level examination by which other students are selected for the MBBS programme. Sadly, there were university academic administrators who colluded in these moves. It is believed that the ten students were selected not on their academic records but they were coming in as fee-paying students. FUTA in their statement say: "It is learnt that interested political masters and their flunkeys have threatened and intimidated academics who protested against this decision. The authorities concerned clearly wanted to change the Peradeniya Medical Faculty into a degree shop and sadly, university administrators are letting it happen. Despite this, the Faculty Board of the Medical Faculty stood resolutely by their principles and have been able to defeat this well planned initiative. Similar stories of unprecedented ill-deeds are regularly disseminating from the entire university system.

We believe, now it is time for the academic community of Sri Lanka to step up their fight to safeguard the university system in what is possibly the darkest period of university education in this country. It is now time to stand united against the tides of darkness that threaten not only our institutions, but also our dignity. It is now time to fearlessly stand up for what we believe is right."

This statement of FUTA reflects a growing disappointment with the way that some political supporters of the government, including ministers and bureaucrats, are helping the people to openly distance themselves from the government. The country now needs a Mandela-type leader who will not fight evil by evil, one who will embrace the other without abandoning principles and stand firm on ensuring democratic governance. Is there such a leader on the horizon?

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