Needed: An Academic Spring

| by Shanie
“Of College labour’s, of the Lecturer’s room
All studded round, as thick as chairs could stand,
With loyal students,
faithful to their books,
Half-and-half idlers, hardy recusants,
And honest dunces—of important days,
Examinations, when the man was weighed
As in a balance! of excessive hopes,
Tremblings withal and commendable fears,
Small jealousies, and triumphs good or bad—
I make short mention; things they were which then
I did not love, nor do I love them now.” – William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

( January 28, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) There seems to be nothing that the Ministry of Higher Education touches that, to put it mildly, does not end in controversy. From the (mis)handling of student demonstrations, booing of the Minister by the students, the agitation by the university teachers and non-academic staff for a reasonable wage, subjecting all new entrants to compulsory training in military camps, compelling all universities to employ a Defence Ministry-backed security firm, accreditation of the new private medical college and now to the fiasco over university admissions and z-scores, the Ministry has been at sixes and sevens. The Minister himself is perhaps not totally to blame. His senior officers and advisors must take a large share of responsibility for the chaos that prevails in the administration of higher education. The problem that Minister Dissanayake faces is that he does not have the proper advisors. Past Ministers have had respected academics serving in their Ministries, not businessmen turned bureaucrats.
File Photo
There should be no place in the educational system for sycophants and others with private agendas. Politicisation has affected almost all public institutions in our country, including the justice system in our country. Surely, it is not too much to ask the academics in our universities to begin the process of return to professional and academic standards within the university system. It will be catalyst for other professionals to follow.
The University Grants Commission consists of academics well respected in their time within the university community. The administration in all our Universities is also by respected academics. That is, before they attempted to play ball with politicians. They must know that they owe a duty by the institutions in which they serve to safeguard the academic freedoms and the academic standards that have been built up in Sri Lanka’s university environment over the past nine decades. In a recent open letter to the university community, the well respected former diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala, writing on behalf of the Friday Forum, spoke of the need for an “Academic Spring”. He appealed to all academics in the university system to seriously reflect on what was happening within their institutions and to exercise the legitimate powers and responsibilities given to them under the Universities Act. ‘Some university academics have spoken of an “academic spring” and a resurgent commitment to academic autonomy and independence. We hope that this will attract the support of a wider constituency in the university community. Your engagement and interest is critical to prevent an irreversible decline in the public education system of this country. The future of university education and that of future generations of young people lies in your hands.’
Heavy-handedness is counter productive
In the same letter, Dhanapala wrote: ‘Current developments seem to be preventing Universities from giving leadership in the important task of nation building through peaceful and vigorous articulation of divergent and counter opinions. What is needed as we face the current challenges of development in a post conflict period is intellectual freedom in our universities. If such freedom is eroded and democracy and good governance undermined in institutions of higher education, it could in turn have repercussions on the young people of our country. Dissatisfaction amongst youth which fostered the insurrections of 1971 and 1988/89 in the South, and the 30 year armed conflict in the North, could manifest itself again with disastrous consequences.’
The fears that Dhanapala expressed is seen in mounting student protests. It was horrifying to see television images of the Police and heavily armed Army taking positions, in anticipation of unarmed student protests at the Galaha Junction in Peradeniya, as if they were preparing for a bloody battle. Student protests will keep mounting if the government’s response is going to be so heavy-handed. It is counter-productive and has the potential to bring the teachers and parents also on to the streets. Politicians will see conspiracies behind every action that challenges their authority. Unfortunately, the Police and the university administrators have become so servile that they are unable to call the stupidity of the politicians. We have had student protests in the past too. But the Police then, some of whom were student agitators themselves in their day, handled such protests in their own professional way and prevented the protests from escalating into a major conflagration. The senior ministers in the government, including President Rajapakse, will know that the popularity of a government can easily plummet if the grievances of any section of the population are only met with intimidation and force.
The z-score fiasco
In the latest furore over Z-scores, its creator Professor Thattil has pointed out the system adopted for z-score calculation for the current intake was wrong. Many other academics have agreed with him that the pooling of the mean and variance in subjects conducted under two different syllabi was wrong. The Dhara Wijayatilake committee apparently did not go into this aspect of the controversy as it was outside the purview of their mandate. Their mandate was to inquire into errors in district and island rankings. Another panel of experts looked into errors in the computation of the z-scores. The response of Minister S B Dissanayake to Professor Thattil has been to deny that Thattil was the creator of the z-score scheme. Professor R P Gunawardane who was the Secretary to the Ministry when the z-score system was adopted has now confirmed that it was indeed Professor Thattil’s formula that was adopted among several others that were submitted.
One news site has used parliamentary language to refer to the Minister’s denial of Professor Thattil’s contribution as a terminological inexactitude. After Professor Gunawardane’s statement confirming Thattil as the author of the z-score formula, Minister Dissanayake now says he had wanted Thattil on the experts committee formulating the z-score method for 2012 admissions but his appointment was opposed by the Examinations Department and the UGC. Minister Dissanayake says he was helpless as he could not override their decision! The then Commissioner General of Examinations, now no longer under the Minister, has stated that his department did not oppose Thattil’s appointment. He did not oppose or approve of Thattil’s or any other appointment because he did not know the names of the appointees until the appointments were done and their names published. So is this again a case of a terminological inexactitude by Minister Dissanayake?
Some students would have been penalised as a result of the wrong pooling of mean and variances method employed in the calculation of the z-score this year. Many academics, including Prof R P Gunawardane, feel that the method employed by the UGC’s expert committee was fundamentally flawed. Sadly, our culture will prevent the UGC and the members of that experts committee from admitting that error. It will be unfair by students for them to be penalised for an error in the calculation of z-scores by depriving of university education. It will be in the interests of all concerned of the z-scores are re-computed using the Thattil formula without pooling of the mean and variances in the two different populations. All those who qualify using the new formula should also be admitted, in addition who have already been notified of their selection. This will no doubt lead to pressures on the university system but that seems the only fair way out of this fiasco. The universities will have to find ways of meeting this additional intake.
The Private Universities Bill
The Cabinet has decided to withdraw the ‘Private Universities’ Bill, apparently at a cabinet meeting where Minister Dissanayake was absent. The university community, students and teachers, did not object to private entrepreneurs setting up private educational institutions. These have been taking place over the last several years. These institutions prepare students for degree-level examinations held by foreign universities. There can also be no objection to an overseas university opening a branch here. It will possibly provide access only to the affluent and the quality of the degrees offered will depend on the quality and academic reputation enjoyed by that university here and abroad.
But the furore over the Malabe Private Medical College is really over the quality of the medical degrees on offer and the diversion of state resources to a private institution. Sri Lanka ranks among the lowest in the world in respect of government spending on education. The state university system in our country is starved of adequate financial resources and the university community rightly feels that the public universities are being side-lined, either deliberately as a matter of policy or through the incompetence of the Ministry of Higher Education and its bureaucrats at at all levels.
Investment in education is an investment for the future. Our country has had a long tradition of learning dating back to the pre-Christian era. Professor Siriweera refers to the numerous pirivenas that functioned from the Anuradhapura Period onwards as great centres of learning. It is this tradition which was built on by the educationists and Ministers of Education in the past that has enabled Sri Lanka to have an enviable reputation for high educational standards as well as to enjoy one of the highest literacy rates in the world. The Kannangara reforms of the nineteen forties provided free and quality education in selected schools throughout the country. The founding fathers of the University College and the University of Ceylon contributed to the excellence of tertiary education in Sri Lanka in those early years. Let no one destroy what has been so painstakingly built up over the years.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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