10 June, 2023


Academic Autonomy: Free The State Universities

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof.  S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

University Autonomy

In recent times as the horrible goings on at our universities receive increasing exposure, the authorities cite academic autonomy to explain why they should not intervene. University autonomy is a good thing. But we do not understand it. According to the European University Association, academic autonomy refers to a university’s capacity to manage its internal academic affairs:

1)  Organizational autonomy : This requires setting the selection procedure and criteria in hiring the executive head, the power to dismiss such head, choose the term of office of the head, appoint external members of the governing body, determine academic structures and create legal entities.

2) Financial autonomy: This refers to a university’s ability to manage its funds and allocate its budget and thereby realize its strategic aims.  This includes the ability to borrow money, retain surpluses, own buildings, and set tuition fees

3) Staffing autonomy: This covers the ability to hire the most qualified academic and administrative staff without external prescriptions or interference. It includes free agency in recruitment procedures for senior academic and administrative staff, setting salaries, and determining dismissal and promotion criteria.

4)  Academic autonomy: It covers a) Setting student numbers and admission criteria b) Introduction and termination of degree programmes; c) Deciding the medium of instruction; d) Selection of quality assurance measures and deciding who provides them and e) Designing the programme content.

Sri Lankan Controls

Our universities are heavily regulated by the Universities Act. The President chooses VCs and terminates them. The term of office is prescribed. There is no financial autonomy. Salaries and admissions are UGC decisions . There is no free-for-all between universities for the best students and staff through better courses and salaries. Promotions criteria and academic programs are approved by the UGC. Worse, the IESL which accredits engineering programmes, runs its own programme.

This is why the Act also provides for intervention by the Minister. He must exercise that power.

Academics as Cheats

The framers of the universities Act just did not trust academics. They understood that we are cheats par excellence – in the West too, but they will be punished if caught, unlike here. Even after Jaffna’s Council member, Dr. D. Nesiah, formerly of the CCS, pointed out how journal pages were being bought to get professorships and trivial papers were being claimed as ISI-indexed papers, the promotions sailed through. In a system where the VC with a general degree claimed a special degree in biochemistry in her VC application and such lies in applications  pervade all universities (Peradeniya, Moratuwa and Colombo included), we cannot afford an inquiry. It would open up a Pandora’s box requiring most professors to be dismissed for fraud.

Indeed, Prof. Arasaratnam who forced academics to sign a statement supporting then President Rajapaksa for Jan. 8 and has claimed on the Ministry of Defence website that she lost both parents due to LTTE-terrorism (whereas both died of natural causes and she lost her father long before he died), survives in the name of autonomy.

When I asked a senior figure in the Executive Council (January – August 2015) how come all these horrid people are allowed to survive after we worked so hard to be rid of them, he replied, “We are worried only about the communalists who are dangerous and whom we cannot work with. But the corrupt? Not to worry! They will switch loyalties and work for us.”

Professor Mahalingam’s Stand

Arasaratnam: Autonomy as Licence for Lawlessness

Arasaratnam: Autonomy as Licence for Lawlessness

Our scene is best explained by what the late Prof. S. Mahalingam told me, saying that any carefully designed scheme of recognition will be abused in Sri Lanka. When he was awarded the D.Sc. (Eng.) London degree, he was just a little junior to Dr. Chandran Chinnappah who held the chair in mechanical engineering. Under the older chair-per-department system, he would have had to wait several years to be professor and then retire after a short time. So a national committee of (I think he said 9) academics was put together to see how he could be recognized. They came up with the merit professorship to reward exceptional performance like in his case. He was accordingly made Professor. The next year or so saw all 9 members of his committee being made Professor because of their so called exceptional performance! Today, every other joker is a professor. At the time, he also recounted how he was offered the Vidya Jothi, he declined the offer, they went ahead and gave it to him anyway bit he did not attend the ceremony, and he was getting multiple calls from the Presidential Secretariat to collect the award.  He felt every award was subject to influence in Sri Lanka and he therefore wanted no recognition from the system because he had his solid D.Sc.

EUSL – Contempt for the Supreme Court Despite January 8

Dr. Kiddnan Kobindarajah: Walked a Tightrope wanting Tamils to work with Rajapaksa and the TNA

Dr. Kiddnan Kobindarajah: Walked a Tightrope wanting Tamils to work with Rajapaksa and the TNA

Thus VCs come in with influence and receive patronage protection. In an ongoing case, Dr. Kiddnan Kobindarajah, politically appointed by Rajapaksa as VC of EUSL, applied for VC again. The process was heavily manipulated by the Competent Authority, Prof. Uma Coomaraswamy, who was sent to clean up the mess Dr. Kobi allegedly created. (Dr. Kobi himself claims he cleaned up the mess from LTTE interventions and a person whose class was raised on LTTE orders has been appointed by Coomaraswamy and other appointments made against USAB rulings).

Coomaraswamy unlawfully kept Dr. Kobi off the ballot, he challenged it before the Supreme Court which ordered Coomaraswamy to include him and observe Circular 880 which she had ignored. She tried to suppress the CVs of the applicants and wanted the members to vote on a distorted evaluation committee score sheet which showed her candidate positively. This happened before Christmas. So the court decision has not been communicated formally to EUSL although the Attorney General who represented EUSL was present.

When the people have rejected lawlessness on Jan. 8, upholding the law is paramount. Yet, EUSL’s Coomaraswamy has rushed the three manipulated names to the UGC despite the AG, her attorney, being aware and Dr. Kobi’s lawyers communicating the Supreme Court decision to her. Her hope, I presume, is that the President will appoint her former botany colleague before the Court vacation ends and hears the contempt of court plaint freshly filed by Dr. Kobi. In a decent society, the law has to be upheld. Whether we like Dr. Kobi or not, he is entitled to the protections of the law which we all voted for in Jan. 2015, culminating in the ejection of Mr. Mohan Pieris as Chief Justice. Are justice and the rule of law not what our celebrations on 8th January are about?

Autonomy Our Style

ma Coomaraswamy: Messing up EUSL which she was sent to Cleanup

ma Coomaraswamy: Messing up EUSL which she was sent to Cleanup

Autonomy does not exist here. The system cites autonomy to save bad VCs and CAs but intervenes as when the Open University was ordered to roll back tuition fee increases, and the UGC unilaterally imposed new Faculties of Technology. Autonomy is a tool invoked to shield administrators and ignored when intervening to advance political goals.

State Versus Private Universities

In the West, new Presidents/VCs have to prove themselves to stay on and leave behind a good heritage to remember them by. Here the idea for many VCs is to reward themselves and cronies and defraud the university to the maximum before their three years are up. For example, a Peradeniya VC had his provident fund docked for Rs. 516,800 for illegal payments based on the Auditor General’s report, and according to Lakbima made payments to a non-existing Arco Pte., Ltd. He continues to receive state patronage.

The ongoing debate on state versus private universities therefore is really silly. Some of the best top ten US universities are state-run (California at Berkeley, Michigan, Illinois at Urbana Champaign). Here the government imposes horrible persons as VCs/CAs and props them up to defend their bad decisions, forcibly locates faculties where they cannot succeed to buy votes, and forces excellent students nearby to these faculties without a future.

After ensuring by our own acts that state universities fail, can we argue that they are bad?

This is the time to revisit the Universities Act and make state universities truly free, facing competition from private universities. Let us make the revolution of January 8th real. Instead of admission, top students should be given a fee-voucher to use at any university they choose, whether private or state. The bad universities will fail (and not be worth saving). To survive, state universities will be forced to abandon patronage and perform.

Then we can properly judge which model, private or state, is better.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 1

    It’s humiliating to hear that Dr Hoole is still bouncing from one university to other in Sri Lanka to get a VC position. UGC should offer him a decent position or he should be appointed as the chairman of UGC to clean up the mess.

    Just for a break from petty politics, read the following inspirational story of how an unknown Chinese mathematician without a faculty position solved a long outstanding math problem. After reading it, get back to work on whatever fields you are trained to do so because you have a lot to catch up.


  • 6

    Sri Lankan public University problems deeper than your analysis: You need to sack all fake profs and follow international criteria to appoint them: In order to be a real international professor your PhD from world top 100 University, minimum 20 articles in ISI/SCOPUS indexed journals, 10 text books with international publishers and three countries have to appoint you as a Visiting professor. But all these Sri Lankan Professors are jokers and more than 40% University Lecturers are relatives to each others and they give degrees to each other (Husband gives PhD to wife and girlfriend/mistress getting PG degree, sons, daughter and son-in law and daughter- in-law). MY3 clean University system and sack fake professors and University mafia system. Some Dept are family trees. We well know how they recruits and promoted in University Mafia. First find a person and then advertise according to his/her requirement and send aboard for their friends’ places for PhDs. Go beyond Sri Lankan airport and see International job market. Even in Middle East job market, without PhD from accredited Western University you cannot become even Assistant Lecturer. But in Sri Lanka more than 80% professors do not have PhD. The countries they (University teachers) go to do higher studies, no person is going to studies: China, Malaysia, Thailand and India now many do PhDs locally and their own work places.

  • 0

    “False particulars or wilful suppression of material facts will render you liable to disqualification, or, if appointed, to dismissal and/or
    appropriate legal proceedings.” This is a standard phrase in all Sri LAnkan Job Application forms.

    It is the duty of the President who appointed Vasanthy Arasaratnam to verify this fact. She sits on all the appointment committees of JU. Imagine that! Her degree claims must be checked immediately by the Council first. If found to be false she should be dismissed immediately. The public has a right to know. Futa must look at this too though the Minister is with her all the way. It is not likely Kiriella will do anything but promote such a person further. Does Hoole think that Kiriella even cares whether engineering in JAffna or even the Science Faculty succeeds or not?

    Enough of her games. At a time when the Eng. Faculty got funds from India through the UGC coordinator as given in the Tamil papers, and was the prime concern then how could such a person have been appointed as VC twice?

    Jaffna Tamils need no enemies to ruin them. They are a pathetic race. Sad! Hoole is still trying to become a Professor in his ‘pee kulam”.

  • 3

    Dear Ratnajeevan,

    I do not want to answer any Dick and Tom who commented for your article, but to you directly.

    Your article, as you think, may be a genuine one, provided some of your examples are too far from the facts, as you imagine, especially the EUSL example.

    I really feel that you might have been instructed by Dr. Kobidarajah, the former VC of the EUSL regarding the administration of the present CA Prof. Uma Coomaraswami. Being a writer of this article, you might have checked (rather double checked) the ground (or the real) situation of the EUSL, both prior and during the tenure of Prof. Uma Coomaraswami. Instead, you have given arbitrary statements that she is supporting her former botany friend to be the new VC. This is not at all true and do you think (I still feel that you are a genuine academic) the people in the council of any university (including the EUSL) are so mad and fools that they do not know that the Chairperson of the council is cheating them? Or what would be the benefit they get if this result is manipulated?

    Where were you Ratnajeevan during the tenure of the former VC Dr. Kobindarajah? Where was your pen during those period? Where was your so called intellectual capacity gone when Dr. Kobindarajanh had conducted the VC election when he was the Chair of the council of the EUSL? Hadn’t you seen (or at least heard) that he traveled with the deans to the council meeting that was held to elect the VC? Don’t you think (rationally) why a CA was appointed, instead of appointing a VC?
    Could you please answer those questions, Ratnajeevan?

    I trust that you know the Internal Quality Assurance system introduced by the UGC. Their latest visit to the EUSL for the Institutional Review is the only proof about the GOOD GOVERNANCE of the EUSL by the CA Prof. Uma Coomarswamy. Could I take your article in this way? You are also one of the (unsuccessful) candidate for the same election and you want to disturb the already held the election and want to become the VC of the EUSL (for one year – since you are now 64) by supporting Dr. Kobidarajah!

    Please check anything before you pen anything, at least in the public media.

    • 0

      Thank you Kenny. You have written as a debate issue should be written about. I have written a long reply addressing many of the issues, especially about the Competent authority’s integrity. I hope CT will publish it.

      In that I also answer issues about my age (just turned 63, not 64),say that I was not a candidate for this election but was listed on the ballot, etc.

      Contrary to what someone else said, I have had only one court case against me and that was about the election fraud I reported on that I saw going on in Kayts. I have had no case filed against me by university.

      It is the latter kind of slanderous comment (which the moderator should have excised but failed to do) that prevents a discussion of the issues. EUSL sadly is a troubled place where we have diatribes in place of discussions as can be seen in the comments disallowed by the editor. You, I thank for a reply phrased in civil terms as one should be, although you too like the others state many wrong things as fact.

  • 0

    have no doubt about the academic credentials of Dr Hoole or about his good Human nature. Though we are free to choose we do not choose freely. Our choices depend on our circumstances. But due to human adoptability we find our home where we live. We find contentment in our situation. Most of us who ‘chose’ to live in Jaffan during the height of the problem were not unhappy but we had to be there for various reasons-not by choice. When some body goes on and on about some thing very personal beyond a certain point it becomes intolerable. I have some views and questions: 1 VC post is not decided on academic credentials ( obviously the best academic is not the best administrator) it is decided by the voting in University Council. Has Dr Hoole ever got highest votes in VC elections? if not is he wants to be a political appointee? (there is a problem with the system that is different) 2 to my understanding financing of Universitites in foreign countries depends on performance, which in turn ensues most suitable person to be chosen for VC post. Its different in Sri Lanka. Big or small government funds them all. 3Why does Dr Hoole always talk against north and eastern university, are the other universities functioning well? 4 Why did he go to LLRC and talk about VC appointment? 5 Please compare Prof Sivasegarams analysis and Dr.Hooles article, which one is an intellectual analysis? 6Ramifications of Dr Hooles arguments beyond a certain extent will be taken as a reflection of bankruptcy of ideology in his community. The way he is going on and on is wrong. 7 There had been VCs and VCs most of them are glorified by the position they held. Surely Dr Hooles stature is very much beyond needing VC post to prop him up. 8 Dr Hoole made a statement in support of MR during VC election period this cannot be understood other than as an act to be in good books of MR (obviously to favor him in VC selection).

    • 0

      Is this Rogee putting out communalist tripe here that same Roger who appeared before?

      To answer, VC’s are decided by the law. Thus when we vote we must vote by the law. I think this is what Dr. Hoole’s article is all about.

      However, Rogee, you say that in foreign countries the most suitable person is chosen but it is different in Sri Lanka. I am appalled. So you want to choose a less suitable person!

      Here is what by UGC instructions our advertisements for VC say and the EUSL advertisement did say:

      “The successful candidate should possess a record of high academic achievement including a strong research profile, proven leadership qualities and interpersonal skills to interact objectively with diverse
      interest groups, a clear understanding of policy issues and a commitment to the effective implementation of decisions.”

      I hope Rogee that you can see that what you suggest for voting, that is voting for those we are comfortable with rather than for those with high achievement, is unlawful. If you advertise for a certain kind of person, you must hire by that advertised description. Anything else is illegal.That is what is called the rule of law.

      I am grateful that Dr. Hoole is shouting this message out loudly, repeatedly and for so long because our people seem deaf, and he has to repeat it again and again till we get it.

      I am doubly appalled by your claim, Rogee, that “Ramifications of Dr Hooles arguments beyond a certain extent will be taken as a reflection of bankruptcy of ideology in his community.”

      Oh my! In this modern human rights age, one does not generalize like this about an entire community. This is an illegal hate-speech aspersion on “his community.” And which one is that? Christians? Or is it about his caste and if so what is his caste that you are trying to insult?

      This is exactly what is wrong with us. We need to come out of our dark little world into the modern one where people are not insulted for their caste and religion or rejected for VC because of labels that we are not comfortable with.

      After reading Rogee, I now truly wonder if the EUSL issue is because of Dr. Kiddnan Kobindarajah’s caste as stated by Dr. Vikramabahu Karunaratne in Ceylon Today (24.12.2015). Was the whole VC selection process distorted because of his caste when people like Rogee think that voting is not for the most suitable person but “to find contentment in our situation” like living and working with co-religionists and same caste people?

      Once we decide to abandon excellence for religion and caste like the University of Jaffna where some departments were till recently confined to certain castes and islands, the university will soon be dead.

      Rogee, is that what you want?

  • 0

    [Edited out]

  • 2

    Sri Lankan universities are failing because of selfish administrators.

    The administrator should not be an academic. As Academics are not trained academics.

    All VCs, Deans and HoDs are messing up the system as they only practice with self interest. Recruitments and curriculums are been extrapolated to suit an individuals needs.

    The Universities started in remote districts where recruitments of admins and academics has become a challenge many substandard academics are employed. Then they inturn manipulate the system so no one better than them will be recruited and the viscous cycle will continue.

    When Ruhuna medical faculty was started there was proper planning. Therefore that faculty was sustained with minimum damage. However the recently opened Universities and faculties had no proper planning at all. The damage that is causing the public and the students are so great at this newly established institutes such as RUSL, EUSL, SATAM.

    Autonomy is mishandled and abused by individuals in authority. Only way forward is to have a proper accountability and an accreditation process.

    Also clear guide lines for the administrator(VC, Dean, HoD) should be in circulars and when violated there should be a central body where complains could be made. Otherwise within the university all these complains will be suppressed or the victim will be victimised more.

    Majority of individuals are corrupt in today’s society and the uncorrupt is been voted out by the majority corrupt people anywhere.

    The core issue is the governance of this country is corrupt. Although we elected a president who is least corrupt he is unable to steer the country in the right pathway as the majority of the elect to the parliemant is corrupt. The voices of the uncorrupt is silenced.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.