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
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
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
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.