Colombo Telegraph

Case For Public Control In Higher Education: Some Heretical Thoughts

By Sumanasiri Liyanage – 

Sumanasiri Liyanage

When state controlled educational system failed to deliver, privatization or private involvement in education has been proposed everywhere as a solution to the problem. This phenomenon is associated with the rise of neoliberalism. Sri Lankan discourse on higher education in the last decade or so has centered around three key issues. The first question has been focused on the inadequacy of higher educational opportunities that the state university system is capable of providing for young people who wish to continue their education after GCE A/L examination. The total yearly intake of the state universities are around 25,000 that is much less than the number of students who are qualified for higher education. The second issue is related to the quality of the degrees offered by the state university system. It has been said that there has been a gradual deterioration of the quality of university education so that the university degree holders are not fit well for the needs of the job market. Both issues are directly related to the low level of government expenditure on education that stands below 2 per cent of the GDP. The third issue refers to the bias of the Sri Lankan higher education system towards social sciences and humanities. This bias has been seen as the main source of unemployment of graduates.

All three issues were oftentimes related to the inadequacy of government expenditure on education and higher education that stands at the moment less than 2 per cent of the GDP. So it is imperative to increase government expenditure on education and higher education above 6 per cent of GDP to improve the situation. It is a necessary condition. Nonetheless, mere provision of extra money will not be sufficient in resolving the above-mentioned issues. What is the solution suggested by Sri Lankan politicians? To what extent have their thinking been influenced by the proposals by international financial agencies? Engaging private sector in higher education has been proposed as a panacea for educational conundrum. Of course, this is the view of the politicians and the Word Bank. We have witnessed under Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, Minister S B Disanayaka introduced many reforms in this direction allowing degree awarding status to private institutions, introducing and expanding fee-levying courses in the state universities. This is the view of the neoliberal thinkers who dominate our university system. In the last twenty years or so, we see that education is treated as a commodity that can be purchased and sold. This has been embedded in our educational culture. This is what I called neoliberalist education culture. As a result. If you go to a state university, you can see those institutions are more active now in weekends than in weekdays. University teachers are enthusiastically active in weekends mainly because all paid courses are taught in weekends. I call this tutorizing state universities in weekends.

In his election manifesto, the present President Maithripala Sirisena has also proposed to introduce a fee-levying system supported by a system of loans in state universities. It is sad to note that the footprints of Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) can be seen in this proposal. It appears that FUTA has given its consent to this proposal of the manifesto. This attempt to introduce fee-levying system in the state universities will definitely invalidate two main ideas that the free education discourse in the early 1040s raised. First, it stands in direct opposition to Kannangara’s proposal for free education in higher education institutions. Secondly, Dr N M Perera raised the necessity of less differentiation in the education system. The proposal, if put into practice will create unhealthy differentiation within higher education system.

In this article, my submission is that any attempt to commoditize education should be resisted and prevented. Education like health should not be reduced to something that can be bought and sold. These ‘goods’ are essentially different from saleable commodities. A recent book, The Developing World and State Education: Neoliberal Depredation and Egalitarian Alternatives edited by Dave Hill and Ellen Rossakam, has enlighten us on the dangerous impact on privatization and commodification of education. Why should we oppose privatization and commodification of education? John McMurtry has noted that education and unfettered capitalism and globalization hold opposing goals, motivations, methods, and standards of excellence. McMurtry concludes by suggesting that education and the market also have opposing standards of freedom. He further notes that private profit is acquired by a structure of appropriation that excludes others from its possession. The greater its accumulation by any private corporation, the more wealth others are excluded from in this kind of possession. This is what makes such ownership “private.” Nonetheless, Education, in contrast, is acquired by a structure of appropriation that is meant to not exclude others from its possession. On the contrary, education is furthered the more it is shared, and the more there is free and open access to its circulation. That is why learning that is not conveyed to others is deemed “lost,” “wasted” or “dead.” In direct opposition to market exchanges, educational changes flourish most with the unpaid gifts of others and develop the more they are not mediated by private possession or profit. If we go back to free education discourse in Sri Lanka in the 1940s, we can see that much before McMurty articulated these views, they were resonated in the Sri Lankan discourse. While Sri Lankan politicians suggest fee-levying system, recently, Germany has made education including higher education totally free. Why should we go from a free system to a paid system?

While opposing privatization and commodification, should we advocate state control over higher education? The answer is: absolutely no. Since, early 1970s, we have witnessed bureaucratization and politicization of higher education in Sri Lanka. Higher education that was part of the Ministry of Education has been made a separate ministry with its own bureaucratic structure. Projects funded by international financial agencies have contributed in creating new institution under different names and specific functions within the Ministry of Higher Education. Setting up of private higher education institutions in fact enlarged the state machinery. The result was the loss of independence of state universities. This system has to be changed radically.

  1. In opposition to state control or private control, public control of higher education should be established: It has two aspects. First, the Board of Control Higher Education (BCHE) through the Minister of Education should be accountable to the Parliament with regard to public funds allocated for higher educational institutions. Secondly, BCHE should be responsible to the people in general and academics, students and parents in particular with regard to the determination of policies and basic parameters of higher education.
  2. The composition of the BCHE (that is something like Indian Planning Commission) should be wide-based. Hence it may include Minister of Education, 4 members of Parliament representing four different parties, 4 well known educationists appointed by the Constitutional Council, 2 representatives from teachers of higher educational institutes, 3 student representatives, 2 parent representatives and 2 from private sector institutions.
  3. BCHE is basically a policy making body. It determines higher education research policy, minimum admission criteria, how public funds are allocated among higher education institutions, monitoring quality benchmark etc.
  4. Higher educational institutions should be independent and have a right in determining its admission criteria, use of funds, quality benchmark, and field of studies.

Now the question is in this system of public control of higher education, can private higher educational institutions be set up? My answer is yes. There can be private higher educational institutions that operate within the public control framework and provide educational service free of charge.

I am sure this may not be digestible to many advocate of neoliberalism. However, if a private company or group of companies are ready to set up a university investing part of its surplus not as capital (to earn profit) but as non-capital (producing use value), I think in my opinion such higher educational institutions should be allowed subject to the basic parameters of the BCHE. Will private companies come forward and do that is yet to be seen. Moreover, civil society institutions can also set up once again within the framework of BCHE and no tuition fees. One may say a similar model can be adopted in health sector thus taking some essential ‘goods’ out of the market economy that makes those ‘goods’ in practice ‘bads’.

*The writer is the co-coordinator of the Marx School – e-mail:

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