By Siri Gamage –
In an article published by Colombo Telegraph (26.5.2017) Sarath Jayasuriya raises an important question about the value of courses offered by state funded universities in Sri Lanka while commenting on the issues and politics around SAITM and the nature of graduates produced by private universities. He says, majority of these graduates from state universities are added to the unemployment queue and this requires the immediate attention of protestors against SAITM to get the authorities to open their eyes and ears. This is a timely reminder to all those concerned with the future of our graduates particularly large numbers of them being trained in the humanities and social sciences.
Suitability of education and training received by graduates for employment locally and globally is a crucial issue in anybody’s language as the more immediate aim of any undergraduate is to find employment after graduation. Most students follow courses that are not suitable for employment by their choice. It is due to their inability to get admitted to professionally oriented courses such as medicine, engineering, law, accounting, commerce, business and management. According to the hierarchy of (false) values prevalent in the society, less value is placed by applicants for university places on courses such as nursing and teaching compared to professionally-oriented courses.
In the higher education field worldwide, there is ongoing debate and discussion about the purpose of university education. Some academics emphasise the need for producing graduates with a skills set suitable for the employment market in a given country, the broader region and global economy. What role universities play in such endeavor compared to the role played by vocationally oriented training institutions are debated? For example in Australia Technical and Further Education or TAFE Colleges offer vocationally oriented courses. Very often universities work closely with such Colleges to create easy pathways for students to move to university after completing their TAFE qualification in fields such as early childhood education.
However, among the community of academics, there is a broad consensus that university courses should play a much broader role in providing students with critical thinking and problem solving skills, knowledge of contemporary issues and global affairs, historical and cultural heritage of one’s country, communication skills including skills in foreign languages, rights and responsibilities of citizenship, ethics and spirit of community service etc. The idea is to produce future citizens with a sense of identity and community responsibility rather than self-interested individuals who aspire to climb the class ladder with the qualifications acquired as public money is used in education.
On both counts the higher education system in Sri Lanka seems to struggle and the reasons for this dire situation are well known. In a country that appoints Commissions of Inquiry for even trivial matters, authorities have not thought it necessary to initiate an inquiry into the issues of course suitability or the state of affairs in higher education institutions including governance and politicisation. The university sector is being treated as a sacred cow and billions of rupees are pumped into the system annually as if the system is perfect. Reform is not even in the terminology of policy makers and the higher education hierarchy.
One aspect that needs to be emphasised is the lack of ‘market sensitivity’ in most courses offered by Sri Lankan universities. In other countries authorities take actions to ensure the education provided through courses is suitable for the times, graduate needs and industry expectations. This of course does not apply to courses in philosophy, history, literature or similar areas of study. In other words, universities in countries like Australia ensure market sensitiveness in the degree courses offered. For each course offered, there is a list of ‘graduates attributes’. Lecturers develop course content, assessment tasks etc. to match these attributes. I am not aware of similar requirement for the courses offered by Sri Lankan Universities.
One reason for Sri Lankan universities to offer courses with less market sensitivity is due to the fact that 100% funding is guaranteed by the state. In Australia only a little more than 50% of funding is provided to universities. In turn the universities are required to generate ‘additional income’ for operational purposes by way of entrepreneurial activities, research and consultancies. Government provides funding for research on the basis of highly competitive application vetting process annually. Such applications require well-developed team research proposals showing not only collaboration among researchers across institutions but also clearly identifiable outcomes in various fields plus rigorous methodologies.
In the cases of Sri Lanka, university academic and administrative staff receives their salaries irrespective of the quality or suitability of the courses offered, student satisfaction ratio or the nature /quality of research conducted. Elsewhere I have pointed out that the research conducted by social scientists is not grounded in the local social and cultural context. They rather imitate Western models or theories and often the aim is to prove or disprove a theory produced in Western capitals. The aim of such research is to generate empirical data to prove or disprove an outdated theory. Such research adds very little to generation of knowledge useful for policymaking or problem solving in the country. Academic dependency on Western theories, concepts and models as well as research methods is a serious issue in many Asian, Latin American and African universities.
An overhaul of courses offered by universities is long overdue in Sri Lanka. However, such an exercise requires political will, pressure by lobby groups, senior academics and administrators, parents, industry partners and political activists. Even then, it becomes an uphill battle, as there are entrenched cultures within universities against reform. Academics who are used to teaching same courses for many years or decades develop a sense of ownership about the courses they teach. They do not usually like sensible criticism from other academics or senior colleagues. Unlike in developed countries, there is no regular course evaluation process that can compel academics to revise their curriculum, textbooks, and assessment methods in Sri Lankan universities-though there are examples of student evaluations on an ad hoc basis. So the show goes on irrespective of the suitability of courses for the society, graduates or industry-employer needs.
What other countries have done is to open courses offered by publicly funded universities to international students who pay fees. While I do not approve of certain marketing methods employed, the drive for profits instead of quality or inequities generated between fee paying vs non fee paying students, as a broad principle, Sri Lanka’s universities can consider opening limited places for a given number of international students. Such courses need to be designed differently focused on the foreign student needs and the contribution such students can make to the learning atmosphere in universities. Similar programs are available for example in countries like Malaysia, Thailand, China, and Bangladesh. My fear is that there cannot be an appetite for such offerings among the senior academics in universities in Sri Lanka due to the reasons described earlier. Any move in this direction thus becomes a theoretical issue rather than one that can enhance the student profile and its diversity plus extra income for the universities. The block funding provided by the government in the name of free education works as a serious obstacle in generating competitive spirit and innovation within and across universities.
It is actually ‘a generational crime’ to continue with the practice of producing large numbers of graduates by the higher education system with no prospects of future employment, useful graduate skills, a knowledge about contemporary local and global issues, citizenship rights and responsibilities and a sense of personal and community ethics. Waste of young talent untrained in necessary skills including in critical thinking and problem solving but given a degree certificate on paper seems to be nobody’s business in a country where all life spheres are politicised to the extent of insanity. As Sarath Jayasuriya points out, it is time that we all pressure authorities to open their eyes and ears before a disaster like Meethotamulla incident occurs in our universities in time to come due to inaction, entrenched institutional culture within universities, and the lack of imagination on the part of intellectuals – private and public. Wasted research monies also need to be redirected to socially useful knowledge generation with identifiable goals and methodologies appropriate for the country rather than on fancy exercises that simply imitate Western theories, practices or abstractions. A minister with credentials (a difficult proposition given the lower qualifications of most parliamentarians?) who can implement a reform agenda needs to be appointed as well if we are to achieve the goal of developing and offering suitable courses by universities. More importantly senior academics need to be encouraged to think and act laterally rather than vertically or hierarchically to be able to establish industry links, refine courses offered and find synergies with potential employer groups for the graduates. Compared to private degree granting institutions, many affiliated with foreign universities, publicly funded universities have an important research function to fulfill in line with national development goals, if any.
*Dr Siri Gamage, University of New England, Australia