16 December, 2017

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Courses Offered By State Funded Universities: Suitability For The Times

By Siri Gamage

Dr. 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

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    I think, it is almost impoosible to do anything in Sri lanka. Probably, the VC, the Dean and the head of the faculty is appointed by the minister or minister’s henchmen etc., etc., they don’t care about running the university successfully and they all want to be Union leaders or poloticians. Universities should change the degree programs as it fits to the country as well as to the ability of the graduate to find employment.

    If they think, that they university’s responsibility is, even at the present time., only ro roll out “graudates.” that is an outdated concept. that kind of programs that the country doesnot need very many graduates should be specialized programs. University should look for needs of the country and start new degree programs

    that is why private universities, self funded universities as well as advanced degree programs are needed.

    University can also retrain those graduates who are unemployed as they have proven that they the ability.

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      It was brought to my attention by a student from the university of kelaniya that a student from department of economics who was arrested on charges of ragging was given an internship at the passport office by the lecturer in charge of the internship program. The reason had been that the lecturer who is from ibbagamuwa, kurunegala and the arrested student were both from the same hometown. Lecturers are pro-ragging. This lecturer is also accused of a sexual harassment to a female student from bandarawela. These things are social issues when are they going to be solved. Why cant these type of people be sacked? This man continues to hold post in university.

  • 1
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    stem- science, technology,engineering, maths

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    excellent
    you have hit the nail on the head
    all they produce are unemployable graduates

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    Much of the responsibility for this dire situation rests with parents and their skewed ideas of social status. No parent wants his precious child to become a plumber, even if he is one himself. There are hundreds of thousands of skilled jobs being taken by Chinese and Indians. There is heavy demand for electricians, auto technicians, carpenters, welders, lathe operators, etc. It is not that training facilities are not available. One particular state vocational training centre keeps its CNC lathe unit closed because nobody has applied to join up.
    The process must start in schools. Children MUST be told that there are other ways to make a living than ” doctor/ lawyer/ teacher/ accountant”.
    It is telling that Accountancy exam seminars are held in the Sugathadasa stadium!
    Does a country need more accountants than electricians?
    Perhaps one way to start is by limiting entry to Arts and Humanities degree courses, just like Medicine. That will force those who cannot get in into some more productive field. Call it social engineering if you will.

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    Here Dr Siri Gamage, University of New England, Australia questions the value of Lankan university courses. Will he tell us as to whether courses offered at his university are of value? Are the courses he teaches of any value at all? Courses at Australian universities? Siri starts with an article published by Colombo Telegraph (26.5.2017) Sarath Jayasuriya’s comments on the issues and politics around SAITM and the nature of graduates produced by private universities. Within hours (or minutes?) Siri writes this. Sarath told us about four who took part in a SAITM forum in Melbourne. Was he one of the four wise men? Come off this Siri – it is clumsy clumsy clumsy!

  • 3
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    Hi Pillai,
    No I was not one of the four. I just read the article by Sarath and wrote my thoughts. Don’t suspect any conspiracy.

    Courses I teach are in the teacher training programs. Most students gain employment after graduation though for some it takes longer. Most other courses offered by the university are professionally oriented and market sensitive. Coordinators of degree programs work closely with industry partners,employer organisations to develop courses suitable for industries and professional fields. This us not happening in Sri Lankan universities except in limited fields. Faculties of arts and social sciences need to look into such possibilities and opportunities outside university walls.

    One difference is that Australian students engage in casual or part time work while studying – something anathema to university students in Sri Lanka. There the students go through university education in most subjects without work experience. Here students work in cafes,shops, supermarkets, nursing homes,age care facilities,etc. I know one student who trained as a personal trainer and started earning good dollars while studying sociology. She decided to study part time and work full time. Another student gained experience working in a cafe and bought the business with a second student. Such experiences provide important life experiences for students. In Sri Lanka, many students do politics in stead. Authorities need to develop work oriented degree programs within which some courses can be about other topics mentioned in my article. Graduates in Sri Lanka desire a office job where they can work as gentlemen and not get hands dirty. But there is so much such jobs.

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      Siri I take back the question :” Were you one of the four (who participated in the Melbourne SAITM forum?”. I got misled by the short time gap between your article and that by Sarath. Your reply is somewhat condescending but this is common among well meaning foreigners with limited of Lankan life. In Lanka, jobs are hard to come by and part-time jobs are snapped up by the unemployed. The “…cafes,shops, supermarkets, nursing homes,age care facilities,etc” are found only in bigger cities where unemployed throng. Undergrads finding part time work is difficult. It is unfair to blame Lankan universities for this. The example you quote about a sociology student changing full time study to part time is a bit of red herring. Lankan universities do not allow part time study because every place is fiercely competed. The second example of a student buying up a business after working part time may occur in Australia but in Lanka, business depends on political connections. Siri, your advice is well meant but you must get down from that ivory tower and strive to get some insights into Lankan life. By the way Lankan universities has produced Rhode Scholars but none like Tony Abbott!

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    There is no point in talking about university courses without a revision of the school curriculum. My suggestions are
    1. Reduce the current school education to 12 years instead of the present 13. O.L. which was earlier only 2 years now spans 3 years. Immediately commence AL classes after O.L. instead of waiting for at least six months till the results are out
    2. Instead of dividing into science, arts and commerce streams have a general education in schools and specialisation should be left to the universities. At least immediately amalgamate the physical and bio-science streams.
    3. Have mathematics and English as compulsory subjects for entry into universities. Now, it is impossible to do economics without maths and developed countries such as the Us have economics major course where nearly half the courses are in mathematics. Our economics graduates such as those employed at the central bank find it almost impossible to a Ph.D. in the USA due to their deficiency of mathematics.

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      Such unsubstantiated anecdotal comments do not make research or for analysis.

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      oliver: The suggestions made by you were made by Prof CLV Jayatillaka of the National Education Commission too. Do your suggestions allay the concerns raised by Siri Gamage?

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    I take great exception to what Prof. Siri Gamage has written. In my view, he writes with little knowledge of what is going on inside and outside of Sri Lankan universities.I can take apart each one of this arguments here, but I will do it in a separate article as I am busy with end of semester blues.

    However, I want to point out the easy generalizations that dot Siri Gamage’s article with absolutely no substantiation whatsoever. I wonder what kind of University he teaches in, if anecdotal narration can pass off as valid pronouncements.

    He talks about courses offered by the universities that are not of relevance, but does not say which ones.

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      Sumathy: Agree with you. Siri is a well meaning foreigner but excessively patronizing.

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        Which well meaning foreigner does not show such tendency? . . . . * * * We have to get our act together. . . . . * * *
        We need to think of not just university education as higher education but all post-school as higher education.. . . . * * *
        The aim of schools should not be to cater to the 5% that enter university but all who attend school.. . . . * * *
        Universities cannot proliferate for political reasons. . . . * * * They should produce graduates who are not just employable but also useful to the country.. . . . * * *
        The General Education Policy Document of the NEC needs to be followed up with thoughts on all forms of higher education.

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      Everything academics say does not have to be supported or substantiated by data collection, data analysis, interpretation, and arriving at conclusions as proven or rejected facts. That is the positivist method that has been discarded by critical sociologists and educationists all over. One should be able to make ‘observations’ and make ‘critical/constructive comments’ about an issue without being prisoners of the positivist method in social sciences(which tends to imitate so called scientific method whose owners are not in the global South). My aim is to add my views ,observations, insights and comments on current issues for the public discussion and critical comment. if I am to do an empirical research on every issue I talk about, it will take years before I am able to say something.

      I am not sure which academic discipline you are trained in? It is our social sciences hat are burdened with the positivist method inherited from the West and USA.Humanities subject specialists use different methodology including imaginative writing. No one should propagate falsehoods knowingly. We need to speak the truth to the power.

      I look forward to your article

      Siri

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        Dear Siri Gamage,

        You have picked up some jargon offered by critical theory without actually understanding the contours of analysis it provided. I will say why substantiation is important here and also emphasis that by substantiation I am not asking for graphs, numbers and quantitative analysis and but certain solid qualitative assessments. It is you yourself who bring in certain sociological categoies attached to number. For instance, courses offered by state funded universities are not suitable……..COURSE/COURSES ( plural=number) can be addressed only if one knows what these courses are. You fail to mention even one. Secondly and in tandem, you fail to demonstrate any inside knowledge of the workings of the university system, its battles within and without, the challenges it faces etc. Prof. Thiru Kandiah used to say that everybody in this country, without bothering to even take the trouble to understand the rudiments of the problem, is an expert on English Language Teaching in the country. Appropriating his words for another albeit related purpose, I’d say, just repeat the oft repeated mantra of unsuitability of university courses, and then it becomes true.
        will continue…

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    Continuing from previous post: If as Siri Gamage says that economics students cannot go to the USA because they lack training in Mathematics, then we need numbers. We just had a couple of students go to USA and Australia for economics. Peradeniya physics graduates are all over in the USA. English graduates regularly end up at universities in USA for postgraduate work while others find quick employment. But once again, going to the USA is not everything, doing Mathematics is not everything in the economics department, and teaching English in schools is also a BIG something. Siri Gamage has got his categories all wrong. While he is using numbers he says that he does not need to substantiate. Siri Gamage, If you want me to do a critique of positivism, I can do it par ex·cel·lence. And owing to my skills in that field, I will not make the mistake of confusing numbers and quantification with the tools of critical analytic method. I’d say that because you dont have those skills you are confusing the two. I’d also say that theoretically speaking your holding a brief for global neo liberal policies counter any putative attachment you might have for critical theory.
    Before anybody accuses me of not being critical of the university system, I want to emphasize here that I do not by any means say that the system is without fault or anything of that sort. There is much to be desired in the way the system is run Bu t my critique would situate the call for reform attends in theneed for an indepth understanding of how the university system works and what current policies mean for university education, education at large, and for the people in this country.

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      The last sentence should read as: But my critique would situate the call for reform in an indepth understanding of how the university system works and what current policies mean for university education, education at large and for the people in this country.

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