Colombo Telegraph

Crisis In Oluvil: The Perils Of Politicisation, Desultory Policies, & Privatisation

By Elijah Hoole

Elijah Hoole

The Makings of the Oluvil Misadventure: A Case Study in State Negligence

Following the Z-score fiasco of 2011, the government hurriedly opened up an engineering faculty in the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka (SEUSL), Oluvil, to absorb an additional hundred engineering students. In the subsequent years, two more batches joined the faculty without improvements in human or physical resources to render it commensurate with established engineering faculties.

Despite multiple forewarnings from the students, the authorities concerned failed to arrest the situation. The result was a crisis that threatened the futures of three hundred engineering students and the proud heritage of state engineering education: the faculty largely operated during weekends with visiting lecturers sharing the bulk of teaching duties; the authorities singularly failed in attracting quality human resources; electrical and computer engineering departments functioned without department heads casting an impossible burden on relatively inexperienced lecturers and demonstrators – leaving the students at a loss in a low quality learning environment; lack of links to the engineering industry meant the absence of familiarisation opportunities and exposure for the students. The faculty administration’s inability to run the academic programme to schedule compounded the problem further: parallel batches in other engineering faculties lead by a full year.

The SEUSL engineering faculty had seriously flawed origins and is a case study in state negligence and the callousness with which university education is being treated in the country.

First, the Z-score fiasco of 2011 that led to the establishment of the engineering faculty in SEUSL was the result of a basic mathematical error committed by the Department of Examinations’ – one of treating two characteristically distinct populations as the same when calculating the z-scores – and required the intervention of the Supreme Court for a remedy.

Second, in the course of allocating the first batch of students the UGC violated the students’ right to know: SEUSL engineering faculty was not listed under the UGC handbook for university admissions for the year 2011/2012. This means that none from the first batch of students applied to SEUSL engineering; far worse, they were kept in the dark in terms of plans to send them where a faculty did not then exist.

Third, the choice of university and location served political imperatives at the expense of educational principles. The university administration was close to the Rajapaksa government; the former Vice Chancellor brazenly violated election rules in support of Mahinda Rajapaksa during the presidential election of January 2015 and later contested for the UPFA in the general election. Many on the university’s council were close to the then Minister for Higher Education S. B. Dissanayake. Hydraulic laboratory building for the engineering faculty in SEUSL is being built by Darinton Construction – a company owned by Dissanayake’s relative.

As such it does not require a great stretch of imagination to figure out how SEUSL obtained the approval for an engineering faculty. Showing no remorse for subjecting students to low quality education, the former Vice Chancellor listed establishing an engineering faculty as his prime achievement in his general election campaign.

What sense does it make to establish an engineering faculty in an area without engineering industry – where the primary drivers of the local economy are agriculture and fisheries? The absence of links to the engineering industry is a serious hindrance to the engineering students’ progress in SEUSL. If established lecturers are to join a university permanently, proper schools and medical facilities in the vicinity are essential. Until December 2015, the net increase in the number of lecturers in our faculty from May 2013 – over a period of two-and-a-half years – was just three.

Fourth, the university administration gave little thought to the quality of education or student welfare. For instance, the process of establishing the faculty barely lasted six months and the university registered the first batch of students, in March 2013 – before having even recruited the necessary academic staff. With inadequate hostel facilities, three or four students shared tiny rooms meant for two.

Fifth, the faculty was bereft of the most basic resource for a new education institute: a core group of competent academic staff to provide committed leadership. Of the eight lecturers who joined at the inception only three held doctorates. A vast majority of them carried no academic experience whatsoever prior to joining the faculty. Instead of mentally preparing the students for a difficult road ahead, the staff threw grand promises. Soon enough, with the faculty administration failing to deliver on its most basic obligations, inevitably led to a trust deficit too great to bridge.

Today, the students are bearing the brunt of these inadequacies, mistakes, and mishandling.

Politics and Petty Regionalism Stump Educational Policies

Every government introduces new policies and it is the helpless students who are left to suffer the consequences.

Between the establishment of the first three engineering faculties in Peradeniya, Moratuwa, and Ruhunu there was a gap of more than twenty years. This time gave each of these faculties the chance to build and stabilise properly. Since 2013, the government has opened up two new faculties and in November this year approved another in University of Sri Jayewardenepura.

Starting from 2013, the government introduced the ‘technology stream’ for the advanced level. The UGC is presently splitting hairs as to how to accommodate these students in universities – starting from next year. All the indications are that these technology courses will be akin to the ones offered by polytechnics in other countries – albeit poorly designed and scarcely resourced. As opposed to investing resources into developing the newly established engineering faculties in Oluvil and Kilinochchi, the government is caught up in setting up engineering technology faculties (offering BTech. degrees). This does not reflect anything other than sheer shortsightedness.

Universities must be viewed as centres of creativity, critical thinking and learning. The primary goal of a university is to enrich its students with these qualities. It is a grave mistake to view the university as a tool for regional development: a common objection raised against the possibility of shifting the SEUSL engineering faculty elsewhere was that it would hamper the eastern province. State universities belong to the country as a whole and must be established in locations most conducive for student learning and related opportunities. If we are serious about using education as a tool for regional growth we would start with revamping the school system: off-the-cuff creation of new universities and faculties is not the solution. The catch, ironically, is that parochial regionalism eventually bites the students from the very region. In the case of SEUSL engineering faculty, the UGC’s policy of admitting students to the closest university based on the proximity principle means that, over time, it is the bright mathematics students from the Eastern province who will be denied the opportunity of studying in the country’s reputed and established universities, receiving high standard engineering education, and gaining greater exposure. Nearly 20% of the engineering students allocated to SEUSL for the academic year 2013/2014 are from Ampara district. Sub-standard universities serve no one, least of all, those from the region.

Here in Sri Lanka, as we are breeding new faculties on the back of institutional blunders and according to the whims and fancies of politicians: the UGC does not seem to have rigorous protocols for establishing new faculties. As if the SEUSL engineering faculty was not enough of a blunder, the Minister for Education Akila Viraj Kariyawasam – who is from Kurunagla district – is now pushing for a medical faculty in the University of Wayamba in Kuliyapittiya. In leading universities around the world, by contrast, even the steps for changing the recommended textbook for a particular module are strictly defined – comprising of testing in different classes, obtaining students’ feedback, and so on.

As with the technology stream in the advanced level, employability seems to be the only concern when introducing new degree programmes. The accompanying corollary is the degrading of the pure sciences and humanities – which are deemed less important because of their relatively dim job prospects. What indeed is the country’s vision for higher education? The rhetoric of becoming a knowledge hub rings hollow in the face of arbitrary and short-sighted educational policies and ad-hoc institutional practices.

In the Name of Expansion

Improving the access to university education is a major theme in the country’s discourse on education. Currently, less than 20% of the students who meet the minimum requirements for university entrance are enrolled in state universities every year: this is around 10% of those who sit for advanced level examinations. Underlying this expansion drive, however, is the not-so-subtle privatisation of higher education.

For example, the number of students admitted into state universities as a percentage of those who sit for advanced level examinations has remained more or less the same in the last two decades. From the turn of the new millennium the total intake has only doubled – from 12,000 to 25,000. Little has been done to increase the student capacities of state universities: for example, Peradeniya’s engineering intake has remained the same for years. Engineering intake in state universities was around 700 per year in mid-1990s; 20 years on it has only doubled. Newly established state engineering faculties in Oluvil and Kilinochchi accommodate 100 and 50 students per batch respectively. Total admission into state medical faculties is 1300; hardly enough considering the country’s population exceeding twenty million. Infrastructure development in state universities is crippled by excessive paperwork, institutional barriers, and changes in administrations and administrators. SEUSL was forced to delay its 2013/2014 intake by almost four months because of delays in constructing a new hostel facility for men. Several construction projects in state universities were put on hold following the change of government in January.

Contrast these conditions with the developments in the private higher education sector in recent years and the picture is telling: when policy makers talk of expanding higher education opportunities they do not mean state universities rather it is always about private institutes.

The National School of Business Management (NSBM) – a private institute offering foreign university degrees in management, computing, and engineering – is building a massive campus facility called the Green University in Homagama, capable of accommodating 30,000 students at a time. The Green University project will be completed in the next two years and NSBM plans to offer around 100 degree programmes in the near future. The Sri Lanka Institute of Information and Technology (SLIIT) alone has a student population exceeding 7000. In the next few years, the number of engineering graduates passing out from private engineering colleges such as SLIIT, the British College of Applied Studies (BCAS), and the International College of Business and Technology (ICBT) would be considerably higher than all the state engineering faculties combined. The medical faculty of the South Asia Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) started in 2009 with 25 students. Today, in the space of six years, SAITM’s medical student population has grown to 800: twice the size of the University of Jaffna’s medical faculty which was established in 1978.

Privatisation that Threatens the Peripheries: Winners and Losers

When authorities view education as a commodity and a means for generating revenue, frequently for cronies, their allegiance is with private education. This goes to the heart of the problems pertaining to state education in the country.

In the last five years, the country has prioritised private higher education over the state university system. While this thrust imperils the entire free education system and all state universities, it is the universities in the peripheries, like SEUSL, that suffer the most. Thus, the true extent of the crisis in Oluvil is evident only when it is placed within the context of the trajectory of broader national educational policies, particularly with respect to privatisation.

With no cap on intake or minimum requirement for admission, most private institutions function like boutiques: the more customers the merrier. These private institutions with their hefty financial muscle and extensive political backing know no limits. The lack of transparency on the UGC’s part with respect to its accreditation and approval processes raises serious doubts about the academic practices followed by private higher education institutions. In 2011, the UGC granted degree awarding status to SAITM despite the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) – the body responsible for maintaining the standards of medical education in the country – being unsatisfied with its facilities. Today this private medical college has evolved into a national crisis. The previous UGC chairperson was a board member of many private higher education institutions – ignoring the Federation of University Teachers Associations’ (FUTA) protests against the conflict of interest. On the other hand, when the deans of Oluvil and Kilinochchi engineering faculties approached the UGC’s relevant standing committee with a proposal to increase the salaries of probationary lecturers to 50,000 to mitigate the lack of human resources they were denied.

Similarly, the Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka (IESL) – the body responsible for accrediting engineering degrees in the country – runs a College of Engineering in Colombo in brazen violation of norms followed by accreditation bodies. The IESL Eastern Chapter’s contribution towards the development of the SEUSL engineering faculty in the last two years, by contrast, is almost nil.

In short, where there is money there is will.

The erosion of state-funded education is the price paid for the promotion of private education. The exodus of state university lecturers into private institutions, coupled with the kind of infrastructure development as in the case of Green University, would eventually lead to sub-standard state universities and a qualitatively superior fee-levying higher education system. The reality is that the latter is established at the cost of poor students who cannot afford them, by covertly denuding state universities. Accelerated privatisation of higher education – especially in the absence of parallel special measures to safeguard state universities, therefore, threatens to erode the promise of free education. The exodus is already on. At a time when even Peradeniya is struggling to retain its senior engineering staff, what chances do the likes of SEUSL have?

Privatising higher education will only exacerbate social inequalities. Wealthier students will benefit from better academic staff and infrastructure while students from poorer backgrounds would be admitted into low quality state universities. Those who benefit from the so-called expansion of higher education opportunities are the wealthy and the powerful. This lot, with better soft skills and social connections, would likely be preferred in employment too. As with peripheral universities, privatisation affects the families and students from the margins of society the most. Crippling the free education system – an instrument that has historically restored some semblance of balance in the Sri Lankan social fabric – would have widespread consequences for the poor.

Student Action, Special Measures, and Lessons for the Future

In this context, the month long boycott campaign launched by the SEUSL engineering in November 2015, and the results of the negotiations they held with the UGC and the Ministry for Higher Education gain particular importance. Reasoning that the isolated location of the faculty was the primary hindrance to progress in SEUSL, the engineering students demanded that the government either relocates the faculty to a more viable place or distributes them among existing engineering faculties.

Primarily down to practical considerations the possibilities of relocating the faculty seem extremely thin. The University Grants Commission, instead, has taken certain measures to improve the conditions in Oluvil – chief among them being the provision of additional LKR 150,000 to senior lecturers who are willing to join from other universities. Following these measures, five doctorate holders have joined the faculty.

Paying almost double the salary for lecturers joining Oluvil and allocating extra funds for laboratory facilities and textbooks underscore a salient truth. Universities located in economically and socially marginal areas require special attention to survive. In order for them thrive, it would take a coordinated effort from the UGC, the Ministry for Higher Education, and universities with better resources. Isolated stop gap fixes can only offer temporary comfort.

With the country firmly set on privatising higher education and the institutional decadence that pervades the country’s education system such a project looks ever so unlikely.

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