Colombo Telegraph

Current Issues In University Education

By Harini Amarasuriya

Dr. Harini Amarasuriya

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak a few words today. I think this is an important topic which requires debate and discussion in our society and I am very appreciative of CEPA’s initiative in this regard.

What I want to do today is to reflect on the current discourse on university education. I think this is important –because I have found that most of our discussions about university education start with many unexamined assumptions. Certain ‘truths’ have become established and worryingly these ‘truths’ are being reproduced endlessly with very little critical reflection. So, with your permission, I am not going to describe ‘current issues’ in university education today; instead, I want to step back a little and reflect on how ‘current issues in university education’ are being constructed.

In general, there is a strong sentiment in society that university education in Sri Lanka is in a state of crisis. Many examples are put forward in support of this view: our graduates, especially those graduating with Arts degrees are considered unemployable and of low quality; universities hotbeds of student violence and radical politics; the quality of teaching deplorable and curricula outdated; the quality of research and innovation pathetic etc. In general, universities are considered to be in a mess. Most university academics would add to this list, issues such as the deterioration of academic freedom, university autonomy and the politicisation of university administration. These issues have been debated and discussed but generally, these are accepted as more or less characteristics of the crisis in our universities.

Certain standard prescriptions are also offered to manage this crisis: strengthening university-industry relations, modernising curricula to meet the needs of the labour market, public private partnerships, internationalisation, promoting more marketable study programmes, encouraging universities to offer financially sustainable and self-financed study programmes, strengthening ICT, soft skills, English among graduates, expanding science and technology studies while limiting the expansion of the humanities and social sciences. These are some of the major prescriptions that are suggested and often implemented.

Both the identification of the crisis or the issues in university education as well as the prescriptions, are offered as ideologically neutral options. However, on close examination, it is apparent that the identification of the crisis as well as the solutions offered emanate from a particular view of society and of education. That is, the belief in the market to provide solutions to all problems including social problems, shutting off other choices or ways of doing or thinking about things and most alarmingly, disconnecting one’s personal experiences of social problems from public and political concerns. So for example, rather than seeing the crisis of universities as a reflection of financial cuts to education, extreme politicisation and severe problems with recruiting and retaining quality faculty, which are largely to do with education policy and political choices made by successive governments, parents and students are encouraged to think that the crisis in university education is to do with bad personal choices: bad choice of study programme, bad choice of friends, bad career choices etc. Or with personal deficits: inadequate English skills, lack of social polish, ignorance of social etiquette. Viewed in this way, education becomes what a student as an individual makes of it.

The relationship between the student and the university is also defined in market terms: the student is a client or a consumer of a particular commodity. The university is expected to compete and offer a quality commodity that is economically feasible. Consumers who cannot afford to purchase this commodity can either obtain loans (in turn increasing the pressure on obtaining marketable skills to be able to pay off debts) or to drop out of the system. The logic of demand and supply will essentially regulate the quality of education as well as its quantity. The ideal student today, is one who does not spend too much time on campus and one who does not socialise – instead, the ideal student is one who will spend minimum time on campus, enrol in a couple of professional courses while following an academic programme, stay well away from any kind of social or political activity on campus and who will complete the degree as fast as possible and get out as quickly as she can. And get a job.

What we are seeing in higher education is a strong sense that education is something to engage in for purely economic gain. Education is at a personal level to get a job and at a broader, level to be able to contribute to the national economy. The role of the state in education, the role of the university, faculty and administrators are assessed based on this belief. The kind of education that is required to fulfil this kind of vision and the kind of university or faculty that is required to provide this kind of education is however, necessarily narrow. So what is happening in universities today is the reduction of the role of universities and higher education to extremely narrowly defined, primarily economic goals. It is partly from this idea of education for instance, that we see an assault on the humanities and arts disciplines because these are not viewed as economically profitable or useful. Yet at the same time, we bemoan the fact that our graduates lack critical thinking, imagination and creativity, democratic and pluralistic values. In fact, we bemoan the lack of these capacities among our citizens. But these are capacities that are essentially developed by the humanities and arts disciplines. These are capacities that can be developed in a progressive university culture. First we marginalise disciplines that teach such skills and reduce university spaces to a bad imitation of corporate culture, and then we spend time, energy and money trying to figure out how to make our graduates more employable.

Of course, there are critical questions to be asked about the quality of humanities and arts disciplines and indeed of all disciplines in our universities and indeed in our schools. There are extremely important questions to ask about the lack of democratic space and pluralistic values in our universities. There are also serious questions to ask about the quality of faculty, students learning experiences, curricula and research culture. But the way in which the problem is currently conceptualised does not allow for these broader questions to be debated and discussed. We have accepted the prescriptions without examining the basis on which these prescriptions are made and indeed whether these prescriptions are effective to deal with the questions with which we are faced. The reforms and strategies that we are suggesting to overcome these problems are stripping education of its transformative and political potential. Instead, we are turning our universities into graduate producing factories while simultaneously complaining about their lack of creativity, imagination and humanistic values.

It is for this reason that I think that it’s important for us to first debate and discuss on what we mean by higher education or even education. It is only based on this that we can then identify the issues and problems in our universities and devise ways of addressing them. For example, do we view education simply as means of contributing to economic productivity or meeting the needs of the labour market? Or do we view, education as also having a broader humanistic role, education as something that prepares a person for life, for expanding a person’s mind and heart and contributing to the protection and promotion of democracy? These are essentially ideological and political questions. But, education is at heart a political act: education is about transformation, about change. So education needs to reflect the kind of society we want to be. If we want to have a conformist, authoritarian, narrow-minded society that believes purely in individualism, market fundamentalism and corporatism as its development strategies, the task before us is fairly easy. We simply need to speed up what we are already doing and be a little more efficient about it. We need to stop beating around the bush about free education and our commitment to equality in education etc and simply say that we view education as another commodity that is best managed by market principles.

But there is an irony here: societies with strong economies have acknowledged that a humanistic and progressive education system is actually essential for a healthy and dynamic business culture. So in fact, even in the US, there are business educators who are fighting to protect the progressive culture of their universities. The fact, that the business culture in Sri Lanka does not see the importance of strong, vibrant, humanistic universities is a reflection of the state of business in Sri Lanka and its position within the global market. As we are currently positioned economically, we do not require very much more than what we are dishing out currently as education.

However, if we want a democratic, pluralist society with adequate mechanisms to ensure social justice, then we need to conceive of education and of our universities differently. We need to acknowledge the public value of universities, the class room as a space of critical pedagogy, and the value of maintaining universities as a space of democratic vitality. We need to consider the relationships between universities and larger society: are they simply to be ivory towers of elitist learning or vital, energetic spaces engaging meaningfully with society, with societal issues at different levels, contributing meaningfully and in fact leading transformation and change in various spheres whether they be economic, political, social or cultural. If this is the vision of society and education we have then we have to seriously rethink our current approach to education not just university education.

As we are once again facing a crucial national election and the word democracy is being thrown about by various parties, I want to draw your attention to the Commencement Address at Connecticut College, USA, delivered by Martha Nussbaum in 2009. In this address, she identifies 3 capacities that need to be developed for the promotion and protection of democracy:

The capacity for critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions. This includes the capacity to reason something logically and to challenge established traditions and authority instead of merely accepting things at face value or because someone in authority tells us it is true.

The ability to see themselves as not simply citizens of some local region or group but as human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern. This is essentially the ability to appreciate diversity and plurality.

Thirdly, she identifies the capacity to challenge and expand our narrative imaginations: the capacity to learn what the world looks like from the point of view of others we typically do not see or meet. In other words, to develop a broad imagination that encourages an expanded world view.

She states that these capacities are essentially developed by high quality education with substantial components from the arts and humanities. She argues that if we are to maintain a healthy democracy, in fact to ensure the survival and progress of democracy, we need to ensure that these capacities are developed through our education, particularly higher education.

So if I were to summarise what are the current issues in university education, I think the problem is that we are confused about what we want from university education and also about our strategies and approaches to university education. As we often do in this country, unfortunately, we are responding to the manifestations of the problems rather than to the root causes of the problems, thereby adding layers of confusion and disarray to an already fragile and vulnerable system. What is dangerous is the lack of space to critically examine the way in which problems in university education are conceptualised and solutions and strategies are proposed. In some ways this had to do with the politicisation of education, where decision making was taking place in politically compromised ways based on the interests of those in power. But it also has to do with the way in which education policy is developed and education reforms are proposed. It is important that the directions we take and indeed are taking are not perceived as ideologically neutral, apolitical decisions or choices. The decisions about the kind of education we wanst are linked very much to the kind of society we want and these are essentially political choices. In this age of neo-liberalism, politics is a dirty word, and we shy away from ideological and political discussions. In fact, we celebrate that we are ‘apolitical’ that we are above politics. What we forget is that, that very position itself is highly political and ideological.

But it is important that we recognise that this is not a problem that is unique to Sri Lanka. The kinds of changes that we see in education and higher education in Sri Lanka are happening all over the world. Students and faculty globally are organising themselves to fight back against some of these changes. So we need to see the crisis in education as part of a larger, global issue. That is precisely what is lacking today in the discussions on education – we are failing to see how changes in education are linked to some of these broader debates on democracy, the economy, market fundamentalism and the reduction of the public sphere. Instead, we are seeing it in purely technical terms requiring purely technical solutions. So we organise curriculum revision workshops, send our students on personality development courses, send our teachers for further training and beautify our universities physically. However, it is critical that we see the crisis in education for what it is – one that is embedded in the broader crisis in our political, economic and social structures. It is only then that we will be able to clearly identify the issues that we are facing in university education and perhaps even to respond appropriately.

*Text of Harini Amarasuriya’s speech at CEPAs Open Forum on Education

*Dr Harini Amarasuriya, is a lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka and was invited to be a panellist at CEPAs 53rd Open Forum. The event looked at how, historically the Sri Lankan university system has enabled social mobility and also at how such ‘enabling’ was conditioned by wider socio-political realities including structures of power and the intersectionality of identity and socio-economic and political statuses. For more information about the event please click here.

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