By Siri Gamage –
The new government is planning to expand university education to cater to those who qualify but cannot get admission to existing universities. The higher education minister has said that currently about 30,000 gain entry to universities while another 20000 follow courses provided by foreign higher education institutions. Another 2000 who gain entry to local universities give up studies due to ragging (Daily News 16.01.2020). Though the new initiative by the government should be applauded, there are some risks associated with the sudden expansion of university education without instituting reforms in the sector-particularly organisational, curriculum and pedagogical reforms- and the timely provision of qualified staff and other facilities.
From the public pronouncements made so far, it appears that the primary aim of expanding university education is for the graduates to be able to find employment. They are to be provided skills in areas such as IT and English language. However, university education involves more than this. It is about social, economic and cultural advancement plus the growth of the individual to be an independent, critical thinker rather than a follower who imitates. Late Jayalath Manorathne who was a product of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya graduated in the late 60s exemplifies the ideal product of a university with creative and performing abilities who combined cultural knowledge while acquiring set of skills during university life. Obviously, he had the good fortune of associating with and learning from renowned professors like E.R. Sarachchandra.
Current State in Universities
Sri Lanka’s established universities imitate the Western model of university, in particular the British model. They have not liberated from the colonial constructs of what knowledge is to be valued, held in high esteem, taught and assessed via exams. In short, they have not been decolonised to the extent of acknowledging their dependence on Western knowledge and incorporating local/indigenous knowledge in teaching, learning and research. Departments within faculties are still organised according to (imported) traditional disciplines. Theory is emphasised more than the contribution of knowledge to understand and solve national problems. Interdisciplinary departments, Centres or Schools are largely absent. If they exist they are not supported well organisationally or resources-wise. Curriculum is largely outdated – at least in social sciences-and the academic staff profile is highly skewed toward mediocre level.
Quality of teaching and learning provided have become questionable. Research is fragmented and theory oriented( at least in social sciences). Multidisciplinary research centres are absent. At present, research funding is allocated to academic staff individually as an allowance without monitoring their (original) research contribution adequately, regularly or systematically. Teaching is primarily teacher-centred rather than student-centred. Assessment is exam oriented largely on a year-long basis. Systematic team research on comparative higher education by qualified and experienced educationists is lacking even though this is an important area. Government instead depends on the University Grants Commission for policy directions and administration of universities. Ragging has become a torturing practice rather than socialising mechanism. While these issues continue, expanding the same model of education to a large number of additional students can create further problems in the sector and for the graduates. Hence the need to tread cautiously.
Academic Dependency and Decolonisation of (Disciplinary) Knowledge
Knowledge exists outside science –though scientific knowledge is important. In social sciences in particular there is this myth about being a pseudo science and encouraging to utilise positivist research methodology to generate knowledge. However, interpretive theories and methods advocate a different type of knowledge to so-called scientific knowledge.
Decolonisation of knowledge in higher education institutions is imperative for the country to move forward. Connell (Southern Theory 2007) has mounted a credible critique of Western Social Sciences and emphasised the need to recognise that knowledge exists in places other than Western Europe where social sciences originated. I have expanded on the academic dependency theme in higher education and the need for re-discovering indigenous knowledge traditions (Gamage 2018). In the Sri Lankan universities, there is a reluctance to acknowledge and incorporate indigenous knowledge. Instead there is a preference to adopt so-called Western knowledge at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels (In some universities this may not be the case though). Today even universities like VIdyodaya and Kelaniya which are supposed to examine and promote indigenous knowledge have moved to introduce courses in management studies etc. based on Western knowledge constructs and their biases. What is the purpose of reproducing western disciplines including their theories, assumptions, perspectives and methods without adapting them to our own context and needs?
Course and Departmental Structures
A University needs to offer a diversified curriculum so that students can choose areas of study depending on their interests and qualifications. In this day and age, learning world languages including Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Hindi is to be encouraged as they can open doors not only for employment but the knowledge world at large. Limiting the learning of foreign languages to English is not a wise decision. Intercultural studies and cross-cultural communication should be made a compulsory subject for all students. Likewise, learning about one’s historical, religious and cultural heritage should be a compulsory subject so that graduates retain elements of their identity, values and culture once they move out to society at large.
Having technical and professional subjects alone is not sufficient for graduates to operate in a globalised and culturally diverse environment where they have to deal with clientele from a cross section of societies and cultures with multiple language backgrounds. Ideally, the course structure can include several strands such as 1) historical, social, cultural context and heritage, 2) Intercultural (or cross-cultural), global communication, IT and language knowledge, 3)Subject knowledge in chosen professional field/s. Under each stream there can be several subjects offered. I was involved in teaching Professional studies courses to future nurses and teachers in an Australian university in the past and the course structure included elements like this.
The departmental structures in universities, in particular arts faculties, is based on the old disciplinary lines. This was good when the purpose of a given discipline was to encourage firsthand research and contribute original knowledge to the discipline. Today, University education in countries like Sri Lanka can have multiple objectives from a national point of view. Knowledge provided should be useful for solving national problems be it in the area of poverty, development, environment, social engineering, or issues faced by women, youths and children. A select few who choose to specialise can pursue knowledge through research in given fields with the aim of contributing to the field of study. With this in mind, current departmental structures need to be reformed in such a way that multidisciplinary teams focus on key problem areas in the national context and interest. They ought to contribute to research and innovation as a general rule.
New Universities –Not degree shops
Research and publications are part of a full university. Contribution to new and original knowledge on the basis of research is part of a full university. This is lacking in some of the foreign universities or their campuses operating in developing countries of Asia and elsewhere including Sri Lanka. They offer degree courses on the basis of a curriculum developed in Western European, North American or Australian-New Zealand contexts without adapting the content to the particular geographical and socio-cultural contexts. They spend very little money on research in the country thereby becoming de facto degree shops (Upadhi kada) rather than universities per se. This is a trend one can see in cities like Sydney, Melbourne, London where universities and private higher education institutes offer degrees and diplomas for international students charging hefty fees. Often such institutions are housed in high rise buildings. From Sri Lanka’s point of view, concept of a private/foreign university that offers degrees or diplomas where academic staff conducting research are absent is not a good idea. Similarly, it is not a wise move to reproduce universities based on the neoliberal market principles to impart Western knowledge with no change in the model of university. Reputed scholars of education (e.g.Altbach 2004) have argued that Asia needs an Asian model of a university where Eastern knowledge takes an equal importance in the process of education rather than continuous dependence on the British model.
Net Contribution of Universities to the National Advancement
This should be a priority area for planning and organisational change in the sector. Areas of focus can be socio-economic, cultural, technical, scientific, engineering, agriculture, industry, health and indigenous knowledge. Well-funded research institutes within universities should be established with clearly defined focus areas to conduct research and contribute to policy and innovation. Research funds currently allocated to academic staff individually should be pooled and re-allocated to such Centres in each faculty. They should be encouraged to acquire national and international recognition, conduct collaborative research, consultancy etc. with international partners. Universities should be assessed annually on the basis of their contribution to national advancement as well as other criteria relating to teaching and learning, research and innovation. Contribution of the University to community well-being should also be a criteria for assessment.
Public-Private Partnership for an Asian Model of University
At the moment, there is a divide between publicly funded and private/foreign universities. PPP model can bring together both sectors and eliminate the binary division. However, such partnerships need to be geared toward establishing an Asian model of university which include both teaching and research as key focus areas with roots in the country, its intellectual history and broader region rather than alien knowledge systems and practices. I am not rejecting the value of alien knowledge systems for comparison. What I am objecting is to the extreme dependence on them to the extent of excluding one’s own through formal education institutions and processes.
Not More of the Same: Diversification is the Key
At present, there is no overall vision for higher education suitable for post-independent Sri Lanka. What we have is doing more of the same philosophy. Present proposals seem to follow the same line. Instead, authorities need to reconceptualise what kind of higher education is suitable for us and how to provide it? Here we need to make a distinction between Sri Lankan higher education and international higher education. My main criticism of international education provided by foreign universities on a fee paying basis is that it is monolingual and monocultural. Though it is useful for gaining employment in the English-speaking world, at the same time it has the effect of uprooting an individual from one’s own intellectual heritage, culture, identity and language. This is not limited to higher education provided by foreign universities but a common feature of the modernist project initiated during the colonial period and maintained under neo-colonial conditions. Creative novelists like Martin Wickramasinghe recognised and explained this through his Sinhala writings. What is necessary is a quality knowledge product rooted in local culture and knowledge systems where we can be proud of. It can be provided through an Asian model of University.
Sri Lanka needs a diversified university System where each university specialises in certain areas –like in China- and attempt to gain international reputation. When I compared the Chinese and Indian models, I found that India by and large followed the British model whereas China allocated funding based on specialisations by each university (Gamage 2019). This allows for targeted spending of limited resources. India also has a large number of affiliated Colleges. They are beset with various problems including in quality and reputation. In its effort to expand university education, Sri Lankan authorities should not reproduce more of the same or the British or American model. A University model suitable for local needs in the 21st century should be identified and constructed with necessary reforms within the sector.
Arts faculties in the universities need organisational, curriculum and pedagogical reforms in order to bring them away from the archaic practices and approaches and inject new impetus in order to be free from current epistemological and pedagogical dependency on Western knowledge traditions. A credible external review by reputed scholars and former graduates of arts faculties should be a priority before implementing change.
I would go so far as to suggest that a cultural revival involving more enlightened sections of society and the masses is necessary in the face of many onslaughts on the civilizational sphere of the country from powerful external forces. Reformed university sector, in particular arts and social sciences, should be a part and parcel of this. Literary figures such as Jackson Anthony have recognised the challenge facing us in the knowledge sphere (see interview in Lankadeepa online 09.02.2020 re his latest novel Kandaudarata Gindara).
Sri Lanka needs not only graduates with a certain skill set (this goes beyond mere teaching of English and IT), but those literate about the country’s history, culture (including arts, literature, music, languages etc), cultural, literary, scientific and technological achievements, key figures involved in the two rebellions in the 19th century, 19th century cultural revival and the national struggle as well as our cultural intellectuals spanning the recent centuries. We need graduates to be informed about our civilizational links with other South Asian nations and their strengths (this requires some knowledge of South Asian languages as well). This does not reflect an either-or situation. Rather our educational planners ought to think about how to combine knowledge of our civilizational history and heritage with skills required for graduates to operate in the globalised corporate and state sectors. Otherwise, we will be creating a neo-colonial situation where our graduates acquire certain skills but illiterate about their civilizational history, its challenges, key figures who contributed to its survival in the face of colonialism and other threats, and more importantly what is their role in maintaining the same? In the absence of this sort of approach, the privatisation push can end up in marginalising what I label as civilizational knowledge (others have labelled it as traditional or indigenous knowledge).
Altback 2004. The Past and Future of Asian Universities: Twenty fist century challenges In Altbach, P.G Umakoshi, T (eds.) Asian Universities: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Challenges, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press
Gamage.S. 2019. Transnational Higher education(TNHE) trends in India and China: comparison of Euro-American and Chinese models, in Globalisation, Environment and Social Justice: Perspectives, Issues and Concerns(eds.,) Manish Kumar Verma, London and NewYork, Routledge.
Gamage, S. 2019. Academic Dependency on Western Disciplinary Knowledge and Captive Mind among South Asian Sociologists: A Critique, Sri Lanka Journal of Sociology, 1(1)
Gamage, S. 2018. Indigenous and Postcolonial Sociology in South Asia: challenges and possibilities, Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences, 41(2)
Gamage, S. 2018. Western Dominance, Academic Dependence and Crisis in South Asian Sociology, in Sociology and Anthropology in South Asia: Histories and Practices (eds) Kumar, Ravi; Pathak, Dev Nath; Perera, Sasanka. New Delhi: Orient Black Swan.