4 December, 2022


Forgotten University Reforms

By R.P. Gunawardane

Prof R.P. Gunawardane

Prof R.P. Gunawardane

University education reforms and changes to the universities Act of 1978 were hot issues during the 2015 Presidential elections. Second anniversary of the new government is expected to be celebrated shortly. Yet, no action has been taken or even initiated regarding any reforms in the university sector. It is surprising to note that Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA), civil societies, the academic community and even the University Grants Commission (UGC) have not taken up this issue seriously in the recent past. Does this mean everything is fine with the current university system? Answer is emphatic no. There are many shortcomings in the university system which can be corrected. As in the past the current government or any future government can misuse the existing Universities Act to the detriment of the system. During the previous regimes the Universities Act had been misused extensively particularly in the appointment of Vice-Chancellors, council members and non-academic staff. Thus, a proper legal framework should be established in the Sri Lankan university system in order to implement progressive reforms, to avoid political interference and misuse of power and for the smooth functioning of the universities maintaining highest standards and integrity.

University education in Sri Lanka went through a process of rapid and unplanned expansion during the last four decades. It appears that the expansion has taken place in response to social demand for increased access coupled with political considerations. Currently, Sri Lankan university system consists of 15 universities of which 14 are conventional universities and one Open University. It is important to note that access to university education is broadened considerably by having universities in all nine provinces. There are five other State Universities established by Acts of Parliament but operating outside the UGC under different ministries. In addition, there are several other Degree Awarding Institutions established by Acts of Parliament or by the recognition of the UGC.

Need for Reforms

It is evident that the proliferation of university system has taken place with minimum attention to diversification to satisfy national needs and disregarding the need for quality assurance. Except for some professional degrees, most degree programmes are not geared to market needs resulting in a conspicuous mismatch between the demand and supply of graduates. Furthermore, there is apparent duplication of degree programmes which are not demand-oriented, leading to a waste of available resources. As a result, unemployment of graduates is rampant. Most employers prefer foreign graduates over graduates from local universities particularly in humanities and social sciences. This leads us to the question of relevance and quality of our degree programmes. Sri Lankan University system does not have a proper mechanism for assurance of quality and relevance of the degree programmes.

Furthermore, it is also apparent that within the ill-equipped universities excessive fragmentation to small departments, units, centers have taken place due mainly to extraneous reasons rather than any demonstrated need or valid academic reasons. The appointment of the members to the governing councils and the positions of Vice-Chancellor are highly politicized leading to extremely inefficient, disorganized and sometimes corrupt administrations.

The other important issue is the problem with regard to limited access to University education. A large number of deserving students are denied admission to our University system. As a result, many students are seeking admission to foreign universities. Recent survey shows that the amount of foreign exchange spent by Sri Lankans studying abroad far exceeds the annual budget on higher education. Substantial increase of government expenditure in this sector is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. Therefore, it is very clear that the State alone is not in a position to provide sufficient opportunities to satisfy the current and future demand for university education.

During the period 2000-2004 attempts have been made to implement a university reforms package based on a Presidential Task Force recommendations followed by extensive consultations with all the stake holders. A series of workshops have been held in this regard. On the basis of the recommendations, an action plan had been prepared and a Monitoring Committee was also appointed. However, due to series of government and ministerial changes that took place during this period prevent the progress of implementation.

Thus, almost after 12 years of initiation of University reforms it is regrettable that most of the objectives of the proposed reforms are yet to be achieved by the Sri Lankan University system.

Furthermore, lack of suitable legal framework has prevented the implementation of other major reforms which involves more autonomy for the individual Universities. Therefore, it appears that identified reforms have to be introduced urgently in order to transform the present ailing system into a productive and an efficient system. The major components of the reforms package may be presented under (i) governance reforms, (ii) enhancing quality and relevance of degree programs, (iii) reforms in financing and (iv) increasing access to university education.

Governance Reforms

The Universities Act no.16 of 1978 has defects and limitations for the operation and the development of the university system in the current context. This Act has centralized the powers and decision making at the UGC restricting administrative and financial autonomy of the individual universities. Thus, it is absolutely necessary to implement a new Universities Act granting more autonomy and independence to universities to run their own affairs. Similarly, the Institutes also should be granted complete autonomy under the new legislation. Their attachment to the parent university should only be for the purpose of granting degrees and monitoring academic standards.

In the new legal framework, the UGC should be an independent commission and its membership should be appointed by the Constitutional Council. The role of the UGC should be restricted to its traditional funding role and the coordination and monitoring the Sri Lankan university system in keeping with the national policy. Independence and accountability of the universities should be assured. The universities should be held responsible and accountable strictly with regard to quality and relevance of their degree programs, student performance and more importantly, employability of graduates produced by them.

It is expected that the UGC should increase its role as a monitoring body relating to strategic planning, maintaining academic standards and effectiveness of the university system. It is also the duty of the UGC to negotiate and receive adequate funding from the Government and other sources and apportionment of the funds to individual universities. For the purpose of maintaining uniformity and standards the UGC will formulate general guidelines for recruitment, promotion and salary structure of all grades and set a fixed academic year. In addition, the UGC should develop a transparent mechanism, strict guidelines and ensure the appointment of highly qualified professionals to the university councils. New Universities in the state sector should be established only on the recommendation of the UGC following a comprehensive study on the need and all other considerations by a group of experts.

Role of Universities

In addition to granting maximum autonomy to the universities with regard to administrative and financial matters, academic freedom should be further strengthened by giving the universities powers to conduct any new programs and to establish, if they so wish, new Faculties, Departments, Centers, and Units etc. Creation of positions and appointment and promotion of all the staff should be the matters for the university councils within their budgets. Universities also should implement Merit Award schemes to honour good teachers and productive researchers annually.

Periodic assessment and monitoring of quality of teaching and research in faculties and departments should be a function of the university councils. Self-evaluation, peer evaluation, external evaluation and teacher evaluations by the students may be used to assess the performance of individual teachers. It should be mandatory to obtain teacher evaluations by the students after each course. This can be done electronically by the university administration. These evaluations should be given special consideration in merit award schemes for good teachers.

Appointment of Vice-Chancellor should be made more democratic and free from political interference. This will help Vice-Chancellor to perform his duties impartially and effectively. Therefore, it is better if the Vice-Chancellor is appointed after an open advertisement, a screening process followed by an election by an Electoral Body consisting of the membership of the University Council and the Senate. Eligibility for election to the post of Dean should not be restricted to Heads of Departments. It should be open to all senior members of the faculty.

More importantly, it is of urgent necessity to rationalize the university system to make it more efficient, cost effective and demand driven. This has to be done by the individual universities through reorganization which may involve major structural changes such as closing down or amalgamation of departments/units. Such rationalization process cannot be imposed from above. It has to be initiated and developed cautiously and in close collaboration with the academic community.

Quality Assurance

Improvement of quality and relevance of the courses is a continuing process. It must be emphasized that the real impact of the reforms will be felt only if the reforms in curricula and degree programmes are properly implemented by the universities.

In the current context it has become necessary to establish an independent and autonomous Accreditation and Quality Assurance Council (AQAC) for the purpose of accreditation of higher education Institutions and their programs and to ensure quality of the programs. It should be a completely independent body and it should not come under the purview of the UGC. It will set standards and perform regulatory functions in respect of state as well as non-state sector university level institutions. Appropriate standards and procedures will be developed by the AQAC conforming to international practices and in association with relevant professional bodies. The AQAC will prepare guidelines for accreditation mechanism and carry out inspection in collaboration with professional organizations. Grading of the universities, faculties, departments etc. on regular basis will also be undertaken by the AQAC.

As guided by the AQAC the structural changes to the courses should be effected by broad-basing the degree programmes and introducing sufficient flexibility. In order to build up innovative approaches, analytical thinking and self-confidence it is necessary to incorporate independent studies, project work and internships. In designing new degree programmes multidisciplinary approach should be promoted since the traditional subject boundaries are fast disappearing. A credit transfer mechanism, cross-faculty course combinations, and inter-university degree programmes should be introduced facilitating the mobility of students in the university system.

Drastic and radical changes are necessary in the teaching and learning process in our universities. It is essential to introduce modern interactive teaching methodologies with the extensive use of IT. Extensive use of educational software, web based teaching and assignments/ homework, advanced audiovisual techniques and videoconferencing should be promoted. All teachers should be trained adequately to use these interactive tools.

Financing Universities

Current budget provision for higher education is grossly inadequate. A target of about 1.0% GDP should be earmarked for the state universities. Financial framework should include financial autonomy to universities, funding mechanism based on a scientific financing formula, competitive fund for novel projects and incentives for cost recovery and income generation.

This necessitates the establishment of a separate Competitive Fund at the UGC level for novel projects in the universities. It is also envisaged to develop a financing formula to allocate resources to universities based on unit cost per student and also considering other factors such as their performance. The universities also should be encouraged to establish Consultancy Centers, Companies etc. in order to engage them in income generating activities while providing services to the community. Additional income generated by the universities should be allowed to retain by them for their developmental activities. It is only this way innovation can be promoted and the state universities will then be in a position to compete with non-state sector institutions.

Increasing Access

It is evident that the state monopoly on university education hinders expansion, diversification and innovation. As such, in line with global trends, the tertiary education sector should be opened up to non-governmental and private sector with a national accreditation and a monitoring scheme. Joint ventures between the state universities and private sector, professional organizations, nonprofit foundations, foreign universities etc. also should be promoted for expansion. Furthermore, government initiative is needed to encourage and promote this expansion through a package of facilitating policies, tax incentives etc.

However, it must be stressed that the opening and regularizing the university education to non-state sector should necessarily be accompanied by, (i) an independent accreditation and quality assurance mechanism and (ii) need-based scholarships, vouchers and loan schemes for needy students. The broad-basing the providers of tertiary education also introduces an element of competition to the system, which is expected to improve quality, provide more variety and reduce cost of training. With the liberalization, the policies should be directed towards facilitating the expansion and diversification of tertiary education to reach about 20% (age cohort) participation rate by the year 2020.

When those who can afford have the opportunity to enter non-state sector institutions, it is possible to increase access to others in the state system. Thus, state funds can be targeted more towards helping the disadvantaged gain access to high quality tertiary education. It is most desirable, as far as possible, to have a merit based admission and need-based financial aid for all those who are admitted to universities. This will ensure fair play and justice and will not leave out any candidate for university entry because of financial hardships.

*The author is a Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Chairman, National Education Commission

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Thank you Professor Gunawardane. I mostly agree with you but do not share your confidence in the academic community to always do the right thing if we are ever independent.

    It is routine in universities that have no good staff to use predatory journals (where you pay to have your articles published and the journals exist only to make that money) to earn professorhips and the Rs. 2 lacs a month that goes with the job. In Jaffna there was a case where a Dean’s wife was promoted to Professor with others including a Dean’s student with the Dean as coauthor in predatory journals. Dr. Devanesan Nesiah of the Council objected and wrote even to the UGC Chairman. Nothing happened. That wife I believe is now on the Council. At the higher end of universities, it is routine for Moratuwa, for example, to play similar games – they retitled the conference proceedings of the IEE local chapter as the Journal of the IEE Sri Lanka Chapter (or words to that effect) to become professors using their conference papers as journal papers. Similarly the proceedings of the IESL Annual Conference are also used as journal papers by engineers.

    I fully agree with you that people of real quality need to be attracted to run the system. With laidback people in charge of the system now, your ideas will work but it is a long term project which involves time for those presently in charge to be cycled out. The case of Dr. Nesiah’s faileded intervention proves two things – first it proves your idea that we need men of quality from outside the university patronage system to speak up and reform, and second, that the other members of the Council from the patronage system will block any reform.

    You also need to think through authority. Around 2004 when I was on the UGC with Professor Ranjith Mendis chairing, I was put in charge of coordinating the revision of the Act where every week the Commission discussed the provisions of the new Act and I had to record our decisions in the draft Act which was brought back to the Commission for further discussion. I think we did a good job. At the end of it all and after more than a year of drafting, there was a bombshell – the NEC claimed that they had authority over the subject. The relevant Acts put the UGC in charge of Higher Education while the NEC is put in charge of Education. In the NEC’s view, Education covers Higher Education whereas we held that Education was intended to mean school education because this had always been the practice. I think the whole process died with that and the Minister lost interest. I would like your opinion on the rights and wrongs of this in your capacity as a past chairman of NEC.

    I think your article is very timely at a time when we have an incompetent UGC Chairman who says in multiple affidavits in bad English that he has no powers to regulate the unlawful activities of universities, and that the only way to become a professor is to join as a Senior Lecturer the way he did and be promoted. Where did the President dig him up from, to chair the UGC? Clearly, doing surgery on the President should not be the qualification to be UGC Chairman. It has to be competence.

    • 0

      // Dr. Devanesan Nesiah of the Council objected and wrote even to the UGC Chairman. //

      Should this sort of thing (a lay member of Council writing to Chair of UGC about a promotion) be in the public domain? Did Dr Nesiah disclose this information to you or is this a wild guess?

      • 0

        To Mumbai:

        Effectively public. Dr. Nesiah’s letter was sent to all members of the Council.

        PS: In using the term lay member, do you see the Deans and other academics as a high priestly caste?

        • 0

          My understanding is, “lay member” is standard terminology to refer to people from outside an institution (or those not holding office within the institution) appointed to governing bodies.

          For example, University of Bristol defines its Board membership as:

          ” There are 21 members of the Board of Trustees, with a lay majority. The members are the Vice-Chancellor, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Treasurer, up to 15 lay members elected by Court […],3 members of the academic staff, 2 members of non-academic staff and 2 students. “

          It doesn’t say anything about caste or priesthood. Nor did I imply any such. Don’t just twist anything anyone says to match your obsessions.

    • 2

      one of the biggest issues issues faced by universities is to attract and retain good talent. At present quite a few end up in universities since they cannot find suitable employment outside. This is due to lack of knowledge, communication skills, deportment and attitude etc.

      Infact a 55 year old professor mentioned recently that the notes he is currently using is no different to the notes he used as a student. There is no incentive for academics to improve academic quality at present and some of them simply dont have the skills to do it.

      The academics are not motivated to do anything new.

      Most academics Used to a cushy lifestyle as follows:

      1 entitled to a duty free car permit
      2 senior lecturers do less than 4-6 hours per week in teaching
      3 hardly any publications in international reputed journals.
      4 heavily involved in weekend external degrees and masters programs to boost personal income
      5 not held accountable for student performance
      6 simply tasked with spending the government budget allocation
      7 most don’t pay taxes on other income
      8 adequate time to pick up kids from leading govt schools at 1-30 pm
      9 no working late on weekdays and as a result resources are idling for almost 18 hours a day
      10 granted permission to work in the private sector every 5 years

      • 0

        // Infact a 55 year old professor mentioned recently that the notes he is currently using is no different to the notes he used as a student. //

        If he is teaching Sanskrit, Greek Philosophy, Medieval European History or even Calculus, not much changed in the last 30 years!!

    • 1

      After reading your explosive facts about Sri Lankan local Universities, as a tax payer to run this business, I like to propose following measures to clean Universities and get back to old golden days.
      1) Identify and transfer all family members work in same University/Dept/Faculty as Lecturers. Recheck how these all family members came to system and penalize the responsible. Sometime wife is writing articles putting husband’s name for articles and husband getting professorship without shame (what ethics) presenting these to promotions.
      2) Recheck all Lecturers and Professors qualifications and publications based on that re-grade them.
      3) Never sent job applications received for academic positions to the respective academic depts. If you sent these applications they remove qualified PhD people and only interview henchmen.
      4) Remove good business subjects from Arts faculty and hand over to Science and Technology faculties. See how Arts faculty destroyed good names of many good disciplines. Today Arts faculty products (graduates) are a symbol of unemployment.
      5) Famous family dept must be closed and appoint President Commission to check inside and FCID must be called to checked inside for last 20 year period.
      6) Never give professorships for jokers without basic three conditions:PhD from world top 100 University, minimum 10 articles in ISI/SCOPUS indexed journals, 10 text books with international publishers and three countries have to appoint you as a Visiting professor.
      7) Reduce retirement age for academics 65 years to 60 or 58.
      8) Follow strict rule while appointing Professors: In order to be a real international professor your PhD from world top 100 University, minimum 20 articles in ISI/SCOPUS indexed journals, 10 text books with international publishers and three countries have to appoint you as a Visiting professor.
      9) Never allow any dept to issue first degree if you do not have sufficient number of PhDs in that dept. Take some Universities many Deans do not have PhDs. This is a recipe for disaster.
      10) UGC can directly take task of recruitment of lecturers and give to respective Universities. This must be done quickly.
      11) Select the best Lecturers with help of private sector independent body and sent to world top 100 universities with strict bond requirements.
      12) Many of these so called academic jokers are now entering into professional bodies or they themselves create own fake professional bodies and they destroyed that profession also.
      13) Develop comprehensive web sites for each University and say to show Publications with indexing place to public by each academics (not joke conference papers) and degrees where (Country and the University and international ranking of that University) they got their PHD. Today the most important thing is your PhD must come from accredited, ranking (at least 100) best University of the world to recognized your University basic products.

    • 1

      Yes Hoole you may be right. Then why you can not go to Human Right Commission and Court and request to cancel Professorships given to IESL predatory journals and conferences in Sri Lankan Eng. faculties. I guess more than 95% of Eng. faculty professors are IESL conferences and fake journals based ones. Somebody has to stopped this bad practice and stealing poor tax payers money covering to fake prof title. Never give professor position for any conference papers. Today conferences are highly commercial ones and even indexed conferences are more bias. Say all the Eng.professors to show only indexed journal publications in their web sites. Not fake IESL or other conferences, please.Visit PIM attached J’Pura University. Shame to see their profs qualifications. With that qualifications you can not get Assistant Lecturer position in any University.

      • 1


        The legal system is flawed. My wife has a Human Rights Council Order that Peradeniya should pay her Rs. 50,000 for violating her rights in cancelling her appointment after a year and a half of working there. It turns out that HRC decisions do not have to be obeyed. CIMOGG took several cases of academics’ cheating to the higher courts. CIMOGG prevailed in some cases including in getting me confirmed and promoted to Senior Professor at Peradeniya (which sacked me as soon it got the opportunity when I fled abroad as VC-Jaffna because of death threats). However, CIMOGG’s lawyer Elmore Perera was prevented from going to court because the judges claimed that his body language is rude. All ongoing cases were abandoned.

        The situation is unimproved after the government of Good Governance. The USAB order that Jaffna must recognize me as VC at one time is now, 10 months after the order, still unfulfilled. The 2011 case against me in Kayts is still going on with the police coming on every call date and saying they are still investigating into my creating a riot by a false newspaper report on election violations in Kayts in 2011. The jdudge keeps asking where and when these riots occurred and they ask for more time to investigate. I think the police think that the old regime will be back, so they are taking no chances. In the meantime I am out on bail and go regulartly to court and despite being amember of the Election Commission, have been occasionally pulled by the arm by the court sergeant to make me stand where he wants me to stand. that is the state of justice in this country.

        Do not have too much hope in the justice system here.

        • 2

          Then the best thing is create a public view through your writings in social and other other printed and digital media that Sri Lankan public sector Universities are full of fake professors and do not recognize them as real Professors and they are looters of poor tax payers money covering to fake prof titles. Then citizens will start to check it and clean it right or wrong ways.

  • 0

    Appointment of apolitical Vice Chancellors will be a dream in Sri Lanka. Even if Sir Ivor Jennings applies now, he will not be appointed because he will not be a political henchman. Take Sabaragamuwa, Jayawardanepura, Peradeniya, Southeatern etc. all same. Current or Former Highereducation ministers henchmen.

  • 2

    Sri Lankan public University problems deeper than your analysis: You need to sack all fake profs and follow international criteria to appoint them: In order to be a real international professor your PhD from world top 100 University, minimum 20 articles in ISI/SCOPUS indexed journals, 10 text books with international publishers and three countries have to appoint you as a Visiting professor. But all these Sri Lankan Professors are jokers and more than 40% University Lecturers are relatives to each others and they give degrees to each other (Husband gives PhD to wife and girlfriend/mistress getting PG degree, sons, daughter and son-in law and daughter- in-law). MY3 clean University system and sack fake professors and University mafia system. Some Dept are family trees. Colombo University Arts faculty Economics Dept is a good example. We well know how they recruits and promoted in University Mafia. First find a person and then advertise according to his/her requirement and send aboard for their friends’ places for PhDs. Go beyond Sri Lankan airport and see International job market. Even in Middle East job market, without PhD from accredited Western University you cannot become even Assistant Lecturer. But in Sri Lanka more than 80% professors do not have PhD. The countries they (University teachers) go to do higher studies, no person is going to studies: China, Malaysia, Thailand and India now many are doing PhDs locally in their own work places or under friends and lovers. See Colombo University Economics Dept all the recruitment done in outdoor connections and son and his friends also got as lecturers. In this dept too many fake professors but no one has any single publications in ISI/SCOPUS indexed journals. Even PhD applications outright they rejected at Dept level and only interview called for friends. This happen in all Universities.

  • 0

    Professor Gunawardane has highlighted some of the critical issues related to the Sri Lankan university education. It is inconceivable however that some of the basic practices associated with quality assurance such as student evaluation of teaching and curriculum development have not been part of the university administration. As Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education and Chairman of National Education Commission,one would have expected Professor Gunawardane to initiate at last some or most of these reforms while he was in charge. Most of the comments here have referred to the poor research culture in Sri Lankan universities and a complete overhaul of how academics are promoted needs priority if quality of Sri Lankan universities is t be elevated.

  • 1

    The latest gimmick is to organize “International Symposiums” at Department or Faculty level. The audience is mainly the same known crowd and the forum is a comfort zone with those having the same viewpoints asking questions in the form of back scratching. What is presented are mostly results of “searches” with hardly any research.

    Have the Dons of science helped to develop techniques and technologies for locals to perform better in their SMEs?

    • 0

      The ICIIS internationa conference just finished at Moratuwa with nearly all speakers Sri Lankan (here or abroad). These will now appear in the “international” IEEE xplore hiding the fact that all authors and reviewers are people whom you have aptly named as back scratchers

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