By 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.
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.
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.
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.
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