The Problems with Starting New Universities
With the 2024 Budget, President Ranil Wickremesinghe announced 4 new universities! While I welcome more opportunities for qualified students who have no university places, I am truly concerned that he is playing politics with money we do not have to cater to elections next year. And staff? May be Peradenya and the Colombo Universities can poach from the others. So those vacancies need to be filled in addition to staff for the new universities. The recruitment scheme is so labyrinthine that to get a professor in will take 2 years. It needs fixing. Jaffna Engineering is already badly staffed. Well-wishing graduate students in America are teaching by zoom when we know that subjects with equations are not easily communicated by zoom.
The Provinces Left Out
There will be no provincial elections in 2024 and therefore no provincial government to ask for a university in Tamil-speaking areas. MP Sarath Weerasekera had planned to skip the budget vote because he thought the provinces would be establishing Sharia and Wahhabi universities until he received an assurance from the President that opening of Universities by Provincial Councils would be only on the basis of the UGC. I do not know what bugs him so about such universities when Kelaniya and Sri Jayewardenepura universities have their roots in low calibre Buddhist universities but have done well since. This kind of communalism is what prevented the Engineering Faculty for Tamils from being established in Trinco as requested by Mr. R. Sampanthan. At the time, Prof. Senake Bandaranayake wanted a security analysis of whether the LTTE would misuse Trinco and that was the end of it.
Maithree Wickramasinghe: Senior Professor and President’s Counsel
The President knows too well how the UGC and Lankan Institutions operate – on influence. It was a time when Wickremesinghe was PM and had been sacked. His wife Maithree was a Lecturer (Probationary) at Kelaniya with the condition of having to finish her requirements for confirmation in post by getting a 2-year research degree within six years or be sacked. She lacked the wherewithal for it. Like many others in like situation, she should have been asked to quit. But she was not any other person.
The UGC was asked to accommodate her. I lacked the maturity and strength of character then to oppose what was wrong. She was given a new appointment and is today Senior Professor of English and President’s Counsel. The new appointment was not advertised in violation of Ordinances. Her resume, deliberately I think, glosses over when she moved from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer as that would give away what happened.
As Senior Professor she earns many millions in undeserved salary. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea summa culpa!
So all that the President is telling Weerasekera is that he can ram anything through the UGC and he would be in control. Consider Vasanthi Arasaratnam who was put on the UGC by Wickremesinghe. According to the Auditor General (letter of 8 June 2004) Arasaratnam as Dean/Medicine had deviated from the procurement procedure and ordered computer network facilities for Rs. 3 million when the procurement was limited to Rs. 100,000 and the money available was Rs. 963,000. … The payment was made without any supporting document such as Invoices, Bills, Technical Officers’ or work completion or inventory certificate. … Not everything ordered was installed. … The entire expenditure incurred could be considered “irregular, unauthorized and fruitless.”
Arasaratnam’s scholarship was middling but I saw no evidence of her using predatory journals. Many of her papers are trivial such as on the glycemic index of thosai and side-dishes placed in start-up journals, and in Jaffna, Galle and Batticaloa. One serious ethics error was in placing the same paper with the same authors in two different start-up journals where the editor would have been desperate for contributors, and she for professorial points.
Why was the appointment of such a financially questionable person made to the UGC? I believe it is because corrupt governments need corrupt people under them to do their bidding. So when Arasaratnam first received her VC/Jaffna appointment from Mahinda Rajapaksa, she built Jaffna as her fortress putting unqualified persons in high office. One Ms. T. Mukunthan was made professor allowing her to claim 4 indexed journal papers when she had only one. Journals in volume 1 got scores for journals publishing three times a year. Such is the story also of K. Arunthavarajah who without a single indexed paper had claimed 10.
A third successful professorial candidate, B. Nirmalathasan, had claimed 20 indexed journal entries when he had none and his Dean T. Velnamby and his co-author has signed off on these claims as a co-conspirator in predatory publishing.
Dr. Devanesan Nesiah then on the Council, objected in writing. He was ignored. After all, the Deans and academics on the Council owe much to the VC. He then wrote to the UGC, USAB and Tamil politicians. No one replied. The system is unassailable. With all these frauds in her team, Arasaratnam could do anything including finding me unqualified to be Senior Lecturer.
The system is flawed from top to bottom with stooges in strategic control. I have seen the same at Peradeniya and Moratuwa. For example, consider S. Walgama of Peradeeniya Engineering. Anyone there would call him principled. But in his four-author paper listed as in the Proceedings of the international conference on intelligent motion, he claims it as a journal paper that which he himself listed as a conference paper. Though 2nd author, he claimed 50% of the responsibility. This and many other fraudulent claims by him were accepted by the Selection Committee. A very senior academic who signed off on his promotion saw how fraudulent the process was and not daring to cross the VC gave me a copy of the documents. That is how hard it is to expose corruption in universities when even senior persons cannot stand up. That VC was found by auditors to be financially corrupt but was accommodated in a new university devoted to vocational technology. No one cares in a system where there is no shame,
I believe that by the evidence President Wickremesinghe does not want to succeed in eliminating corruption because it gives him control over the system.
Scholar Muttukrishna Sarvananthan
I will focus now on ongoing corruption at Jaffna to show that these goings on continue to this day as seen in the experience of Dr. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan who has published widely. His Research Impact Metrics (in August 2023) are h-index 12, i10-index 16 – rare for an arts graduate because indexed journals are few in the humanities. For comparison, the current mathematician VC’s indices are 7 in each.
Sarvananthan joined University of Jaffna as Senior Lecturer Gr. I on 06.05.2019, but, since scholars are scarce and jealousies high, he was not fully accepted.
Sarvananthan’s first degree being from Delhi did not help in a system that only values local degrees. His publications and doctorate in Development Economics at University of Wales did not matter either. He fended for himself, establishing in 2004, Point Pedro Institute of Development in Jaffna. For Jaffna, where various tinpot-institutes pop-up from ear-marked government money through foreign loans, PPID is unique. Sarvananthan raised his own funds and supported himself for over two decades. Foreign embassies and reporters sought his advice.
Sarvananthan was accused of mistakes that he readily admits. He was teaching two courses for the first time (Economics and Gender Economics) and the students complained to him that they knew not what questions to expect. He therefore released to all students sample questions, some of which appeared in the exam. This became his offense in Jaffna.
We all take questions from our tutorials for the exam to ease student’s stress. There is the infamous case of a Tamil Mathematics Lecturer, Dayanithy, who asked his tutors to run a tutorial just before the exam. The Tamil- and English-medium tutors did so, but the Sinhalese-medium tutors were not as punctilious. The Lecturer was sacked. At Peradeniya, a chemical engineering lecturer routinely gave 40 questions every term from which five were selected for the exam. Few think it serious enough to file charges.
When I was charged with politicizing the engineering curriculum by including human rights questions under the syllabus title ‘The Software Engineer and Society’, the then senior professor of Tamil laughingly told me, “I say you won’t be found guilty because even if you’re wrong these academics do everything wrong so that nothing will stick.” He was right!
However Sarvananthan’s charges were vigorously pursued. Funnily, the University relied on a partly illegible manual of procedures for conducting exams from Rajarata University that was never approved by the university and was stamped DRAFT. There was confusion over Chapter XII pertaining to candidate-offences and Chapter XIII for non-candidates. There was reference to “President” without saying who or President of what. The highly-qualified academics who had never looked outside their field were incompetent outside classrooms.
Sarvananthan appealed to the University Services Appeals Board (USAB). The USAB carefully issued its Order on 20 Sept. 2023 (Application No. 1042) that:
1. Sarvananthan’s Head was interested in the post of professor of economics, and Sarvananthan had pointed out untruths in that woman’s professorial application which were overlooked by the University’s Competent Authority, Prof. K. Kandasamy, who had wrongfully appointed a fact-finding committee without the prior permission of the Council;
2. The convenor of the formal inquiry, knowing that Sarvananthan could not make it from Colombo over COVID-19 and even if he returned would be unable to attend because of quarantine, did not postpone the inquiry;
3. The university appointed the Inquiry Officer, Prosecutor, and Convenor without framing charges and issuing a show-cause notice. The Board found the Council wanting the inquiry without waiting for an explanation. Sarvananthan was denied the opportunity to comment on and cross-examine witnesses. The Board determined that the absence of such opportunity is “a total violation of the rules of natural justice and fair procedure;
4. The Inquiry Officer and the Prosecutor wrote the report jointly and signed the report together. The Board declared that this showed the inquiry to be biased and one-sided, “giving credence to all the allegations that the Appellant made against the Respondents and the Inquiry Officer;”
5. Sarvananthan was not given the opportunity to call witnesses on his behalf;
6. The appointment of Inquiry Officer S. Rajadurai was illegal, not “within the procedure established by law;”
7. The formal inquiry “right from the inception [had] one objectivity, i.e. to find [Sarvananthan] guilty and terminate his services … the whole exercise in our view is contrary to law.”
Conversely, the Board noted that Sarvananthan admitted his misconduct and asked whether it warrants punishment in view of his admissions. He has not exculpated himself but there are mitigating circumstances:
1. He is new to the university system;
2. This was his first examination offence;
3. His prompt admission of guilt;
4. He always complied and complained;
5. The university did not think his offence fit enough to send him on compulsory leave or interdiction pending inquiry, nor did it cancel the examination results;
6. The Senate released the results finding no fault in the exam standard;
7. All students received the disclosed questions;
8. The personal animosity that exists between certain members of the university and the Appellant.
Given these mitigating circumstances there ought to be proportionate punishment, the Board noted, adding that dismissal from Service is disproportionate.
Thus was one of Jaffna’s best scholars reinstated in service to serve the students and community once again.
All those who played a part against an innocent man – over 30 Respondents – continue in office. Jaffna has to change and conduct a postmortem and the wrong-doers punished.
Wickremesinghe needs to tell the UGC to put its house in order before starting any new university. If he wants our votes, he needs to show clean leadership, not sham universities to buy supporters.