By W.A. Wijewardena –
W.D Lakshman: Sri Lanka’s university education is not inclusive
Colombo University’s former Don and reputed educationist, Professor W.D Lakshman, in delivering the J.E Jayasuriya Memorial Oration 2013 in Colombo last month on inclusive university education and the state university in the country, has left his audience with four main conclusions. The first is that in terms of opportunities for university education, only a small proportion of students who qualify for admission to a university is admitted to the country’s state university system and therefore there is no inclusiveness in higher education. It is only a small number of people who get that opportunity exclusively. Second, even those who are admitted to a university do not get an opportunity to get a comprehensive education since they are taught in separate streams like arts, science, medicine, law, aesthetic studies etc. Hence, in terms of curricula too, there is no inclusiveness of university education.
The State funded universities are the best
Third, to fill the gap and make the country’s university education truly inclusive in terms of both admission and streams, it is the state university system that would serve the nation best. This is because, according to Lakshman, a private university system that depends on tuition fees paid by students is unlikely to serve the students from all the social classes of society. Fourth, even for the state universities, the much hyped business model which is currently in vogue is unsuitable since it would induce universities to select students on the basis of ability to pay rather than ability to contribute to knowledge. In essence, Lakshman’s message is that if society is interested in inclusive university education, it has to realise that objective by reforming the state university system appropriately.
Stirring up a hornet’s nest
What this reputed educationist has opined is not in agreement with the policy of the present government which seeks to enlist the services of the private sector to provide more university places to aspiring students and run the state universities on a business model to relieve the budget of the ever-rising burden of funding their activities. Hence, Lakshman has stirred up a real hornet’s nest amongst the country’s top policy makers. Yet, the sound economic arguments he has presented based on the prevailing socio-political realities have opened the door for a worthy intellectual discussion of the subject before any rush decision is made.
Prof J.E Jayasuriya: An academic who stood for inclusive education
Professor J.E Jayasuriya, former Professor of Education at the University of Ceylon, had been a trail-blazer in expanding the country’s education system which economists call today “inclusive education”. Having completed a first class honours degree in Mathematics from the then University College in 1939, he became the founding Principal of the Dharmapala College, Pannipitiya in 1942. When Ceylon went for universal free education in 1944 and to support that move, started to establish central colleges throughout the country, he became the Principal of the first of such colleges located at Mathugama, the electoral base of C.W.W Kannangara who pioneered the free education system in the country. Jayasuriya then wrote a series of textbooks in mathematics in Sinhala for use by the students, a genuine measure of promoting inclusive secondary education in the country. When he became the Professor of Education at the University of Ceylon, he introduced the Bachelor of Education Degree so that the future teachers possessing a multitude of skills could be produced by the University. W.D Lakshman aptly qualifies to deliver the J.E Jayasuriya Memorial Oration since he himself is a trail-blazer in promoting the country’s university education system.
However, two important factors relating to education, both concerning the state funded free education, have been missed by Lakshman.
Education is a ‘bad’ with no demand from the students
Education when viewed as a marketable commodity does not give pleasure or in the language of economists, a positive utility to its user, namely the student. This is because students are required to undergo physical, mental and financial pains and strains in order to educate themselves. These pains and strains do not add to one’s pleasure at all, but in fact cause to reduce it. Hence, more education means more displeasure or more disutility. This is not the case with the ordinary commodities. For instance, when one consumes bread, it adds to his total pleasure until such time it becomes a nuisance after he has been fully saturated with bread. Hence, bread is called a ‘good’ by economists. By the same token, education is considered a ‘bad’ because right from the very first unit of education consumed, additional education means a further reduction in his pleasure or utility. In the case of a good, the user is willing to pay a price to have it and therefore, there is a positive price for it. In the case of a bad, the user is not willing to pay for it and therefore there is a negative price meaning that someone else has to pay the price for him if he is induced to consume it. What this means is that those who want to educate themselves will not undertake any further education by themselves unless they are absolutely sure that the additional education increases their future income earning possibilities, a way to compensate for the current pains and strains, or someone else stands to pay for them so that his net loss is minimal.
Free education is a way to support students to consume a bad
Hence, from a private perspective, an individual will not undertake additional education on his own unless he can convert it to a future income earning prospect. That is why after joining work places, people do not invest in further education unless it is tied to their future career prospects. But the spread of education among citizens adds to wider benefits to the society which economists call external social benefits. It leads to efficiency in work places, innovative and creative work, more active and better participation in political affairs, reduction in crime rates and a more organised civil society. Hence, society wants everyone to be educated which the economists now call ‘inclusiveness’ in education, the theme of Lakshman’s talk. But there is no demand from individuals to be more educated because education does not add to the pleasure of an individual. This gap has to be filled by providing incentives for people to undertake further education. One way to provide that incentive is for the society to bear the expenses involved in education so that its cost is borne by the society collectively. This is the strongest case for free education in a country: To encourage people to go for further education by taking over the cost of their education by the society.
The second factor is the freak nature of the state sector education production model.
In a normal market, buyers ensure quality
In the case of a normal commodity, say bread, there are a buyer and a supplier. The buyer places the order for bread and expresses the price he is willing to pay for different units of bread he is to buy while indicating the quality of bread which he expects the supplier to produce and supply. He is willing to buy more if the prices are lower as demonstrated by an ordinary downward sloping demand curve. The supplier takes the order and supplies bread according to the order placed by the buyer. In this case, since the user, person who places the order and payer are one and the same, there is incentive for the buyer to insist on the quality required and see that quality bread is delivered to him. Thus, the market assures both the supply and its quality.
The freakish state sector education model
But the state education model is not straight forward as the market for an ordinary commodity. There are many players involved in the market. First of all, the user of education, the student, is not a consumer but a ‘throughput’ which is sent through the education system to turn out a new graduate. Hence, he is not capable of assuring the quality standards of university education. The orders for university placements are placed by the government as the representative of the society. But the payment for university education is made by the taxpayers who have not got a direct stake in the university education system. Neither the government nor the taxpayers have the capacity or capability to assess the quality of the university education. The real consumers of graduates produced by universities are employers who have to recruit them to their staff and get them to produce an output that can be sold in the market. But they have no voice in the quality standards of graduates produced by universities. Universities produce graduates but when they receive the lump sum payment from the society to produce graduates, there is no agreement relating to the quality of the graduates produced by them. Even if they produce low quality graduates, they do not run the risk of being banished from the market as in the case of a private company since the government is unwilling to close a university once it has been established. Therefore, there is no market punishment for universities for failing to maintain the required quality standards.
In the freakish model, no guarantee of quality
This freak market relating to the state university model is therefore inherently defective in maintaining the required quality standards of university education. In this circumstance, what the governments of many countries have done is to establish independent quality assurance authorities to assure the quality of graduates produced by individual universities and establishing a rating system for universities. In addition, there is the market rating of universities by many independent agencies which follow a methodology which is disclosed to the market. Sri Lanka does not have any of these systems to assure the quality standards of the country’s universities. Employers recruit graduates from local state universities without pre- knowledge whether those graduates will actually deliver the products they are supposed to deliver. In many cases, they have to be retrained by the employers at an additional cost to them.
The main challenges of inclusive education goal
Thus, the goal of having inclusive university education will run into two basic problems. The first is that there is no demand for inclusiveness by the participants since education is considered a bad that gives displeasure to its user if he goes for more education. Hence, the society has to give incentives to participants to realise its inclusive university education ambitions by taking over a large segment of the financial burden from students. However, it is the participants who still have to bear the mental and physical burdens involved in education. The second is that there is no inherent quality assurance mechanism with the state university system even if the society has been successful in persuading participants to seek after education. This is because of the freakish nature of the state university education model. Until these two issues are sorted appropriately, the attainment of inclusiveness in the university education in the country through the state university system may be impossible.
Should state universities run as private companies?
Lakshman has suggested that the business model for the state universities is not appropriate since that model would work against the goal of having inclusiveness in university education in the country. He has a valid point here because, under a business model where universities have to find their own financial resources, the universities have all the incentives to recruit students on the basis of their ability to pay rather than their perceived ability show academic excellence. Furthermore, in a country like Sri Lanka where the private sector has not been developed to a world class level, it is difficult for universities to raise revenue by producing research outputs for the private firms. However, some universities which are enterprising may be able to raise sufficient financial resources for their running but all universities in the country are not in the same category. Thus, the business model will immediately divide universities into rich and poor categories. In a market situation, the poor universities will be forced to close their doors; but in a state university system where there is no closing of a university, the poor universities will continue to remain as universities since the government does not provide the needed funds to them.
The state has failed to fund universities
But the difficulty in funding an expanded state university system due to budgetary constraints is a reality in Sri Lanka today. Over the years, the amount allocated by the government for education as a per cent of the country’s GDP has been falling and the latest estimates relating to 2012 suggest that it will fall even to an unacceptable level of 1.9 per cent of GDP. The consequences of poor funding of universities in this manner had been elucidated by the Central Bank in its Annual Report for 2002 as follows: ‘The consequence has been disastrous: a gradual deterioration in the educational standards compelling prospective employers to suspect whether to hire the throughput of the university system; continuous agitation by both students and staff for better facilities and failure to attract and retain quality staff to maintain the educational standards’.
The bad experience of the United Kingdom
Sri Lanka was not alone in failing to retain quality university staff on account of poor pay. In 1960s and 70s, the UK Government too had a policy of paying a low uniform salary to university dons irrespective of the differences in their individual talent base; the result was the attraction of its best brains by fast growing countries like USA and Canada that offered higher salaries to them. Many of them subsequently lauded with Nobel Prize for the work they had done in their respective fields while they were in the UK, but the credit went to the institutions they were subsequently attached.
Sri Lanka has lost good academics and quality of education too
In Sri Lanka, while many top academics chose to explore their fortunes in greener pastures in the developed world, those who remained behind simply chose to moonlight in private academic institutions and donor sponsored research projects, thereby denying their full professional time and energy to the university system.
The result was the deterioration of teaching standards, absence of new research undertaken by the university dons and, above all, stagnation of the addition of new knowledge to the society.
Inclusiveness is not the main issue
Thus, the current issue of Sri Lanka’s university system is not only the failure to ensure inclusiveness in education. It is much more than that encompassing a wide array of areas: poor funding of universities, failure to retain skilled and reputed academics on staff, declining quality of university education as vouched by employers on the skills base of young graduates and above all, failure to move forward in an ever changing university education system in the globe.
Inclusiveness in university education is important. But before trying it out, all other more pressing issues in university education need be sorted out.
*W.A Wijewardena can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org