Colombo Telegraph

Minister Kiriella: Engineering At Oluvil To Be Closed And Students Shifted

When the Ceylon College of Technology was upgraded to the University of Ceylon, Katubedde Campus (now University of Moratuwa) it was backwater. Since then it has taken strides forward and is the first preference for nearly all of those admitted to engineering. How did Moratuwa catch up with Peradeniya and overtake it? This is because engineering needs striving industries close by to drive student research and most academics prefer to live in the city close to amenities, schools, and consultancy opportunities. This is why Ruhuna’s engineering is still badly short staffed, despite the city of Galle close by, and never took off despite the Minister of Higher Education, Richard Pathirana, pouring millions into that faculty in his electorate.

Minister Kiriella

Similarly, when University of Jaffna planned an engineering faculty, both Prof. L.L. Ratnayake and Prof. K.K.Y.W. Perera wrote reports urging that it be sited in the city of Jaffna or close to it.

However, the LTTE had planned Arivu Nagar in Kilinochchi as a university town and many felt compelled to argue for Arivu Nagar even after the LTTE was gone.

The experience of the one big University of Sri Lanka was that campuses had to practically shut down regularly when all Department Heads and Professors had to come to Colombo for Senate meetings, recruitment and promotion committee meetings, leave applications, etc. A multi-campus university with one Vice Chancellor turned out to be a foolish venture, and the campuses soon became independent universities. Yet, despite this experience, Jaffna’s engineering faculty ended up in South Kilinochchi, 80 km away from the administration in Tinnavely, with the university already having problems managing the Vavuniya Campus 140 km away. It meant Assistant Registrars, Assistant Bursars, Assistant Librarians, libraries, play grounds, and hostels being duplicated and triplicated.

Similarly, when the Z-score fiasco occurred in 2012, one hundred more engineering students had to be admitted, and students were admitted before recruiting the staff out of political rather than academic considerations. The faculty went to Oluvil, 350 km from Colombo, adding one more campus to the already two-campus South Eastern University, Sri Lanka. The isolation meant more serious problems than in Jaffna.

Helping Kilinochchi, Oluvil, and places develop is a laudable goal. But why should a few hundred students bear the brunt when all of us need to contribute? Moreover, at the expense of ruining the hard earned reputation of our engineering degree, which will plummet when untrained engineers are certified? Would the UGC accredit a foreign university coming in with the staff and infrastructure as at Oluvil?

Today we have the Jaffna and Oluvil Engineering faculties being run without staff. Visiting lecturers do not like to come because of travel time. Most Jaffna staff members live in Jaffna and the Dean in Vavuniya. The problems are even more severe in Oluvil. Many staff members live in Colombo, locating their children there in good schools. There are often no classes Monday to Friday, and on weekends students often wait for visiting lecturers who do not show up because of the weather or this or that. Oluvil’s engineering students have given up on the university and stopped attending classes. These are our best students in the maths stream.

A key meeting took place yesterday (26th) between representatives of Oluvil’s 300 engineering students and the Minister and State Minister for Higher Education together with the UGC Chairman. Anura Kumara Dissanayake, had sought the appointment on behalf of the students and was present advocating for them.

The UGC Chairman’s offer to give Rs. 150,000 a month extra to Oluvil Lecturers was rejected. His offer to appoint a Coordinator was also rejected on the grounds that previously there had been five highly qualified and experienced consultants who could not help forestall this disaster that was obviously in the making as the students had warned several times. It was agreed that the disaster cannot now be mitigated by remote control from the UGC. What the UGC could not solve in three years, cannot now suddenly be expected to be solved. The authorities have been fast asleep for well nigh a year, as the wound festered. The students noted in their letter to the Minister, “Since January 2015, a new president and prime minister, a new higher education minister and a UGC chairman, and a new Vice Chancellor have assumed office. But, for us nothing has changed: things have only worsened.”

Lakshman Kiriella agreed that the students will be shifted to other engineering faculties or moved to the new Engineering Faculty to be established at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. The students plan to continue boycotting classes till then. In the meantime, the students await the meeting minutes to confirm that they understood the agreement with the Minister correctly.

Meanwhile the letter below by Engineering Union, South Eastern University of Sri Lanka, Oluvil had sent to Minister Lakshman Kiriella and State Minister Mohanlal Grero Ministry of Higher Education;

Engineering Students Union,

South Eastern University of Sri Lanka,

Oluvil

23 Nov. 2015.

Hon. Minister Lakshman Kiriella and Hon. State Minister Mohan L. Grero

Ministry of Higher Education

Respected Sirs,

Cry for Help from Oluvil

We are three batches of engineering students from South Eastern University Sri Lanka (SEUSL). We write to you urgently because we feel sacrificed as a result of posturing by MPs, the Public, and Government Officials at our expense, while they themselves make no sacrifice.

Please recall the history of our engineering faculty. Following the 2012 Z-score fiasco, the Supreme Court ordered the UGC to incorporate an additional 5609 students into the university system. To accommodate an additional 100 engineering students easily the then government opened our Oluvil engineering faculty in a hurry. This was when Jaffna too was embarking on a new Engineering Faculty with challenges in recruiting staff.

The Supreme Court order was delivered in September 2012 – and the first batch of students was registered in March 2013. That is, the process of establishing this faculty barely lasted seven months. The first batch of staff, including the Dean, was recruited after the students registered. Nowhere has this ever happened. Setting up any faculty, especially an engineering faculty – given the sophisticated nature of the course involving laboratories, industrial work, and so on, takes years of careful planning. When this is not done – and those in power attempt to fix one mistake with another – a crisis is the inevitable consequence. We are that crisis.

The location of the faculty was political. Ours too was built in the outbacks of the Eastern Province, as it seemed, to address political imperatives. Educational principles were lost.

Many of us sent to SEUSL in the normal course would have been sent to read engineering at Peradeniya, Ruhuna or Moratuwa, all of which are known for high academic standards. Sri Lankan state universities have, over the years, consistently produced competent engineers whose contribution to the country’s economy is salutary. They command respect internationally because of the quality of education provided by the country’s engineering faculties so far.

Today this proud heritage is under threat from our Oluvil Engineering Faculty. Oluvil products will destroy the hard earned reputation of Sri Lankan engineers. There are nearly three hundred of us struggling with low quality education, scarcity of quality teaching staff leading to completing courses without lectures or labs, minimal physical resources, the absence of links to industry and other engineering faculties through isolated location, and long lapses between semesters for lack of staff.

Location is one of the foremost considerations when setting up an engineering faculty. Oluvil is a coastal village in the Ampara district. It is isolated from all the major cities – 350 km away from Colombo – and is not surrounded by engineering industry. We rarely receive invitations for exhibitions and engineering competitions as other engineering faculties do. Visitors do not come to lead colloquia. These shortcomings leave us bereft of the soft-skills engineers need besides technical competence.

With paddy cultivation and fisheries being the main drivers of the local economy, there is an inability to attract staff. Currently, there are eleven lecturers (3 senior lecturers and 8 probationary) – less than three lecturers per department. Only the Dean and two others hold doctorates. Most lecturers hold only bachelors’ degrees. Two out of four departments – electrical-telecommunications and computer engineering – do not have heads. Teaching standards are below par. The research output of the staff is thin. Most lecturers carry no academic experience prior to joining us. Often we have no classes Monday to Friday awaiting visiting lecturers over the weekend and then find that such lecturers have not come.

The faculty has regularly compromised the quality of education. Despite extremely poor student feedback, certain lecturers are re-assigned to teach the same subjects. Students are expected to digest material meant for a semester in a matter of days because visiting lecturers accelerate delivery to make do with fewer trips. Some lab sessions were cut down because of time constraints in finishing the semester.

Two-and-half-years is ample time to judge whether a faculty will progress. Any possibilities of improvement should show by now but we see nothing. Instead, our Faculty, is rapidly spiraling out of control. Apart from the first semester for the first batch of students (from May to October 2013) every single semester that followed – for all three batches – were extended by a minimum of two weeks, because of the faculty’s inability to finish up academic activities within the allotted 15 weeks. The number of subjects taught by staff attached to the faculty has dropped with each passing semester. For example, all the four subjects offered by the Department of Electrical and Telecommunications Engineering for third year students are being taught by visiting lecturers. This correlates with increased unproductive hours for the students during the week. Hardly anything happens during weekdays, with all the lectures lumped together on weekends. One subject for the mechanical students did not start until the twelfth week. Subjects that require semester-long digestion are force-fed in a matter of days. Holidays, too, have lengthened with each passing semester. It took more than five months to release exam results.

Since January 2015, a new president and prime minister, a new higher education minister and a UGC chairman, and a new Vice Chancellor have assumed office. But, for us nothing has changed: things have only worsened.

For two-and-a-half-years we have demanded better quality education, good quality teachers, regular schedules, shorter holidays, better research opportunities and links to industry. We have raised these concerns with lecturers, the dean; in faculty board meetings and in writing. We forewarned the faculty administration in a letter dated May-2014 that the lack of teaching resources will be more acutely felt with time. We warned that we would lag our parallel batches in other engineering faculties by an inexcusable distance if the administration does not arrest the situation. Sadly, the administration lacked our foresight. Nor did it act on our concerns: the net increase in lecturers since is only three. We lagg our parallel batches by a full year.

As students, we have supported the administration in every way possible in the belief that things would improve. In October 2013, the then minister for higher education visited our faculty. The concerns we have listed were explained to him in detail. He promised to fix them – particularly, the lack of human resources. The former Vice Chancellor of our university also made several grand promises of improving the faculty. Even under the reign of the new Vice Chancellor the situation has deteriorated. All we are left with now are broken promises.

The administration is unable to offer creative solutions. Is that not why UGC Institutional Review of 2009 ruled ‘limited confidence’ in the university?

Hon. Kiriella Sir, you have said “Universities’ standards have plummeted to the Maha Vidyala level today.” But at least in Maha Vidyalayas classes are held. You must do something. The best solution is to close down this faculty.

Therefore,

  1. As an immediate measure, we request the government to quickly reallocate the students assigned to SEUSL engineering faculty for 2015 intake to other engineering faculties.
  2. We request that the government either relocates us – the three batches already enrolled in Oluvil – to the most viable location at another university close to industry and with a track record of sound management, or distribute the students to existing faculties.

To continue is to violate the business adage not to throw resources into a failing venture. Fixes in Oluvil will be money down the drain.

It is good to find ways to improve the lives of people in Oluvil. But that burden must fall on all Sri Lankans; not on a few of us who are being used as sacrificial lambs with no tangible benefit to the people of Oluvil.

We are boycotting classes because they are unacceptably bad. No longer can we wait. A decisive solution that takes into account our immediate concerns and the long term interests of the country and state engineering education is what will satisfy us after two-and-a-half-years of half measures.

Sincerely,

President

R. P. A. G. Rajapaksa

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