By Janaki Jayawardena –
There are two main reasons for me to write this article as an eye opener for the public: Firstly, for more than a month I have been participating in a silent protest on the road in my area with a group of people who demand a just and accountable rule in this country. I have observed how some very elderly citizens who have never thought of getting onto the road to protest are making long journeys from surrounding areas and are standing an hour or more demanding a system change that has been needed in this country for a long time. I feel that their labour and efforts should be highlighted here. Secondly, it was reported in several newspapers that the recent appointment of the Vice Chancellor to the University of Colombo indicates a political bias and that some Council Members of the University of Colombo have resigned due to injustice apparent in the appointment. Furthermore, the present Vice chancellor of the university of Colombo said there was a manipulation in the process of awarding marks to the applicants and thereby the awarded marks do not reflect honesty and justice.
Many have interpreted the crisis we go through presently as a ‘dollar crisis’ but it is very clear to whoever is interested in understanding the present crisis that it is not merely economic but a crisis of post-colonial state building in Sri Lanka. Even though the 1972 Constitution was adopted to do away with colonialism and create a Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, equity and justice has been violated in Sri Lanka by inbreeding parochialism in the state-making process. One very good example of this is political manipulations in the appointments of public officers to administrative service in order to serve and safeguard political regimes. Until 1972 administrative officers were appointed to State administrative positions by the Public Service Commission through a rigorous process based on merits. The 1972 Constitution has given this responsibility to Cabinet Ministers. Since then, however, sympathy to the elected regime has become the implicit criteria, and as a consequence, appointments to the public service have become highly politicised. Instead of being based on merit, servitude to the political parties and politicians are much more important than the qualifications and experience in the service.
On appointments to bureaucracy Krause et.al says
“Governance in a democratic society is premised on the simple notion that the citizenry can effectively control their government. Responsiveness to the broader polity, however, requires that government exhibit competence in the tasks it is delegated to perform. While elected officials seek responsiveness from the bureaucracy, a government that is ineffective at executing policy cannot be responsive to the broader polity. This tension between political responsiveness and bureaucratic independence governs the selection of unelected officials to fill government positions. The selection methods used for staffing unelected posts provide direct insight into how elected officials weigh their desire of minimizing agency problems arising from delegated authority with their need to provide bureaucracies sufficient slack to effectively perform tasks. (2006, online :01)
In Sri Lanka what we are experiencing is the opposite. The grip of the politicians on the civil administrative service is so tight that recently the excessive militarization of public administration became a norm by the appointment of retired military personnel (often without the required knowledge or experience) to key positions. The public service has become ineffective and lethargic in many aspects due to this and the nepotism and corruption that is rampant in the public service of this country. Even though Sri Lanka’s universities are semi-government institutions, in order to maintain academic freedom, the selection of the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor has increasingly suffered the same fate as in other public service institutions. The most recent examples are the appointment of the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor to the University of Colombo.
Appointing a Chancellor
According to Part VI, Article 32 of the University Act, “The President shall nominate the Chancellor of each University. The Chancellor shall be the Head of the University, hold office for a period of five years reckoned from the date of his nomination, and shall, preside at any Convocation of the University” (The Chancellor. [S 32, 7 of 1985].
According to this provision, the appointment of a Chancellor is solely dependent on the President of Sri Lanka. Even though the term is for five years some Chancellors have served longer than five years. However, hitherto the Chancellors were appointed based on their academic excellence, merits, and national service. The recent appointment of the Chancellor to the University of Colombo by the President overlooked all these. His loyalty to the regime and appeasing his criticism of the regime was the eligibility for his appointment. In various press statements the Chancellor himself confirmed that this was a political appointment to silence him and that he was told that his duty is attending the convocation only. When we look at the provision of the University Act, he is correct.
However, when the appointment was challenged by the academic community, and students refused to be awarded degrees by a political monk, the blame was put on the former Vice-Chancellor for “not being able to control” the students. This itself shows the singular lack of understanding of the role of the Vice Chancellor and students in a university. In university students are considered as adults and the Vice Chancellor does not act like a school principal. This incident was used to vilify the former Vice chancellor and to say that she was incompetent. It is very clear that the Chancellor has no proper understanding of the role of a Chancellor in a university. He has offered to donate various items to students and build a hostel if a land is given. These offers amount to bribes to appease students’ criticism.
If one looks at the role of the Chancellor in universities elsewhere in the world it is apparent that the role is broader than merely awarding degrees at convocations. A Chancellor is the honorary head of the university and he or she represents the university in a ceremonial and ambassadorial capacity. The Chancellor also acts as an advocate for the university to raise the profile of the university by serving in his or her ambassadorial capacity and hosting from time to time national and international high-profile figures to engage with key stake holders to promote and develop the university in a critical manner.
Thus, the UGC itself has to change its view and change the Act on appointing a Chancellor because the precedent set by appointing an unsuitable Chancellor who serves the interests of a political regime to university of Colombo has resulted in unhealthy consequences.
Appointing a Vice Chancellor
According to the University Act “34. (1) (a) The Vice-Chancellor of a University shall, subject to the provisions of paragraph (b), be appointed for a term of three years by the President, upon the recommendation of the Commission, from a panel of three names recommended by the Council of that University. ([S 34(1), 7 of 1985 & 1 of 1995])
The usual practice according to the legal expert and the senior professor I have spoken to was to ask for a presentation by the prospective applicants on their academic qualifications, service to the university and their plans to develop the university. By a secret ballot of the Council members and the marks for the presentation, the three applicants who have received the most votes were sent to the UGC with the received marks. The usual practice is for the Council to recommend and appoint the applicant who has received the most marks as the Vice Chancellor. During the time of Ex-President Chandrika Bandaranaike this practice was changed, and all three names were sent to the President by the UGC and applicants who have received less votes and marks were appointed as Vice Chancellors.
It seems this method selection was subjected to criticism claiming that the Council vote can be manipulated and thereby, in 2020 the UGC issued COMMISSION CIRCULAR NO: 02/2020 on appointment of the Vice Chancellor to maintain transparency and eradicate biases.
According to this circular article 2,
The Council of the University shall appoint a suitable Search Committee comprising three (03) senior academics of the rank of Senior Professor/Professor to search for and encourage eminent persons to apply. At least one of the members of the Search Committee should be a Dean of a Faculty of the University whenever possible, and
he/she shall function as the Chair of the Committee. iii. The prospective applicant/nominee shall be requested to submit a statement of vision for the development of the University, a brief account of what he/she proposes to achieve if appointed to the post of Vice-Chancellor and a full Curriculum Vitae including the date of birth of the applicant.
Where the incumbent Vice-Chancellor is an applicant or had held the post of Vice Chancellor of the University before, he/she shall give a report highlighting accomplishments during his/her first period of the office, in addition to the documents mentioned in Paragraph (iii) above (circular online: 1-2)
According to this circular a two-step evaluation process has been implemented and it is a very rigorous process to evaluate the applicants and members of the university. Eminent persons from outside the university and a UGC appointed observer are also involved in the evaluation process. According to the newspaper article and the letter from the resigned Council Members, the former Vice Chancellor Senior Professor Chandrika Wijeratne has obtained 89.6% marks and the other two recommended applicants have obtained 66% and 64% marks respectively.
If the UGC had implemented this circular correctly to eradicate bias, then the UGC should have recommended the name of the applicant with the highest marks to the President. It seems that, although a rigorous process has been followed, either the UGC has not recommended the due applicant to the President or it has recommended all three names. Or did the UGC recommend the applicant with the second highest marks only? It seems “be appointed for a term of three years by the President, upon the recommendation of the Commission” is a very grey area (emphasis is mine). Even though universities are semi government institutions, and the role of the Vice Chancellor is different from the rest of the high administrative positions, endorsement ofg the appointment by the President of the country makes it a responsible position. Being a president of a socialist democracy, it is the responsibility of the President to uphold to the basic principles of such a democracy and make an appointment based on the merits.
However, what we have experienced in last few decades is the increase of politicisation in the appointment of Vice Chancellors. Regime sympathisers are favoured over the persons with merit. Apart from the University of Peradeniya most of other universities couldn’t resist such appointments. The Open University fought successfully over appointing a Vice Chancellor outside the names approved by the Council. However, in that case also the first preference was ignored. In a democracy, the social contract between the citizens and the elected politicians is maintained through respecting and adhering to the people’s consent but it seems this does not work in the appointments of vice Chancellors to the universities. and thereby proves what Krause et.al. says “. The selection methods used for staffing unelected posts provide direct insight into how elected officials weigh their desire of minimizing agency problems arising from delegated authority with their need to provide bureaucracies sufficient slack to effectively perform tasks” (emphasis is mine)
It seems that development of universities as institutes of higher education to enhance knowledge production and releasing knowledgeable, skillful people to the workforce of this country is not a concern for the political leadership. Instead, universities were referred to as unliberated zones that are a national threat. Many bureaucratic hurdles have been created to discourage collaborative research, especially with western countries. There is no concern about maintaining a stable work environment at public universities with accountability and transparency. With such an attitude and perspective, it is suitable to appoint an applicant with less marks. If the applicant with the highest marks were to be appointed as the Vice chancellor, there is a high degree of possibility for that Vice Chancellor to act as an independent administrative officer who is accountable for the academic community. But by appointing applicants with less marks, it is very easy to keep a grip on the Vice Chancellor and use him or her to serve the political interests of the regime. In the Sunday Times article Senior Professor Wijeyrathna says she has a reputation for not giving into demands by the authorities above her. There were two such instances that made the Colombo University protest. One was the acquisition of the Muththaih Girls hostel to give it to the Gangaramaya temple. The hostel was built in a prime location. Not just the UDA, the UGC also was very much into handover the land to the Gangaramaya temple. The UGC did not protect the interests of the University of Colombo and suggested to move the girls hostel into a place in Dematagoda. Secondly, Minister Seetha Arambepola tried to grab a sizable portion of land behind the Faculty of Arts claiming it was to develop the Planetarium. When the Colombo university fought against it and even offered professional help to develop the planetarium, the move was put on hold. However, this has created a grudge against the university and the former Vice Chancellor. The people involved in these attempts were very active in the Viyath Maga, the President’s academic group who provided support to bring him into power and continued to receive political patronage of the regime. The University of Colombo is situated in a prime area and the land has a very high commercial value. During Mahinda Rajapaksha’s government it was planned to remove the university from the present location. The regime’s plan to sell prime land to augment revenue is a well-known secret and perhaps that was the motive. However, the former Vice Chancellor stood firmly behind the academic community of the University of Colombo. It is no wonder that the politicised male bureaucrats of the education ministry, the UGC and their supporters in the Univesrities find a strong woman with a sound professional background is an anomaly that hinders nepotism and corruption in the system.
Violating academic integrity
The political appointments to the universities seriously undermine one of the fundamental tenets of the academic community, i.e., academic integrity. Adhering to academic integrity is a must to safeguard honesty, trust, fairness, respect, and responsibility and safeguard the dignity of others in universities. If the academic integrity is honoured it gives necessary courage for academics to act accordingly even in the face of adversity. Hence it is the duty of the academics to not accept and refuse to be appointed in the case of political interference.
In the case of the University of Colombo, violating academic integrity is blatant. It is not my intention to dispute the claim of the Vice Chancellor in the above newspaper article that he was not a member of the Viyath Maga. However, he appears in the meetings organized by the President to seek support from the academic community. He was selected by the President Rajapaksha and appointed to the committee to seek a solution to the present economic crisis, out of all the economists and the management experts in this country.
Furthermore, the news-paper article states that he has disagreed with the marks he has scored and stated that the Council had used biased margins. The UGC circular implemented in 2020 has introduced a very rigorous process to eliminate such biases. The marksheets were designed by the UGC itself. Does he challenge that this process itself has loopholes? If so, it is not only the applicant who received highest marks who can have a biased judgment; the biased judgement can extend to the second and third applicants as well. Also, why did he not challenge this if there is clear evidence the Council has been biased, and ask for the entire process to be null and void? Instead, in an unprecedented manner, the Presidential Secretariat announced his appointment to the press three months ago. The Vice Chancellor has published his academic credentials in Facebook to justify his appointment.
It is of paramount of importance to include a resolution in the UGC circular to establish the academic integrity of the applicant for the office of the Vice Chancellor. The conduct of the applicants while they serve as Deans, Directors etc. are valuable indicators of the person’s ability to steer the university in an impartial manner and how he or she will not succumb to the political pressure.
In the publication titled Corruption in universities: Paths to integrity in the higher education subsector (Kirya, 2019) sums up the following points:
* Corruption in higher education takes various forms. Political manipulation of university affairs is common, as governments and ruling parties often interfere in the running of institutions. Higher educational institutions can be captured by political patronage networks for political or financial gain. Unearned credentials may be granted to politicians, their kin, and cronies.
* Other types of corruption include favouritism and nepotism in student admissions and staff appointments, corruption in licensing and accreditation, diversion of university or research funds, and procurement fraud.
* Academic dishonesty – plagiarism, essay mills, false research, examination fraud, and fake degrees – is rampant in both developed and developing countries.
* Sexual exploitation, mainly of female students, faculty, and staff by males, is a serious problem in higher education. Sextortion is defined as a form of corruption in which sex is the currency of the bribe.
* Various organisations are making efforts to tackle corruption in higher education. Governments, universities and other tertiary institutions, as well as civil society all have important roles to play.
The academia in Sri Lanka is very well aware of the veracity of the points made above in relation to the State universities. The silence and the tolerance of academics is shameful and lethargic. The main reason for this silence is the repercussions of going against the political patronage enjoyed by politically appointees. One of the best examples is appointing academics who have given the political support for regimes to win elections through various forms of political mobilisations and propaganda in media. They have been appointed as Directors, Vice chancellors, ambassadors etc. and are enabled to keep their position in the university by obtaining salaries from the university. Apart from that they enjoy all the perks that come with the political appointment. When the regimes lose power, they lose such positions but have their job security to get back to the university until the regime they supported is back in power. This has had tremendous repercussions on the universities in terms of losing their service as academics, not being able to recruit better people to teach and above all that they enjoy a privilege not extended to other academics.
The consequences of politicization and political patronage has led many competent, skillful academics with sound administrative records refraining from applying to posts like the Vice Chancellor’s position.
The executive presidency created in 1977 and the 20th amendment to the Constitutions has enhanced the polticisiation of the public service started by the 1972 constitution. The bulk of the employees of this country are in the public sector and nepotism and corruption in the public sector is a burden to the entire nation and have broken the backs of many bureaucrats.
Furthermore, it violates the basic principles of democracy. It is only the weak rulers who need to be surrounded by bureaucrats appointed through political patronage and nepotism, which will ensure securing and maintaining their power.
Hence there is a need to appoint an independent body that does not change with regime changes to appoint public officers who serve the institution and employees that they are responsible for, with honesty, commitment and integrity.
This is the cry of the nation now.
Bach et.al (2020) ‘More delegation, more political control? Politicization of senior-level appointments in 18 European countries’ Public Policy and Administration, Vol. 35(1) 3–23 Sage publications https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0952076718776356
Kirya M (2019) Corruption in universities: Paths to integrity in the higher education subsector Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) : Norway U4 (10) < https://www.u4.no/publications/corruption-in-universities-paths-to-integrity-in-the-higher-education-subsector>
Toral G (2022) ‘ How patronage delivers: ‘Political appointments, bureaucratic accountability, and service delivery in Brazil’ American Journal of Political Science https://www.guillermotoral.com/publication/benefits_of_patronage/
The UGC of Sri Lanka (ND) ‘ THE CHANCELLOR AND THE OFFICERS OF UNIVERSITIES’ Universities Act -Part VI (online)<http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/central/>
*Janaki Jayawardena, senior lecturer, Department of History – University of Colombo