By R.P. Gunawardane –
This article is presented with reference to the recent news item stating that the Cabinet of Ministers has approved a proposal to set up 10 new universities in Sri Lanka using a grant/ loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
In the midst of COVID-19 pandemic resulting in serious long-term economic hardships this proposal appears to be unproductive and wasteful of valuable resources. Currently we have a shortage of qualified staff and most universities are ill-equipped and lack modern teaching and research facilities. As I have pointed out earlier in an article appeared in the Island (December 12, 2019), the same objective can be achieved by expanding, developing, modernizing and upgrading the existing university system at much lower cost. By this way the funds can be utilized in a more effective and an efficient manner to achieve the same desired objectives.
The universities are not just buildings and concrete structures. Establishing new universities is not like opening new schools or new meat processing / fish canning factories with name boards. Prestigious universities all over the world are built up over many decades using talented highly experienced staff with excellent teaching and research background. Over the years these institutions are well equipped with modern instrumentation for teaching and research.
Currently Sri Lankan university system consists of 15 state universities in addition to several non-state sector degree awarding institutions. Most of our universities are poorly equipped, underfunded and lack sufficient number of highly qualified staff. As a result, even the available infrastructure facilities are underutilized. Although we have over 75 years of university education in Sri Lanka, only two universities namely University of Peradeniya, formerly University of Ceylon (401-500 category) and University of Colombo (1000+ category) are listed in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the year 2020.
General public would like to know whether this proposal to establish 10 new universities in specific locations as reported is ever discussed widely by the stakeholders, relevant state institutions or committee of educationists/ experts. The University Grants Commission (UGC) is the primary statutory body responsible for recommending the establishment of new state universities. It is doubtful whether this matter was ever discussed at the UGC. Minutes of the relevant meetings of the Commission will testify to that effect. Then what is the role of the UGC in this regard? The general public needs an explanation from the UGC regarding this matter.
What is the opinion of academics in the university system? Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) which is traditionally vociferous on these matters is silent today. It is disheartening to note that our academic community is silent and not expressing their views regarding these vital issues of immense national importance.
It has been reported that this project is funded by a grant from the Asian Development Bank (ADB). It is rather difficult to understand that such a huge project has been formulated and accepted by the ADB and the Sri Lankan government without wide consultation and debate by the stakeholders to evaluate the priorities.
If this project is a reality it is not too late to debate and reformulate the proposal even at this stage with much wider consultation to achieve best results. It is more advisable to reformulate this proposal to provide adequate funding to the existing university system for expansion, diversification and to provide modern instrumentation, IT and audio-visual facilities etc. enabling them to diversify and increase admission numbers considerably. If this is done no new universities are needed immediately. Existing university system can expand rapidly and utilize alternative methods of delivery to achieve the same objectives with much lower cost.
In addition to providing adequate funding to equip and modernize selected state universities/ faculties and institutes after calling for their requirements, it is absolutely necessary that the additional funds under this project should be earmarked for special projects such as:
1. Setting up of two fully equipped and modern Instrumentation Centers in two selected universities with free access to all other state universities
2. Establishment and operation of Link Programs for student and staff exchanges and collaborative research with selected prestigious Universities/ Research Institutes in the world.
3. Development of the following institutions as centers of excellence as given below:
University of Colombo: Center of Excellence in Medical Sciences
University of Ruhuna: Center of Excellence in Marine Science and Technology
Sabaragamuwa University: Center of Excellence in Geomatics
Sri Jayawardanapura University: Center of Excellence in Management Studies
University of Moratuwa: Center of Excellence in IT and Engineering
University of Peradeniya: Development and recognition of Postgraduate Institute of Science (PGIS) as the National Center for Postgraduate Training in Natural Sciences. In addition, a National Biodiversity Research and Conservation Center also should be established at the University of Peradeniya for undergraduate and postgraduate training/ research.
Open University: Provision of most modern facilities for distance learning and to upgrade and modernize laboratories and IT units of all Regional Centers and Study Centers.
4. A separate fund for novel special projects to increase intake and to establish novel teaching/ research programs by a competitive bidding mechanism. Proposals can be submitted by the individual universities for this purpose.
5. Additional separate grant should be allocated to two universities listed in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings – 2020 (Peradeniya and Colombo) to improve their standing to reach a level of first hundred universities in the World University Rankings within a specified period of time. This grant should be released after evaluation by an independent group of experts.
Some of the methodologies that can be adopted by the universities to upgrade their programs and also to increase intake of students are given below:
Multidisciplinary Inter-faculty degree programs: Inter-faculty degree programs covering multidisciplinary and applied subject areas can be promoted by commencing a series of new inter-faculty, multi-faculty and inter-university degree programs covering wide range of new and emerging fields depending on the facilities and expertise available in different locations. This will lead to rapid expansion and diversification of degree programs in the existing universities opening up opportunities for many more students.
Use of LMS for course delivery: Learning Management systems should be implemented for efficient delivery of degree programs. Use of these programs will increase the efficiency of delivery enabling the enrollment of a large number of students for each course. Widely available systems such as BLACKBOARD, MOODLE etc. may be utilized in our university system.
On-line and Dual-Mode degree programs: Facilities for delivery of on-line degree programs may be expanded in all universities to implement dual mode degree programs. This could facilitate expansion of intake of students considerably to all the universities. Dual mode programs involving an on-line component and a sizable in campus component including practical/ course work would be the most appropriate methodology for Sri Lanka.
Optimizing use of existing facilities: Currently, most universities operate 8 hrs. per day, only 40 hrs. per week for undergraduate programs unlike in other countries. Most foreign countries utilize the resources much more efficiently working from 8 AM till late night and also having classes during the weekend for specific programs. In addition, no fixed lunch interval is provided in other countries. The data show that our utilization of the available floor space and other infrastructure facilities in the university system is grossly inadequate when compared to international practices. Thus, our universities can easily expand working hours. Since each student/lecturer will not have classes continuously on a day this can be implemented easily. By this way our universities may be able to work from 8:00 AM to at least 8:00 PM in the evening. In addition, certain courses also could be conducted during the weekends.
Expansion of external degree programs by the State Universities: The state universities may expand the external degree programs in certain disciplines. In this case state universities can collaborate with private sector higher education institutes for delivery of these courses with some specific guidelines.
Expansion and diversification of the Open University Programs: The Open University of Sri Lanka with its main campus located in Colombo has an island wide network with 8 Regional Centers and 19 Study Centers distributed throughout the island. Current programs offered by the Open University can be expanded rapidly with the introduction of new degree programs making maximum use of their Regional Centers.
Use of Non-State Sector: There are 22 non-state sector degree awarding institutions recognized by the UGC. Intake can be considerably increased by cooperating with the recognized non-state sector higher education institutions operating in Sri Lanka. The government initiative is needed to facilitate and promote their expansion and diversification through a package of facilitating policies, tax incentives etc. Specific targets should be given with a time frame. Additional condition should be included in the agreement to award certain percentage of scholarships to needy students by these institutions. However, the non-state sector institutions should be regulated by an effective and independent Accreditation and Quality Assurance mechanism.
Interest-free loans on need basis to students: Even with rapid expansion of opportunities for university education in the state sector still there will be sufficient number of students seeking higher education in specialized fields abroad. For such students seeking higher education abroad also should be given some assistance. They should be given need-based interest-free or low-interest loans with assurance to serve the country for a specific period of time. This is needed in order to reduce the burden on poor parents who are compelled to send children abroad for higher education due to varying reasons.
Thus, it is clear that the university enrolment could be considerably increased to satisfy the current demand while the standard of our university system can be raised to international standards by following the proposed method rather than just adding 10 more substandard universities to our university system.
In conclusion, I appeal to the Government and the President of Sri Lanka to reformulate the ADB proposal for funding as suggested above in order to address the urgent and real needs of the higher education sector utilizing the available resources more efficiently. This would undoubtedly lead to a much better outcome and a lasting impact in the higher education sector.
*Author is a Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education & Higher Education, Chairman, National Education Commission of Sri Lanka, and Visiting Professor, Indiana State University, USA