18 August, 2022


Recent Police Attacks On Protesting Students & The Need For A Visionary Higher Education Policy

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Recent police attacks on protesting students near the UGC shows several pertinent points about the state of affairs when it comes to resolving higher education issues.1) boiling issues in society quickly turns into law and order issues when they are not handled in a timely fashion, 2) the need for a culture of patient negotiation between those in authority and those affected by such issues, 3) the need for better higher education policy and policy development process with related research of high caliber, and 4) issues like those in higher education such as privatisation are political as much as educational and social.

Firstly, it is important to reflect on the current context where these student protests are taking place. The honeymoon period of the new national government is over. In coming months and weeks, various segments of society with grievances may come onto the streets in order to express their viewpoints and demands in a more agitational way. People need solutions to their varied problems after going through a turbulent time over the years and decades. Smiling faces of those in authority and excuses of various sorts will not satisfy affected segments of society. If solutions are not forthcoming, these segments, some of which are politicised, may resort to various agitation strategies with the potential to irritate the rulers. What is necessary are broader consultation mechanisms with the affected parties, professionals etc. in different policy areas and the development of innovative and creative policies suitable for the 21st century. Development of a higher education policy suitable for Sri Lanka should be a priority in this sense.

Obviously, the issues that took centre stage before the recent Presidential elections can re-emerge in coming months and years. Some bankrupt political forces can attempt to take advantage of situations like the police attack on students near the UGC unless relevant policies are developed and administrative solutions to the problems that students bring to the table are not provided.

One of the main issues concerning students and parents is the nature of hybrid education system being promoted in the country by way of free education and fee-education of which the latter is designated as privatisation. This is a phenomenon not limited to Sri Lanka. In the world and regional contexts, many other countries are facing similar issues, especially in a globalising and so-called border-less era. The issue to address by the government is not weather to allow fee-paying education. It has become a standard practice around the world with the dawn of neoliberal economic formulae –though many criticisms are leveled against the same from many quarters. It is what inequities are created as a result of introducing fee-paying education that needs attention and find better and creative solutions to address such inequities.

In this context, it has to be noted that it is not possible or even desirable to stop fee-paying education altogether, whether through international schools, privately run higher education institutions or indeed foreign universities and their affiliated local campuses. Many students who were not able to access the state funded free education system due to merit concerns or having concerns about the quality have accessed fee-paying education within and outside Sri Lanka. Take the case of Melbourne or Sydney in Australia for example. Many Sri Lankan students have come to these cities to obtain a higher degree or diploma following their counterparts from other Asian countries. They or their spouses engage in employment of various kinds during their stay. In addition to obtaining a degree or diploma, these students gain invaluable cross-cultural experiences by living in another country and access future migration and further work opportunities.

A downside of this trend for a country like Sri Lanka is the inevitable brain drain. The magnitude of these needs to be investigated by systematic research. The lack of a dedicated national higher education research institute in the country to do such research is a matter that educational authorities need to pay attention as a priority. Contributions to policymaking should be a part of such a research institute. On the other hand, those who return to the country after overseas study make a significant contribution to their respective fields. Their talents, knowledge and newly acquired wisdom should be utilised for innovative enterprises both in the state and private sector. Mechanisms need to be developed for this to happen.

However, new research and policy development should be directed at finding ways and means of enhancing the quality of teaching, research, reputation and innovation in the free education sphere. This is important because of the inevitable competition between the free and fee education spheres. It is also important because most foreign universities and their local affiliates spend very little or no funds on conducting research. This is easily said than done though. In the recent past, individual universities have taken specific steps to enhance quality of their teaching programs or improve research profiles. However, there needs to be further research about more useful degree programs some of which can be offered by collaborating with foreign universities. Exchange of expertise among local and foreign scholars is a necessity in this era of high competition for global talent pool.

For these kinds of endeavors and policy development, a question has to be asked about the nature of prevailing higher education governance structures such as the University Grants Commission and even National Education Commission. Whether these structures need changes or even replacements need further discussion and investigation. As I see it, UGC is an administering body rather than a policy development body. The resources made available to it for policy development and research seems highly inadequate. This is all the more reason to set up a higher education research institute with a mandate for policy research nationally and preferably affiliate research institutes in each university. Decision-making by the government in this sphere has to be informed by credible research conducted at research centres or institutes with a pool of qualified researchers.

Finding solutions to issues plaguing the education sector, in particular the higher education sphere cannot be achieved in the short term and without encouraging relevant comparative research plus policy development by consulting relevant parties in a calm and methodical way. Even though the student organisations seem to be highly impatient for quick solutions. The government needs to at least provide a statement to the nation outlining broader principles that will dictate its approach to education in the globalising context of life, work, learning, teaching and research. Potential contributions from the higher education sphere to the economy, civil society, professions, governance, alleviation of poverty and many inequities that exist are immense. Issues of this nature should not be politicised and leave room open for agitation politics and unmanageable law and order issues. Meetings need to be set up by relevant authorities before students organise protest marches in the first place.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    a very good article.high time for policy makers to open their eyes. sri lankan practice was to allow youth to fight and then ruthlessly suppress them (1971 and 1989-90) and then appoint commisions to look into their grievances. examples dudly seers report and 1991 youth commission report.
    govt is always reactive instead of proactive. this pattern is still going under good governance. good governance principles should go into the govt bureaucracy, and the law enforcement authorities have their own rule.armed forces in the N and E are not bothered about these principles. that means govt leaders are paying only lip service to good governance.
    there is a need to establish a HIGHER EDUCATION RESEARCH CENTRE/UNIT in the UGC to undertake a professional study of higher education in the country and try to understand world trends in higher education. specialists other fields-botany, pol. science and agriculture- cannot undertake this exercise. policy makers pl. study about this institute fnctioning at hiroshima university, japan. try the website.—dayal

    • 0

      The honeymoon for the people is over and the corruption embedded deep in the Ranil-Sirisena Ayahapalanaya government is being exposed. In many ways it is worse that Mahinda Jarapassa and brothers Inc. rule which did not try to pretend that it was not a military dictatorship dressed in primitive, Sinhala Buddhist nationalist racism.

      Today we have apparently anti-racist and modernist corruption running rife. Only corrupt Tamil politicians have been arrested – like Chrandrakanthan – but not a single corrupt Sinhala politician has been arrested or tried and indeed even Saji Vas Gunawardena has been released to take foreign trips to secure his stolen millions overseas..

      The most scnadelous exposure has been made by JVP’s Anura Kumara that the so-called Minister of Law and order is a corrupt clown and the lawyer of the Avandt Gurad Scammer. There is a massive CONFLICT OF INTEREST and Marapana must be asked to resign. Meanwhile the Minister of justice is protecting Gota the Goon and Ranil is bailing out Wimal Weerawansa – to continue the circus in the Parliament of Modayas where Ranil like to play king of the court.

      It is time now for the masses who were duped by the Ayahapalanaya Sirisena-Ranil circus of corrupt clowns to have a massive protest at the Parliament of corrupt modayas and ask for Marapana and Wijedasa and Ranil’s resignation.
      Each session of the parliament of corrupt modayas, where Ranil Wickramsinghe plays king of the court, costs tax payers a hefty sum of 4 million plus. There is need for massive cuts in “parliamentary privileges” and luxurious living for corrupt politicians who are the biggest law breakers in the land.
      We need a massive demonstration against corruption outside the parliament of corrupt modays.

  • 1

    mr.siri, about your idea to establish a research institute of higher education.very good suggestion. i made it to two UGC chairpersons. but nothing happened. his time let us wait and see. –dayal

  • 4

    Look, the train left the station a long time ago. Sri Lanka has had a hydbrid system for at least a good 30 years.

    One for people who have money to sent their kids to tuition classes of various kinds for not only O/Ls and A/Ls, but also “external” diplomas such as CIMA, IT etc. etc.

    While the university officials are obsessed with “filtering” up the “brightest” (i.e. those who can memorize and spit back facts ad nauseum), the rest (90%) are left without real free options for post-secondary education. So their families scrape by some money to send them to the fee-based diploma granting institutions. BTW, unlike the state sector, most of these fee-based post-secondary institutions, use the English medium, there by advantaging these “privately-funded graduate better employment options, including overseas placements.

    It’s high time the UGC really take a look at the employment market and see what academic preparation is needed for the jobs available in the island, and promote a cultural shift from picking the “best regurgitators” of the “engineer/doctor-only” mind-set to more practical and necessary skills of the 21st century.

  • 2

    First chase away fake professors from SL Universities: More than 90% of them are fakes.

  • 3

    Sri Lankan Public University problems are more deeper than Siri’s thought: Everybody has to accept that Sri Lankan Universities are real mafia, family and tribal business (Mafia definition: once you are in you cannot never get out of it) and it is rotten to death. Why not publicly show professors’ Publications with indexing journals (Only ISI and SCOPUS are accepted internationally)? text books with publishers name. Even the most absurd title (Senior Professor) you find only in Sri Lanka. Correct this mafia business as all of us pay taxes to run this mafia system. I guess you do not find any Nobel Prize winning person with this Senior Professor title. Correct wrong professor appointments and look for beyond Sri Lanka and get international recognition for University Professors. Do not allow University Lecturers do local PhDs (Lecturers are recruiting from outdoor connections and giving PhDs also same way under recruiting person and creating loyalty groups- What a shame) and do not appoint them without minimum 20 High impact journal publications and at least without PhDs from world top 100 Universities, 10 text books and three countries Visiting Professorships, etc.

  • 0

    “Potential contributions from the higher education sphere to the economy, civil society, professions, governance, alleviation of poverty and many inequities that exist are immense”
    Potential exists but has any governments listened to what academic say? Politicians make the final decisions. One example I can quote from my personal experience. When we proposed to the government about the need to manufacture superphosphate fertiliser from Eppawela apatite after about 25 years of research what did the government do? They simply sacked the Chairman who had a Ph.D. in apatite and replaced him with a lawyer. Politicians were worried that they cannot sell this to a foreign company and get their commissions if we develop this with local technology and research.
    University Vice Chancellors are appointed by the politicians based on their political affiliations and not merit. Similarly, when all university academics in sciences proposed to amalgamate physical and biological sciences at A.L. the government just listened to a few selected individuals and came up with a stupid combination of three subjects. Politicians think they know about everything and this sets the rot in the universtiesand this cannot be easily reversed.

  • 2

    Dr. Siri Gamage,

    Ok….. if think-tanks ponder on future education of the country with investigative systematic research (with tax payers money), it is still very evident that at least US$ 100-million goes out of the country every year for moneyed-elite to send their children oversees to study ( 10,000 x US$10,000-/per year = 100million/year and counting…..make that 1-billion when you consider the brain drain). Only a handful will return to contribute to the Motherland.

    Do what they gain in overseas exposure really build the country in any way that benefits Sri Lanka, other than attempt to develop the country in morphed Western fashion? In the end it is the Western countries that gain most from the overseas Lankan students.

    Countries like Malaysia and Singapore involve their nationals in the global exposure, by sending specially selected students to learn, and eventually incorporate the global experience into their own lands. If students refuse to return, their family assets are confiscated.

    If there are other foreign students alongside Lankan students, most of them come from countries far richer than ours, e.g. Malaysia and Singapore, that have oil and natural gas reserves(Singapore part of the Asean wealth, and in fact, controlling it).

    Yet the nationals of these countries generally prefer not to involve sending their children overseas to study. They prefer that their students study in their national universities, contribute to the hybrid semi-privatized system, or not study at all and contribute to the economy with good work ethic.

    Can you give an explanation why the hybrid semi-privatized system in Sri Lanka is so wrong, and why a think-tank of experts is needed to give analysis to that which is most obvious?

    Wouldn’t this think-tank of experts (using vast amounts of tax-payer money), merely tailor-make the system to justify the drain on Lankan-resources, rather than encouraging nationals to honorably pay fees and taxes? (and in tailor-making, many of our local boys and girls are going to end up in in prison and be tortured, like during the time of the insurgencies).

  • 0

    Whether we agree with the writer on a few specifics or not, I agree that the country need to review education policies. Increasing the budget for education is one step in the right direction. More need to be done. We MUST address the students and the student bodies and find out what they are really seeking and address those issues. I was watching a Presidential Debate on cnn at a bank as I was waiting and he said that the MOST vital requirement is to EDUCATE the young people. Will My3 and RW be able to do this? If that is done, they will be truly blessed.

  • 0

    Batalanda Ranuil’s vision “You must have money to buy a Degree”. for obvious reasons of course.

    Otherwise he wouldn’t have scrapped Mahindodaya Vidyalayas..

    Bodhi Sira was picked by Batalanda Ranil for a Mission not for his Vision.

    Sira according to Batalanda Ranil and his Advisers and Mentors, was supposed to abdicate in 100 days, after handing all the powers to the former , making Ranil the PM with Presidential Powers.

    It certainly didn’t happen.

    And Batlanda Ranil’s Buddhist Spiritual leader and the Chief Mentor was flown to Singapore yesterday with a broken Ticker.

    This writer seems to have a little vision of what is going to happen in the next 12 to 18 months.

    If Sira can’t placate the Sinhala Bbuddhist many more Batalanda Police will take place in the South in the main.

    Sira is totally dependent on the Elite, Anglican , Vella and Wahabi support.

    Will Batalanda Ranil allow this support to remain in place, if Sira doesn’t deliver on his promises.,

    That is bring the Hybrid , Punish the War heroes , Allow Batalanda Ranil to replace all Sinhala Buddhist Officersin the Armed Forces specially the War Heroes from the South .

    And allow Ranil to appoint .his mates from the Elite , Anglican , Vellala and Wahabi supporters.

    And finally make way for Batalanda Ranil to give Sambandan his Homeland in the North.

  • 0

    Compulsory miltary service. Credits for higher education.

  • 0

    Many students are not able to access the state funded free education system due to the lack of an adequate number of places. So going strictly on merit as demonstrated in the examination scoring many eligible students fail to get entry to State universities. Those whose parents can afford to send them abroad naturally do so to obtain a degree. Then the economy has to bear the cost of their study abroad in foreign exchange. If there are facilities locally for these students to qualify the country will save foreign exchange. It is true that our foreign exchange resource availability is not in dire straits now. But that is not because we are earning more foreign exchange but because of the oil price decline. This situation is unlikely to continue for too long.
    If those students who don’t qualify for entry to the State universities have alternative facilities in local private universities then the country could save much foreign exchange. So there is a case for the existence of private universities. If they don’t maintain quality they wil lose their clientele for they face competition. Similarly the State Universities have the incentive to find out and follow if necessary the curriculum and academic practices in the private universities. merit concerns or having concerns about the quality have accessed fee-paying education outside Sri Lanka. If there are private universities then many of them would prefer to study locally rather than go abroad. There may also be the possibility of foreign universities setting up branches here. The economic interests of a particular group in society is not the same as the national economic interest. No amount of student demonstrations should make the Government to deviate from the national economic interest. the nation should not be held hostage by a any group or section of society. the national interest must prevail.

  • 0

    about political patronage in the appointment of VCs. a person was appointed as VC who was a student when i was a lecturer. then i had to call him sir. all because of MR and his family members. but this candidate was a failure and finally insulted by the university community.

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